An essay about Tom Blake’s “Downstream Dreams”, exhibited at Moana Project Space, 17-19 November 2017 ·
By Belinda Hermawan ·
Within ten minutes of arriving at the opening night of Tom Blake’s “Downstream Dreams” at Moana Project Space, I find myself standing next to an old schoolmate of Tom’s, the two of us looking inward at the space with our backs to the entrance. I, too, am a former classmate of Tom’s – we met at university, studying law.
There seems to be a moment of shared awe at Tom’s works. The ubiquitous Wi-Fi signal – a familiar circle from which curved lines radiate outwards – has been deconstructed in playful yet thought-provoking ways. New patterns form on blue backgrounds and on mirrored surfaces. Our own reflections are reflected back at us, and a hitherto banal symbol that we had all, arguably, taken for granted seems to be prompting us to think about connectivity at a personal, as well as technological, level.
The schoolmate remarks that he always thought Tom would end up as a hotshot lawyer and/or a judge, and that this artistic genius is a pleasant surprise. I concur wholeheartedly. We discuss possible meanings of some of the motifs. The use of blue is deliberate, we decide, reminding us of water, an integral element of life (probably the way most of us would class the internet as well). This aquatic sentiment is echoed in the blue silk towel adorned with a freeform Wi-Fi symbol that hangs on a chrome rack on one wall, diametrically opposite a chrome tap installed on another wall and spilling the internet from up high. It is a daily ritual to immerse ourselves in, and consume, streams of online imagery and data, to the point where doing so is largely unremarkable.
And then, like a fleeting encounter on an internet messageboard, we disconnect politely and I never see the schoolmate again.
Prior to the opening, my last vivid memory of Tom dates back eight years. I sat opposite him at a special luncheon at the University Club at UWA, with Justice Gummow of the High Court presiding over our table. Tom’s intellect was neither boastful nor ordinary, and I remember thinking how relieved I’d been to have held my own in the casual conversation about U.S. constitutional law.
So to reconnect all these years later is a treat. Tom is excited to hear many of the insights being discussed in the gallery space. I mention that many of us are reminded of the blue branding of social media, as well as the blue light emitted from our electronic devices. I ponder out aloud, is it a surprise that we are so addicted to the internet? What does this mean about our present and our future?
Indeed, depictions of the future in film, television and print media all seem to involve the evolution of electronic devices. They seem to be a moniker of progress as projected from our imagination, these new and amazing screens – razor thin surfaces in high definition, multi-sensory touchpads and sweeping holograms – showing us what we can access through the internet and what we can do with this information. Tom mentions that sci-fi movies perpetuate the idea of a blue screen. Intrigued, I subsequently look this up and find an entire podcast discussing the idea that “future screens are blue”. A researcher “posits that, because blue is so rare in nature (if you discount the sky and the ocean, which are arguably not blue) there’s something fundamentally mystical, unnatural, and inhuman about it.” These wild imaginings then influence current design – our present. This all goes beyond the oft-dreaded, much maligned ‘blue screen of death’ on PCs (I have been a loyal Mac user since 2011).
Perhaps the lit-up motifs are fissures in the space-time continuum, beautiful but dangerous.
Tom also explains that the Wi-Fi motif in the pieces transform into an end symbol that is completely new. I note the whimsy and free-flowing nature of this result, appreciating how the mirrors are backlit to illuminate these works of epiphany. The internet has brought society together but has also torn it apart. Perhaps the lit-up motifs are fissures in the space-time continuum, beautiful but dangerous. What Tom presents his audience is an opportunity to interact with something around us, and to think about how symbols form meaning over time.
With the sad and abrupt news of Moana’s closing – the reason the exhibition only runs for a weekend – I look back wistfully and reimagine myself and the old schoolmate in the gallery space, dressed in white lab coats with clipboards in hand, ruminating over Tom’s idea of a “spiral echo chamber” or, perhaps less academically, drawing the curves of a Wi-Fi signal with blue ballpoint pen on a blank piece of paper.
It is ironic that the delay in getting these reflections to you, dear reader, across the otherwise instantaneous internet, is that I am belatedly studying to gain admission to the legal profession. Tom himself always knew he would not become a lawyer. Instead he seems to be advocating for greater expression and thought through the creative, and I, for one, will be interested in what he produces for his next show in Melbourne.
Top: Tom Blake, ‘downstream dreams’ (exhibition view), 2017. Photo: Jess Boyce.