Liisa Lounila

Wilkinson Gallery

At those moments when you’re washed up at a party, at a bar, at some social scene where you know absolutely no one and everyone else seems too at home to notice this stray figure, yourself, against a wall, your choices are to be miserable, leave, or enjoy surveying the scene with a quasi-anthropological objectivity. In Play>>, 2003, a brief, dreamlike color film shown on DVD, Finnish artist Liisa Lounila makes the decision for you: Luxuriate in looking. You’re invisible, so stare to your heart’s content.

Well, but isn’t that the opportunity cinema always provides—the pleasure of looking tied to the privilege of being unseen? Perhaps, but ordinarily it doesn’t fulfill its promise of making you feel like you’re there. Using a peculiar technique that somehow makes it seem as if the people she’s filmed were static, frozen in time, while the camera remains in motion around them, Lounila actually succeeds in creating an illusion of sculptural three-dimensionality that triggers an uncanny sense of coexistence between her models and the viewer. It feels more like walking around a group of Duane Hanson sculptures that have somehow been endowed with the potential for slow, intermittent movement than watching a film or video.

How does Lounila do it? One can’t help but wonder—all the more so because it all seems so casual and low-tech that high-budget special effects seem out of the question. The answer, still no clearer to me than it absolutely needs to be, has something to do with what’s described as a 360-degree pinhole camera that records many shots from different angles simultaneously; the material was then scanned and digitally edited. So the technology is both primitive and up-to-date, homemade and off the shelf. But the feeling is closer to Méliès than The Matrix. All the more so in Popcorn, 2001, an earlier black-and-white work. While Play>> was shot in a “real” space (a crowded bar in Berlin), Popcorn occurs in the nowhere of a darkened studio, and while the former displays a familiar situation, the latter presents one that seems artificial or at least a bit odd: a circle of five people tossing popcorn at one another from boxes.

The popcorn hanging in midair as it streams from the boxes rhymes with the beer that one sees shooting up stock-still from the mouth of a bottle in one scene from Play>> and with a similar image of a man tossing a drink at a woman in one of three small light-box pieces with lenticular photographs, all called Roma, 2003. This trio also involves an interplay between two- and three-dimensionality, stillness and movement. It’s as if all these works were somehow attempts to draw out and elaborate possible implications of what might be called the soft violence of a work like Jeff Wall’s Milk, 1984, where the liquid seemingly frozen in space and time becomes the extension of a gesture. For Lounila, this sense of gesture as a trace that is at once static and in motion but also both pictorial and sculptural seems to register an existential sense of nonrelation, noncontact within the social. Perhaps this is what connects these camera-based works to the other works in the show: five small “paintings” that transcribe found graffiti in red and black glitter—themselves aggressive or exuberant gestures, though in a very different way, that seem frozen, failing contact.

Barry Schwabsky