Live Out Loud

Live Out LoudThe Art of Compression
This article by Christine Grové appeared in both the online and print editions of Live Out Loud

Delving into the intricate and compelling world of American-born and Joburg-based artist, Nathaniel Stern, one is once again emphatically confronted with the pure immensity that is art appreciation and philosophy. Because Stern’s work is embedded in extensive investigation into subjects so significant to human nature, currently and historically, his art is quite possibly some of the most relevant around.

A productive day in Stern’s life may consist of wading waist-deep in a water-lily pond with a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack strapped to his body. Wielding this unique contraption he literally performs images into existence by scanning along table surfaces, swinging over flowers, hopping over bricks or, in this case, floating over water-lily ponds. This active engagement with his surroundings translates into quirky and organic but condensed renderings which he then re-stretches, crops and touches up on his laptop, and finally they are transformed into exquisite archival art prints for the gallery wall. This process of art-making he has suitably named Compressionism.

Stern follows a rather unique trajectory when creating his Compressionist works. From influential roots in Impressionism through to Surrealism imagery, ending in a postmodern sentiment, Compressionism is more than a playful allusion to historical art movements of “isms”. Allegorically, Stern’s term Compressionism dictates the nature of this day and age. In a world of time and space constraints threatening to slow us down, the concept of compression allows us to “zip-folder” large amounts of data into smaller spaces, which is also intrinsic to our lives of trying to fit an alarming amount of activities into one day.

His latest installation, entitled “Giverny of the Midwest”, on display at Art On Paper from 30 July 2011, is part of an ongoing series started in 2005 in Johannesburg. The main work, a 2 x 12 meter installation of 93 prints of water-lily pond scans was inspired by Monet’s work in Giverny where he spent over 30 years painting his famous water lilies. For this particular work Stern spent three days camping beside a lily pond in South Bend, Indiana with his scanner-laptop-battery apparatus, endlessly scanning his surroundings with only his studio assistant and an agitated snapping turtle for company. After this brief adventure, it took over eighteen months of editing and reworking images to achieve the full installation to where it is now.

Using Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA in New York as his source for following movement and patterns of colour and light and Mondrian as the inspiration for the spacing of the images, Stern managed to create a kind of digital play between modularity and Modernism in this large installation.

Coining new terminology and experimenting with new hardware combinations are, however, not the only things Stern concerns himself with. He is also a prolific scholar of performative and interactive art and is considered one of the fathers of this progressive movement in South Africa. Throughout his career he has explored an array of different concepts including political commentary, performance, human interaction and language, and has deepened his research around these interests over many years.

Like most progressive artists today, Stern often collaborates with other artists. “I believe that artists no longer simply make images, they make discourse – they ask us not only to look but to look again, to re-examine,” he says, “Art is always dialogical – I mean, simply, that it is in dialogue – with history, with other art and artists, with current events, with politics and pop culture and more. Most of all, it is in dialogue with people, with real people.”

In his 2003/2009 updated work, “Stuttering”, one of his many interactive installations, Stern investigates how we affect, and are affected by conversation and comprehension. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front of them. Body tracking software picks up the movement of the viewers and animates a quote about stuttering and is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.

When questioned about bringing art to the people via interaction, Stern quotes: “There are a lot of reasons I work with interactive art. A large portion of this is to reach a bigger audience and get them excited about art, while also engaging with complex ideas and materials. And I also believe that such work can be serious stuff, which needs to be investigated further by those in the academy and elsewhere.”

Some of Stern’s other works will also be on display at UNISA in September.
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