Marlene Maier (* 1989 in Steyr) lives and works in Vienna and studied art and media at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Her work has been shown internationally in exhibitions and film festivals, including Kunsthalle Wien, Diagonale – Festival of Austrian Films, Crossing Europe Film Festival, Galerie Fünfzigzwanzig Salzburg, Digital Ecologies – Plovdiv (BG) Kasseler Dokfest (DE), IMPAKT Festival – Utrecht (NL), Institut français du Japon, Kansai (JP). In 2019 she received the start grant for video and media art from the Austrian Federal Chancellery, in 2017 she was awarded the Prize of the Kunsthalle Wien, the Prize of the Academy and an honorable mention at the 34th Kassel Dokfest.
HD video, colour, sound, 2019
A longstanding tradition in Western philosophy associates lying with the trope of the shadow. The best-known example, perhaps, is Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the play of shadows on the back wall of the grotto absorbs the prisoners’ attention, stunting their cognitive faculties. The metaphor of the shadow rises to even greater prominence in the Age of Enlightenment, which explicitly styles itself as the shadow’s other, a movement of light. It establishes the modern epistemological schema: whatever languishes in darkness is to be illuminated, be it the deepest recesses of the human soul or remote “dark continents.” By bringing light into the darkness, however, modernity engenders its own zones of shadow, new areas of invisibility and repression – a consequence of its quest for knowledge that it acknowledges only formulaically, if at all. Yet if philosophy’s famous shadowy figures are tropes of obscuration, there are others that are rendered visible. “Digital shadows”, for instance, are transcripts of our online activities, the form, that is to say, in which we appear in the digital realm and become visible to – and, more importantly, susceptible to exploitation by – all sorts of commercial interests.
Marlene Maier’s film installation Unreal Engines weaves together several narrative strands to explore the dialectic of the shadow as both metaphor and actual phenomenon. We see shades scurrying across a rock face; sharply edged shadows cast on the terraces of what would seem to be a lost city; the discreet and almost invisible shadings in the ripples of a blanket of snow; shadows gliding over an animal’s fur. Maier gleans these shadowy impressions from videogames and various 3D applications: it is the evanescent and chimerical shadows of the digital that engage her interest.
The text read by an offscreen voice is a collage of snippets from chatrooms and various tutorials. One source is online forums where users discuss so-called “graphics engines”: software building blocks that serve to generate 3D worlds. Shadows play a central part in the making of such worlds – for an animation to look “realistic”, it is crucial that the shadowed parts of a virtual body or space are meticulously modelled, which is to say, computed.
The technical question of the perfect computer-generated shadow brings Maier to a philosophical concern: if reality is nothing but an effect – evoked by the methodical alternation of light and dark, or ones and zeroes – then how substantial are our selves? The artist does not give an unequivocal answer, but she offers clues. “I’m composed of virtual shadows trying to mimic a world that has never been there in the first place”, she laconically notes at one point. By the time Unreal Engines has run its course, it would appear that little more remains of the subject than a data trace, a digital shadow on a futile quest for its own reality.
Text by Maximilian Steinborn (Kunsthalle Wien)