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Vol. 14, No. 4, 2015
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code is replacing the act of creation

reviewed by


Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.

The status and significance of the image changes in postmodern digital art by becoming a secondary manifestation -- a material epiphenomenon, as it were -- of the abstract code, which becomes the primary vehicle of creativity. Before, the creation of material images was the primary goal of visual art, and the immaterial code that guided the process was regarded as secondary. Now, the creation of the code -- more broadly, the concept -- becomes the primary creative act. The image no longer exists in its own right, but now exists only to make the invisible code visible, whatever the material medium. It makes no difference to the code whether it appears as a two-dimensional or three-dimensional image (from The Matrix of Sensation by Donald Kuspit).

The new head curator of Denmark’s ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum of Art, Erlend G. Høyersten introduced his artistic vision with the exhibition Out of the Darkness. Discussing the exhibition, he cites actions, film, and the Bible as influences on the final exhibition. Navigating in the dark through the exhibition’s maze of black walls and curtains, Universal Studio’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter ™ seems like a far more salient influence. Both are essentially fully immersive experiences. While this has been one of the defining characteristics of amusement parks -- it is a radical reinvention of the museum. In light of Kuspit’s comments, it may be a necessary reinvention. In fact, if art is becoming nothing more than code: Out of the Darkness can be viewed as Høyersten raising the ramparts and defending the last vestige of the image as a primary experience.

In stating “the image becomes a secondary manifestation -- a material epiphenomenon” Kuspit’s description of the mechanics of digitalization actually has two practical ramifications in our society: conversion of image to code and objects into commodities. Kuspit does not touch on commodification. What digitization does in the physical realm commodification does in the conceptual realm. The mechanics are the same for both. Essentially, digitalization involves the breaking down of any image into a series of dots or dashes. Commodification renders everything down to a quantitative value. Both effectively erradicate the sacredness of the object. In the analog word there is a huge, quantitative difference between Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and a painting of Elvis on black velvet. In the digital realm, there is no difference -- both are dots and dashes, just arranged differently. The same is true for commodification. In a true pure capitalist environment -- the difference between a da Vinci and Elvis on black velvet is quantitative; their price. In the most extreme case, some economists argue that human life can be measured exclusively by its future earning potential.

Høyersten acknowledges this near the end of the exhibition where he set up a black room where the walls are lined with light weight industrial shelving. A wide array of eclectic objects, from a few Warhol prints and organs preserved in a glass jar, to a video of two performance artists grating onions, fill the shelves. The final result feels a bit like a salon crossed with a yard sale. This creates an effect that every object in the room had outlived its cultural relevance. The inclusion of the Warhol prints generates an air of irony to the room. The most famous quote attributed to Warhol was, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

This dark room reads as kind of an echo of the traditional museum experience, while the rest of the exhibition is created almost completely around immersive environments. Even rooms that just contained objects seemed so dark and small that the viewer felt more like they were interacting with rather than viewing the art. One room includes Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci’s My Sense of Your Sense of Language, the text is compressed and written using white neon lights. By narrowing both the letters and spacing between the letters, the effect is like we are looking at the text from an acute angle even when the viewer is looking at it straight on. In addition, the sign takes up almost the entire display wall. Since the room is so small, the viewer can never get back far enough to take in the entire work. In this instance, the installation echoes content of the work. Nannucci illustrates that at its most fundamental, language is subjective. Every word, period or space is socially determined and therefore has content. This is exaggerated by how the work is installed. Being in a small space the viewer can never be able to move back far enough to read the entire work. Hence -- not only is language subjective in what is said, it is subjective in what is heard.

Out of the Darkness includes a large installation, Five Angels for the Millennium, 2001, in which Bill Viola surrounds the viewer with both sounds and images. Each video contains and image of a pool of water. Each image is done in a single high intensity hue including turquoise, aqua and cyan. A clothed male figure either dives into or emerges from each video at irregular intervals. The mix of water sounds becomes almost hypnotic. By engulfing the viewer in sound -- Viola makes the viewer feel as if they are also the subject as much as they are the viewer of the images.

The most radical piece in the exhibition is Olafur Eliasson’s Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas, 2009. The piece is a fully enclosed room filled with haze and florescent lights. Inside, the viewer walks through a fog of vibrant colors and is unable to see more than a few feet ahead. The experience is quite disconcerting. Looking down, the floor is completely obscure. This creates a feeling of walking on air. In addition, the experience is extremely claustrophobic.

Kuspit concluded his essay with the observation that images now ”exist[s] only to make the invisible code visible.” This is really a radical change in how we view art. Part of function of visual art has been to make the intangible tangible. Erlend G. Høyersten’s Out of the Darkness asserts this as the function of art. Unfortunately, by relying so heavily on engulfing the viewer in the art, it seems to accept the tenants of the argument it undermines.

By Anthony Merino:
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Ego and Art
Nick Cave & Funk(adelic)
Foucault for Dummies



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Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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