A world come to life: Barsamian exhibit looks at inventor of the zoetrope

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 8:14 p.m.

A 19th-century invention, the zoetrope was not only a popular toy but also a significant optical device that illustrated the scientific principle of “the persistence of vision,” the phenomenon by which the brain fills in the visual gaps between similar but slightly different rapidly sequenced images when presented in a continuous flow.

Invented in 1834 by British mathematician William George Horner, the original zoetrope consisted of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. Beneath the slits on the inner surface of the cylinder was a sequence of drawings illustrating an action. As the cylinder was spun, the user could look through the slits at the pictures on the opposite side of the cylinder's interior, and they would seemingly “come to life.”

This toy, and especially the principle behind it, is something to keep in mind when visiting “Momento Mori,” the latest solo exhibit of works by Brooklyn-based artist Gregory Barsamian at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown. That's because the eight kinetic sculptures contained in the exhibit each rely on the viewer's persistence of vision.

For Barsamian, the zoetrope is the perfect vehicle for expression of dream imagery, and in many of his pieces, such as “Shirts,” in which a paper bag holding a human heart falls from a shirt and turns into a bird, his actual dreams come to life.

However, Barsamian doesn't create zoetropes in the traditional form. Rather, he sculpts the imagery in three dimensions, on spinning platforms, and lights them with strobe lighting to create a sort of visual substitute to the viewing slits of a zoetrope.

In this way, what you don't see (that is when the strobe lights turn off), acts as a kind of shutter that synchronizes the action and your mind fills in the missing imagery to create a sensation of movement. This overlapping of time and space is achieved by arranging several figures and objects in suitable sequential positions.

As Barsamian puts it, this effect taps into the “language of the unconscious” in more ways than one. “It's something that has absorbed me over the 20-year period working with this technique,” he says.

After his first experiment with the zoetrope in 1989, Barsamian quickly realized that he could make animations in three dimensions in similar fashion. To do this, he made sequentially formed sculptures in plaster, cast them in urethane foam rubber and attached them to a motorized armature. Though the materials he uses to create each unique piece have changed, it's a technique that he still employs today, but with varying degrees of sophistication.

Barsamian says the technique for him is a sort of “perfect storm” regarding his interests. “The mechanical, exploits my ‘suburban motorhead' roots,” he says. “Exploiting the use of time and narrative fulfill my desire for complexity. And, with an abiding interest in the mind and the activity outside of consciousness, animation allows me to bring these kinds of images to life.”

“Shirts” and another piece on display, “Drum 52,” are Barsamian's latest creations. In “Drum 52,” a drum filled with toxic waste bubbles up into hands that transform each bubble into a quarter. Unlike most of Barsamian's pieces, which are viewed externally, all of the action takes place inside of a drum, and can be seen by leaning over and looking down into it.

Earlier works on display include “Runner,” which depicts a small, bronze figure running atop the teeth of a rotating saw blade (also self-contained, similarly to Drum 52), and “Five Stages of Grief,” which appears as if a mass of swirling paper in the center of one gallery.

But perhaps most compelling is the piece simply called “Untitled.” In it, a frustrated artist (depicted in a framed picture on a wall) crumples up a piece of paper and tosses it toward a three-dimensional wastebasket in a tiny room. Instead of landing in the wastebasket, the crumpled ball lands on the floor and begins to wriggle, then bounce and dissolve.

It's worth noting that if you're prone to motion sickness or sensitive to strobes, the sensation of standing in front of one of Barsamian's pieces might be overwhelming. But for most people, Barsamian's art will simply inspire a sense of delight.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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