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Smoke & Mirrors
Tris Vonna-Michell

The film Smoke & Mirrors, 2017, starts with a reflection on notions of affectation and obsolete uses of technology, namely for special effects, amusement parks and dioramas. Tris Vonna-Michell’s first camera experience was when he photographed submerged relics from the amusement park Never Never Land in Southend-on-Sea (which sunk into the estuary shortly after his visit). Following this passage is footage of him, performing in a makeshift recording studio. Filmed in a basement sauna Vonna-Michell wanted to capture a sense of constantly shifting vessels, enclosures and motion. Vonna-Michell performed two takes for the camera. Each take had to be under 10 minutes since only 400 feet of 16mm film was loaded. He performed the prepared narratives within the allocated time, similar to how he used to perform from 2005-2014, with an egg-timer to a live audience. He instructed the cameraman to focus on his hands mostly. The performance comprises of several interwoven narrations on his relationship to recording and projecting devices and specific environments: enclosures, dioramas, aquaria and the spaces in which they are staged, such as the amusement parks and transitory non-places.
The film Smoke & Mirrors is often accompanied by an aquatic installation, Vessel: Yorktown Express, 2017, which consists of text/image composite prints and an assortment of slide projection lenses. The phrase ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ derives from 18 and 19th-century phantasmagoria shows, and more recently it is used as a metaphor for a deceptive, fraudulent or insubstantial explanation or description. The narration in the film Smoke & Mirrors revolves around projections, optics, fidelity and an attempt at slide technology preservation. In nearly all works of Vonna-Michelle there is a fragile longevity implicit: live performance, site-sensitive constellations, photo-chemical projections and aquatic installations. During an install period in Los Angeles in 2010 he happened upon a supposedly great opportunity to purchase a large quantity of slide-related artefacts and exhibition tools. At the time Vonna-Michelle believed it was an act of preservation and good investment, but it would turn out to be neither. The text/image composite prints chronicle the transaction in a mixture of business bartering, customs jargon and image documentation of the unloading of a 20-foot cargo container. Almost all of the three hundred or so lenses were foggy or overcome by fungus, which despite many attempts to integrate them into a new slide installation, would project images as a succession of opaque smudges. Apparently, the warehouse where the lenses were stored caught alight during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and due to the intense heat and then subsequent water damage they became murky petri dishes. A handful of lenses eventually became armatures for the aquatic display in Vessel: Yorktown Express.

Prod. format 16mm
Duration 00:07:41
Color Color
Year 2018
In text Tris Vonna-Michell
Latest screening Apr 28, 2022
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About the artist

Tris Vonna-Michell stages installations and performs narrative structures, using spoken word, sound compositions, film and photography. He has exhibited extensively and was nominated for the Tate Turner Prize (2014) and Guggenheim Hugo Boss Prize (2012) and won the Art Basel Baloise Prize (2008). His practice started by pursuing the limits of an image, in which soon after he integrated spoken word, which was performed live to an audience. Performance enabled other forms and meanings to evolve in his work and allowed for its own continual reinvention. He has been performing to a live audience (ranging from theatre, art institutions, museums, galleries) since 2005. Most recently, the live actions have slowly been transformed into continuous integrated soundtracks that gradually evolved into films. Moving away from live performance and the subsequent disappearance of the acting/speaking body has been quite a significant turn in his work. Over the past few years he has been heavily involved in developing and producing new short films and specific film installations. Recently he has exhibited extensively in an art exhibition context as well as in numerous international film festivals and screening programmes.