by Mikko Lautamo
A man, terrified, appears in a steel-gray bubble. He bangs on the wall of his prison and shouts to be recognized. His pleas are unintelligible. A harsh, mechanical whirring begins to drown out his cries, and the sound of clanking gears and the crackle of electricity reach a crescendo as his little world is lit up in bold primary colors. He is trapped in the belly of a 1950s-era Sci-Fi robot.
So goes Peter Sarkisian's Videomorphic Figures, on view at Modernism. It is comprised of four 3D-printed toy-like robots (think: Robert the Robot or a 14 inch-high Iron Giant), and a wall sculpture/video piece called Dreamride, which is newer and only tangentially related to the robots. Compact projectors that seamlessly map video onto each component of the prints activate the flat, gray surfaces of these figures. Small speakers — one for each figure — emit an industrial soundtrack that is specific to each piece, giving the room a disorienting, factory-floor feel as video and sound, all of it out-of-sync, grind away.
Sarkisian is an early pioneer of projection mapping, a technique that uses precision spacing of projectors so that moving images appear in perspective on the surface of an object, creating, essentially, a trompe-l'oeil video. Sarkisian is one of a handful of artists, including Tony Oursler, who has worked with this technique since its inception in the late 1990s. In many ways, his approach mirrors the painterly illusionism of his father, Paul Sarkisian, mixed with the bombastic high technology of public art productions like Urbanscreen. The highly crafted Figures, initially created in 2013, are among the sharpest and most convincing examples of what artists are achieving with this technology today.
That said, there isn't much variation. Each robot has a slightly different look, different colors and components, but they are essentially the same: A sphere, usually in the abdomen, lights up with a projection of the artist struggling to escape confinement. Out of the darkness surrounding the spheres, projected images light up in succession, the action cued to the raucous roar of engines and the sound of arcing electricity. Over time, the colors of each projected component shift and small gears, cogs, diodes and other details become animate and shift around, at which point the whole affair shuts down suddenly and repeats. Overall, the aesthetic of this imagery is a blend of two of Sarkisian's earlier works: The bright colors and busy engine parts that appear in Extruded Video Engine (2008) form the "skin" and the machine-like elements of the robot figures seen here. The human vignettes resemble the artist/character from Sarkisian's Book (2011), and represent vulnerability and emotion. They are exhilarating and fascinating to view, but they ultimately left me wanting.
The standout piece, VideoMorphic Figure (Robot 4), tweaks the formula in two ways: First, the image of the struggling human is projected onto a cube at the feet of the robot figure (rather than onto its body), creating the impression that the towering mechanical robot is poised to stamp out the human. Second, unlike the other robots which have machine-like faces, Robot 4 has an empty dome that fills with a severely degraded video of the artist's own face — suggesting that his soul has been subsumed into a heartless machine. It sums up well the artist's unease with automation and how humans are every day being replaced by machines that, while seductive, are making life more harrowing, more confining and less enjoyable.
Dichotomies and asymmetric conflicts (live/dead, active/passive, actual/mediated, human/machine) such as these form the core of Sarkisian's practice. His main idea: The robots are winning, and those trapped inside them are only slightly more confined than people who walk through life staring at phone screens.
Also on view is Dreamride-Lava Orange GT3 RS, an updated version of the artist's Registered Driver from 2010. It features a low-relief sports car body with a video monitor where the passenger-side windows would be. On it we see a young man driving through a 3D-rendered city experiencing wild and unlikely occurrences: roaring roadside dinosaurs, casual drives up a wall and disorienting distortions of his facial features. It's a fun and clever ride, but it doesn't have the impact of the Figures. The latter show Sarkisian at the top of his game, offering hints of a not-too-distant dystopia packaged in pulpy sci-fi color and style.
Peter Sarkisian: "Videomorphic Figures" @ Modernism through August 31, 2019.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist and educator from Sacramento. His work uses computer code to create interactive and never-repeating installations centering on blended biological, social, and economic systems. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in the United States, Europe, Australia and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.