This is an Egg and so is This

Olivia Pipe

In the many decades that he has been producing artwork, Michael Snow has developed and perpetuated many identities and personas for himself. The intellectual crux of his work lies in his ability to understand, adapt and mold his work around the social climate of his time. Evidence of his success includes many awards, degrees and academic appointments. His academic successes, however, are eclipsed by his popularity with the Canadian public. In the 1980s, Michael Snow produced a wide variety of art in several media. In particular, his video work So Is This (1982) and holographic installation Egg (1985) encapsulate many cultural themes and concerns of the time.

During the early- to mid- 1980s, movies such as Jaws and Star Wars ruled the box office with their use of technological advances, including Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). Snow looks to silent films and minimalist artistic film practices of the past to create his 1982 work So Is This, a 16mm, forty five minute-long silent film. The film contains no imagery save for the white lettering against a black background, stretched to fill up most ofthe frame. In true Snow fashion, he titillates the audience with his impeccable comedic timing and knack for puns. In Snow’s opinion, “several different strategies were employed on timing words/passages of the film. Image quality changes too, and the situation of an audience reading a film is a special one, [not to be duplicated by reading this].”[1] Snow maintains that the construction of this film relies on its timing, text and visual quality. However, the reading of a film, as opposed to watching one, becomes a totally separate experience which bridges traditional artistic boundaries. Essentially, So Is This is unique in its own right and delivers its own exclusive experience that film or literature would fail to do on its own. The silence of the film takes on an audible language of its own: the static of the silence allows the viewer to hear what is being said and what is not being said, both being of equal importance in this work and throughout Snow’s career. The film transforms itself into a new hybrid media by communicating beyond the limits of speech and text.

The language in So Is This aside, it is important to question the medium which Snow employs as a vehicle of expression. While the piece uses film and is considered to be a video work, it holds no other qualities of film production except for the basic materials necessary to film, such as film tape, a camera and lens. If not film, can it be considered a form of literature which is simply filmed? In the words of one critic, “[So Is This] manages to defamiliarize both film and language, creating a kind of moving concrete poetry while throwing a monkey wrench into a theoretical debate.”[2] Not only does it pose questions concerning medium, it questions the most basic principles of film and language as well. If So Is This is able to dispel our preconceived notions of these media, then it is important to wonder if it is indeed literature, film, both, or neither. One can make the argument that it is some version of both film and literature. However, Snow manages to incite debate about technological advancements and artistic concerns whilst distracting the viewer with the conundrum of his noteworthy choice of hybrid media. During this period Snow also experiments with other technologically advanced media, much like other prominent figures in the art world. However, this film certainly encompasses Snow’s ability to sense the public demand for a film such as So Is This and its ability to fit in with the other work being created by his peers in a technological aspect as demonstrated in Egg, as artists became increasingly interested in using cutting-edge technology in an effort to remain current. Snow simultaneously remained different as a result of his distinct choice to engage in traditional, silent film practices.

While other filmmakers used technological advancements to their advantage, Snow employed the use of traditional techniques. He creates a dialogue which deals with various issues, concealed within humor. His choice traditional techniques can be read as a step back in terms of progress, and as a commentary on the crippling effect of the age of technology on nature and identity. In his essay “Crafts,” Snow discusses the radical activist group The Sierra Club and their campaign to flood the Grand Canyon to generate more commercial profit, a plan he compared to the flooding of the Sistine Chapel “so that tourists can get nearer to the ceiling”[3]. This essay reflects such environmental and technological concerns about which he was adamantly outspoken in his writing and to which he loosely alludes in his artwork. Snow goes on to equate the ability to devote time to craft, that is, art as craft, to luxury. According to Snow, the things that were once common and primitive, such as working with one’s hands, have now become a luxury and result in his reversion to older practices.

In contrast to So Is This, Snow’s Egg explores our ever-changing reality in the wake of computerization. Instead of employing early film techniques as a process of exploration, Snow tries his hand at holography. It is important to first understand that Snow’s holographic work is not topical, but stems from a time of cultural change, during the age of computerization or “Information Age”, characterized by technological advances and the mainstream availability of information. Much like our current era, in which everything is readily available at the cost of a severe separation between what is tangible (real) and what is conceptual (not real), Egg, a holographic self-portrait and part of the installed environment “The Spectral Image” for Expo 86 in Vancouver, portrays the sensitive disjunction between reality and illusion, the real versus the “non” real. Egg reflects the notion of holography in the sense that there are alternate realities in the two and three dimensional realms of the time continuum. The holographic representation of his self stands, holding two halves of an eggshell, as the egg yolk plummets downward to a real iron frying pan. Snow explores the idea that waves of light exist in reality as something tangible and substantial while reaffirming the existence of the self. “Through this play of contrast, reality exists only in denial and as a momentary, fleeting presence… [In much of Snow’s work from the 1970s and 1980s], the space of representation tended to begin in an already transformed or re-constructed real, conveying an increasing sense of remoteness, of a world of fragments.”[4] There is a divorce between narrative and subject in this work which is propelled by the limited reality (the real, tangible subject) and, simultaneously, the limitless possibility of the holographic images (the non-real, intangible subject). Our reality exists only in the edited, carefully monitored world we know, and Egg represents the real coexisting with the non-real, even if the result is disjointed and foreign. As Tila Landon Kellman describes in her book Figuring Redemption, his image in the hologram seems to appear out of the black of nothing, much like figures in Renaissance paintings. Snow’s use of technologically advanced media is contrasted by his use of a real frying pan in this work. While he works very hard to create a “real” space through a non-realist representation, he finds humor in including a real frying pan into which a holographic egg tumbles. Kellman clarifies that in his combination of the two and three dimensional (the holographic, projected image and the embodied frying pan), the present and the past are married, yet separate. Ultimately, there is no “behind the frying plate.”[5] What is shown to the viewer is only the pertinent information in Egg.

The depiction of Snow as the figure in the hologram is temporal and ghostly. While Snow looks as if he is a middle-aged cook cracking an egg, the image is underscored by the glow of the hologram. Snow looks as if he were dead or a memory of himself caught in an inanimate state, suspended in time, much like the egg itself. The egg that falls from the broken shell he holds plunges towards the tangible iron frying pan, blurring the barrier between what is illusion and what is reality. Snow’s hands, which hold the two halves of the broken eggshell, curve to form the outline of binoculars. As Derrick de Kerckhove discusses in his essay “Holography, ‘mode d’emploi’: On Michael Snow’s Approach to Holography,” the binocular-shaped hands act as a representation for a window of time, making the connection to his film work Wavelength, and to the idea that through extensive concentration during the film one can understand more about their particular surroundings:[6] “The hologram shows the very attentive eyes of the artist, in line with the binocular-shaped hands, looking down through them towards the falling-egg content. If you lean a certain way beneath the hands, you can almost see the artist’s eyes through the reverse direction.” Thus, yet another example of the layered meanings found throughout Egg is revealed.[7]

Snow places a great deal of importance on the viewer’s contemplation on the subject in his work, which always reveals a greater truth, beyond that which is seen on the surface. The fact that one can see a holographic representation of the artists’ eyes through the reverse direction epitomizes the notion that Snow’s work can be viewed in a variety of ways. That being said, no matter how progressive his holographic work is, Egg is still anchored in place by a projector. Its existence relies on a machine, much as we have become accustomed to relying on electronic devices to perform our everyday activities.

During the 1980s, art installation and general aesthetic diversity were the most rampant artistic trends. This popularity is apparent in the two works discussed in this essay. So Is This and Egg are quite different from one another: one encapsulates a return to simplicity while the other is a representation of the evolution of technology. However, they are similar in that they both employ the power of technology. While So Is This is more of a regression in time, Egg is the epitome of what is considered a positive force in the evolutionary process. Ultimately, Snow addresses these concerns in his artwork as well as in his essay “Crafts,” in which he persistently reminds the viewer of the effects of such innovations.

The 1980s proved to be an important decade for the art world. In North America, the art world experienced a diversification as other forms of art became increasingly popular and accepted as normal modes of expression, such as performance art. The 1980s reflect a very Postmodern, all-inclusive attitude towards developing media. Snow aggressively partook in the advancement of the Postmodern cannon by producing work which was and still is considered forward-thinking and unlike anything he had previously created. It seems that while he felt compelled to make thought-provoking work which dealt with his concern of the effects of technological advancement and modernization, he actively engaged in the use of this modern technology. The result was new and exciting art in different and emerging media, and the demonstration of Snow’s originality.

List of Illustrations

1. Michael Snow, “Egg”, 1985, Hologram, 91.4 x 106.7 cm + frying pan on base. Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Image copyright and courtesy of Michael Snow

Bibliography

Budak, Adam. “Manifesta 7”. The European Biennial of Contemporary Art July 26 2008

Dompierre, Louise, and Derrick de Kerckhove . The Michael Snow Project: Visual Art, Exploring Plane and Contour. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994.

Hoberman, J,. “Three films by Michael Snow”. The Village Voice April 24 2008

Kellman, Tila Landon, and Michael Snow. Figuring Redemption: Resighting My Self in the Art of Michael Snow. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002.

Snow, Michael. The Collected Writings of Michael Snow. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994.

Endnotes

[1]Michael Snow quoted by Adam Budak, “Manifesta 7”, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art

[2] J. Hoberman, “Three films by Michael Snow” The Village Voice 2008

[3] Michael Snow, “Crafts”, The Collected Writings of Michael Snow 1967: 32

[4] Tila Landon Kellman and Michael Snow, “Figuring Redemption: Resighting My Self in the Art of Michael Snow” 2002: 99.

[5] Tila Landon Kellman and Michael Snow, “Figuring Redemption: Resighting My Self in the Art of Michael Snow” 2002: 98.

[6] Derrick de Kerckhove and Louise Dompierre, The Michael Snow Project: Visual Art, Exploring Plane and Contour 1994: 66.

[7] Derrick de Kerckhove and Louise Dompierre, The Michael Snow Project: Visual Art, Exploring Plane and Contour 1994: 52.