Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen and Public Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

Wallace & Gromit and Friends: The Magic of Aard­man ACMI to Oc­to­ber 29

One+ of the most fas­ci­nat­ing things about nar­ra­tive art, as we ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery time we read a book, or watch a play or film, is the way we can be­come emo­tion­ally en­gaged in sto­ries we know very well to be fic­tion. More­over, what we now call sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is not nec­es­sar­ily en­hanced by su­per­fi­cial re­al­ism.

We all know fairy­tales and fantasy can be as sus­pense­ful as nat­u­ral­ism. Of­ten, in fact, the stylised, the for­mal and d the con­ven­tional can al­low us to dis­re­gard su­per­fi­cial and dis­tracting­ing as­pects of fa­mil­iar life and fo­cus only on the im­por­tant things. Thus whilele earnest ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists s try to get young peo­ple to read drea­rily re­al­is­tic sto­ries they con­sider rel­e­vant to their age, class and cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence — and in­creas­ingly to the so­cial mes­sages the e author­i­ties want to im­part part — chil­dren would usu­ally­su­ally rather read myth and fantasy. an­tasy.

Pup­petry is a fas­ci­natin­gat­ing art in this re­spect, for in all its s man­i­fes­ta­tions, from the giant mar­i­onettes of Si­cily, end­lessly re­hears­ing the Chris­tian strug­gle against the Sara­cens, to the shadow pup­pets of Java, re­count­ing the story of Rama and Sita and other an­cient In­dian tales, the per­for­mances are al­ways in­tensely stylised and con­ven­tional. The same is true of the English Punch and Judy shows, or a blood­thirsty if highly ar­ti­fi­cial ren­di­tion of the Mas­sacre of the In­no­cents I saw in Brus­sels at Christ­mas some years ago.

Pup­pets re­mind us nat­u­ral­ism is not the only way to make good art, and that art is as much a mat­ter of mak­ing strange, of mak­ing un­like as of mak­ing like. The great­est art is no doubt al­ways in the bal­ance be­tween th­ese two poles of life­like­ness and ar­ti­fice, which rep­re­sents the trans­for­ma­tion of life into a form that can be as­sim­i­lated by the imag­i­na­tion.

With any kind of pup­pet theatre — and the fig­ures pro­duced by the Aard­man stu­dio, like the fa­mous Wallace and Gromit, are in essence pup­pets — there are two para­mount con­di­tions for suc­cess: the first is that the fig­ures be ar­ti­fi­cial and con­ven­tional forms that are quite dis­tinct from nat­u­ral­ism; and the sec­ond is that they and their nar­ra­tives con­sti­tute a co­her­ent, self-con­tained fic­tional world that par­al­lels that of our ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence with­out match­ing it. In the case of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit, to take the most mem­o­rable of all the many won­der­ful creations cov­ered by the ex­hi­bi­tion at ACMI, the ar­ti­fice of the fig­ures is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent: Wallace is a gan­gly fig­ure with a small bald head, big eyes, enor­mous ears and a wide, toothy mouth. Gromit is a dog with very sim­pli­fied but sur­pris­ingly ex­pres­sive fea­tures. The forms of th­ese char­ac­ters are in­sep­a­ra­ble from the ma­te­rial from which they are made and the an­i­ma­tion process it­self, and this is one rea­son for the broad and sim­pli­fied shape of their fea fea­tures. For they are made of Plas­ticine, and the an­ima an­i­ma­tion is a three-di­men­siona sional form of stopmo mo­tion, some­times ca called clay­ma­tion. In a nor­mal stop­mo­tion an­i­ma­tion, the artist draws a fig­ure which is pho­tographed; then mod­ifi fies the fig­ure and ph pho­to­graphs it again, and so on. In the end, hund hun­dreds or thou­sands of draw­ings­drawin can be run to­gether to prod pro­duce the ef­fect of bod­ies and faces­face in mo­tion. Some mod­ernist artists, like Wil­liam Ken­tridge, leave traces of their im­per­fect era­sures to be­come part of the fi­nal sense of evolv­ing form. In clay­ma­tion, the fig­ures are made of Plas­ticine and, as a demon­stra­tion video in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion shows, a se­ries of shots must be taken of each one just to make it look as though it is wav­ing its arm. It is much more com­pli­cated again when a scene, as in the Wallace and Gromit films, may in­volve more than one char­ac­ter in a dra­matic sit­u­a­tion and re­quire the co-or­di­na­tion of bod­ily move­ment and fa­cial ex­pres­sion. None of this can be left to chance or to last­minute im­pro­vi­sa­tion, and as many prepara­tory stud­ies make clear, draw­ing is where the whole process be­gins. It is in this way that sce­nar­ios are worked out, and even fig­ures in­vented and re­fined. As Park him­self puts it, draw­ing is “the top of a mas­sive pyra­mid” of de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion which ul­ti­mately leads not only to the an­i­mated fig­ures them­selves but to the ex­tra­or­di­nary sets and mod­els in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

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