Form and Void: A Review of Pure Absence

pureabsenceimage

Adam Nash begins his performance of Pure Absence by telling us to relax. “Try to get as close to the centre of the dome as possible”, he instructs us, so we all pull up a cushion and lie down, our heads forming a tight circle while our bodies stretch out like the petals of a flower. He picks up a video game controller and introduces us to his work; an abstract, generative, performative, audiovisual experience projected onto the large dome positioned above us. The dome was the centrepiece of RMIT’s recent Design & Play exhibition, displaying a range of video games and interactive virtual environments.

Pure Absence begins with a gentle audio tone, as a group of translucent yellow cubes glide down from the apex of the dome. Nash gently guides a virtual camera towards, past, and through the cubes, which each generate a single sound, and another group of cubes, as the camera touches them. The bright surface of a cube blankets the dome in the split-second before the camera enters it, throwing murky yellow light across the audience and cushions below. As Nash guides our view through the space, he slowly generates more and more cubes, and the transparencies begin to layer on top of each other in delightful arrangements of colour and shape. As he dips and dives amongst the forms, he generates a rich soundscape as the dings and hums are joined by more complicated sound effects, washing over and through your body as you lie below. Over the half hour performance, Pure Absence slowly builds in complexity, speed, and atmosphere.

Although these layered forms and sounds initially compliment each other, they soon become harsh interruptions to your tranquility. The cubes begin to snap into existence right in front of the camera, and zip past as your view becomes faster and faster in Nash’s hands. The gentle tones which ring out upon contact with a cube are displaced by ringing phones and chirping electronic birds, as you swoop amongst a seemingly random arrangement of cubes, too close to see the ordered, rigid whole. The camera swings around to look back over the work: a vast expanse of form and colour marching into the void, like the pillars of a great temple. Your stomach tightens with the swooping of the camera; your legs tense with the anxious atmosphere radiating down from the dome. Despite your best intentions, you find yourself falling upwards into Pure Absence. It reaches down and grips your senses, shaping cubes from code, form from the void, presence from absence.

However, the experience of Pure Absence stops short of totally consuming you. The edges of the dome don’t completely claim your peripheral vision, and faint seams betray its construction, especially visible against Nash’s light colour palette. The gallery’s loud air conditioner and the ambient sounds of chatter and shuffling feet ground you in the physical space, along with the other exhibition visitors who wander your peripherals, poking their head in to look up at the dome. Rather than completely enveloping you, Pure Absence keeps you at arms length, highlighting its separation from the physical world, or, perhaps, denying any separation existed to begin with. By denying complete immersion, Pure Absence is almost a satire of the brave new world promised by virtual reality. As with headsets like the Oculus Rift, it draws you in, but never completely claims your body or your perception; at first it’s a source of wonder, and then, it nauseates you. You’re not flying around an abstract virtual space, you’re lying on the ground in an art gallery.

With the controller in the artist’s hands rather than your own, this tension is only heightened. The agency of the user has always been a vital element of Nash’s work, just as important as sound, time, or vision. But during this performance Nash manipulates agency in quite a different way. The audience of Pure Absence engage in a kind of (in)active participation. They have no say in where the camera looks, where it goes, how fast it moves, what sounds it hears, or what colours it sees. But the dome is large enough that you can allow your eyes to wander, even if your body is stationary. This is a work you either surrender to, or incorporate with. My first instinct was to fix my eyes to the centre of the dome and allow Nash to control my eyes and ears, but in a subtle act of resistance, I began to seek out forms in the void, and untether my eyes from the gaze of the camera, to go deeper into the experience, to incorporate with it. Like all virtual spaces, the experience of Pure Absence doesn’t exist without me, even if my hands are resting by my sides, rather than gripping a controller.

I felt a sense of melancholy as Nash glided away from the structure, its form constructed from the movement of his avatar according to his algorithms. This is a work of relationships; between code and intention, between body and screen, between agency and submission. As the camera slowly drifted away from the work and Nash began to answer audience questions, I remained horizontal, gazing up at the dome. The entirety of the structure revealed, I saw in it a crystalline beauty. While the other viewers wandered away to explored the rest of the exhibition, I remained, gazing up at the dome, hoping it would try to pull me in once more.