Unlike the glass screens that now invisibly separate us from the emission of light, media history includes organic and natural materials used as display surfaces that were not benign but dramatically changed the meaning of the work. While developing the media installation series “The Moon is a Mirror”, the artist examined Eastern and Western screen traditions that embraced gradient opacity and textural diffusion caused by passing light through natural materials.
When the Apostle Paul wrote about “seeing through a glass darkly”, he used the obscured reflection of the pounded brass mirrors of his time as a metaphor for our imperfect vision of reality. While still a mirror, the media’s material qualities changed the perception of the content. Translucent natural surfaces that were deliberately designed to alter the light passing through them appear in both Eastern and Western screen traditions. Flickering candlelight passing through carefully carved materials can be seen in China’s 17th Century Qing Dynasty chiseled lanterns made of ice, Maori engraved gourds from 700 years ago, and the West’s enduring Jack‑o’‑lantern traditions. Using the textural variants within natural materials to reshape light is also core to Indonesia’s Wayan Kulit history in which the partial transparency of thin buffalo leathers and the translucent quality of linen contribute to develop character and scene design.
More recently, Expanded Cinema often mediated the projection of light through organic materials, eloquently illustrated by the translucent insect wings in Brakhage’s “Mothlight” or the dust on the lens in Paik’s “Zen for Film”. The content of the films is pure light, the distortion of natural materials the interpretation. Viola’s “The Veiling” mediated translucency in installation art, and increasingly designers like Chalayan are weaving fiber optics and LEDs into organic fabrics. While image clarity is a commercial ideal, the unpredictability of light dispersion has continually lured artists. Light’s complex interplay with texture, now seen also in projection mapping projects, touch screens and fashion design, is generating renewed interest in the semiotics of limited transparency. “The Moon is a Mirror” uses translucent organic materials found in nature as a filter to an LED animation, allowing the innate variations in density to radically alter the digital image. In the artwork, the screen changes it role from display to participant in the creation of the image.
The clichés of the blank canvas, the unchiseled stone, and the empty page have all proliferated the popular idea that art begins with a vacant surface. However, as today’s slick transparent screens now shift towards tactile interfaces, translucent media reminds us that the relationship between moving image and texture is also part of media history. Gradient transparency can be incorporated into the creative strategy allowing the materials of the screen to strengthen the visual message. Media’s age‑old nexus between object and image can be reconsidered by privileging the display surface and allowing it to have partial control over the content’s reception. We look both at and through, a natural texture not distorting but enhancing.
- Scott Hessels, University of Hong Kong, HK, is an American filmmaker, sculptor and media artist based in Hong Kong who explores new relationships between the moving image and the environment. He has released artworks in several different media including film, video, web, music, broadcast, print, kinetic sculpture and performance. His films have shown in international film festivals and on broadcast television networks.
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