Across the aisle at the Pulse fair in Miami, a crowd of people are gathering around what appears to be nothing more than a framed photograph of a tree in winter. It has a ball of smoke where its leaves would be.
Then, the tree moves.
The artist is a lanky, friendly Irishman named John Gerrard. He stands next to his work, telling people what to do, because the whole point of this piece is that the smoke tree makes a virtual 360 when the frame is turned by hand from side to side. It is not a photograph of a tree, it is a digital sculpture. "I hand-built the tree," Gerrard emphasizes. The frame is actually a disguised computer screen. The computer is hidden inside the shelf the frame sits on.
People are gawking, transfixed, because this feels like a prototype. A foggy tree rotating on a virtual spit does not achieve the status of life-changing art, but it pushes into view the possibilities of using real-time 3-D gaming software as a sculptural tool. On the front cover of a brochure Gerrard handed out, printed in conjunction with a show that will open at Ernst Hilger Gallery in Vienna next month, the words "Portrait to Smile Once a Year" are printed. They refer to the image of a young woman wearing a ponytail, depicted in dark, painterly tones, but existing as a digital personality who does, in fact, smile only once a year, and even if you buy her, you won't know when that will be. According to a scholarly essay by Shane Brighton in the brochure, "The presentation device for the image is set so that Mary will smile annually 'on a day of her own choosing.'"
The kinks haven't ironed out as fast as the ideas have developed. Mary and the tree smoke still look a little too pixel-made, which is distracting. In another Gerrard piece, One Thousand Year Dawn, a fake-looking digital man stands on a fake-looking beach, watching a fake-looking sunset that will actually last 1,000 years, and yet the piece feels intensely dated. But I wonder where the practice of real-time 3-D is going, for Gerrard and other artists. (DXARTS, are you on this already?) Collectors like it, apparently—Gerrard sold out all six editions of two smoke trees for $35,000 and $40,000 each—but maybe not for the reasons he intends. At Pulse, he was disappointed that his buyers were all photography fans. His undergraduate degree from Oxford is in sculpture, and he considers himself a digital sculptor—someone who insists on the autonomy of an object in alternative space and in time that connects with human time.
Also in the brochure are examples from another ongoing series by Gerrard, one that I love. They're traditional photographs, but still in conversation with sculpture, called Dark Portraits, of young subjects who sit in an absolutely dark room for a period of time, and then, without warning, are suddenly illuminated at the moment the photograph is taken. Their expressions are withdrawn, relaxed, uncanny, and vulnerable. Their pupils are dilated. They've adjusted to fathoming the darkness by fitting in with it, matching its black.