London-based artist Sonny Sanjay Vadgama examines the state of entropy in his video works, which combined with sound create his “hyperrealistic” immersive environments. In a highly controlled process of presentation and delivery, the artist combines found and original footage with animated sequences and holograms to create an all-immersive experience for the viewer. This experience is achieved with various formats, ranging from small and huge screens to holographic installations. In his interview with Sabrina Möller, he discusses his fascination with science, metaphysics and what he calls: “A barrier between the real and what might be called the ‘hyperreal’.”
Your video Acheron is currently on view at VOLTA New York. The video shows a beautiful woman. Her gaze is directed into the camera and her facial expression is changing permanently. With the accompanying sounds this video creates a really weird feeling. What’s the video about?
The film Acheron was a part of a triptych, which were influenced by the Classicists I met during a residency at Cambridge University last year. One of them was inspired by a Greek myth about the Acheron, or “river of woe”. The newly dead are ferried across this river in order to enter the Underworld. However, the Archeron is not a place of punishment. Instead, it has cleansing properties. The idea of the passage—of the emptiness—was important and quite beautiful. At the same time, I was watching a lot of other films, including L’enfer with Romy Schneider. I thought Schneider looked very attractive; and yet, found her appearance very sombre. Perhaps I subconsciously connected what I saw with the knowledge of what happened to her later on in the film. I found myself confronted with two worlds. I found this to be an interesting connection to the Acheron myth: two worlds with a passage to a place where everything is presumed to be infinitely better. The beautiful girl creates something that’s familiar and uncanny at the same time. The result is a certain ambiguity. I wanted it to be neither active nor passive in its function. I wanted it to function in a way that the more you looked at it, the more distorted it would grow. After a while you begin to pick up the individual bits because there are several layers of them. They’re adapting and shifting, while you look at them. It all goes back to the idea of a passage, of change, and of going to another place. In terms of form and color, Austrian painter Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl portrayed the Acheron using beautiful shades of blue that inspired me.
You work with both randomly found and self-generated footage. However, more recently the latter has become more important more in your work – can you explain why?
When I first started, there were a few instances where I worked with archive footage. A piece I made with collapsing buildings would be a good example. Now I mostly make my own videos. I didn’t purposely stop to use randomly found footage, it just never came up again. And I like the idea of generating things myself. I’ve come to realize that there is a challenge in working with your own footage. But I wouldn’t say that I won’t go back to working with footage I encounter in the future. It depends on the source material, and it’s a question of how it fits into the context.
Could you tell me more about your background in animation and your work for the BBC?
I started out working for the BBC and then moved on to work in post-production in London. That’s also when I discovered special effects. That was before art school. When I went to art school, I studied sculpture and it’s interesting how I now use a lot of what I learned then in my work with film and installation.
When I create immersive environments I always reach back to my special effects background. Special effects are about immersing the viewer, about making something unbelievable believable to a degree.
I found most of my greatest influences in cinema. There, perspective and sound come into play. Sound is a tool that helps to evoke something. The use of it is a very conscious decision.
How do you usually come up with ideas for new videos?
I’m very much inspired by science, metaphysics, the barrier between the real and what might be called the “hyperreal”. Things that are very much grounded in human nature. Like entropy, going from a certain order to change – we are all born and we are all going to die. That’s a fact. There’s a pattern and a process. The pattern works on micro-levels and it can work on macro-levels too. You see chaos go to order and vice versa, nothing’s linear. The possibilities are endless because it’s such a complex and ever-developing field. The reason I’ve chosen this field is because I find it fascinating. The work is more like personal questions or like responses to things. A lot of the works have to do with discussions with scientists. I regularly speak to people who work in fields such as quantum physics. Some of the things they’re talking about verge on religion. To me, films like my work Atlas, convey the questions that I am trying to ask. The other works often deal with mental processes and change. In an area that broad, there’re always new ideas. The mechanisms of working with animations are just means to an end. It’s more about asking questions.
Tell me more about the production process of your films. Are there certain criteria that influence the production process?
Most of the films are rather short. I’ve never been interested in longer videos, it just didn’t feel right. The process of approaching things is always like 20 things going on at once. Some of my works I never showed in public for different reasons. With some works, I just wasn’t happy. Sometimes, an initial failures later pointed me into the right direction. It’s a constant weaving of ideas: there is no set process and there are no guidelines about how do I approach a work. From a technical standpoint, some of my friends who specialize on special effects are sometimes surprised by the things I do. I may be messing around with one video for hours and then use ten seconds of it. I may create animations for days and use just a tiny piece. In my work Matter, for instance, there were three different pieces of work inside. In the center, there was another piece of work, which took me a week to make and I never showed it. When you’re working with film, people tend to think that you don’t get your hands dirty. But you really do, you’re taking stuff apart, sometimes very violently. You even get to tear things apart. And I end up using probably ten percent of what I create. I have gigabytes and gigabytes of data I’ve never used. And sometimes I revisit some of them. It’s a bit of an organized chaos, nothing is really set.
You’re recording and producing most of the sound content yourself. What comes first: the sound or the video?
Sometimes I find a sound quite inspiring and I want to work something into it. Not always, but it happens. Sometimes I find a particular sound that would go well with a single piece of footage. It tends to be an ongoing research, looking into the areas I’ve talked to you about. I’m also producing a lot of sound myself, I make different noises and play around with them.
Most of your films are characterized by strong contrasts, black backgrounds; they’re not very colorful.
I’ve always been personally drawn to a certain kind of imagery. I’ve always been very interested in tenebrist painters, who work with heavy dark oils. For example, visually, I love Goya’s black paintings. And I also love filmmakers like Tarkovsky for their use of light and shadow. It felt like a comfortable space to work with would be contrasts of light on dark backgrounds. But some works are more colorful, some of my new works especially. I can’t explain why, it simply occurred.
To what extent is your work influenced by the viewer?
I see video as a malleable material, to the same extent as wood, metal or plastic. That’s why I like to construct my own screens. I like to have the entire process under control. For me that has always been the most exciting part. It’s not just a light on a screen, it’s about the whole process of delivery. I like to show how things work. The source is important when you’re working with film. The installations in which I show my work are in my opinion very sculptural. I want to demonstrate the interdependence as much as I can. I would like to build my own projectors someday too, simply because I like the idea of knowing from where it all comes. It’s interesting to see my work as a whole.
Considering your work at VOLTA and the fact that its width measures 30 feed – how important is the size of your works?
In some of the works, size is important. People don’t treat a cinema screen the same as a small television screen. When you put people quite close to a screen and don’t allow them to move much, you’re challenging their preconceptions of what a screen is. In some ways, screens are passive devices. But if you put a work on the screen, this immediately changes. And you have to accept that you can’t be in control all the time. The screen can be an adaptive tool and it can be so much more powerful than a flat surface with light being bounced off it. You bring a person to a new environment and they get immersed in the work. And some of my works don’t really make sense on a small screen.
// Sabrina Möller
SONNY SANJAY VADGAMA