Saturday, January 15, 2011

Return to the Kingdom of Shadows

During a recent trip to MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, I came across an interesting exhibit that reminded me that the basic principles that first enchanted audiences with early cinema more than a century ago are still at work today.

The work was Peter Campus’ “Shadow Projections” (1974), and brings contemporary spectators back to the Kingdom of Shadows that audiences first entered at the end of the 19th century. The work features a kind of “shadow projector”: a white screen, with a light on one side, and a projector shining light onto the other. Standing in front of it, the spectator not only sees his own shadow, but a detailed projection of themselves with visible features. It’s quite uncanny, really, how detailed the shadows appear when projected onto the screen.

As I was at looking at the exhibit, a child ran right up to the little screen, absolutely fascinated by what he was seeing. He was taken with the way his movements were replicated on the screen by his shadow! I couldn’t help thinking that this is a child who has only known a world with HDTV, CGI movies, digital photography, video games with 3-D graphics, various electronic devices for viewing online video, and so on. And yet, he was positively fascinated with the pure motion of a shadow against the screen. During my time at the exhibit, children and adults alike expressed a similar fascination – something so simple, yet with an undeniable ability to captivate.

It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to imagine the same kind of fascination that spectators at the first film screenings would have felt. Upon seeing his first movie in 1896, Maxim Gorky said:

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color. Everything there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life, but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless specter.”

The desire to depict motion can be traced back as long as man has set out to depict the human experience through art. Cave paintings depicting animals with multiple legs are said to represent the illusion of motion. The “shadow play”, of course, has a long history, dating back to ancient China, with shadow puppetry emerging during the Han Dynasty.

It is only a short technological leap to the Zoetrope and the Magic Lantern, both of which enchanted audiences in the 19th century. Shadows remain an essential part of the cinematic experience – from animated works like Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed to the celebrated sword fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Peter Campus’ Shadow Projector returns the moving image to that “soundless specter” by reducing the image to its bare essentials. Stripped of the bells and whistles of computer graphics, 3-D imagery, color, sound, and other artificial enhancements, the shadow reminds us what first drew audiences to early cinema in the first place, and indeed, why we still refer to them, after all, as “movies”.

When I see - even in the media-saturated visual culture of the 21st century - the fascination that just watching the movement of one’s own shadow projected on a screen can still provide, as it did for that child at PS1, it demonstrates that the study of early cinema is more relevant than ever.

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