Ian de Gruchy’s

Magic Screens and Digital Projections

Anne Marsh

A willingness to critique the medium of photography from within, to expand and sometimes shatter its limitations, to take the medium back to its future and forward to its past is at the core of Ian de Gruchy's experiments with projections and illusions. He rarely exhibits inside art galleries, although many cultural institutions have been transformed by the artist's digital light-writing onto the buildings which house culture.

De Gruchy says that he sees buildings as screens. In the case of cultural institutions, such as art galleries, libraries and museums, it is clear that the artist seeks to exteriorise the concept of the culture within the building and/or to deconstruct or critique some aspect of it. The Library Projection (State Library of Victoria, 1992) converted the side of the building into a huge bookshelf by scaling-up a photograph taken in the reading room. Thus the interior was made public for the on-looker outside.

In many respects Library Projection was a sentimental meditation on photography itself. The picture which was monumentalised on the side of the building was reminiscent of William Henry Fox Talbot's calotype of 1840, titled Books on Two Shelves. Once made, this connection draws out the narrative of light-writing that Fox Talbot gave to the history of photography. The metaphor of photography as light-writing recurs throughout Ian de Gruchy's projection works, as he engages with the language and history of the photographic media. 

One might say that de Gruchy is a type of magician since he exhibits in public spaces, creating illusionary entertainments for his audiences. He works with spectacle and uses architectural structures as screens. He also has worked in theatre and performance spaces, and in nightclubs in Australia and New York where his projected installations transform the way in which audiences experience the space or the performance.1 Spectators in these installations often become performers in the space created by the photographic projections. In his work for performance spaces de Gruchy has collaborated with other artists (Peter King, Mahoney Masques, 1992 and Dazzle of Shadow, 1993, and Jude Walton, No Hope No Reason, 1991) and here his role also has been to alter the viewer's experience and consciousness of physical space.

There is often a dreamlike quality to the installations which de Gruchy projects in interiors, whereas the external projections tend to foreground the spectacle of a technology which allows monumental structures to be re-written by the images appearing upon them. This was particularly apparent when the artist changed the Adelaide Festival Centre into a makeshift humpy, drawing attention to the-fact that the centre was built over a site of Aboriginal settlement. More recently, the theme of reconciliation was included in his work, Transformed, which was projected on the Melbourne Town Hall over a three week period (1999 -2000). In this event, de Gruchy used digital photographic sequencing to create a series of passing or moving still photographic images accompanied by a soundscape composed by Chris Knowles and Dan Witton. Transformed was a reflection on Australia's' past and a meditation on our future as we enter a new millennium, Much like a critical, visual history, the picturescape reminded the spectator of the key issues that had shaped a nation. Tall ships and ancient maps gave way to images of suburbia, the city and transportation. Icons of the twentieth century recurred, underlining the progressive thrust of capitalism, whilst images of Indigenous culture and symbols of reconciliation punctuated the screen. The Sea of Hands image, which is overlaid with the names of Aboriginal tribes was designed by Donna Brown specifically for the Town Hall projection. It is an iconic image, one that has entered the vernacular as the many hands of reconciliation become a recurrent visual symbol in our culture.2 

Ian de Gruchy's projection works on public buildings are compelling for a contemporary public in the same way as dioramas and lantern slide projections were popular for a nineteenth century audience. His art work is cutting-edge, in terms of the technology used and it often involves social critique, but it also takes its place in the history of mass entertainments and illusionary spectacles. de Gruchy operates as a theatre or film set designer might, however his props are virtual and his environments are made with projected beams of light and often synthesised 'With dynamic sound tracks. The physical make-up of the installations is laborious, requiring hundreds of images, all sequenced to create the right picture at the right time. In the monumental Transformed, images were digitised, exposed onto giant film scrolls and choreographed to create de Gruchy's short allegory of Australian history.

Other smaller installations have used more conventional, analogue processes, but like his nineteenth century colleagues Ian de Gruchy exploits the magical and performative elements of photography. This was emphasized in the installation Defying Gravity (Linden Gallery,1997) where a large dictionary, opened to the listing on gravity, appeared to hover in mid-air. The book was contextualised visually in the grid-like perspective of Renaissance space. The illusion of the text hovering in space was an ironic representation in which the laws of gravity were destabilized by visual and physical tricks.

In Defying Gravity a perfect architectural grid displayed the mathematical certainty of one point perspective and the power of a fixed, monocular point of View. This territory has been rigorously criticised by critics and theorists of photography Who rightly claim that such angles of vision/ways of seeing are signifiers, of an unequal distribution of power, where one eye (the eye of God or 'man') oversees/looks upon the object of the gaze.3 This critique of one point perspective, a view which the camera obscura supposedly was able to re-create, has given rise to a plethora of criticism which sees the camera as a weapon, a tool of surveillance used to police people and societies.4 Ian de Gruchy's photo-installations and projections take a step back from this critique and underline the performative and magical qualities of photography. In so doing they insist upon an active and engaged viewer/participant who is not always already written by a gaze that inscribes him/her into a symbolic (patriarchal) law to which s/he may neither aspire nor agree.5 The projection works use technology to create visual poems, critiques, and illusions. The ways in which they transform realities by wetting photo-picture graffiti onto cultural monuments opens these spaces up. It is an exteriorisation and a critical appraisal that turns the concept of surveillance around on itself. In smaller works in gallery situations the artist's philosophy is similar, he presents tricks and virtual realities that focus on different ways of seeing or conceptualising.

In many ways Ian de Gruchy's public works have always been about everyday life. His pictures come from everywhere and anywhere. It is as if he-photographs everything he sees and rephotographs it time and again. Repetition plays an important role in the visual syntax of the installations. It becomes a sort of punctuation, a place for breathing, taking count of the way in which the audience will view the work and how the images will enter into the individual and collective memory. It could be said that Ian de Gruchy is a bricoleur but he also is a master of the phantasmagoria of everyday life. He collects images compulsively, looks at them over and over and finally decides on a monumental tapestry which might include: old fences, hand prints, bits of art, fragments of maps, words, segments of buildings, transportation, electric lights, altered images, masked screens all of which come together to create photo-graphed poems as the artist orchestrates magical screens and spectacular- illusions for his audience.


1. Works were presented at The Kitchen, contemporary art space, and at the Limelight and the Pyramid Clubs. return

2. The visual image of the hand-print was the political signature of Corroboree 2000 which saw an estimated 250,000 people walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a gesture of reconciliation. The crowd wore the handprint as a symbol of unity and goodwill. return

3. Laura Mulvey was the first critic to rigorously critique the 'male gaze' in her essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18. See also Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire. The Conception of Photography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997, especially pp. 106-108. return

4. Susan Sontag was probably the first critic to seriously analyse the camera as a weapon, see On Photography, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977. See also Allan Sekula, 'The Body and the Archive', October, no. 39, 1986, pp. 3-64. return

5. The idea that the subject is always already mitten by a language that already exists and over which s/he has litt1e, if any, control is a fundamental concept in structuralist criticism. See especially Louis Althusser, 'Ideology, and Ideological State Apparatuses', in Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster, New York- Monthly Review Press, 197 1, pp. 127-186. return


Anne Marsh is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture,

the School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies at Monash University.

Ian de Gruchy lives, and works in Melbourne.


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