A Response to Piti Montessori/Merge Nodes Written by James Thomson-Bache

Wenerei 4 Pēpuere

Wednesday 4 February


How much does an environment affect us and how do we go about questioning it? It’s these kinds of questions, which came to my mind in viewing the joint showing of artists Joe Hamilton’s Merge Nodes and Sorawit Songsataya’s works created for Piti Montessori. While not a direct collaboration between the two artists, their separate ideas and portrayals of environments, through the use of physical objects and short video pieces, come together to create a series of both unsettling and contemplative works. 

Their most obvious meeting point can be seen with their treatment and use of computer-generated worlds and objects. Both choose to utilise new possibilities that are available in the digital age and to an extent commentate on its various applications within areas such as education and global exploration. Through this, multi-dimensional sets are created in which these possibilities can begin to play out.

One of the first things to arrest the attention upon entering the space is Songsataya’s audio-visual and main works Mathematics. The two short films, mounted vertically, play out as a series of erratic scenes, consisting of 3D physics models, an array of modelled characters (whom appear throughout his work), and background clips of “cam-boys”, all of which overlay each other in a highly intermittent manner. On this level we are asked to consider the position of object and subject, with the two modes replacing each other on a visual basis, and so in our interpretation. To confuse matters more, at the center of the gallery are found works Southland Carpenters and Clay Class, two vases shaped physical objects, much like those seen in Mathematics. Rather than being or even resembling the characters, they instead feature printed stills of cam-boys, thus reassembling themselves, both in of their supposed objectivity and subjectivity. 

Moving back to the films, which are hard to look away from, various graphically rendered rudimentary math problems appear, in which we can only assume are aimed towards the characters, then through to the viewer. Together, the scenes merge in such a way that becomes reminiscent of childhood movies, designed to make learning into something entertaining, all the while capturing the child’s imagination. Instead however, Songsataya’s films become a disturbing and confusing mix of unrelated and convulsive elements, reminding us of the ease at which education and entertainment can become lost in a nether zone of disconnected media. Fact and fiction are intertwined to the point of redundancy and the lesson learned is ambiguous. The ‘Montessori’ in Songsataya’s title is commenting on a form of education that has been described as having ‘emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development’. I felt this could be interpreted in a few ways across his works. The term “freedom within limits” seems especially clear in this context, with the multiple uses of a computer generated fabric mesh, featured several times in the films. Most often they are covering the intermingled segments of cam-boy videos, perhaps letting us consider the innocence of children and its loss through the ever evolving reaches of the digital age we inhabit, while attempting to limit and control the wrong area of the child’s growth.

Directly opposite on the opposing wall are two child-size knitted wood jumpers, entitled Piti School Uniforms. The front of the jumpers  display one of the many characters, who appears to be crying, as the poster child for the fictional school, ironically in opposition to the term ‘Piti’, being Thai for ‘joy’, the choking-like turtle neck again could be a nod towards a misguided attempt at controlled freedom and physical respect of the Montessori school these characters attend.

The final works to be found are a series of framed photographic style images, Parental Concerns, arranged as school photographs and Dad Leaked My Nudes, supposedly representing the more personal side of photography. Like the previous works, these pictures show the array of characters that Songsataya has created, and presents a narrative of school and home life. These students are presented as vessels, waiting to be taught and filled with knowledge and ideas. They are all different shapes and sizes, some quite misshapen, giving the idea that while these children can be taught, they have already been shaped to an extent, by a different environment, and by those who created them, and thus have already directed their personalities and futures.

At the other end of the room are Joe Hamilton’s sculptural works Diffusion Layer, seemingly more of an ‘offline’ work, in contrast to Merge Nodes that presents itself as very much ‘online’. In the former, five hollow poles stand freely, wrapped around each are varying columns of familiar scenes—stock photo style landscapes, split up by patched textures and layers of metal, felt and red reflective tape. Diffusion Layer considers the viewer’s movement, and encourages the use of one’s line of site as a way of combining and separating the fractured scenes. In this sense the viewer is integrated into the work and its placement in the space. Just round the corner in the second gallery space is Merge Nodes, in the form of a large projection on the wall. Entering the space, you are immediately given a new sense of placement and location, regardless of your own grounded viewpoint. Hamilton utilises fast atmospheric sounds such as crisp liquid drips, breezing winds and indistinguishable hums—that seem generic in location but recognisably natural. Diffusion Layer is a sensory experience; the collapsing of one landscape into the next, with little to no time to make bearings, you are shifted from location to location with a transition of ruptured landscapes shaping and gliding into one another. Man-made ruins and debris merges into the natural rubble of the earth. The untouched and everlasting becomes caught up in the framework and structure of modern scenes, pieced together with digital artefacts or nodes that seem paved into one landscape. The environments are explored through the lens of a camera—a first person view that moves with the world as seamlessly as it rearranges itself, like an eye darting back and forward reading a computer screen. This movement is suggestive of the way in which modern technologies are enabling instantaneous movement, not only of the eye but the mind—across the world and an ease at which we can remove ourselves from the limitations of physical movement. Map-markers in some transitions are drawn from Google Earth and Maps, and it is certainly suggestive of the experience of instant change through these technologies. What Merge Nodes ends up becoming is a single digitised environment, one in which geographical location becomes generic, and through it the viewer is drawn into a sensory experience, ungrounded through an endlessly looping idealised world.

The choice of showing these two artists together in a joint exhibition, while being separate in their execution and subject matter, places the over-arching subject of environment into the works. In this sense, some thought needs to go into how we, the viewers respond and react—whether passively or actively—in thinking the position we have in relation to the object, subject or idea being viewed. In this way, pehraps the role of the viewer might not just be to respond, but to reconsider.

James Thomson-Bache