BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Michael Snow

Arnolfini, Bristol, UK

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 01 JAN 02

If you had only ever seen them in reproduction, you might expect Michael Snow's gallery works to be quite dry - the kind of thing you might respect but not necessarily enjoy. The experience of seeing them in the flesh, though, is quite different. This survey of his achievements so far, 'Almost Cover to Cover', was like a lifetime's curiosity cabinet, each of its contents delivered in a different medium, including painting, sculpture, photography, books, slide projections, video and holography.

From afar, Snow's art often looks a little dumb or oddball. Blind (1967) comprises four identical large steel frames fitted with gauzes that increase in density from front to back. As you approach it, or when you walk between its planes, you think it's simply a demonstration of the incremental enlargement of a pattern. It's only when you get behind it that a strange sense of flattening becomes apparent; the largest checks on the back gauze line up perfectly with the smallest checks on the front gauze, and so on, in between. From a certain distance, the piece compresses into a perfectly even cross-hatch, a rather beautiful illusion of a drawing floating in space, that vanishes as soon as you move off.

Snow reverses the operations of Kinetic art: instead of the object moving in front of a static spectator, the viewer is drawn into and around the objects in pursuit of perceptual secrets. Take Egg (1985), for instance: it's only when you circle the hologram of the artist cracking an egg into a frying pan that you realise that what you had assumed to be an illusory frying pan is in fact a readymade lined up perfectly beneath the 3D image of the artist and egg. It's the way these objects invite participation from viewers, combined with their formal and material eccentricities, that makes them recall school science labs or a visit to the opticians. It's tempting to refer to them as instruments, rather than objects; instruments that throughout Snow's 40-year practice have consistently mined the contradictions between our conception and perception of things. Snow can turn the way we look at something as banal as a ladder into a wondrous conundrum made up of multiple sequences of logical steps.

In contrast to Egg, Snow's most complex works involve several regressive levels of representation. His book Cover to Cover (1975), from which this exhibition takes its name, is one such masterpiece. Loosely structured around his journey from home to studio, the artist had two photographs taken of him from the front and back. He printed the results, full bleed, on the left and right pages of the book. As one might expect from Snow, a pivotal figure in experimental filmmaking, these sequences relate closely to the techniques of film, often zooming and panning to enter and circle the subject. One or two of the sequences end up in microscopic brightness or darkness - a white or black page - from which a new level of reality emerges. Another sequence might disappear into the roller of a typewriter, or turn out to be a photo the artist picks up and moves out of frame. I lost count around the sixth or seventh of these regressed levels, the last of which loops back to where we started.

Some of Snow's most profound and revelatory pieces are the ones that seem, at first, to be the most simple. Zone (1984) is an oddly elongated transparent Perspex relief with an aperture in the middle, the width of a brow. Its meaning only becomes apparent when you nestle your face against the opening and look straight ahead. The edges of the piece demarcate the periphery of looking, a little demonstration that makes you aware of a very big notion: the relativity of one's point of view. Portrait (1967), an aluminium frame sandwiched between two gallery walls, frames nothing but the view of the gallery beyond; then it dawns on you that seen from the other side of the frame, you yourself have become the portrait.

A few works in 'Almost Cover to Cover' make one aware of oneself as a spectator at an art exhibition. A new piece, involving words projected one by one at a changing tempo on three screens, entitled That/Cela/Dat (2000), is a commentary on the experience of viewing the 15-minute piece: boredom or slips in concentration and distractions, for example (the piece even directs attention to someone cute who has just entered the gallery). One work, Sheep (2001), is displayed on three monitors in different parts of the galleries. Its action is utterly banal: sheep grazing in a field by the coast. Yet on third sighting you begin equating your own activity with the sheep's. Michael Snow modestly proposes that our time spent in his show is not a million miles away from an animal munching grass in its field.