First: a single copyright sign. Then the camera gradually retracts to reveal surrounding text – names, dates, rights holders – moving at the rapid frame rate of stop-motion. Over a soundtrack that layers mechanical roars with chimes and rattles, Mungo Thomson’s 12-minute video “Volume 1. Foods of the World” (2014-22) continues to flash through seemingly endless pages of recipes, an incessant staccato of culinary instructions and demonstrative imagery: a marbled plate of neat canapés or a layered cake covered in buttercream, hands whipping, slicing or kneading, and even – in a very granular approach to the language of kitchen – a classificatory torrent of apple varieties.
One of seven short, cinema-style video “volumes” on display in Thomson’s solo exhibition Lifetime at Karma, the work derives its content and title from a series of cookbooks published by Time-Life from 1968 to 1971. Time-Life, a supplier of popular mail-order encyclopedias, extracted the photographic deposits general interest magazines Time and The life to produce dense image volumes on subjects ranging from wildlife to navigation to computers. The Time-Life books, which the Los Angeles artist recently characterized as the “proto-internet”, were a staple of middle-class households across the United States in the 1970s and 1980s; in 2001, as the United States ushered in a new millennium via dial-up, Time-Life publishing folded. Thomson, for whom mass media – and mediated experience – are artistic touchstones, explored Time in the past: before, he traced the magazine’s evolving font, and produced mirrored versions of its covers emptied of their content.
Like a Soviet Kino-Eye with a wink, the videos in Lifetime assign the viewer the perspective of a robotic scanner busy cannibalizing books to turn them into digital data. Placed on a grid base, the pages are sporadically lateral, cropped in an absurd way or atomized by proximity; at one fantastically animated moment, they even swirl around the spiral binding of the book as if it were a mast. The image-saturated viewer, whose fixed eye is not allowed to rest, operates at the speed of the machine: high-speed scanners can process eight pages per second, roughly the same frame rate used by Thomson stop-motions. In their interweaving of contemporary and pre-digital technologies (scanner and stop-motion, e-book and printed book, internet and encyclopedia), these works question what is lost, produced and altered by large-scale digitization. Is analog existence transformed, on an ontological level, in the process? Are we?
In the spirit of the Time-Life books, each of Thomson’s video volumes brings encyclopedic scope to a unique theme, such as flowers, search engine-like questions, and knots (the latter perhaps a metaphor for the Gordian knot of Thomson’s survey). “Volume 2. Animal Locomotion” (2015-22), aptly titled after Eadweard Muybridge’s proto-stop-motion experiments with motion photography, extracts images from fitness books to portray individuals moving in flip-book fashion through lunges and squats, dance moves and yoga poses – including yoga performed at desks. In the same vein as Foods of the World’s copyright sign, which wordlessly hints at the intellectual property issues accompanying digitization, the predominant whiteness of bodies throughout “Animal Locomotion” implicitly nods toward data biases that fuel algorithmic racism.
Not all Thomson volumes are rooted in Time-Life. “Volume 5. Sideways Thought” (2020-22) features photographs of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures depicted from so many angles that they appear three-dimensional, a feat that clearly required photographic sources beyond Time-Life . Rodin’s world book – perhaps drawing on the thousands of photos personally supervised by Rodin, an early adopter of photography and a subscriber to Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” (which Muybridge made available by subscription). The final video in the sequence, “Volume 7. Color Guide” (2021-22), takes a macro lens to a printed Pantone color guide; in a play on the work of Californian light and space artists like James Turrell, flickering fields of pure, gritty color invade the screen and flood the darkened theater. The state of emptiness and trance induced by viewing the work evokes the strange sublimity of internet wormholes, the familiar, swaddled unconsciousness of getting caught up in a deluge of content and being swept away – where ? By who? And why? It’s something to think about.
Mungo Thomson: Life in Time continues at Karma (22 East 2nd Street, East Village, Manhattan) through April 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.