Lesson: Mathias Poledna: Crystal Palace

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, English Language, Social Studies
  • Mathias PolednaMathias Poledna

Introduction

Written by Chio Flores, G:Class Educator
This lesson introduces participants to the work of Austrian artist Mathias Poledna and his film Crystal Palace (2006). It comprises a small number of long, static shots of the Papuan rainforest projected in a slow, careful sequence onto a gallery wall. Referencing a 1951 record album issued for the American Museum of Natural History, Sounds of a Tropical Rainforest, which contains staged field recordings, the piece raises the questions surrounding truth and objectivity in the documentation process, Western ideas of “the other,” problems arising from colonialism, and cultural perceptions leading to stereotyping.
Through critically looking at and analyzing the film Crystal Palace, participants will be guided into reading the truth behind photographic, video, and film images as well as the use of new media to convey personal statements related to perception and point of view.

Objectives

  • Students will be introduced to Mathias Poledna’s work in the context of contemporary art.
  • Students will be introduced to new media as an art form and to its possibilities.
  • Students will reflect on how new media can be a tool for self-expression.
  • Students will develop visual literacy skills by deconstructing the layers of meaning behind Poledna’s video installation.
  • Students will discuss notions of truth, perception, and point of view as related to the visual arts.
  • Students will analyze the notion of “the other” as a product of colonialism.
  • Students will discuss the artist’s choices in technique, subject, framing, etc. and how these inform meaning.
  • Students will produce an artwork based on Poledna’s ideas of truth, perception, the idealization of the exotic and “the other,” and colonialism.

Vocabulary

Abstract art refers to art that uses shape, color, and line to create a composition, without using any representational imagery.
Abstraction is freedom from representational qualities in art.
Colonialism is a system of control or government of a nation over a dependent country or territory.
Cropping is the trimming or cutting a picture’s edges.
Documentary film is a film that intends to portray reality.
Exotic refers to an unfamiliar object or living thing, often introduced from another country, which is different or unusual in the context in which it is being seen.
Film is a record of images from the world created using cameras.
Framing refers to the selection of a part of an image in a contained space.
Meditative is a quality or mood conducive to considered thoughts.
New media art is art created with technologies such as digital animation, computer graphics, computer animation, and the Internet. The use of the word “new” distinguishes from traditional art mediums such as painting and sculpture.
Pattern is the repetition of line, shape, and color in a design or space.
Soundtrack is a recording that accompanies motion picture images and that usually helps in setting the tone or mood of the film.
Texture is the quality of a surface, how an object feels when touched.
Truth often refers to a fact or reality.
A viewfinder is a small window cut in a piece of paper or cardstock that shows what will be in the picture or composition. Cameras have incorporated viewfinders that show us what we are taking a photograph of.
Western civilization or the Western world refers to the cultures of Western Europe and North America.

Materials

For discussion
Mathias Poledna’s images from the digital archive
Viewfinders
Map with location of New Guinea in the world
Image of Crystal Palace

For studio project
Cell phone cameras
Photo-editing software that enables cropping images
Computers
Projection equipment

For book project
Blown-up (11 × 17) printouts of students’ cell phone photographs
XActo knifes
Cutting mats
Glue sticks
Scissors
Precut cardstock for the book pages
Thin Sharpie pens
Small binder clips or plastic construction binding strips
Hole punchers

Lesson Strategy

Begin your lesson by having a discussion with your students about truth and how it can be represented or manipulated in contemporary art. Through this discussion students will reflect on what perception is and how truth is not absolute but relative.

Open discussion:

  • What is a film?
  • Have you ever made a film or thought about making one?
  • What are some subjects of a film? What are some subjects that interest you that you would want to film?
  • What are some different genres of films? What separates a documentary from these other genres?
  • Documentary films present a version of events that viewers are intended to take not as a work of imagination but primarily as fact or truth. Whose truth do documentary films present?

Look at the film Crystal Palace.

  • Take a moment to carefully look at this artwork and describe what you see.
  • Where could this have been filmed?
  • How would you describe this place?
  • How would you describe the rhythm or pace of the film?
  • What kind of colors and textures can you see?
  • How would you describe the patterns in the film?
  • In film there are long, medium and close-up shots, what kind of shot would you say the artist chose to use here? How does this choice of shot affect the meaning of it? Here participants can use viewfinders to further explore cropping and framing and analyze how this affects meaning.
  • Close your eyes and take a moment to listen to the sounds in the film. What can you hear?
  • How would you describe the film’s soundtrack?
  • How do you think the soundtrack was made?
  • This artwork is a film installation, and as in any artwork, there are several choices the artist is making to convey his ideas. What are some of the choices Poledna made to create this film?
  • What kind of mood results from the way Poledna has chosen to make and present his film?

At the beginning of our discussion, we named different genres of film [such as action, thriller, drama, comedy, science fiction, documentary]. In which genre do you think this film fits? Why?

  • We also discussed that this seems to be a rainforest. What part of the rainforest is Poledna showing us?
  • Poledna has chosen to film the rainforest landscape of the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Where is this place? [You can refer to the attached map here.]
  • Another choice the artist has made is to show us a cropped part of the rainforest. We see a part of the vegetation and not the complete landscape. Use your viewfinders to crop the image further by zooming into it. What do you obtain by cropping the image more? You get an abstract rendition of it.
  • What do you imagine Poledna has chosen to omit and therefore is absent from the film?
  • What are your own ideas about a rainforest? What would you include in your own version of a film about the rainforest?
  • If I told you that tomorrow you will visit this rainforest in New Guinea, what would you expect to see? Where would you stay? What would you eat? Who else would be living there?
  • For the Western point of view, this area is considered to be exotic. What does this mean?
  • We described how we would think or imagine this place could be, but our ideas don’t depict reality. They are ideas that we have collected from different sources during our life. As part of Western civilization, we have notions about places like New Guinea where “other” people live. What is meant by “other” in this case?
  • Conceptions of the “other” are usually surrounded by myths. What are myths?

Take another look at Crystal Palace.

  • How do you think Poledna made this film installation?
  • Think of the scale of the projection, the sounds you hear, and the volume at which the soundtrack is played. What is the mood Poledna conveys with his film installation?
  • Let’s take a moment to listen to all the sounds in the gallery again. What is that sound in the background that is not coming from the film?
  • It sounds like a machine, it’s the sound of the projector used to project the film onto the gallery wall. What does this tell us about the medium Poledna chose for his film?
  • Poledna used 35 mm film and not video. What is the difference between these two mediums? The artist consciously made these choices. Why do you think Poledna chose to use an antiquated medium such as 35 mm film for his installation?
  • Every aspect of the artwork gives us clues of understanding its intent. These clues are layers of meaning. Another layer of meaning in this artwork is the title of the piece: Crystal Palace. What does Crystal Palace suggest about the work? Think about each word separately, what does each one mean?
  • The title comes from the greenhouse-like structure of that name built in Hyde Park, London, for The Great Exhibition in 1851. More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in the Palace to display examples of the latest technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. It was also a site for presentation of the exotic and wonderful. In what ways does this inform your initial interpretation of the installation?
  • What new information are you acquiring about Papua New Guinea by experiencing this film installation?
  • Let’s revisit our initial description of this being a documentary film and use the additional information produced during our discussion, what film genre could this installation be? Why?

Poledna was inspired to make this film installation by an artifact: a record album of which he owns several copies, issued by Folkway Records for the American Museum of Natural History in 1951: Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest, produced for the American Museum of Natural History in 1951. These recordings were not made in the rainforest but in The Bronx Zoo, “hence in a setting of already ‘salvaged’ nature.” Poledna created a highly edited soundtrack created on location and the referenced archival field recordings. Why do you think Poledna is using this recording as point of departure and as an element in the soundtrack of Crystal Palace as opposed to an actual taping of sounds from the rain forest in New Guinea?

  • How does this choice inform the meaning of the artwork?
  • When we started our conversation we stated that this film installation has some characteristics of a documentary film and is therefore depicting truth. What truth is Poledna depicting?
  • Poledna has created an “artificial reality” by shooting a cropped section of the Papuan rainforest and adding a soundtrack that does not belong to this place. What could he be communicating or referring to by doing this?
  • How does the context in which the film is presented affect or not affect the meaning of the artwork? It is being presented in a museum of contemporary art. Do you think the meaning of the film would be the same if it was exhibited in a different institution? Why or why not?

Studio Project: Constructing and Deconstructing Urban Myths

The media we encounter on a day-to-day basis such as television and the Internet is constantly streaming messages and images to us. In a world increasingly infiltrated by media, young people have easy access to technology and have become image-makers. But do they understand the power of an image to affect meaning and perception? Using Mathias Poledna’s film Crystal Palace as inspiration, your classroom project will look at the ways in which students engage with media, encourage them to question and decode information, and guide them into a constructive relationship with electronic and digital media. In a departure from Poledna’s subject matter, we will focus on the urban environment and construct images that represent familiar surroundings as new and strange terrain.

For this project students will use image and sound to create an abstract rendering of urban life.

Preparatory Assignment:
Ask students to use their cell phone cameras to take photographs of details from the urban landscape that interest them. These can include buildings, street signage, traffic cones, and danger ribbons in construction sites, among other things.

Procedure
1. Using simple photo editing software such as Photoshop or Microsoft Office Picture Manager, ask students to crop their images to create abstract photos from the original ones.
2. Have students place images either in a PowerPoint presentation, or use slide.com or Google’s Picasa3 to create a slide show.
3. Ask students to add music or sound to their slideshow. Have them reflect on what kind of music or sounds would help stress the mood they are trying to convey.
4. Emphasize the fact that Poledna chose a title, which added a new layer of meaning to his artwork. Guide your students to assign a name to their artworks, which will provide clues to their viewers.

Alternative Project:
If media equipment and software are unavailable, students can create a book using their photographs or found images. The books can be read as a storyboard for a film exploring a real or imagined urban landscape.

Preparatory Assignment:
Ask students to use their cellular telephones cameras to take photographs of details from the urban landscape that interest them. These can include buildings, street signage, traffic cones, and danger ribbons in construction sites, among other things.

1. Using your viewfinders frame and crop abstractions from the photographs to create an urban picture that is subjective to your personal interests.
2. Transfer your chosen image to precut cardstock.
3. In Poledna’s work, what he has chosen to exclude is as important as what he has chosen to present. On the back of each of your book pages, use thin color Sharpies write about what you have chosen to exclude. Think of poetic ways to convey this.
4. Emphasize the fact that Poledna chose a title, which added a new layer of meaning to his artwork. Guide your students to look carefully at their books and assign a name to it. This will provide clues to the viewer.
5. Use binder clips or plastic construction strips to bind your books.
6. Discuss the urban myth or story that you are constructing or decoding.

Assessment

  • Are students able to find their own answers to how contemporary art can represent or manipulate truth?
  • Are students able to integrate the vocabulary learned into a discussion about film?
  • Are students able to convey abstract renditions of the urban landscape in their art projects?

Extending the Lesson

The students’ slide shows can be exhibited in the school as projections on a blank wall or on the school’s Web site as Internet art. They can also be uploaded to YouTube.com or vimeo.com. The students’ books can be exhibited in the school accompanied by students’ artist statements. The whole school community can be invited to view the artwork in either case.