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Image and Representation in the work of Shawn Smith

by Jennifer Scanlan

In Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Violence of the Image,” which decries contemporary society’s embrace of the simulated image over the real, Baudrillard writes: “The last violence done to the image - the very final violence - is the technological one: electronic and computerized, synthetic images issued from numerical combination, combined and reworked on the surface of the screen. It is the end of the imagination of the image itself, of its fundamental illusion, because in the synthetic operation the referent no longer exists, and the real has not even time to take place as it is immediately produced as virtual reality.”

In Baudrillard’s post-modern world, virtual reality is not real at all: lacking physicality, existing only as data, the digital image represents a complete and final detachment from the actual world. In his work, Shawn Smith both examines and reverses this process, transforming the digital back into the physical. His investigation of vision, image, and perception, winds through many of his scientific interests: morphology, evolution, virology, and astrophysics. Each piece develops from the intersection between the digital and the physical, the perceived and the tangible, the synthetic and the natural, the theoretical and the actual.

Smith’s primary subject is the natural world, but it is a world that for him exists almost entirely virtually. His primary source for research is the digital images of the Google image search. These two-dimensional images are translated into three dimensions through a process that is deliberately laborious and non-automated. A low-resolution image is found on the web and expanded until the each of the individual pixels appears as a solid color dot on the grid that forms the image. The pixels, elemental building blocks of any digital image, become actual building blocks, as Smith hand-cuts them from MDF or plywood (the material itself being both organic wood yet a man-made composite). Smith then hand-dyes each piece with hand-mixed colors to develop a rich palette. The completed piece seems to be a pixilated, “synthetic” image, and yet it is unequivocally real, made by tactile hand labor. Smith considers these pieces “doppelnature”: copies of nature that have lost all natural characteristics.

Image and representation in biology are often a matter of life and death. Animals or insects change color to attract mates, or to camouflage themselves against predators or prey. In many of his pieces, Smith explores the ways in which the natural world uses color morphology to create or deflect visual interest. These phenomena are explored in the two fish: Betta Fish and Green Puff. Both fish are carnivorous, and their brilliant coloring is both seductive and aggressive. In Smith’s rendering, the fish are huge; outside of their element, they become ominous. The Alligator is another dangerous predator, though Smith’s rendering in vague detail without eyes or teeth renders the danger ambiguous. In doppelnature, the predators have their violent coloring but have lost their bite. 

The bird head installation is another example of color morphology, showing the spectrum of resplendence in the avian world, in this case used by the males to attract mates. Lined up on the wall, they simulate a Google search result, the installation referencing the screen: nature on display for humans, called up by a computer query. Other pieces highlight more deadly ways in which humans use animals for their own ends.  Arctic Game is a polar bear skin, which memorializes that endangered animal in this case shot as a trophy. From the Coal Mine considers the fate of the canary used by coal miners to test the air: the canary’s death served as a warning that the air was poisonous. Here we have both violence of image and violence of behavior.

Like virtual reality, scientific theory is a study of the possible, going beyond that which can be perceived in the physical world, at the same time investigating the rules of that world. In the TrioSpaghettification, Intersection, and Squish—Smith considers the effects of gravity on a deer head trophy. All three have the same number of pieces, which are elongated or shortened to illustrate phenomena of astrophysics. Spaghettification is the elongation that occurs in a very strong gravitational field, such as a black hole. Squish documents the opposite effect of neutron stars, where gravity collapses. Intersection serves as a midpoint between the two: the wood lengths are normal, and the colors shift from red on one side to blue on the other. It’s a purely visual study of how our eyes respond to color proximity; it also serves as an illustration of Smith’s interest in the intersections between different forms or ideas.

Two of the pieces, Glitch and Mop Bucket, are explorations of virtual phenomena. Glitch replicates the kind of computer error that leads to color distortion in digital images. When we look at a digital image with these kinds of striated colors, we realize we are not looking at the “real” image, but instead evidence of a damaged file. And yet we are looking at the real image, because that is the way the image exists. Smith manifests this contradiction by creating the distortion in a physical object. We do not expect a porcupine to have colorful quills, and therefore we mentally “correct” the image and see this coloring as an aberration. Those of us familiar with faulty digital images may even recognize this aberration as a technical glitch. And so our mind moves back and forth, unable to accept the reality of the piece that is right there before us, replacing it with what Baudrillard would call “computerized, synthetic images.”

Mop Bucket, the only representation of a completely man-made object in the exhibition, comes from Smith’s observation of video games. In games where the player appears to be walking through an architectural setting, a mop bucket often appears, suggesting an unseen human presence in an institutional space, a marker of the (imaginary) reality of dirt and labor in a virtual environment.  The digitally created world of the video game is perhaps the most extreme example of society’s embrace of the simulated image. Unlike the fish, or the birds, or even the porcupine, the mop bucket never existed in the first place. While physical actions (pressing buttons, moving joysticks) in a video game seem to have consequences, they are entirely simulated. And yet the video games engender real emotions, and often the sensation of complete immersion.

Vicious Venue is a piece that sums up this contradiction between virtual and physical reality. Originally the vulture was part of a larger installation that replicated Sam Spade’s office in the film “The Maltese Falcon.” The vulture is pixilated, and the technology that it is destroying is obsolete: a simple interpretation of this scene could be that contemporary digital technology is destroying old analog technology. A more complex interpretation asks the question: what is real in this tableau, and what is simulated? The objects are physically real but they evoke a fictional setting. The vulture appears to be virtual, yet it is also tactile. The ideas and emotions provoked by such a scene—humor, anger, curiosity—are very real, though completely intangible.

Shawn Smith’s sculptures ask us to look at the difference between what we perceive and what we can touch, between the nature that exists outside and the doppelnature that we create onscreen. He establishes virtual reality and physical reality not as two separate spheres, but as part of a whole with permeable boundaries. His works offer both the reassurance that we are not losing touch (literally) with reality, while at the same time opening our eyes to exciting new possibilities for experiencing the world.