A thread of existentialism exists in Dominic Harris’s work, a certain preoccupation with flowers, petals, butterflies, and a fascination with metamorphosis and transformative experiences. Harris works typically investigate a number of recurring elements and motifs, often working in tandem: interactivity/consequence, the aesthetic considerations of resolution and thirdly an investigation of animated life.
However, rather than a series of static fixed points, there is a nuance, an interpolation effect where explorations of his pieces are experienced or spectated in as many different ways as there are individuals experiencing them.
Neo-Ice Angels and other impressions:
Ideas of resolution, performance and interactivity are explored from the outset of Harris’s practice. In Ice Angel (2012), a gridded matrix of lights are fragmented, hazy and of a pixelated low resolution. Lights that are temporarily imprinted on the backdrop disappear like fading memories of snow drops melting on the ground. Crucially, in this piece, the formation of the self is constructed through the perception of others.
Harris’s artwork lets the participant physically embody the form of an angel but yet never seeing themselves in the act. The experience has been designed with a ‘memory’, so that the characteristics of each set of wings is tied specifically to that person thus solidifying the feeling of a distinctive embodiment. As a child, the creation of snow angels and snowmen is rarely done for solitary reasons, the shadow left in the snow becomes a marker for others to witness the act of creation. So, a fundamental part of this expression is the requirement that others see it.
As philosopher George Berkley famously stated esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived).Harris’s work carries on an artistic tradition where rapid advances in technology allowed for new ways to experiment and for artists to harness this experimentation to produce new works of art that mixed learning and thought with aesthetic consideration.
The proliferation of cheap synthetic (tubed) paints gave, for example, the impressionists access to intense new colours and cheaper versions of colours that were either too expensive to use in large quantities or were not readily available prior. There were also great advances in scientific theories in the 19th Century which greatly influenced the artists of that era.
The French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul’s 1839 colour theory text De la loi du contraste simultanée des couleurs (translated as On The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast) was one of the first systematic studies of colour perception and greatly influenced the experiments of the impressionists and led to the development of Neo-Impressionism. This, coupled with American physicist Nicholas Ogden Rood’s theories of optical mixing (in which light that is mixed tends towards white as opposed to the mixing of pigments which become duller) leads us to a better overall understanding the development of contemporary artists that work with light as a medium.
It would be difficult to discuss the study of optical effects without mention of James Turrell and the work of a group of Californian artists known as Light and Space that focused on the interplay between light, architecture and perceptual phenomena. Turrell’s study of optical colour effects combined with his knowledge of architectural space are best represented by his Ganzfeld series. It is a work that is remarkable for its apparent lack of architectural depth and in which the viewer experiences a loss of depth of field.
Turrell’s Skyspace series, a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture cut out of the ceiling and open to the sky and the work of the late Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation series (first conceived in 1965) are two exceptional examples of artworks that evoke Digital Shimmer (2015). Harris’s piece although more modest in scale, explores similar effects of subtle colour shifts and warping geometries on a more human rather than architectural scale. In so doing, the boundaries of the concentric circles start to gently shift, bringing to mind the interaction of celestial bodies and astrological phenomena, like the spirograph like conflagrations of John Whitney or the alluring spectral visual poetries of Jordan Belson’s Samadhi (1967).
Similar in its intentions, Shimmer (2013) a piece which explores the psychological effects of colour, light and optical effects using dichroic glass is a refreshingly simple sculpture that does not rely on electronic sensors. A simple movement, a change in viewpoint changes the colour of the glass.
Within the realm of technology, the story of resolution is synonymous with that of progress. As resolutions and pixel counts increase, so does the perceived clarity of the image. Yet, in some strange way, the lower pixel counts of the past, were fertile graphically creative playgrounds. Attempting to squeeze every drop of power from the limits of the 8-bit era, artists and designers learned to skillfully blend low resolution graphics, sound and interactivity. A capacity for human imagination simply filled in the gaps.
Despite his signature work comprising high resolution images and screens, Harris’s practice often plays with differing scales of resolution and pixel densities. In traditional mediums, an artist typically defines scales of resolution through a mixture of material application (i.e. size of brushes, the smoothing of clay, the sculpting and sanding of lumps of wood or marble) or is forced to comply with the limits of a medium’s intrinsic material quality (the individual miniscule but granular particles of pigment in a watercolour wash, carbon in charcoal or the fine weave of the canvas.)
These minimum elements are just as diverse in Harris works, ranging from the individual pixels of a high resolution 4K screen, the melding of the photons output by light or the individual segments of a nixie tube as in his recent work from 2017, Simulated. In this work, the reputed phenomena of typoglycemia is called into play so that the brain instinctively reads the “correct” words from the jumble of letters that periodically modify in the tubes, intermixing these notions of resolution and a capacity for the brain to find meaning in the chaos.
Gamification and Simulation:
Since computers were invented, artists and designers have been fascinated with their potential for the creation of simulations. John Conway's experiments with The Game of Life (1970) paved the way for deriving complexity from a set of simple rules. It inspired early programmers and designers to mimic the appearance of living breathing automata. Played out on a two-dimensional grid, the cells represent the states of life or death. In some ways, it is a metaphor for the representation of how bits work in every computer system, a system of flashing lights, of an interrupt of on and offs, deriving from the representation of information using Morse code and telegraph poles.
Unlike Conway’s zero-player game however, Harris’s pieces build upon these early pixel-like beginnings to become much richer, interactive experiences. Unlike, for example, the serious, hyper-realistic simulations of contemporary artists such as John Gerrard or the outlandish chaotic Emissaries (2015-17) simulations of Ian Cheng, Harris’s works lie somewhere in-between. His Deserted (2016) landscapes series are idealised, simulations of real-life desert landscapes, produced with his fondness for taking artistic license with reality.
Unlike the carefully orchestrated slower paced work of Gerrard in which time lurches continuously forward, Harris’s works allow for human interference and more specifically, for a time-line that speeds up or slows down at the will of the viewer. Although these portals can be left alone to play by themselves as subtly shifting landscapes, and one can marvel at the detail of their design, Harris has incorporated the humour of video game culture in their construction (and subsequent destruction.) They are also loaded with “Easter Eggs”, a term originally derived from programming, where secret in-jokes or extras are activated with specific key presses or via fulfilling certain conditions.
In many ways, interacting with these works are reminiscent of the videogames genre known as god-games that began in the 1980’s. Games such as Bullfrog Productions’ Populous (1989) and Maxis’s Sim City (1989) allowed players the chance to act as an omnipotent being, able to shape the land and create a paradise for its inhabitants or wreak havoc and destruction on its populous, with comedic rather than consequential effect.
The enjoyment derived by interacting with these virtual deserts (a very literal take on the term sandbox) is at the forefront of their design. In this way, Harris’s works have more of an allegiance to these early experiences than contemporary living, breathing world systems such as the Grand Theft Auto series where acts of destruction and violence feel less innocent and more consequential. Perhaps this reflects on Harris’s own interest in representing the joy of life and living systems.
In Harris’s piece Flutter (2011) the movements of a butterfly are triggered by the movements of a viewer, but even in such as small-scale gesture we are reminded of the laws of science and physics which govern our human scale world. Walking past the screens causes a rippling effect, tracing a sine wave like thread through the screens.
The individual screens that make up the piece points to the history of animation and animated pictures, appearing like a Zoetrope or Praxinoscope unfurled. Each screen is laid out as if one of a sequence of interlinked cel frames and bring to mind the locomotion studies of Eadward Muybridge, who attempted to capture the secrets of nature by employing cameras and measurement. Muybridge’s studies were and still are highly influential to artistic practice, the books The Human Figure in Motion and Animals in Motion becoming a standard reference for animation studios such as Disney, for whom Harris has produced a number of works.
The horizontal mirror in Flutter divide the aligned LCD screens, cleverly forming each butterfly’s whole. This reminds the viewer that this piece is in fact an illusion, a simplification of a real butterfly’s anatomy and of wings which in reality fall ever so slightly out of sync (and flap at 20 times a second.) Yet these stylistic choices highlight the artistic decisions behind the artist’s thinking, and of his admiration for abstract qualities.
Harris idealises and distills the very essence of a butterfly’s motion into its basic formal qualities, like a Rorschach inkblot test or the simple act of folding and opening a blank sheet of paper. It is an early but archetypal example of his practice which marries together his interest in analysing the elements of an animated system whilst also furthering his interest in the ways that consumer technologies of the time can be subverted for creative ends.
In Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (1985), the anti-hero character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille uses an extraction method known as enfleurage to capture and distil scents. Although he manages to capture a victim’s life essence into a glass bottle, it causes the captee’s demise in the process.
Harris captures the life of a series of birds in Ruffled (2014, 2017) using code displaying their essence behind the glass of high resolution screens. However, unlike Grenouille’s scents which will fade over time, these animations live on, ready to reactivate with each repeated viewing. One gets the sense that it is only a short matter of time before Harris figures out how to free these creatures from their transparent cages.
In the National Gallery, one of my favourite rooms is Room 17a, a room I informally refer to as the “flower room”. Gathered here, the great painters of Dutch Flower painting are represented, such as Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Rachel Ruysch, Balthasar van der Ast and Jan Van Huysum. It is easy to see how tulip mania developed in the 1630s and prices came to reach such astonishing heights, the beauty of their colour (actually caused by the transmission of a tulip virus) mixed with the rarity and chance of getting a specific type must have felt like gambling.
The depiction of flowers (like the impressionist masterpieces described earlier) is all too frequently dismissed in contemporary culture as simply a type of ‘chocolate box art’ or suited only for the covers of classical music CDs.
However, in reality it can be seen to be a complex interplay where the development of technology, an understanding of science (through selective breeding) and market drives form speculative ‘bubbles’. Something that can be observed in the bitcoin era of today.D’arcy Wentworth Thompson, a pioneer of mathematical biology and author of the influential book On Growth and Form (1917) explained morphogenesis and phyllotaxis and its relationship to mathematical patterns and concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence.
Jan Van Huysum (active in the 17th and 18th centuries) was one of the greatest painters of still life, and specialised in the skilled representation of flowers. In the National Gallery’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1736) the eye roves across a static landscape of flowers, the painter imbues life and vivacity in the work with the addition of butterflies, flies and the bowing, curling, explosion of stems that support the flower heads, almost all of which are in full bloom – timed to open like a synchronised firework. Here and there, a droplet falls. The grapes and peaches feel ripe and good enough to eat. As we further inspect the piece, things begin to take on a surreal twist, the perspective feels strange, like the vase is sliding into the background, the small nest of eggs feels glued on and all the insects are suspended in animation, or posed as if nothing will take flight.
Harris’s Bloomed Wall (2017) pays homage to this genre of still life painting. In these works, the artist fully embraces the surreal, anachronistic nature of the arrangement of many different varieties of flower in coordinated bloom. Unlike in nature the flowers are made to last, rather than a real-life simulation they are caricatures, an abstraction of the real thing. The flowers sway and react to the viewer’s movements as if attached to springs, jostling for position, docking themselves like spaceships into their position on the grid, petals open and close but never fall from the stem. In some ways, it is the logical conclusion of a still life genre which aimed to capture the ecstatic moment of the hyper-real bloom than any perceived objective reality.
Like in D’arcy Thompson’s theories, all kinds of mechanical constraints are imposed on the flowers growth and presentation.We must always remember however, that the greatest images are never ‘simply’ images. Perhaps for those that were first exposed to a new generation of 3d generated adventure games that arrived via the mass storage capability of the CD-ROM format, games such Myst (1993) opened up contemplative new worlds. Rather than a focus on action, they allowed for the interaction of pre-rendered 3D generated ‘scenes’ where puzzles were solved by looking for vital clues within the static frame of the (at the time) state of the art graphics.
Through these experiences we naturally begin to understand and look for clues within images, as a way to unravel its secrets, the eye and the brain tests what is set in front of it. In the contemporary age of touchscreen interfaces, game camera systems, voice activated systems such as Alexa and augmented reality, the notion of interactivity and task based reactivity in terms of the presented image is becoming increasingly hard-wired into our psyche. Children touch cathode ray screens, disappointed or confused when nothing changes.
The gamification process is a natural extension of our day to day experience, as labour turns into play-bour and social interactions become a complex statistical analysis of taps, swipes and reward feedback circuits. However, the true nature of even a painting of these life-like flowers in the 17th and 18th century still to a certain extent functions as a puzzle game.
In Huysum’s painting, for instance there are more than 30 different species in the vase – ranging from roses, poppies and peonies. It is up to the viewer to identify each flower, to solve the allegory that the orchestration of these elements represents, eggs representing birth, the decaying fruit hinting at the brevity of life and so on and so forth. Indeed, the warped perspective even hints at how the viewer should approach the work and how it should be hung, so that the viewer sees the work from a lower vantage point. It was intended for the viewer to engage actively with a piece, to decipher its riddles, to spend time with the work much as Harris expects will happen with his works.
Despite the slick look of Harris works, as seductive pieces of design, with screens encased in sleek aluminium, there is a still a feeling of the steampunk, of an interest in things that are beyond simply digital.
Harris’s incorporation of physical optical effects in recent work become a reminder of our day to day existence and also how these interference effects when presented to us feel like a type of magic. In a way, Harris’s experiments with the way that viewer’s sense, perceive and experience the world are portrayals of a shared experience, perhaps showing the viewer that the way we all experience the world is in fact as similar as it is different.
Assistant Curator for Liverpool Biennial 2019