We know that any contemporary art exhibition entitled “The Ascent of Man” is not really going to be about the ascent of man, not in any classical sense, and in fact, we know that it will most likely be a critique of such a concept. And so one approaches Tommy Hartung’s solo show at On Stellar Rays with some expectation that the work might dabble in sarcasm, irony, or tongue-in-cheekiness. But surprisingly, while Hartung’s video installation does contain elements of irony, it also has a kind of poetic and nostalgic sensibility, created through the use of stop-motion animation, lo-fi video techniques, and the audio narrative, taken from the 1973 BBC documentary of the same name.
Hartung’s dark room installation includes two elements – a lighted fish tank sitting on top of a metal cabinet with a paper image of two classical portrait paintings, and a fifteen-minute video projection titled The Ascent of Man. The original The Ascent of Man, upon which Hartung’s video is based, was a thirteen episode documentary series that traced the development of human society through our understanding of science. The title alludes to Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and was an attempt to challenge the evolutionary narrative that dismissed the role of culture in the progression of civilization.
Hartung’s very shortened version of the story is nonlinear, and our civilization is a ghostly, Edgar Allen Poe-ish landscape scarcely populated with bodyless puppets, decaying figurines, and mice. Simply constructed using a mix of cultural detritus and film set equipment like old shoes, bottles, and c-stands, the set is dramaturgical but surreal, creating a kind of wistfulness akin to longing to remember the dream you just forgot because you woke up.
In one scene, a scantily-clad Japanese animation figurine stands with her back turned towards us, thigh-deep in murky fish-tank water littered with debris as a mouse struggles not to drown, scampering over the figurine’s strangely small and motionless body to reach safety on her head. In another, a puppet hand peeks out from a black jacket that lies on the ground, stuttering against a backdrop of a pile of blowing sand inside another fishtank.
Snippets of the original footage are sound used in Hartung’s video, and Jacob Bronowski, the original series’ writer and presenter, briefly narrates the tale, adding a kind of mock gravitas that only the voice of a white upper-class British man can provide. Hartung’s use of stop-motion animation, along with incredibly effective lo-fi lighting and staging techniques (as opposed to manipulating the image through the camera or digital editing), creates a differently ordered temporality by manipulating the flow of action and referring to a non-digital filmic past while also using a decidedly video-based look. The result is a compelling – though somewhat surface and limited – musing on the grand arcs of history and the role of art in the development of civilization in western history.
--Hong-An Truong, artist and writer living in New York
(Images: The Ascent of Man (2009), installation view; Fish tank (2009), fish, steel file cabinet (detail); The Ascent of Man (2009), Video still; The Ascent of Man (2009), C-print; installation shot. Courtesy On Stellar Rays)