By JONATHAN GOODMAN, April 2019
Speculative Cultures: A Virtual Reality Exhibition | February 7-April 14, 2019
Curated by Tina Sauerlaender, Peggy Schoenegge, and Erandy Vergara
Shelia Johnson Design Center | Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery
Curators Tina Sauerlaender, Peggy Schoenegge, and Erandy Vergara invited seven international artists from all over the world--Morehshin Allahyari, Scott Benesiinaabandan, Matias Brunacci, Yu Hong, Francois Knoetze, Erin Ko, and Jamie Martinez--to address topics as far-ranging as a journey to the afterlife, as adumbrated by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, an option for a few shamanistic journeys, and a presentation of private Chinese life to name a few. All six installations, inspired by small islands, make use of virtual reality to present their visions. Virtual reality has come a long way, as this show attests to.
Brunacci’s installation, titled Virtual Shamanism: Toward an Alternative Reality of Consciousness (2018), consists of floor decoration composed of a star with five points, created by thick blue stripes. In the middle of the star is the virtual reality headset that hangs from the ceiling. If you look into the spectacles, you find that you own pair of hands, accurately outlined by straight white lines, precisely mimics the movement of your hands and fingers present. The artwork consists of different shamanistic journeys one can take. By watching a guest participate, I could see everything she was visualizing through the monitor which is also part of the installation. In this journey, a masked person dressed in a synthetic suit reflecting light fills the screen facing the audience. A very large left hand with a glove makes obscure gestures that may or may not have spiritual meaning. The figure stands in the middle of a field of low-level low polygon mountains, brown in hue. Additionally, geometric forms, yellow and brown, create abstract, more or less architectural structures. Like most of the pieces in the show Virtual Shamanism present an alternative reality--a spiritualism that is eclectic and slightly strange, but compelling.
Erin Ko and Jamie Martinez, artists deeply interested in the Egyptian guide to life after death, have worked extensively with the hieroglyph spells given to Ani in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which give directions to the recently deceased on their journey to the afterlife. In their work shown here, Neo kingdom (2017), Ko and Martinez have constructed a triangle tent made of red organza fabric that seems to suspend from the ceiling and also floats on top of a neon triangle, while hieroglyphs created by light above fill the floor, wall and tent. The fabric is very inviting and seems to breathe on its own giving the installation life despite the fact the artwork is about death and the travel into the underworld. With the help of virtual reality headsets, one is immediately transported to another world, which is made up of some sort of wave, then we are engulphed by a large sphere that takes the viewer on a unique journey to meet Anubis for your final judgment. It is an eerie, even a desolate, image, in which the grandeur associated with housing the dead is achieved. Outside the tent are two pedestals with tablets again using the hieroglyphs; one of them has thin copper wire surrounding the hieroglyphs while the other tablets come alive through augmented reality via an application on the iPad which accompanies the artwork.
Morehshin offers another version of the unknown in her beautiful work She Who Sees the Unknown: Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj (2018). In this installation, we come onto a floor covering, made up of paper describing a simple maze on a gold background. Morehshin’s audience stands in front of a screen that shows cauldrons of fire in a futuristic background--half night sky, half impossible architecture. The viewer who wears the virtual reality headset sees the same imagery as that occurring on the screen. In this art piece you can use the controllers to make unique hand gestures that keep the simulation moving forward and mimics the movements of the actual hands. The overall impression of the piece is slightly unnerving--it is not as if we are looking at an alternative reality, but rather as if we have walked into an actual one. The realism of the current crop of virtual reality art is extraordinary, forcing the audiences into places that hardly seem imaginable but exist, at least within the art, as if they were entirely real.
In a way, then, this show announces a future for technologically driven art that is just as ambitious--and accomplished! --as traditional media. It wasn’t always this way: the technology tended to be too crude to effectively engage the viewer. But, as time goes on, the imaging looks like it will become more and more accurate in describing worlds unknown to us. The only problem that crops up fairly regularly is the awkwardness of the virtual reality headset, which make one feel uncomfortable, slightly claustrophobic--this despite the seemingly huge spaces generated by the technology. Not all the installations could be described in these works of art, but all of them demonstrate the same high level of achievement in a relatively new field. To the artists’ credit, they do not rely on virtual reality simply to entrance the viewer; instead, they use it to portray a world standing not symbolically but, to appearances, genuinely just beyond our reach. That the field can have developed so well, in so short a time, demonstrates the uncanny ability of artists to incorporate technological innovation—This show is a great example of what is to come and it was done remarkably well so it wasn’t just about the virtual reality but an experience with many journeys. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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