Sheep Machine by Vi Khi Nao: Eden of Observation
Viktor Shklovsky wrote in the forward to Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, “Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterprets structures and, at the same time, it seems to be static. It changes fast, not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.” This relationship of the static to motion is at the center of Vi Khi Nao’s work Sheep Machine, a kind of narrative which transliterates into poetry each second of a short film by Leslie Thornton of sheep grazing in the Swiss Alps as cable cars ascend in the background, as seen through a pair of binoculars in which the left lens is undistorted and the right lens fragments the scene into a star-shaped kaleidoscope.
Here I use the term “narrative” loosely, for while there is a clear chronology, the line between character and setting is blurred and as far as plot is concerned, the events seem to focus more on the process of making sense of a sequence of motionless images which vary relatively little. The “action” of the text occurs more in the mind of the observer, and the reader who digests the thought process of the observer. The observer, and so, the reader, copes with the waxing and waning fears instilled by the phenomenon of pausing the video sequentially. Resolution is obtained through profound realizations made about existence when these scenes are decontextualized.
In the process of communicating the visual images of Thornton’s film, Vi Khi Nao abstracts time from an analog, continuous flow to digital breaths which require mental recalibration at every second. This is a process at the heart of nearly any artistic endeavor: the artist observes the world around them and selects moments in time and perspectives of space to expand or contract in order to communicate messages and interpret meaning from the world. Thornton selects a moment on a mountainside where the pastoral is juxtaposed with the artificial and distorts the moment in a way that is alienating. Vi Khi Nao selects moments of this film and converts them into a medium which asks the reader to conjure their own individual images of the mountainside and draws attention to select features what each scene depicts and some of the thoughts the observer experiences when viewing the film in a fragmented manner.
This conversion of medium is particularly interesting, for film moves at a set speed, as dictated by the will of the filmmaker. The chronology of text is not dictated--the author may stretch a fragment of a second into four-hundred pages or skip over a year with no word; the reader may choose to read slowly and dwell, put the book down, or rush through the text. Any two given filmmakers, asked to capture the same scene will arrive at two entirely different films with entirely different focuses and implications. Any two given writers asked to write a second-by-second description of the film will focus on different features of the film. Any two given critics, tasked with reviewing Sheep Machine will draw different conclusions about the text and choose to focus on different thematic aspects. The irony is that the more closely we all meditate on the scene of the sheep and the cable cars, the less we understand it. Vi Khi Nao relishes in the sheep’s oblivion to their observation.
The process of making sense of the world requires context and motion. Viewing this curated world fragment-by-fragment, Vi Khi Nao relies on pop culture science fiction, our modernized mythology, to make sense of abstracted forms. Shapes and letters function as similar symbols of understanding, and in the opposition implied by metaphor, the sheep and cable car “coffins” acquire the meanings of their associations. The cable cars not only are compared to Darth Vader’s mask; they are, in essence, symbols themselves of technological evils and death. By drawing comparison to science fiction and biblical symbols, the landscape becomes futuristic and immortal.
And so too is the observer made immortal. Viewed through binoculars, omnispective of the scene they view, the observer becomes the creator of their own reality, god of their own world. The very existence of this world relies on it being seen. “The earth doesn’t become beautiful on its own. It is molded and shaped and sculpted. God is not mysterious. God is precise,” Vi Khi Nao says. Spoken like a true god.