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Jun. 24, 2004. 01:00 AM
In Eddo Stern's Fort Palladin, America's Army (2003), a child's castle morphs into a computer case.
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Play games with your mind
Eddo Stern makes us think of war
AGO show one of best recent efforts


"The future is but the obsolete in reverse"

—Robert Smithson

In Sheik Attack (2000) one of Eddo Stern's disquieting cyber games playing with your head at the "Present Tense" installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the watcher takes on the viewpoint of an Israeli commando on a killer mission deep inside Lebanon during the run up to the 1966 Six Day War.

The projection screen is sizeable, at least by art gallery standards. But there's nothing new here. You're watching imagery that's crude and grainy, as if the AGO had just fired up some ancient Nintendo set.

Right, you think, games nostalgia. It's about time. You see everything through the target-sourcing laser viewfinder. For starters, you blow away a terrorist, without even getting a good look at him/her.

Then you focus on another target, a woman, possibly the hostage, but silent, hesitant and seemingly not afraid.

The red crosshairs of the laser focus of the gun plays across her body, like a moth drifting down from her face then to her neck. And then — is there a pop? — she's flung back, dead.

In this '70s mall arcade gone crazy, with its wraparound games imagery, with all the noise, the period rock tunes and folksy Israeli ballads blaring away in full lament, you should feel utterly detached. Yet you don't. You connect with this cruddy, dated imagery perhaps because of all the years of being nurtured by years watching "virtual wars" on TV as Michael Ignatieff calls them, "where technological omnipotence is vested in the hands of risk-adverse political cultures."

Stern is playing war games with us. This military-corporate connection to his image-based work is the ghost in Stern's machines, where in Triple Double (2004) a pair of giant fists pound away on a computer keyboard backed by a lazy ballet of red, white and blue stars rising and falling on a pair of computer screens.

This is a neo-medieval madhouse filled with two-dimensional saints and sinners, fuelled by the paranoid imagination. In Crusade (2002), a posse of unfriendly-looking game knights marches your way, like something out of a bad dream.

It's not exactly news to connect the dots between cyber terror and the real thing, although Stern, who grew up with both in Israel, advances the argument at the AGO, his first solo show. Stern suggests that that the cyber vision may be as close as anyone — besides active combatants — gets to understanding the real thing "in an era when reporting from combat zones is sharply curtailed," notes "Present Tense" curator Ben Portis.

Stern's real achievement comes in giving us the understanding that the power exercised worldwide by statelessness of al Qaeda reflects the pre-modern version of the statelessness of the medieval period. Almost every century has had its own gothic revival, in a kind of negative purification process where the bad vibes are purged in public. Stern is just putting our current Goth moment into sharp perspective.

"Present Tense" is one of the AGO's neatest recent successes, with a wide-range of new video and experimental film work, thoughtfully chosen, provocative and presented with finesse, although the Stern installation fails in this particular regard with its somewhat junky, ersatz arrangement.

It's as if some weird metalhead — Stern is 32 — scattered his toys all over his room, with the switches on. I recognize this may have been the point. It doesn't work. Two pieces — Crusade, which is in fact a mini windmill-cum-computer terminal and Fort Palladin, America's Army (2003), where a child's castle morphs into a computer case — are positioned only slightly above the floor. I couldn't resist the urge to tell whoever is near to "go and clean up your room."

Nevertheless, the games-based work by the Los Angeles-based, Israel-born artist revs up considerable synergy with "Turner Whistler Monet" at the other end of the institution, because both are about hidden roots of a visual culture.

"Turner Whistler Monet" reinterprets the Impressionist's gaze, giving evidence of the Industrial Revolution polluting the real landscape beyond the luscious pictures. Eddo Stern reinterprets the gamer's violent paradise.

By getting postmodern with post modernism, Stern plays on the possibility that the digital fake-out isn't fake after all.

[email protected]

Additional articles by Peter Goddard

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