Following ‘Shifting Optics I’ and ‘II’, Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam presents the third in a series of group exhibitions concerning digital artists both emerging and established. ‘Shifting Optics III’ shows works by six artists that investigate the fine line between digital and analogue, between form and function.
What can the analogue teach us about the digital world? What steps are to be made now that the visual arts seem to have embraced the digital world as a habitat? Upstream Gallery has shown a keen interest in this matter ever since their first ‘Shifting Optics’ exhibition in 2014. Back then they introduced a new generation of artists − the so-called digital natives − that live and breathe the digital world and use it with the same ease as one would use any ‘traditional’ tool or medium. Artists such as Dutch golden boy Rafaël Rozendaal were represented, someone known for over one hundred websites, that sees the internet as his online (selling) gallery. In 2015 the second edition combined emerging artists such as Harm van den Dorpel with more established pioneers like JODI and Peter Struycken. It resulted in an expo that showed just how long the digital has been influencing art, and how closely aligned work from different generations can be.
For this third iteration they tackle the theme of digital versus analogue. What does that give us? Sometimes a translation of something that is perfectly natural offline but takes on a more insidious feel when placed online. The work of Max Dovey (UK, 1987) analyses our every move using visual recognition software, and translates it into cold hard facts. We see ourselves, with a slight delay, on crappy webcam footage. How do we look? 19% attractive. 18% smiling. 22.5% attractive again, but only 14.5% business woman. It makes us giggle, then uncomfortable, then puzzled about this threatening analysis of our person.
At other times the bridge between analogue and digital gives us a sweet taste of something offline that we can only now experience in virtual form. ‘The Farm’, a video by Chinese artist Yu Honglei, is a virtual reconstruction of Joan Miró‘s house, with a voiceover tenderly narrated by his wife. She talks about fellow artists that frequented the house, how they made wine, how Picasso was not to be trusted. The aesthetics are naïve and colourful, but more than that it is the narrative content, a reveal of daily life behind the now iconic artist facade, that is vital to this digital reconstruction.
Turning this motion around is the work of Jan Robert Leegte (1973), another Dutch artist who transforms digital concepts into physical objects. He makes sculptures out of Apple scrollbars - one here is placed underneath the fireplace for extra tension - while in ‘Ornaments’ he beams computer interfaces and selection frames onto the wall, rendering them as ‘classical’ ornaments. These online abstractions come to life as architectural material but do not retain attention in their new form, appearing instead as purely superficial.
Whether something digital remains interesting once placed in the physical world is also a valid thought when looking at the work of Aram Bartholl (DE, 1972). Known for his ‘Map’ installations in which he built larger than life-size sculptures of the Google Map-icon in real locations, in ‘Shifting Optics III” Bartholl presents a wooden sculpture of a smartphone taking a picture. In this sculpture the screen is literally blank: a physical cut-out through which you can view the gallery space. The hand that is holding the phone remains anonymous, while the ‘image’ is non-existent. Only the real world is offered.
‘Shifting Optics III’ seems to ask us: what is it that compels us to build images, and how do we go about doing it? Is expressing something in analogue form more sincere? Or does it just feel that way? The paintings of US artist Austin Lee combine both digital and analogue sensibilities in one perfect union. His small canvases of funny, fantastic figures catapult you back to 1980s graffiti culture and the earlier Cobra movement, but look closely and their diffuse brush strokes actually originate from a swiping iPad movement.
To the works on display here, it seems as though the digital always comments on the analogue. And, indeed, the two were not born separate. However, taking this symbiotic relationship as a main theme does not always acknowledge the subtleties underlying this two-way dynamic. ‘Shifting Optics III’ would benefit from a more diffused look upon the subject − ironically just like the way we deal with our (digital) world.