Ruth Höflich’s To Feed your Oracle is an original, intellectually vibrant and curious inquiry into the nature of perception and the mechanisms of cognition. More precisely, this multi-medium show addresses how the expectations and perspectives of the observer decisively affect their experience of certain things – specifically, the things beyond understanding: the unknown, the inexplicable, the uncanny.
To explore these ideas, German-born, Melbourne-based Höflich turned to a longstanding source of intrigue: conjuring and sleight of hand. Thanks to a Georges Mora Fellowship, Höflich had access to the WG Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria, a world-renowned selection of thousands of texts, images and other items relating to magic and magicians.
Inspired by these materials, Höflich has produced an exhibition that moves between photography and video, and features recurring motifs and a dialogue between works. To Feed your Oracle also includes a room with a large curtain that diagonally bisects the space – a detail in keeping with the theme of illusion and performance.
“I have worked with different archives in the past, so I was drawn to working in the State Library,” says Höflich. “I am interested in collections and the problems they present. Officially, the Alma is inaccessible to the public, though you can order individual items through the main catalogue of the library. This institutional foil, or hidden placement, seemed interesting in relation to conjuring and may be what drew me to looking at the collection in the first place.”
Höflich gently rejects the label of ‘magic,’ preferring to think of the concept and practice as ‘conjuring’ or ‘cunning.’ “’Magic’ is such an umbrella term and also has this sense of passive naivety attached to it,” she explains. “‘Cunning’ to me refers to both awareness of technology and the desire and necessity to go beyond what is currently understood.”
Among the most interesting elements of the exhibition is how Höflich draws links between the philosophy, practice, imagery and techniques of conjuring, and contemporary questions of authenticity, media, digital culture, truth and information. In this way, To Feed your Oracle takes on a mildly socio-political engagement.
“In times of synthetic image-making, the idea of conjuring feels quite relevant,” she says. “There is all this ‘magical’ investment in images and stories that we know are not real, and at the same time, it feels like we’re losing touch with the underlying mechanics of the digital realm – it’s increasingly opaque.”
The artist adds that in her research she “was interested in the anachronistic theatricality of the imagery from the Alma Collection – the obvious use of staging in these performances. It’s a bit like puppetry, where you can locate the trickery, or at least know that it is happening. There is a notion shared by sleight of hand practitioners, that when you become aware of the trick, of how you are distracted, it has an opening or freeing effect [on the observer], because you have been made aware of an artificial threshold. I was interested in the notion of the trick as having a generative function that lies with the witness – not the performer or interface.”
Some viewers of To Find your Oracle might therefore note certain links between the artist’s interpretation of conjuring and cunning and fake news, misinformation, and other key media phenomena of the Trump era. Höflich’s interest lies with empowering the viewer or audience as they respond to such trickery.
Another fascinating aspect of the exhibition is a parallel Höflich draws between the processing of imagery and sensory experience by the brain, and the technical principles and science behind photography.
“Drawing analogies between cognition and photographic processes is a theme I keep returning to and one that I think benefits from different material and psychic registers,” she says. “Composites and layers are present throughout the different media [in the exhibition], as well as the desire to depict a multi-directional idea of perception as passing between interior and exterior vision, lens and body.”
At its heart though, the exhibition is about how people process and make sense of the unexplained and the mysterious within their own frames of experience and reference points, balancing the past with the present, the technological with the biological, and the social with the psychological.
Please note, Linden New Art reopened after COVID-19 lockdown closure on Friday 18 June.
Please refer to the gallery website for the most up to date information before visiting.