Diego Marcon’s Ludwig begins with a spark of light. A score trills in a movement that can be described as downwards, settling into a deeper swell of sound, carried in billowing waves by an orchestra, accompanied by a boy’s high-pitched Italian aria. The music crashes towards the viewer, its volume is overwhelming. Onscreen, we see a young boy, rosy-cheeked and blonde, dressed in blue and yellow, sitting on a crate, the trembling flame of the match he has struck the only source of light in the bowels of the ship he’s been placed in. As he sings, the accompanying orchestra flattening the viewer, his crate tilts around the ship, throwing light into each corner, moving on the back of a storm-whipped sea. Thunder scoops up the soundscape, lightning is flung against the gallery’s walls, its glass façade seizing with spasms of electricity. The voice is despondent, resigned. The boy’s dark eyes widen as he is carried into the forefront, illumined by his match. The song dips — foreign hands find their way around the boy’s mouth, his eyes bright with surprise — an exclamation! — and he is gone from view. All this happens within a minute. After a brief pause, the video loops, and the story begins again.
Most viewers enter Ludwig blind. From the outside, the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore’s Earl Lu Gallery is non-descript and unassuming. Save for a single spotlight, the gallery is dark. The large screen — six combined televisions — that Ludwig is played on is positioned in a far corner facing inwards, so that all that you immediately see is its wired back. It must be up to the music — loud enough to be heard in the floors above and below the gallery’s — to draw you in.
Certainly, the volume of the Ludwig’s soundtrack is one of the work’s most emphasised characteristics, hurling you headfirst into its belly. It makes your chest reverberate as it travels around the gallery, bouncing off the walls and rolling back to you, much like the sea whose presence in the video is not seen, but felt. The feeling is overwhelming, without any foothold or contextual explanation, especially if you don’t understand Italian. The lyrics of the song are accompanied by an English translation on one of the walls of the gallery, but if you bypass this text, you may become lost further — adrift in a sweep of resonant, mysterious lyricism. All you have to go by is the sight of a lone boy, thrown about in the bottom of a ship, singing into the darkness.
Ludwig is also a study of intense contrasts. The music and characterisation is classical, but the medium is brutally technological with its stark 4K interface and hyper-crisp graphics. Marcon, who at one time mainly worked with video and film, moved into animation to experiment with different modes of documentation. Through 3D animation, he experimented with unexpected ways of processing and evoking trauma. In Ludwig, this medium situates the narrative in a curious state of suspension between the innocent world of children’s animation, the profound terror of the character’s predicament, and his almost adult resignation amidst this unfolding Dickensian drama in the hull of an old-world ship.
Time bends from contemporary to classical, while these contrasts rend apart any simplistic perception of Ludwig’s world. The result is dizzying. The camera work dislodges you further, zooming in and out as feverishly and restlessly as the sea. Light moves into shadow, the candle creating a tenuous chiaroscuro that heightens the scene’s intensity.
Amidst the thrashing of the storm, Ludwig’s movements are weary, grievously old for his youth. His voice is despondent, as are the lyrics of his song which describe his bleak situation and loss of hope. But still, despite this, he lights a match, casting himself into the light, and just as his song is about to end, he throws into it those final lyrics — “and yet” — revealing a sliver of hope — just before he is snatched away, before the darkness gushes in again.
The sea rumbles on and you are both drawn to and repulsed by Ludwig — pulled in but held physically at bay by its sheer, oppressive volume. At one point, Ludwig’s body takes up all six television screens, but just as you are beginning to know him, he disappears. His tragedy is cloaked in a language that is foreign — even archaic in its operatic delivery. What appeals to you, instead, must be visceral, felt. Perhaps the only adequate response is to sense the grief of Ludwig’s voice, rather than understand his song’s precise meaning. You might choose to sit on the floor in front of the screen, make yourself smaller, allow yourself to be tossed by the music — moved by the unseen sea.
Sharmini Aphrodite was born in Borneo in 1995 and grew up between the cities of Singapore and Johor Bahru. Previously published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Smokelong Quarterly, she was most recently shortlisted for her art criticism in Frieze Magazine’s Art Writing Prize (2017) and her short fiction in Singapore’s Golden Point Awards (2017) and the Australian Book Review’s Jolley Short Story Prize (2018).
Ludwig runs until 10 April 2019, more information here.