Precursor to Light

by Peter Harvey

One of the many questions raised by Heidi Kumao's recent exhibition is: "What is a zoetrope?" Beaumont Newhall, in hisHistory of Photography, describes the zoetrope as a toy popular in the late 1800s.

"...a precursor to motion pictures. It was an open drum with slits in its side, mounted horizontally on a spindle so it could be twirled. Drawings showing successive phases of action placed inside the drum and viewed through the slits were seen one after the other, so quick­ly that the images merged in the mind to produce the illusion of motion."

The principles of the zoetrope are effectively employed in the elegant "low-tech" work of Heidi Kumao.

Entering the gallery through a black curtain, one has the feeling of walking into a movie theater in the middle of thejshow. The environment inside the curtain is dark, and while the eyes adjust to the dimness, the flickering of light dancing across the walls becomes apparent. Immediately to the left of the door, one of the many sources of the dancing light emanates from inside what appears to be a modified bird cage. Squeezed inside the cage like a ship in a bottle there is an electric turntable which had been dissected from an old mono phonograph. Spin­ning around on top of an old 78-rpm record is a hand-made crudely sophisti­cated projection device, which is a descendent of the zoetrope. Twelve 2x2 inch black-and-white transparen­cies are placed around the outside of the disk. The images stand, edge-to-edge, perpendicular to the turning vinyl surface. Along the perimeter of the cardboard label portion of the disk are twelve mirrors, each aligned withone of the transparencies. A light source, located outside the open door of the bird cage shines on the mirrors and as they spin they reflect light back out through the photos and onto a paper screen approximately five feet away. Just as in the case of the zoe­trope, the timing of these separate illu­minations has been calculated to create a perception of motion. I stood observ­ing the wondrous spinning contraption and attempted to interpret its meaning for a long while before I realized that the device was a projector of sorts and I needed to look at the screen to complete the experience of viewing the piece. I turned around and saw a paper screen, about six or seven feet long, suspended in mid air with a projection resembling the transparencies on the turntable, except the image on the screen appeared animated with the jerky motion of an old cartoon or the passing pages in a flip book. The image is a silhouette of small human wearing a conical "dunce" cap being fed heap­ing spoonfuls of something. The image is looped so that just as one spoonful leaves the mouth the next is on the way in with another ample mouthful. The title of the piece, Childhood Rituals: Consumption (1991-93), adds one more element to its expanding syn-ergistic meaning.

The show consisted of eight individ­ual pieces, each employing at least one of Kumao's animation devices. Defense Mechanisms: A Marriage (1995) in­cludes two of the turntable zoetropes and two screens measuring about 8x10 inches perched on an "antique" end table. The screens are actually set into what look like family portrait picture frames. The image on the left shows two slippered feet in the act of tight rope walking. Opposite the tightrope scene is another rope being pulled by two hands. Kumao mentioned in her gallery talk that she views the projec­tion devices as people—that attribute is a valuable piece of information in the interpretation of this work. Kumao's defensive feelings vis-a-vis marriage are placed in animation on the little table for us to contemplate.

Just around the corner, in a little room of its own, the piece entitled Adore (1995) is an installation com­plete with chairs for the fictitious audi­ence watching the only color animation in the show. Kumao points out that the projection apparatus for this piece is placed beneath one of the chairs facing the screen along with the viewer. The artist explains that since the device is under a chair, it is not to be seen as one of the audience members. This caveat was lost on me until I recalledthat Kumao thinks of these gizmos as people, thus if she had placed the projectotrope on the seat it might be interpreted as a viewer (Projectotrope'. a word made up by Peter Harvey to refer to the zoetrope, phonograph-projection-devices created by Heidi Kumao.) The feeling of entering a performance in progress is certainly evident in this piece. The color image being surveyed by the empty chairs depicts a pair of dancing(shuffling) legs from the knees down in front of a red drapery which is reminiscent of a school house stage perhaps a talent show is in progress. The artist points out that little girls are taught to seek approval through putting on a good show and giving family members and other validators something to praise. This type of gender-specific training is a key element to the artist's work and is at the core of many of the hidden mechanisms referred to in the show's title. One of the things that makes her critique effective is its subtlety and lack of dogma. The situation does not overtly suggest an injustice or an abuse of power and yet there is a tension which calls out for interpretation. One may wonder what all these elements have in common and come to a com­pletely different conclusion to the meaning of Adore than the one Kumao had originally conceived.

The most successful pieces in the show have an aspect of exploration in their presentation which draws a viewer in and acts as a prize for participation. Kept (1993), is an example of the curiosity, discovery, reward process to which I am referring. Unlike the other installations, the mechanical works for Kept are mounted in the vertical plane rather than the horizontal (in Ferris wheel fashion instead of merry-go-round). From across the room, one can tell that the projectotrope is enclosed inan old medicine cabinet or spice rack with wooden doors that obscure the view of the apparatus until one is directly in front of the piece. Beneath the cabinet a shallow box of approxi­mately 11x12 inches is placed in the middle of a coffee table. The box con­tains some small scraps of paper which have been pushed to the edges, clearing a space for the projection from above. The animation here depicts a woman in "housewife" attire sweeping ad infinitum. One might imagine the
scraps of paper along the edge of the box sliding in to smother her if she ever ceased swinging her broom. De­tails are unveiled to the viewer at dis­crete moments as she/he becomes more closely involved in the piece both in terms of proximity and cognizance. From a distance, one doesn't see the projected image at all because it is confined within the walls of the box on the coffee table. This process of dis­covering each element consecutively, instead of seeing everything at once and then dissecting it, clues the viewer in to the creative process involved in the evolution of the works.

To paraphrase Kumao, the pieces are created over whatever span of time is required to assemble the right images for animation along with the rest of the props in the piece. Catch (1996) is a work Kumao had been mulling over for some time before all of the ele­ments were assembled. She had wanted to make a long table and place projecto-tropes at either end: one in the role of the boss and another as secretary. In the finished product, the two "charac­ters" face each other from opposing ends of an 8x2 foot table. The anima­tions interact on a screen measuring about 2-1/2 by 3 feet which hangs justabove the table, roughly bisecting its length. Since the projected images can be seen from either side of the screen, one can see the hand of the "boss" tossing a bone to the hand of the "secretary." The looped action stops and restarts before the bone actually completes the trip between the hands. As the bone halts just above the out­stretched fingers of the "secretary," Catch reminded me of another child­hood game called keep-away which may be an apt subtitle.

The possibility of multiple mean­ings and interpretations is one of the strengths of a type of work which is not self referential, but on the con­trary, requires an assembly of disparate elements to formulate meaning. The very process of interpreting this work requires each viewer to become in­volved in the creation of the meaning. Although they involve mechanical electronic devices, the pieces have a genuine handmade, personal and sometimes autobiographical feel. The process of their creation becomes something to consider in the interpre­tation of their meaning. Which came first the images or the screens? Are the turning devices the art or is it the image they project or must each part be weighed in the derivation of mean­ing? Why did the chicken cross the road? The experience of viewing these works involves more than an individual consideration of a message. Just as they were assembled over time in an evolu­tionary process, they can be viewed from each of their many facets. The idea for an animation, the shooting of the sequence, the decision to make theimages black-and-white or color, even the name of the song on the record can be incorporated in the viewing experi­ence. Heidi Kumao's multi-layered approach to creating art builds a syner-gistic meaning that can be very reward­ing for the viewer who is willing to invest the time, curiosity and imagina­tion in the experience. •

Peter Harvey is a writer living in Houston.