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Susi Sie’s macroscopic worlds

16 minutes

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An artist’s serene moving paintings probe the surface of reality itself

There’s an irony at the core of the Berlin-based artist Susi Sie’s work. Starting from a macroscopic scale – that is, just barely visible to the naked human eye – she builds scenes imbued with a breathtaking grandiosity, immersing audiences in the surreal landscapes that materialise when the Universe’s fine details are brought into human view. Eschewing digital effects, her films find beauty and wonder in the often mysterious nature of reality, and especially that which is often hiding just beneath the surface.

That is to say, there’s more to Sie’s work than building elaborate eye candy, even if the results are often dazzling. Float (2011), for instance, is rich with metaphor. The film starts and ends with a single bubble moving through a seemingly endless expanse of liquid. Throughout, bubbles separate, coalesce and percolate. Sie seems to invite the viewer to superimpose a story arc on the action, even as the film’s subjects are, of course, lifeless. This impression of narrative is emphasised by the dramatic swells and stops of the accompanying orchestral music, which resembles a traditional film score.

Named for an alchemic term meaning transmutation into gold, Chrysopoeia (2016) likewise finds inspiration in the patterns and movements of small-scale fluid dynamics. A far more unsettling experience than Float, here Sie manipulates the speed of a flowing liquid as it reflects a golden light. Matching Sie’s otherworldly visuals drawn from real-world footage, the German composer Nikolai von Sallwitz’s dissonant score is built from uncanny sounds mined from traditional instruments.

Also musical collaborations fashioned from liquids, Sleeper (2016) and Myth (2017) unfold less like impressionistic stories and more like moving paintings. Described by Sie as ‘marble in motion’, Sleeper finds black-and-white forms morphing, spreading and retracting. The visuals resemble the surface of some distant gas giant viewed in timelapse. Ethereal music from the London-based experimental duo Dead Light further enhances the piece’s transportive, almost alien quality.

Myth likewise conjures the cloud patterns of some unknown world, melding swirls of black, white, and vibrant shades of red that, at times, mimic blood moving under a microscope. But while Sleeper is a stand-alone abstraction, Myth is part of a larger project from the London-based electronica composer and producer Max Cooper titled Emergence (2016). A work at the intersection of science, music and visual art, the audiovisual concept album contemplates ‘the idea of natural laws which give rise to the world we live in’. Sie’s contribution explores the relationship between science and myth via the metaphor of black holes, which have, for decades, been subject to endless human speculation. That Sie keeps her own materials a secret adds yet another rich layer to the labyrinthine concept.

Warning: this film features rapidly flashing images that can be distressing to photosensitive viewers.

While the nexus of visuals and sound is at the centre of all of Sie’s films, these elements intertwine at an even deeper level in Cymatics (2013). In the piece, sound waves reverberate through a sand-like substance, generating a series of patterns that gradually envelope the camera. The perspective shift evokes a storm that, once on the horizon, has suddenly arrived. Once again, beyond the visual thrill, the work is propelled by the intersection of fundamental forces and natural mystery – what we know about our world, and what we may never know.

Written by Adam D’Arpino

Films by Susi Sie

10 November 2021