Miwa Matreyek's Virtual Vertigo

This World
This World Made Itself, 2013.

Since the 1990s and the digital revolution, as a culture we've been struggling to figure out our new reality. What is "real?" What is "virtual?" And how do they connect?

Media artist Miwa Matreyek tackles these questions in her artwork, which is impossible to label easily. She blends elements of theater, performance, animation and cinema to create magical live events layering multiple projections, recorded music and the image or silhouette of her own body moving through the projected images. The result is a spellbinding experience for an audience as we simultaneously marvel at the enchanting animated worlds she creates while at the same time try to imagine how the entire performance is working. What's real? What's animated? What's projected?

"From early on, I was interested in breaking down the languages of theater, performance and cinema, and I liked playing with the structure of video," explains Matreyek, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in 2007, and now lives in Los Angeles. At CalArts, she was able to merge her interests in animation and collage, as well as theater, performance, cinema, puppetry and site specific art, through the Center for Integrated Media, an interdisciplinary laboratory that invites students who are interested in using technology in creative ways to experiment.

Ocean Flight, 2005
Ocean Flight, 2005

In the lab, Matreyek met fellow student Chi-wang Yang, and they began to work together. They spent hours playing with front and rear screen projection, exploring the various effects that they could create. Eventually they named their collaboration Cloud Eye Control (they were later joined by Anna Oxygen) and they began to design live performances that united projection and performance. One of their early pieces is "Ocean Flight," from 2005, which includes video footage of a person running; the footage is captured live during the performance on one side of the stage, but then projected onto another screen on the opposite side, where it is collaged together with yet another projection and another live performer. The mix of projection and live performance produces a dizzying and captivating kind of vertigo as you try to trace what's real versus what's projected while marveling at the magic of it all.

Dream of Lucid Living, 2007
Dream of Lucid Living, 2007

Matreyek's thesis project is titled "Dreaming of Lucid Living." "With this piece, I was playing a lot with sleight of hand," explains Matreyek. "I was playing with video and a black silhouette, and what's real and what's not to create a continuum between the virtual and the real." The project combines playful and yet visceral animated collages -- almost decorative drawings of skeletons, for example -- into which Matreyek layers the silhouette of her own body. She also creates entirely black-and-white images such that her own black silhouette can mingle among the projected images and you simply can't tell what's her and what's animated. In all of her work, Matreyek moves in carefully choreographed synchronization with the animation, and the result is spellbinding. "The pieces often have two narratives," she explains. "There's the story that is unfolded and presented to the audience alongside the narrative of the staging and the awareness of how the story is being made."

Matreyek completed a new major piece in 2010, "Myth and Infrastructure" and presented it at the TED Global event in Oxford, England that year, among many other high profile international festivals. This piece brings together many of the artist's earlier experiments, but connects her ongoing sense of visual playfulness with a kind of mythic expansiveness achieved primarily through scale. The artist's body merges with the universe and the result is a modern form of moving image folklore or mythology.

Myth and Infrastructure, 2010 | Image: Gia Goodrich
Myth and Infrastructure, 2010 | Image: Gia Goodrich

Matreyek's newest project is "This World Made Itself," which premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio last year and will be featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival as part of the New Frontiers Program. "It goes from the Big Bang to dinosaurs," says Matreyek, explaining the project's timeline. "In my mind, the piece is somewhere between Disney's 'Fantasia' and Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos.'"

"This World Made Itself" begins with incredibly beautiful animated images of molten rock and the formation of oceans and landmasses, and then moves on to the origins of life. Richly detailed and colorful -- and yet entirely surreal -- the imagery looks it was pulled from a children's encyclopedia from the 1950s. Matreyek's silhouette intercedes in the projected imagery, creating a mythic female presence moving gracefully through the prehistoric scene. We see her swimming in an ocean of fire, walking through tall grasses, traipsing across mountains.

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"As an undergraduate, I was interested in physics," says Matreyek, explaining the piece's origins. "I loved science when it was very visible and tangible. When the classes became about math and I couldn't feel it in my body anymore, I was less interested. I feel like a lot of what I'm doing in my work now is trying to find a visceral way of connecting to or seeing the world. A lot of my animations have a sense of science -- even if it goes in an abstract direction. There's a sense of awe, and a desire to connect with the earth."

 This World Made Itself, 2013
This World Made Itself, 2013

Matreyek also continues to be fascinated by the process of layering live performance and animation. "When you combine the body with video and music, it can create a feeling that defies the physics and gravity of the real world; the body becomes a bit more ephemeral and the animation can then become more tangible and have a weight to it."

The artist also appreciates playing with the tension between the narrative that we see onscreen, and the story of how the project is being made. "The audience is completing the illusion for me," she explains. "The audience has to do half the work. I think that's what keeps the audience engaged; they're solving puzzles as they watch. It's funny how much feedback I get from people. Their brains are constantly fighting between the story and how it's being done."

This World Made Itself from Miwa Matreyek on Vimeo.

Matreyek's work is part of larger movement in contemporary film practice that connects live performance with projected imagery, and in the process celebrates the fundamental magic of cinema. Filmmaker Jem Cohen, a participant in this movement, has described his own fascination as a kind of "primitive enchantment," which refers to the desire to return to the basic tools and technologies of image-making and projection in order to rediscover their magic. Add a fascination with the harmony between the body and the image and you have a pretty good description of Matreyek's work: primitive enchantment.


Matreyek will present "This World Made Itself and Myth and Infrastructure" at REDCAT Friday, Feb. 7 - Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014.


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