With various drips, drones, and booms drifting toward you from all corners, entering the dark and charmingly noisy downstairs galleries at the Knoxville Museum of Art for Peter Sarkisian: Video Works, 1996-2008 may not let you know exactly where to begin, but you’ll feel certain you’re in for an experience.
Sarkisian has spent his career manipulating projection to call attention to what we see and how we see it. Projecting on objects rather than screens, he frequently creates the illusion that there is something beyond the projection surface. (Rumpled sheets are projected onto a smooth, uncovered pillow while something seems to squirm beneath; video of a naked woman and a toddler inside a transparent box is projected onto an opaque white cube in the gallery.) What this accomplishes is the disruption of content, rather than allowing us to access another place via the screen as we commonly do with film and television. The illusion that there is no screen doesn’t heighten our experience of watching what has been filmed but actually calls attention to the surface itself.
Likewise, the bright colors that make some pieces so magnetic also bust their own deception. The unnatural hues rule out the possibility of verisimilitude (no water is that shade of blue). Left without the possibility of being honestly tricked, your initial instinct is not to look twice, but rather to touch the projection surface to explore the reality you’re fully aware that you’re not seeing. Like touching the emperor’s skin to prove he’s wearing no clothes. (This desire proved irresistible to at least one attendee concerning a piece of green resin that rests on the floor. By the time I made my way over, the resin had been moved about half an inch off its mark.)
Though you’d have to spend more time with some pieces to know it, Sarkisian’s works are, in fact, time-based with a beginning, an end, and some kind of momentum. Yet they’re highly repetitive and the shifts are relatively subtle, or at least play out in ways that make them unsatisfying as narratives. In “Registered Driver,” the white, middle-aged man with the thick glasses and glumly vacant expression seen simulating driving a real car against the digital background of the Grand Theft Auto video game is, finally, caught by the police, but by then it doesn’t matter. The meat of the piece is watching him crash, back up, and crash again. All the videos on display are extended moments in time where consequences don’t exist within the pieces, but in their creation and in the viewers’ absorption of them.
“Pounding Study,” by contrast, capitalizes rather successfully on the time-based format. A comparatively simple set-up, the video is projected onto a large raised sheet of metal on the wall. What you see is the image of indentations being made on the surface of the screen—the result, if the sound track is of any indication, of something fairly powerful hitting the other side, which, of course, doesn’t exist. Though the strikes occur at regular intervals, it’s still a surprise when they do. And naturally, you never know where on the sheet the next mark will appear. While most of Sarkisian’s pieces focus on motion that happens continuously, with gradual alterations, “Pounding Study” stands out for its unique ability to whip up some real anticipation from the viewer.
All of these earlier works fairly beg you to wander from piece to piece asking, “What’s this one do?” But the two most recent videos at last begin to more explicitly explore the social ramifications of the medium being the message. Rather than projecting upon commonly encountered forms (tables, car doors), Sarkisian’s 2007 pieces use specially sculpted screens.
“Extruded Video Engine 1, Version 3” is a mess of plastic protrusions, onto which is projected the image of machine parts, tenuously connected. Brief stories without context, punctuation, or capitalization, many unpleasant, scroll along one of two paths (sample: “i remember one time getting into a fight with a turkish boy i still have a scar on my lung from the cut”). Meanwhile, gears turn forward, then backward, at varying speeds, looking ineffectual, yet inexhaustible. Long cylinders move in the same twitchy way, and off to the sides, neon bubbles are blown, all adding up to nothing productive that we can see, but keeping the image of the machine doing whatever it is it does.