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Erica von Schilgen's 'Always, Just Beyond Reach'
Erica von Schilgen's "Always, Just Beyond Reach"

The wonder years

Recalling the visual revolution that brought about motion pictures, new works are an enchanting mix of imagination and technology

Something astonishing happened over the second two-thirds of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th, something so unprecedented as to come almost immediately to be taken for granted. It was, quite simply, this: Optics and engineering combined to reinvent seeing. One would have to go back to Lascaux and the first cave paintings to find a comparable shift in visual perception.

The most obvious form this reinvention took was the motion picture. Yet the movies only marked the culmination of a decades-long series of developments that included dioramas and flip books (the latter was patented as recently as 1868), such rudimentary devices for projecting motion as the zoetrope and thaumatrope , and the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey . For the first time, duration entered visual representation.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, and a comparable sense of blissfulness -- wonder, too -- informed that era of visual revolution. It is the altogether splendid achievement of "Picture Show," which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through May 6, to grant us some glimmers of what that reinvention might have felt like.

The aim of this show of contemporary art is to re-create the enchantment viewers experienced when first encountering these visual marvels a century and more ago. The PRC gallery, curator Leslie K. Brown writes, has been made over into "a space somewhere between a cabinet of curiosity, carnival spectacle, and an early motion picture theatre." An even better analogy might be to the interior of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. There's the same sense of sly magic and delicate otherworldliness.

Certainly, Erica von Schilgen's "mechanical collages," as she calls them, are close kin to Cornell's assemblages. That said, they are very much their own imaginative creations. "Mon Petit Espace " is an old printer's drawer inhabited by a gathering of dolls, each of whom moves when a hand crank is turned. In "Always, Just Beyond Reach, " a set of outstretched hands can never quite reach a set of pretty flowers. Futility has rarely been so sweetly appointed. It's as if Laura Ashley were hosting a garden party in honor of Tantalus and Zeno .

Olivia Robinson seeks in her work, as she memorably puts it, "an animated intimacy." "Imbalanced Ambivalence" is at once sculpture, video art, and serenade. A handsome wooden case contains within it a video screen. When the viewer turns a crank, the sound of an accordion is heard and scenes of a nurse putting her uniform on can be seen. (One of von Schilgen's works plays a rinky-tink rendition of "As Time Goes By ." "Picture Show" is a sonic treat, too.)

The cherrywood handsomeness of Robinson's box is but one example of how often many of the objects in "Picture Show" are as pleasing, and compelling, as the moving images they encase. That's true of the nobly cracked and chipped wooden housings for several of the little Muybridge-like movies Steve Hollinger has assembled. And it's supremely true for Deb Todd Wheeler's installation "Ludicrum: naturalia, artificialia, scientifica. " She has built a modern-day phenakistoscope , a primitive animation device in which images spaced along a wheel give the viewer an impression of continuous motion when the wheel is spun. It is a glorious thing of wood, steel, and brass, at once elegant and robust. If a movie is ever made of William Gibson's novel "The Difference Engine, " Wheeler should have dibs on the art direction.

In a league by itself is Hans Spinnermen's "The Dream of Timmy Bumblebee." It consists of an impressive contraption of metal and glass that looks not unlike an immobilized, Jenny Craig version of Robbie the Robot from "Forbidden Planet. " Projected within it is a film of a bumblebee in flight. The film is incidental to the rather majestic monstrosity of Spinnermen's creation, which is on loan from le Musee Patamecanique , in Bristol, R.I.

The exhibition concludes with a display of historical visual devices, everything from trompe l'oeil cards to a vintage View-Master . Their presence underscores how happily "Picture Show" has located itself at the intersection of technology and imagination. Held in conjunction with this year's Boston Cyberarts Festival, which runs today through May 6 , it makes one wonder how the current state of visual innovation will be regarded a century and more from now. Will our great-grandchildren look back on this first decade or so of the World Wide Web as being equivalent to so many digital dioramas and virtual View-Masters?

Mark Feeney can be reached at


Picture Show

At: the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, 832 Commonwealth Avenue , through May 6. 617-975-0600.