a virtual reality project 
Robin Petterd 
Sidespace Gallery 
11 July - 21 September, 1997 
and on-line at 
 Still from head-mounted display     
Reviewed by Diane Caney 

CLOUDS OF invites viewers to explore the question, "What is life likewhen much of our time is spent in front of either television or computerscreens?" Installation view

 Having spent much of the past 5 years in front of a computer screenas a student, and now spending part of the week managing an electronicjournal, I decided to visit the materiality of this partly virtual exhibitionspace with the tantalising title of CLOUDS OF. Robin Petterd's exhibitionin the Sidespace Gallery is now over, but aspects of his work can alwaysbe visited at The Other Edge,a space in which this artist continually explores the links between technologyand creativity. 

I find this aspect of Petterd's work interesting because whereas artistsalmost always have an oeuvre that might be visited (in order that it mightintertext with any particular piece of work), those oeuvres are not usuallyreadily accessible. Artists working on the WWW, however, are continuallyavailable to the viewing public. Exhibition upon exhibition can accumulate,whether actual work (as web-image or text) or photographic representationof works that exists outside the WWW. I've often visited Petterd's ongoingSKY project enjoyingits whimsical refusal to explain itself. CLOUDS OF was similarly evasive,but became an entirely successful exhibition for me, someone whose experienceof art is always intensely personal, even when noticing inter-referentsto other works and cultural connections. 

Just before visiting CLOUDS OF, I received a report on an article thatI'd sent to an academic journal in the United States for publication. Theanonymous reader wrote that Caney's essay was at times so personal andso abstract as to be "completely incomprehensible". I decided to take thatcomment as a compliment and resolved to write more fiction, to paint more,and to write less analytic/theoretical prose. This put me in the mood tointeract with something inexplicable, something that did not want to interpret,to use images and words and symbols like prison-cells of stagnant meaning.I had been yearning to see signifiers that floated and flew and hoveredjust beyond that rainbow fringe of memory ... 
text that resonates ... 

Entering the semi-lit Sidespace Gallery, then, I was delighted to beconfronted by a distant relative of Nam June Paik's Robot Family: a blacktelevision set at head-height on a slim octagonal metallic plinth. Thisrobot had neither arms nor legs. The image confronting me on the TV wasa mis-shapen grey-white circle set within a black background. The effectwas that I was being eyed by this Cyclops and that I was, at the same time,gazing through its eye as if it was a telescope.

 Installation view 
Installation view. 
"... I was delighted to be confrontedby a distant relative of Nam June Paik's Robot Family ..."
Being greeted by the bland stare of this tangiblesculptural, anthropomorphic object (which refers intertextually to so muchart, both Western and non-Westcentric), there was a sense in which venturinginto the gallery was prefaced with uncertainty. 

 The images within/upon the flat virtual disc of rock on the televisionscreen (the robot's eye, in effect) changed every 3 or 4 seconds. Heavilymanipulated video-stills of hands were displayed in monotone, resemblingrough charcoal drawings. There were only ever 2 hands which moved sporadicallyfrom clasping together, adopting attitudes of semi-prayer, clenching intodistorted fists and moving towards abstraction. The solidity of the suggestedstone plate formation was juxtaposed ironically with the intimations offlesh, however abstract. 

Still from video screen 
Still from video screen 
"There were only ever 2 handswhich moved sporadically from clasping together, adopting attitudes ofsemi-prayer, clenching into distorted fists and moving towards abstraction."
The suggestion of chiselled sculptural relief invites viewers to drawmyriad classical references into this shifting work. Aware of my rightto assemble my own unstable reading, though, I chose to draw upon an intertextualcontemporary work -- Emiko Kasahara's StoneRose, 1994. This work is now "permanently" on-line as part of LauraCottingham's exhibition entitledIncandescent,but Kasahara's Rose has also been exhibited with the title Flower ofStone and the accompanying text: "This is not a rose" (Lutfy129). The intertextual and inter-imagic mix of virtuality, stone, claspedhands, Magritte's word-play and the flesh of a stone rose, then, providesme with the mix of sensuality and intellect I desire from interacting withart. The reading shimmers with significations that continue 
to resonate ... 

I was ready to enter further into the installation. While looking atthe robot I had been aware of a soft-edged rectangle of sky projected uponthe back wall of the Sidespace Gallery (which is situated in an ageingbuilding in Hobart's historic Salamanca Place). The rectangle of sky formedan intertextuality with the sandstone walls and the enormous beams of thegallery, with Sidney Nolan's empty Kelly-helmet (which is often filledwith blue ripolin sky), and with the poetry of Rimbaud

While still a child, I admired the obdurate convict on whomthe prison gates always close. I visited the inns and furnished rooms hehallowed by his stay. With his mind I saw the blue sky (Rimbaud179).
The mis-shapen rectangle of light had been inviting me into the room sinceI arrived at its entrance, and once I entered the gallery there was a sensein which this impossible window might allow me an escape should I needone. 

In the semi-darkness of the room, on a table positioned directly behindthe robot and several feet away from it, was a table upon which were apair of 3-D glasses. The viewing glasses were set upon a square of blackmountainous foam sometimes used in computer packing. Again there was aplay between the solidity of rock and flesh, and analogously between thatwhich exists as materiality and the more virtual aspects of "reality". 

I was now confronted by my need to physically interact with this installationif I wanted to move further into its visuality. My composite status as"reader", "viewer", and integral component of this work was foregroundedas I contemplated the glasses. 

Petterd chose to be present at the Sidespace exhibition-space daily.At the very point, then, when I was confronted by my need to put on theglasses, the artist himself appeared to assist me should I require help.The artist was literally becoming part of his work while also admittingthat beyond this point the "creator" would not be able to affect what happenedas art and its audience participated in the private space facilitated bythe viewing spectacles. 

 Of course, viewers always inhabit a space that is unreachable.But there is a sense in which Petterd was inviting his audience to admitthis fact, to own their creatorly position as viewer/artist by their decisionto move into a virtual space. Computer-generated virtuality is no moreor less virtual than any other "viewerly" space, but because of its noveltywe still choose to believe that we are somewhere different, somewhere "other". 

Once inside "virtual" space I felt quite vulnerable. I was surprisedat how disconcerting it was to be required to confront the artist whenso engrossed in my own interaction with the exhibition. As a critic, though,I admired and understood the gesture. I was surprised by my reticence to use the 3-D glasses even though I am not usually a technophobe. 

Petterd says that some visitors declined to don the glasses at all.In my opinion the installation would still work well if its computer-generatedvirtuality was not experienced. I can only imagine, however, the unknownspaces those viewers may have invented to fill that unexperienced and unknown3-D virtuality once they left the room without peering into the 3-D spectacles. 

This is the interesting thing about virtuality. We all wonder what wesaw. Did I see what you saw? Again, we might always wonder about this inabilityto know what others see, hear, smell, know ... But we live with myths thatinform us that we all sense more or less the same things, even while knowingthat we almost certainly do not and can not. 

The tiny images that entered into the viewing rectangle of the spectacleswere not only obscure, but they were also designed so as to move aroundimpishly requiring me to trace their hesitant, unpredictable movements.The movement of the virtual flow into which these abstract entities enteredwas, for me, like a fast-flowing river. At one point I felt so dis-orientedas to think I was standing by a stream watching photographic images riseup out of the imagined water only to disintegrate. 

My remembrance of the time I entered into this virtual reality willinevitably change as I elaborate upon that memory, as I draw it into fiction,as I dream upon it. It may also be affected by visiting the CLOUDS OF web-siteimages because I'll most probably see something different there. 

 The 3-D images were elusive on almost every possible level, attimes almost completely incomprehensible ... what bliss. 

Diane Caney, 1997 

Cottingham, Laura. "Incandescent: anelectronic exhibition". 

 Lutfy, Carol. "Emiko Kasahara". Art-News93 November 1994: 129. 

Rimbaud, Arthur. Rimbaud: Complete Works, SelectedLetters. Ed. Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1973. 

© Diane Caney& Robin Petterd 



writing links about

 Installation view 

Installation view


Still from head mounted display.  
"... they would move around impishlyrequiring me to trace their hesitant, unpredictable movements ..."