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Jim Campbell's electronic sculptures explore the persistence of time and memory.

Time Passages


Time and memory are twin themes that have offered artists endless possibilities for exploration and discovery. Perhaps the most famous example is Salvador Dali's 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory." Despite their ubiquitous presence on shower curtains and mouse pads today, those melting watches in a desolate landscape still have a profound and eerie resonance. Dali boldly depicted the passage of time and its relentless inevitability — concepts that both mesmerize and terrify us. Unlike Dali's depiction of time and memory in oils on canvas, Jim Campbell's current show at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery, "Time, Memory and Meditation," delves into the subject through video, computers, photography and electronics. Campbell's nine works are called "electronic sculptures," and inasmuch, they exemplify our understanding of time in a wholly postmodern, even post-human, context. The first work to greet the viewer is "Digital Watch," a 50-inch monitor with an image of a large watch face. As a viewer nears the work, separate cameras capture two images of that person so that one image, outside the clock, is in real time, and the other image, within the clock, is delayed. This combination of one's image both mirrored and lapsed projects a disconcerting feeling of one's life passing before one's eyes. Photography, as many theorists have argued, makes one acutely aware of the passage of time and the awareness of impending death. Even a picture taken five minutes ago shows one as five minutes younger than at present. Thus, "Digital Watch" makes clear through a combination of photography and watch-imagery the relation between actual and remembered time. Photography and memory are made even more emphatic in Campbell's "Memory Works Series." These seven sculptures are installed on the wall, each composed of an LCD display, a photograph or film still, and prerecorded, digitized rhythms. "Photograph of My Mother," for example, is a black-and-white picture of the artist's mother mounted in a glass light case. The image transforms from blurry to clear at the rate of the artist's electronically recorded breath. Another example is a work where every frame of Hitchcock's film, "Psycho," is averaged into one single, obfuscated image — a remarkable study of frozen time and collapsed imagery. In this series, photographs, which almost always imply the past, are given new life and currency by synchronizing their focus to the artist's bodily rhythms. Yet all these very human things are understood through nonhuman means. Everything that should be natural (breath, heartbeat, walking) is mediated by technology. Campbell's other job as an engineer is made apparent in all these works, but especially in "Experiments in Touching Color." In this installation, he attempts to understand something that is purely visual — color — through sound and touch. In a dark room, a moving image is projected onto a lighted pedestal. The viewer places his or her hand on the screen and simultaneously, the image dissolves into solid color and a sound is heard. Once the hand is removed, the image focuses but becomes silent. Here, the artist asks the viewer to make a choice between silent visual clarity and luscious sound but blurred vision. Would you rather be blind or would you rather be deaf? In the desensitized world of high technology, the point, indeed, may be moot. Campbell's electronic sculptures open up a larger discourse on how we as humans understand time in a new, digitized millennium. Between digital cameras and Palm Pilots, electronics have infiltrated our lives. Do they, as a result, affect the way we grasp time and memory? Does keeping time with a digital watch as opposed to one with hands change the way we perceive its passage? And how fitting that memory, a central theme of this show, denotes both the human cognitive action of remembering the past and the computer's ability to store large amounts of information. We can repackage time by wrapping it in wires and pixels and bytes, but as Dali recognized decades ago, memory, digitized or not, continues to persist.

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