The future is now: Sam Songailo's short-circuits
We produce signs because there is something to be said.
As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I was fascinated with the circuit board assemblies that we scavenged from dismantled transistor radios and other discarded technology. Their neat arrangements of transistors, capacitors, diodes and inductors seemed like tiny models for industrial complexes or outposts on some green and distant planet. At the time, NASA’s space shuttle program was just beginning and receiving massive media coverage. For a country boy, the assemblies seemed about as close to space as one could get. The tiny alien worlds puzzled and intrigued. They were filled with imaginary potential but ripped from their place in the electronic universe and completely dysfunctional. They contained a dark edge, like remnants from some doomed and forgotten civilization.
Painter Sam Songailo must have shared a similar preoccupation. The patterned surface of the printed circuit board has inspired a cross-disciplinary body of work which includes painting, installation and video. His style has developed from works which clearly replicate the distinctive line-and-point patterning of a simple circuit board. It has become a kind of foundational motif from which Songailo’s more complex patterns are derived. These have become a vehicle through which the artist experiments with colour and perception in works which touch on the implications of technology in our lives and the complexity of existence.
Songailo’s early paintings, installations and street-based works certainly carry the sense of interconnectivity and flow suggested in the graphic etchings of a circuit board. These works are covered in intricate, diagrammatic patterns formed from interlocking and overlaid line work. They are reminiscent of charts representing energy flows through a system, patterns of movement, or schematic plans for the utilities of some megalopolis of the future/past. In comparison to recent work, these paintings have a homespun feel: edges are looser, the palette is broader and more subdued. This approach gives them an aged quality which betrays Songailo’s interest in what could be called “techno-archaeology”, a theme more commonly found in science fiction and new age conspiracy theories.
Spend long enough staring into these earlier works and it is hard not to become engulfed in Songailo’s “electric” fibres. This woven quality appears most obviously in the loose thread- or ribbon-like lines of the earlier paintings and continues in the sharp patterning of later work which is reminiscent of tightly plaited warps and wefts. The physical processes that Songailo employs obviously differ from weaving techniques but in addition to the visual similarities there are parallels to be found in the labour-intensive and pattern-forming nature of the work. Patterns are integral to the weaving process, in both the repetitive criss-crossing of fibres that form the weave’s structure and the patterned designs that are frequently built into it. In traditional cultures, these things are often at the heart of a society. They represent complex systems of knowledge developed over hundreds or thousands of years and play an important role in the maintenance of social and cosmological orders.
Both weaving and associated pattern-making techniques invariably involve the creation of complex forms from relatively simple bits of information. These can be simply repeated or subjected to a series of transformations which combine to create the larger, more complex whole. The patterns which emerge in Songailo’s paintings are based around a similarly limited set of rules. In his system these are flexible and each painting is effectively improvised, the result of on-the-spot decisions made one after the other in response to the preceding actions. In describing the construction of pattern in Andean weaving, anthropologists E. M. and C. R. Franquemont use a metaphor from modern technology which is strikingly appropriate in the context of Songailo’s work, likening the weaver’s process to that of “a television screen in which a complex image is built dot by dot and line by line to produce a pattern that becomes clear only when finished”. This differs from other forms of applied patterning because, rather than being predetermined, the final pattern emerges gradually as the result of complex cognitive and physical manipulations at every stage of construction.
From around 2009, Songailo’s paintings have evolved into more crystalline and geometric compositions. It’s as if we have zoomed in and focused on a fragment of the earlier works. The more recent works are characterised by a harder and clearer quality. The larger areas of flat colour, high contrast colour juxtaposition and brighter, more psychedelic palette have led to comparisons with the Hard Edge and Op Art styles of the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly, these shifts in technique have made the pattern in these works tighter and intensely rhythmic, almost pulsating, relating them to what William Seitz called Perceptual Abstraction. Songailo has said that his intensified palette is aimed at creating something as artificial as possible, something beyond our everyday comprehension. These works can’t be replicated by following any fixed pattern or formula. They are on the edge of being “concrete”, nearly but never solidifying, always shifting. He has related this to the impossibility of “making sense of the world”, a problem exacerbated in our technology-driven and information-saturated culture. The paintings replicate the slippery nature of existence, of understanding, of getting a grip on what this is all about.
The shift in perception suggested in these developments could be seen as a change in Songailo’s intentions or indeed in the way he perceives his own work. It has been noted that his painting represents his worldview and his belief in the world’s inherent complexity and interconnectedness. Looking at the amazing complexity of the earlier work I was struck by their (almost obsessive) intricacy and the level of sheer intensity invested in completing these works. It is as though they record Songailo’s thought processes or trace his mental patterns. If so, the ramped up intensity of his recent painting must mark a significant shift in his thinking, a proposition borne out in the immersive installations of recent years. Moving beyond the physical limits of canvas has allowed the artist to pursue his aim of “short-circuiting” the viewer’s perception in the hope that their vision of the world might be transformed.
Media Centre and New Sound (2010) push the paintings – and the viewer’s experience – to another level. While certainly approaching visual overdrive, and perhaps because of it, the installations were surprisingly easy to spend time in. There was a certain hypnotic resonance going on in these hi-contrast environments. They felt to me like chambers for reflection or reprogramming. The pattern used for Media Centre was evocative of the stylised but theoretically legible Arabic script known as square kufic, sending me immediately into temple territory. Developed in the 12th Century, a three dimensional (cubic) version of this pattern is still used extensively to adorn mosque façades. Upon closer inspection, the similarities in these patterns are superficial but the combination of the underlying grid structure and the ‘dot and dash’ elements evoke a remarkably similar visual effect. I find it fascinating that Songailo derived this pattern from the circuit board layout which is essentially industrial and has clearly developed in response to the demands for economic, temporal and material efficiency imposed by mass production. Yet removed from that context, blown up, and converted into a repeating pattern, it recalls the sacred text of Islamic architecture.
The strange dissonance set up by these visual coincidences sounds out so much that it is hard to pin down why Songailo’s work exerts so much fascination over viewers. It goes directly to the heart of pattern and its universal application across human cultures throughout history. It also goes some way towards informing an understanding of Songailo’s developing practice and in particular these recent installation works. In his 1979 classic text The Sense of Order, E. H. Gombrich describes our attraction to traditional pattern as “a spell cast by mysterious symbols of which the meaning has been forgotten.” I think there is a similar desire to locate meaning in Songailo’s patterns, perhaps because they suggest an emphatic attempt at communication. Pattern, existing long before written language, has the ability to communicate something about our perception that is difficult to articulate in words. At the core of Songailo’s practice is an attempt to describe the indescribable, through a language of pattern indecipherable on a conscious level, which is soothing and seductive. It fulfils our desire for order and eases the fear that maybe, just beyond our perception – on the other side of what we can see and understand – there may be nothing at all.
- ^ E. M. Franquemont and C. R. Franquemont, ‘Tanka, Chongo, Kutij: Structure of the world through cloth” in Dorothy K. Washburn and Donald W. Crowe (eds.) Symmetry Comes of Age: The Role of Pattern in Culture, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004, p.183.
- ^ William C. Seitz, “The Responsive Eye”, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with the City Art Museum of St. Louis and others, New York, 1965.
- ^ Interview with the artist 15 November 2011.
- ^ Jena Woodburn, “Undiscovered”, Australian Art Collector, no. 52, April –June, 2010.
- ^ James Trilling, The Language of Ornament, London: Thames & Hudson, 2001, pp. 126-7.
- ^ E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Oxford: Phaidon, 1979.
Matt Huppatz is an artist and doctoral candidate in Visual Arts at the University of South Australia. His research examines sites of masculine expression in contemporary sculptural practice, with a focus on the queer potential of assemblage. He is a director of FELTspace ARI in Adelaide and sits on the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF) council.