Animation for dummies

Elizabeth King: Two Animations

<i>What Happened,</i> in which a manikin-like sculpture investigates herself and her movements, is one of two animations in the Elizabeth King exhibit at NMA.

What Happened, in which a manikin-like sculpture investigates herself and her movements, is one of two animations in the Elizabeth King exhibit at NMA.

Photo by David Robert

Step inside the sensory deprivation chamber that is the Media Gallery at Nevada Museum of Arts, and meet the stare of a looming, bald woman emanating from a screen covering the wall. Her expression changes with each shift of light and motion.This is Eidolon, one of two films in the Elizabeth King: Two Animations exhibit.

Eidolon, shot in real time, faces the stop-action animation film What Happened on the opposite wall. Both films feature a sculptural self portrait King calls “Pupil.” Through these animations, King explores her fascination with bringing out human emotion from a mechanical object.

“I am driven by the mystery of the human body as a biological organism on the one hand, and on the other a personality—with memories, plans and desires,” wrote King, an art professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a statement of her work. “How do these things emerge from the cellular mechanics and chemistry of the body?”

The exhibit began as separate works of art—two sculptures of a woman with pale skin and large, haunting brown eyes. Then King brought her works to life.

It’s not a Frankenstein kind of thing. It’s closer to an elegant Tim Burton.

By playing with light, shadow, movement and stop-frame animation film, King makes these inanimate figures become strikingly lifelike and emotion-filled.

Watch as the sculpture in Eidolon tilts her head toward the ceiling. The lighting on her face shifts, and her former look of curiosity turns to one of surprise. A slow, downward movement creates a look of contentment—her red-painted lips almost seem to turn slightly upward. The light moves across her face again, and, suddenly, she’s concerned, making you notice worry lines across her forehead and shallow wrinkles under her eyes. Her head and face are made of porcelain but look soft, cartilaginous and real.

On the opposing wall is What Happened, a longer, more active animation film recording Pupil and the intricate movements of her body. Pupil’s body is made of carved wood with joints like a puppet or an artist’s manikin, allowing her to hold whichever pose King chooses. Most of the joints are wood-on-wood, but King also placed a brass ball-and-socket device in the base of the sculpture’s thumb, which she says “gives the hand its intelligence” and enhances its movement.

And this manikin can move.

What Happened begins with a brief view of the real King (with a full head of hair) then morphs into Pupil. Pupil looks down and touches her fingers, which she moves rapidly against each other as if untangling yarn or unwrapping a candy wrapper. Taking on a mime-like quality, she makes you envision her threading a needle. Something—an insect or butterfly, perhaps—seems to land on her hand. She looks at it in her palm, picks it up between index finger and thumb and sniffs it. Then filmed from her back, she appears to be giving a speech, her head almost jerking as if punctuating a word. And with each action, her expressions are at turns delighted, apprehensive, thoughtful and confident.

The Nevada Museum of Art’s exhibit is the first time the two films are being shown together. This creates an interesting interplay as the Pupil of Eidolon appears to be watching her more active alter ego with a mixture of interest and humor.

By the end, these objects made of wood and porcelain have taken on distinct personalities, making you look twice at the stillness around you.