Cinema in The Expanded Frame: On the works of Lynn Loo and Toh Hun Ping

by Jeremy Sharma

 

The three 16mm projectors stood like sentinels on the table with the sound mixers behind

where I was, amongst a small audience of friends, acquaintances and the odd art student

or two. It was an unusual space of mirrors and polished parquet; we had to remove our

shoes first to go into the dance studio but the classroom space allowed a flexibility for us

to be live spectators of events that were about to unfold. In place of dancers preening

before the mirrors, we had the 16mm projectors loaded with film on one end and on my

right was a droll contraption of a modified slide projector mounted on a Toyogo box1. In

front of us a blank stretched canvas leaned on a wall like a minimalist work of art, two

requisite MacBooks inferred a contemporary slice of technology and two speakers on

either side of the room completed the installation. The aesthetics were promising but the

turnout was poor for the showcase of two artists whose works cross the boundaries of

film, video art and cinema, considering it was the opening week of the Singapore

Biennale. The usual posturing of the art crowd was sorely missing but it was just as well

for that made the space a lot more intimate and privileged for the discerning viewer.

 

When the lights went off, Toh Hun Ping (Singapore) presented his works first, animating

the blank canvas to life with a repeated video sequence of a hand crushing a sheet of

paper into a fist. The initial crispness was followed by the gradual and progressive

degradation of both image and sound. The degradation processes, which were recorded,

involved both digital means and tape, and at one point the image itself seemed to be

crushed like paper. One read this as a kind of visual trope that raised questions of

representations of what is being crushed here – the paper, the image or the medium. This

was achieved by a subversion of what is initially being perceived by the audience into an

anti-image; the nihilistic action of crushing paper was further augmented by the

destruction of the medium itself. This early work was aptly titled ‘Tangibility’ and was

effectively Deleuzian2 in a way that the image broke down into a catastrophe of abstract

forms, leaving the audience to grasp levels of materiality between paper, video,

projection and canvas.

 

Toh followed this with ‘Cartographer Mapping Scarscapes’, projecting it straight onto the

wall. One started to observe the changes in his work. For one, it got increasingly hermetic

in vision and his interest in animating 35mm colour print film (the kind you used to take

pictures) was apparent. One viewed the silent film, moving at a much slower frames-persecond

rate, as though it was through means of some hand-wound contraption. Another

aspect that Toh incorporated in his work was drawing, or more precisely, etching onto the

film. The films had not been exposed and the images were actually inscribed, bleached

and burnt out laboriously on rolls of film. Images of people and scenes appeared out of a

journey but like a dark dream you could never decipher it. The element that remained

constant in the horizontally scrolled images was a flickering warm light, akin to

observing the moon from the window of a moving vehicle. The light, which later on

turned out to be a flame from a candle, was peculiar in a way that made one wonder if he

or she were in a cave and that whether the light source was behind the film or being

reflected on it. Nevertheless, one could read its reference to the visible and unknown as a

metaphor for mortality. This singularly mnemonic work became poignant in parts where

these memories faded into marks of lines and passed seamlessly through the beams of the

dance studio.

 

Ending his presentation was a stunning piece called ‘EX.TOIL’. Toh utilized the

dynamics of the space and engaged in an experiment in peripheral vision by making us

watch two moving images at different speeds simultaneously. For this, he got an assistant

to wind the improvised slide projector manually to project a roll of 35mm colour print

film on one wall. On the adjacent wall was a much faster animation done in alternate

tempos with stop-motion techniques, to a soundtrack reminiscent of a post-rock

landscape, replete with extended time-lapse and reverse loops. The treatment to the film

was similar to ‘Cartographer Mapping Scarscapes’ except these images and sounds came

originally from his artist and musician friends, which he then manipulated to the point of

being unrecognizable. Both projections actually came from the same colour print films.

The films were scanned, digitized and re-animated into a multilayered, almost epileptic

piece which featured forms morphing into another, while the analogue projector spooled,

in a toy-like fashion, the original films and one observed at a slower pace the process of

how Toh etched on every frame to produce the work. Toh had abandoned the camera

altogether in favour of a more hands-on approach of using the film itself as a kind of

miniature raw canvas to draw and create projections from. This arduous task of working

and cutting and pasting frame-by-frame reaped incredible results of craft and detail in the

moving images. This throwback to the rudiments of animation and early stop-motion

brought to mind the sublime images of Stan Brakhage and the exquisite narration of

William Kentridge.

 

There is much to be said about the craft of working on celluloid as well. Although

uncommon in Singapore, there has been a resurging interest in the medium of 16mm film

with artists in Europe. Take British artist Tacita Dean for example, whose primary

medium is in film and her works involve shooting on negative first before processing it

into a rush print where she will spend hours on end watching, spooling and splicing the

film to create a cutting copy. This cutting copy in turn becomes a reference for the

original negatives to be cut and finally be delivered to a lab to be printed as film3. One

would imagine a similar relationship to film for Lynn Loo (Singapore/UK), which begins

at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. In this vein, what

made ‘End Rolls’ such an absorbing piece was that these projections were created

through the process of chance exposures of the film to different levels of light such as

candle, stove, room light and others. This resulted in the fluctuation of colours and the

film was then copied several times in light at different densities. The projection

performance of these rolls of film using three 16 mm projectors was nothing short of

synaesthetic. The viewer was treated to pulsating fields of filmic colours that also pulsed

with sounds that buzzed and hummed like light-sabers4. The amplified sounds were

actually created from photo-resistor microphones feeding on the densities of the light of

the projectors. Cools receded into subtle imprints while the warms burnt at the back of

the viewer’s head. The more brilliant the colour was, the more intense the sound, almost

like energy converted into colour and sound. This was made all the more spectacular with

Loo as performer who experimented with layering one projection over another by turning

and adjusting the projectors to meet at the same frame, creating new hues and spatial

depth.

 

In contrast, ‘Newsprint #2’, created by fellow film artist Guy Sherwin and Loo,

comprised of newspaper glued onto a roll of 16mm film. A black and white contact print

of the original was used for the performance and one could also hear what newspaper

printed on the aural track of the film sounded like. Again, Loo intervened by

manipulating two projectors such as focus-pulling, freezing the films abruptly and then

running them again. There were some similarities with Toh’s work in the way the artists

worked directly on the material of the film and the analogy of contact printing 16mm film

would correspond to digitally scanning 35mm color print film. However Toh’s manic

effacing of the film is a different sensibility and a huge departure to the cool and ironic

collage piece of Sherwin and Loo. Where Toh treaded between form and narration,

‘Newsprint #2’ was an exercise in a sort of Dada poetry in motion, where meaning was

lost in the verbiage of text and sound and where material took over as content. If the

aesthetics seemed nostalgic or even a little familiar, it was because Sherwin originally

made ‘Newsprint #2’ in 1972. Loo had mentioned being influenced by works made

during the 60s and 70s, by artists from the London Filmmakers' Co-op, where Sherwin

had taught. Their interests in material and process, audience perception and live elements

certainly inform the language in which Loo’s works communicate in, one which is closer

to the language of painting than narrative cinema.

 

Loo further investigated the richness and poetry of the medium with her last projection,

where she instructed us to turn and move towards the wall on our right where the

projections were going to be. The silent projections allowed us to ruminate on the

depiction of subject matter. Loo captured the gorgeous colours of a cluster of vine leaves

from her London garden in autumn, with a process similar to ‘End Rolls’. Except these

fields of colour were applied to fog the film. During the time of projections, she laid one

projection of positive film onto another of negative film and vice versa to explore

possibilities of more colours. There was the effect of it being like hand-tinted

photographs with the overlaying of colour to flatten out space, pushing and pulling the

leaves out of the depth of field. Tightly framed with slow dissolves, one too observed

through the grain of 16mm, the quality of light and the endurance of memory on her

everyday life and the passing of time. This dialogue of subject and nature, painting and

film makes a connection to the Victor Erice film, ‘The Quince Tree Sun’ in which a film

maker captures a painter who spends months trying to capture on canvas the light that

falls on the leaves of a quince tree.

 

It would be tempting to compare techniques, styles and temperaments of the two artists

that produce very different works. Toh’s were essentially sequential pieces that reiterated

their imagery on the consciousness through repetition and negation and tended to be

volatile and anarchic, whereas Loo straddled between the vestigial and the cogitative,

through the cultural artifact of film. Toh primarily creates out of his own volition, Loo

through the empirical results of her observations and experiments; Toh works at the

interstice of drawing and animation (line, etch, print, movement), Loo continues the

dialogue between painting and filmmaking (light, colour, image, material).

 

Then there is also the influence of technology in their works. Dean has lamented the

demise of film labs that would eventually end the vital and intimate relationships artists

have with them, so dependent on processing negatives into prints. It signals an era of

movies going digital and the phasing out of celluloid altogether. The debate goes on –

emulsion versus pixels, industry versus art, mass market versus niche audience.

Commerce and creation have always moved in different tangents, which was why the

three 16mm projectors on the table were even lovelier to look at. These anachronistic

sculptures were testament to Loo’s love for film. One takes pleasure in the sensation of

celluloid and hearing the sound of the projector when it reels the film. Artists tend to feed

on what is lost, in which time and culture are embedded in material and objects. They

thrive on the physicality and presence of their mediums in space. Toh proves that both

analogue and digital technology can co-exist in the creation of an artwork on a modest

budget, with a little re-invention and adaptability of course.

 

Walter Benjamin, in the seminal essay ‘The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical

Reproduction’ proclaimed that film5 presents an object for simultaneous collective

experience and that the advent of mechanical reproduction of the print allows for a

democratisation of the medium. Distance is reduced between art and audience and the

‘aura’ or the authenticity and uniqueness of the artwork is destroyed. This is partially true

in the current context. However, the level of technological advancement in this digital

age does not determine Toh and Loo’s mode of artistic production. Neither do either of

them deal with the medium to communicate with a mass audience in any specific social

or political context. In fact they return the medium to art for the contemplation of a select

audience, not necessarily in a museum or a gallery, but it could be in a dance studio or

someone’s basement. The fact that these works would be perceived differently with live

elements at a particular time and space certainly makes it an authentic experience, never

to be repeated again.

 

In spirit, both artists were joined by their commitment to process and material, and the

experimental nature and physicality of their cinema. At times unrehearsed, Toh would

take an extra minute to adjust the projection of the frame to the right dimensions or Loo’s

projectors would encounter a malfunction. That just added to the informality of the

atmosphere. But there is a deeper sense that connects these two artists together that

relates to our understanding of the world through imagery. In returning to the cave once

again with two analogies, this connection could be further expounded philosophically

first in Plato’s analogy of the cave where prisoners are chained to a bench deep in a cave

facing a wall of shadows projected by fire and actors holding up puppets behind them.

The prisoners are oblivious to what is behind them and perceive what is projected to be

reality. In ‘Cartographer Mapping Scarscapes’, Toh created a shadowy world of

appearances that vanished as soon as they appeared. The audience perceived this as an

inner world of the artist, what was conjured as a landscape and reality of the mind rather

than an imitation from life.

 

Whereas to look at it from an anthropological perspective, geometric patterns were

discovered in cave paintings during the Paleolithic period between 45,000 and 20,000

years ago. These ranged from grid patterns to honeycombs and circular forms. How

abstraction came about even in prehistory was eventually deduced, through science and

psychology, that humans created these forms during altered states of consciousness in the

darkness of the caves they took shelter from6. Because of sensory deprivation they started

to hallucinate and started to see these forms in the mind’s eye and projections of them in

the surrounding space. At an advanced stage, they started to experience a vortex, the

sides of them marked by grids like television screens. Loo’s screens of colour fields came

about from light, medium and process and not from a state of trance, but here lies the link

between consciousness and our visual abilities for colour and space perceptions. In the

darkness of the dance studio, the works of Toh and Loo were expanded frames of

contemporary experience, which not only harked back to the primal instincts to create

images, but also tapped into how one knows, senses and sees.

 

 

1 The brand of a ubiquitous plastic storage container.

2 In his book ‘The Logic of Sensation’, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze compared abstraction to a catastrophe where planes, masses and colours collide through the examples of Paul Cézanne and Francis Bacon.

3 UK artist Tacita Dean talks about saving celluloid on the website guardian.co.uk.

4 Incidentally, the sound of the fictional weapon in filmmaker George Lucas’ Star Wars universe was created by a combination of the hum of idling interlock motors in aged movie projectors and interference caused by a television set on an unshielded microphone.

5 The critic Walter Benjamin wrote ‘The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in 1936. In theory, it would be logical to assume that perhaps the new ‘film’ of today’s generation is the Internet, a truly democratic media though it would be in the realm of digital reproduction.

6 This phenomenon is explained in an episode of the BBC documentary ‘How Art made The World’.