Ross Manning, Bricks and Blocks, 2016, LCD TV, video camera, fluorescent lights, mirror, 37 1⁄8 × 48 × 35 1⁄2".

Ross Manning, Bricks and Blocks, 2016, LCD TV, video camera, fluorescent lights, mirror, 37 1⁄8 × 48 × 35 1⁄2".

Ross Manning

Lismore Regional Gallery

Situated twenty miles south of Nimbin—Australia’s original hippie commune heartland—Lismore, known as the low-rent, eccentric alternative to the gentrified east-coast surfing village of Byron Bay, is a hot spot for alternative living. A former childhood hometown of Julian Assange and his puppeteer parents, Lismore is a fitting location for Ross Manning’s survey exhibition “Dissonant Rhythms,” which has toured Australia since its inception at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art in 2017. Manning is a resourceful tinkerer and, being self-taught, came into the art world through an indirect route. He worked as a service technician repairing electronic whiteboards, TVs, and data projectors before emerging in Brisbane’s experimental sound scene in the early 2000s, eventually making his way to visual art. As is often the case with tinkerers, his studio environment is psychically imprinted on his work, which centers on domestic objects—fans, clocks, television monitors—repurposed as automated performances of sound, light, and movement.

Wave Opus I and Wave Opus II, both 2016, comprise disassembled clock chimes randomly struck by a motorized nylon rope; their frenzied, wavelike movement is set off by motion sensors. Their sound is one of elegiac disarray, reminiscent of Jean Tinguely’s noisemaking sculptures. In fact, Manning’s works are difficult to situate historically. They can feel like reenactments, rehearsing formalist breaches of medium specificity but disconnected from their originary contexts and conflicts. Also sensor activated, Endless Sheet, 2011, is a motorized loop of punctured brown paper that, once triggered, passed through four overhead projectors, creating lo-fi filmic atmospherics in the darkened space. The work read like an extreme DIY version of an Oskar Fischinger or a Len Lye piece, trading their jazz-inspired kineticism for a more Cagean approach of letting things just be.

Manning follows what seems to be a continuing trend in contemporary art toward homespun treatments of new technology—what Claire Bishop dubbed “retro-craftiness” in these pages in 2012, extrapolating a tendency that she linked to the 1990s. The precarious, extra-tactile quality of Manning’s work does suggest a correspondence between repurposing and reprogramming, as if he were a digital artist paradoxically eliding the digital in order to work against what Bishop called the “sealed, impregnable surface of the screen.” In Bricks and Blocks, 2016, a television monitor attached to pink and blue fluorescent lights sat on the floor behind a mirror with an automotive reversing camera on it, feeding a live view of its refractions, but without capturing the viewer directly. Like the show itself, the work would have been beguiling if it weren’t so demonstrative and pragmatic, its formalist transcendence leveled by phenomenological reflexivity. 

Connecting modern and postmodern modalities, Manning’s use of live feeds and motion sensors alongside abstract color and sound experiments adds up to something less like a dialogue with the past and more like a manifestation of how an aesthetic can be both the magic and its means. As multitemporal feedback loops between viewers and objects, his works promote an act of looking that is in equal measure absorptive and disengaged—a thing that starts and stops, speeds up and then slows down.