By SOPHIE BARON, December 2021
2021 was the year that saw Digital Art, NFTs, Virtual and Metaverse exhibitions finally take a seat at the table in the contemporary art market. With record sales of Digital Art at Sotheby’s, the corporate rebranding of Facebook into Meta, and NFTs promising the kind of excitement that Internet 1.0 once ushered in, the pandemic helped accelerate yet another fundamental cultural shift in our time. It is thus appropriate for a career-length lookback at one of digital art’s pioneers and continuously prolific creators; an artist whose body of work spans almost 4 decades, who has consistently been on the avant-garde of technological progress and development: Marjan Moghaddam.
Born in Iran, Moghaddam arrived In New York City during 1979 as a political refugee fleeing from the brutal theocratic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a regime that forced Iran, which had been a quickly-modernising society, back into virtually the Middle Ages, and imposed one of the harshest systems of gender apartheid in the world. It was the disturbing experience of living through her country’s revolution, Moghaddam has repeatedly stated, that inspired her commitment to social and technical progress, and thus, her interest in computers and the creative potentials they offer. This commitment to progress is also what motivated her to keep up with each and every new breakthrough in the field of computer science, and to constantly advance her art-making by utilising these new tools, which she also teaches as a tenured Full Professor of Digital Art and XR at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.
Marjan was the only female digital artist featured between NFT giants Beeple and XCopy in the BBC Click documentary Art Goes Digital, earlier this year. Having entered the NFT space with strong sales into top collections in 2020, she also exhibited widely in important metaverse shows in Cryptovoxels and Decentraland throughout the year, culminating with a solo show at MOCDA (Museum of Contemporary Digital Art) during the Summer, which closed earlier this fall. Entitled Digital Embodiments and Interventions: The Sculptural World of Marjan Moghaddam, the retrospective was hosted by MOCDA in Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual reality space, and was curated by the London-based new media art expert Filippo Lorenzin. A walk through of the exhibition with Marjan and the curator from MOCDA and Decentraland University can be seen on You Tube.
Stretching across three vast, themed rooms in MOCDA’s architecturally designed virtual museum in Decentraland, the first thing I noticed about the exhibit was Lorenzin’s focus on one key theme that has been prevalent in almost all of Moghaddam’s work from the very beginning, her adamant feminism, expressed not only in exaltations of the feminine form, but also in how modern technology gives women, and all people for that matter, the ability to modify and change their forms to whatever suits their individual desires. The concept of body fluidity, which is at the heart of everything from gender performance notions of feminism to transgender studies, transhumanism, and posthumanism, is an important example of why Moghaddam’s work is so relevant in today’s social climate, and it shows how ahead of her time she was when she first began conceptualising fluidity in the 1980s. She has literally defined this contemporary state as identity through her unmatched style of figuration and animation in 3D CG and digital art.
The first room comprises ten pieces: one sculpture, and nine video installations, all of which are interactive. The sculpture, called Spharen Wanderer, has a matching video installation; both, from 2015, are meditations on Being in the 21st century, inspired by the Spharen (Spheres) trilogy of books by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, a major influence on the artist. Other installations included David and Goliath (2012), one of Moghaddam’s most well-known recent works, a universal reflection upon oppression and resistance in Capitalism and art; Shot in Iran (2012), my personal favourite by this artist, a digital print in which Moghaddam bares her soul as she recounts the true experiences of violence she faced during the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution; and Shooting Venus (2014), an expertly crafted, multi-layered, complex series of images evoking the oppression of women in the east and west, with the video displaying derogatory phrases about women in English, Persian and Arabic.
Scab, an early landmark, and influential animation employing Motion Capture of improvised Performance and the artist’s signature abstracted #digitalbodies takes centre stage in this room. Seen by millions around the world as part of Siggraph’s theatrical program of Computer Animation back in 2009, the animated painting explores PTSD. Also, of note is one of Moghaddam’s earlier works, PMS (1989), a mish-mash of arcade-game style colours, experimental noises, and imagery that, in dealing with the burden imposed upon the feminine body by society, plays with the deconstruction and the reconstructing of it in bizarre and shocking forms that nevertheless do give the viewer a sense of awe and sympathy for both the artist’s message and how she has chosen to express it. This piece was the only computer art project shown at the helms Degenerate Art show in the East Village of that era.
Moghaddam’s widely exhibited Posthumanist series from the 1990s, Adorations, which paired 3dCG bald humanoids textured with fractals, and posed in Madonna and child compositions with technological extensions of the body, is represented with Adoration of Gas Tank (2000). Another seminal 1990s piece is her 3d CG Avatar with Projected Fractals (1995) from her Chaoscape series, which was exhibited in various forms from early immersive virtual reality installations to Internet art and 3d animations as GIF sponsored by Prodigy Inc. in 1996 on DOTCOM Gallery and International Forum for the Digital Arts, the first NYC-based commercial art gallery located entirely on the Internet (this project can be seen on the DOTCOM site on the Web Archive).
The second room is Merged Identities featuring an installation of Marjan’s Feminist viral hit The #GlitchGoddess, glitches existing conventions of depicting women with a singular form by morphing from heavy, slender, pregnant, buff, to stylized and abstract. Marjan pioneered her #arthacks as a conceptual Net Art project in 2016, by hacking her #digitalbodies and critical discourse transgressively into found and shot exhibition footage online. In doing this, Moghaddam is performing a digital version of the feminist interventions of the 1960s, such as the women burning their braziers at the Miss America pageant in 1968. This is most explicit, to me, in Glitched Goddess at Milan Fashion Week with J Lo (2019), where their very presence is a rebuke to the negative standards of feminine beauty that the fashion industry promotes. In Glitched Goddesses at Frieze NY (2019), we see the same dichotomy again, this time directed at how women have been represented throughout the history of art with voiceovers from Barbara Krueger and Sister Wendy. In Dinosaurs of Art at Art Basel Miami (2019), we get a slightly different critique. Here, the goddesses themselves are epitomes of creativity, opposed against the consumer capitalist nothingness that is often major art fairs, made most notable in Miami that year by the submission of a banana as a work of art. The audio of Greta Thunberg speaking about climate change superimposed onto the video heightens the critique of how the art world, when it is only a means of capitalist exchange, helps in the destruction of the planet. In the centre of the room, however, we have another Glitched Goddess, from 2018, in red, white and black, as an animated sculpture, derived from her #GlitchGoddess of Art Basel Miami with Picasso and Wood (2018) that went viral over social media and received millions of views, set to a voiceover of women artists complaining about inequality in the art world. In this image, the viewer seems to be invited to be at peace with and proud of one’s own body, to ignore the standards of the art and fashion worlds critiqued in the videos.
The last room is Interventions, containing five of Moghaddam’s famous #arthacks as well as two of what she calls her “chronometric sculptures;” constructed forms that are both computer animation and sculpture (The Glitched Goddesses, who first appeared as #arthacks are also chronometric sculptures.) For the art fair hacks, the artist creates the works over a span of two to three days, and as a result the topics and themes are often raw and instantly relevant. Her Non-Binary Nude Glitch #arthack at the landmark Survey of the Nude at Gagosian Gallery (2016) is both an intervention and an art historic correction for an exhibition that omitted a digital and a non-binary nude. The Frieze London 2019 #arthack features the Glitch Goddesses resisting a body covering in the form of a shroud, in a nod to the #anticomulsaryhijab movement of Iranian feminists, against a backdrop of Barbara Krueger’s My Body is a Battleground, successfully uniting western and eastern feminism as a unified resistance, set to the sounds of art historian Emily Jones explaining picture making from the 1980s. Several of Marjan’s Other NFTs with her #digitalbodies and signature figurative styles as NFTs derived from her #arthacks are also exhibited in this room such as Lordess with Red and Teale Voxelized GAN Painting.
The overall theme of the #arthacks is socio-political, a commentary and critique of our late-capitalist contemporary art scene. In works like Glitched Odalisque at the Whitney Museum (2017) or Glitched Odalisque at Frieze London (2019), the viewer is contrasted with the new vs the old, the organically creative contraposed to the commercial product. By making art hacks, digital artists do not need to create a Salon des Refuses to display their work, instead they can invade the biggest and priciest spaces of the art business. Elevating Internet meme culture to the level of important cultural critical discourse, the #arthacks have become a popular, widely respected new genre widely covered by the international press. The most widely known of Moghaddam’s #arthacks is Baiser at Mary Boone with Gan Collage Paintings which went viral in 2018 and continues to garner viral metrics even now, the version shown here is a 2021 NFT adaptation which sold into one of the biggest collections of NFT art collections on Superrare. Marjan considers Baiser as one of her best works in the unrivalled style of 3d CG figuration and animation that she has singlehandedly pioneered.
Marjan Moghaddam’s work is the work of an incredibly skilled technician and craftsperson working with a heightened sense of aesthetics and the mind of an existentialist philosopher. As such, understanding her work is often not easy, and requires multiple and prolonged viewings. Yet, as evidenced by all the comments that she receives on her work on social media, there is a sophisticated and global new audience for digital art that has not only found their way to her work on the Net but is additionally actively engaged with its profound discourse. The time spent on gazing at her creations, however, is time well spent, time that perhaps will leave the viewer’s mind a little more aware of the world and people around them. Perhaps one of the first major retrospectives of a prolific digital artist’s work in the metaverse, this exhibition successfully delivers a museum-grade landmark survey of important works from the last 4 decades by an important artist in this field; proving that digital art has now fully matured, and that the metaverse and its flagship museum is a valid and viable new experience for viewing art. Filippo Lorenzin’s impeccable curation and MOCDA’s architecturally designed virtual exhibition space, add to what is indeed one of the most significant early digital art museum retrospectives of the Metaverse.
In addition to the MOCDA retrospective, the works of Marjan Moghaddam are appearing at other museum exhibitions, including Proof of Art: The History of Digital Art & NFTs at the Photo and Media Art Museum in Linz, Austria, alongside works by luminaries such as Ai Wei Wei and Nam June Paik. This exhibition now offers a companion book on Digital Art and NFTs. This December, Marjan is exhibiting in Transformations, a group exhibition of NFT Art at Unit London’s Mayfair gallery. Her works are sold on Superrare, Institut from Unit London, Boson Protocol/Zora, and Rarible. This December she is creating a White Hot Magazine Commissioned NFT cover for sale on Foundation, and #GlitchGoddess will appear at the Vancouver 2022 Winter Festival as a commissioned AR installation, large format outdoor prints, and a 30’ tall soft sculpture. WM
Sophie Baron is an East Village-based cultural critic. Born in London, Sophie received her degree in art history from New York University. Her writing focuses on such topics as feminist art and cultural activism, innovative gender performances, and the role of technology and tech elites in the next generation of the art world.view all articles from this author