Touch, tenderness, and technology in Cloud of Petals

Sarah Meyohas’ new exhibition embraces electronic form in its exploration of beauty, writes Eleanor Birdsall-Smith

Sarah Meyohas’s Cloud of Petals grants its audience no time to adapt or understand before it launches forward. We are immediately hit with its startling power, as thick thumbs rub the clitoral centre of a plump dusty pink rose. Yet, while at times erotic and deeply seductive, it is not just about sex.

Set over the course of four days, the installation aims to address perceptions of beauty as well as the relationship between nature and technology. In a sentence out of context, this sounds appalling, tired and clichéd, yet remarkably it manages to almost completely avoid all of these usual shortcomings. The brief premise of the film follows sixteen men who were chosen to carefully and diligently pick flowers they deemed to be the most beautiful.

These flowers were then used and explored in a laboratory designed by the renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Over 100,000 petals of all different types and colours were both physically pressed and uploaded to a cloud system. This leads us to the interesting way Meyohas interprets the relationship between beauty, nature and technology: “This film traces beauty and subjectivity within the systems of automation and artificial intelligence,” says Meyohas. “From the trove of images taken by
the ‘workers’, an artificial intelligence algorithm is created, allowing for the creation of new, unique petals forever.”

However, while the concept behind the piece is intriguing and brilliant in its own right, it is the finished spectacle that truly amazes. It is filled with fast pace transitions which make your tummy turn and your heart swell. This manages to strike an interesting balance between uncomfortable and exciting, for instance at one point focus is put on the thick bodies of Burmese pythons as they slip scale by scale past the rose petals, until we are suddenly but seamlessly zooming beneath an amass of exposed rubber wires and tubes in the ceiling, which otherwise would have remained ordinary and overlooked.

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This sense of unity and connection continues throughout with a particular emphasis on line and geometry, which somehow manages to stay tied down to the experiment at hand, with almost Orwellian imagery of men working within this bizarre factory full of grids and parameters.  There are also beautifully tender moments, as a child laces glimmering blue blurs into the hair of another, which then, a little jarringly, are revealed to be little blue bottle flies. Yet it is at times undeniably sensual in a way no romance novel, film or porno ever could be.

It will hit you in the depth of your chest, exciting your heart and mind and inciting desire
purely though its keen focusing on the impact of the touch. It embraces its electronic form and presentation through an ongoing house fly motif, which flits between being on video, and physically resting on the screen which displays the video. This enables the shots of the cloud and loading icons to continue the narrative without becoming trying or cringe inducing.

The sombre and foreboding soundtrack to the video adds a weight to the piece, which on its own could seem fleeting frivolous and skittish with its quick paced shot changes, yet in combination becomes serious and almost scary. The actual music has the same effect as trailers for blockbusters, which inexplicably give you goose bumps in the cinema, however this is also combined with interspersed moments of ASMR-style whispers. The result is that the video seems to hit every sense, setting the body on fire. Tuning in to the intricacies of human sensation, the piece above anything else seeks to invite emotional response.

At no point is the narrative (to use the term loosely) or themes of the piece driven home or flagged up for the easy consumption of the viewer, enhancing and stretching the accepted ‘show not tell’ principle.

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Cloud of Petals is on show at Red Bull Arts, New York, through 10 December 2017, but an extended cut is available to stream via ‘nowness.com’ as part of their ‘Video Art Visions’ series, which also has many other beguiling pieces from a variety of different sources.

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