The Digital Experience

John Haber
in New York City

Cao Fei, David Claerbout, and Amie Siegel

"You saw nothing," a voice intones. "I saw everything," speaking to someone who could have seen no more and no less than you.

It sounds ominous, but it could be a great way to kill time. It could even be true. Cao Fei is used to living with the all-seeing eye, from China to global capitalism. She is also determined to match it, with the pace and immersive experience of a video game. New media from David Claerbout have still broader claims on the viewer's attention, but his models are more old-fashioned, from photography to the movies. With topics from laborers in Africa to Nazi Germany, they are also more humane and political. Last, Amie Siegel moves easily between analog and digital, black and white and color, Modernism and the natural world, as the setting for a ritual. from David Claerbout's Olympia (courtesy of the artist/Sean Kelly, 2016)

China: the prequel

Cao Fei thinks in absolutes, even when she is making them up out of whole cloth. Based in Beijing, she lives under an absolutist regime, one that controls her lifeblood as an artist, the digital world. She can neither confront it nor avoid it, but no matter. She has her ways. She is an international artist, in an art scene that extends everywhere and nowhere, with a vocabulary out of music videos, anime (or "cosplay"), video games, zombie films, and Star Wars. Instead of a retrospective at MoMA PS1, she has a prequel.

It starts innocently enough, in darkness and silence, from someone obsessed with noise and light. Her central room may look downright old-fashioned at that. It holds miniatures, the kind that serve for model train sets. Yet the only train on hand has derailed, and a plane has crashed, too, leaving little more than a wing. Then again, the entire show attests to wreckage that a child might have inflicted in a fit of anger. If she goes down fighting, it will be on a note of excess.

The models include a station, a factory, an apartment building, and of course a Macdonald's, much like East Asia for Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum. Tigers roam free, and almost the only visible labor is burying the dead. Still, La Town counts as home—and as inventory for a career. On video in the next room, its miniature cast comes to life, with narration in excellent French. Elsewhere scenes run to life size, with sheer delight in less than delightful circumstances. Pardon my French.

The videos date as early as 2004, with a full dozen of mock warriors bearing swords and laser weapons. If this former alternative space, where the artist already appeared in 2006, is now just another global art institution, its other new career solo belongs to Rodney McMillian, who has exhibited here before, too. (Two other rooms are left over from "Greater New York 2015.") The director, Klaus Biesenbach, has come under fire for good reason. Cao Fei also appeared in "Younger than Jesus" in 2009, the New Museum's first "generational," using hip-hop performers to enact their own Chinatown. Born in 1978, she is now officially older than Jesus.

She does, though, keep one watching, with fantasies that belong at once to her and to the regime. Her denizens spill over into the viewer's space as well, much like the model railroad. Robot vacuum cleaners scurry about on pedestals, set amid photos of misty mountains and fair grounds. Another room holds a double-decker cot, while on-screen workers have moved right into their factory, their labor no more or less oppressive than their leisure. The objects on a conveyer belt look shinier than their most cherished possessions. Whose Utopia? indeed.

Live actors also include the Grim Reaper, a caped woman, and a man releasing black helium balloons to the sky. The animated cast includes a concert pianist with the oversized gestures of a superhero. Statues of Chairman Mao tower over a role-playing game as RMB City (presumably pronounced like China's currency). Ultimately, though, the landscapes are fictions, symbolic representations of China's provinces and legends. Her real subject is the digital metropolis, and those older than Jesus will sense its limits. There can, though, always be another prequel.

Not a multiplex

Somehow, the movies can still suck you in. Even in the age of Netflix, its darkened room is larger than life, and so are the special effects that attract the audience to a blockbuster. And even at home, people seek larger and larger screens. One enters before the beginning, at least in the director's imagination, and one stays to the very end. As for new media? I could tell you, but this is art, with an opening every minute, and I am already on my way somewhere else.

David Claerbout still wants to suck you in. You share the experience of workers for Shell Oil in Nigeria, and on a bad day you might, like them, have sought shelter from the rain. The camera moves, almost imperceptibly, from them to the water at their feet rippling with light, so that it seems to descend like a downpour from above. Behind that screen, in another projection, "a young man named Elvis Presley" stands in his boxer shorts, head thrown back and bottle in hand. Claerbout enters the room alongside him in a 1956 photograph, close enough to touch his beer belly. Apparently, well before the King became a film star past his prime, this teen idol was approachable and out of shape.

In both works, no one moves a muscle, for the Belgian artist creates each scene from found stills. Both works also begin at a distance, as if the video were itself only a still. Further on, his camera tracks endlessly past the columns of what, one learns, is the stadium constructed for the 1936 Berlin Olympics—and for the greater glory of the Reich. An actual still take one up close to a cornerstone, in all its rough solidity. Yet here, too, one is dealing with a digital recreation, this time from many images, emptying them of human life. The stadium looks vivid and new, but its brutal promise is, thankfully, long gone.

In treating these as a single installation, "LIGHT/WORK" immerses one still further, only to realize that this is not a multiplex. The tracking shot looks back to maybe the greatest manipulation of space and time in film history, by Orson Welles at the start of Touch of Evil. A sign up front instructs one not to enter until the next fifteen-minute showing, counting down the minutes (digitally, of course). No one, though, seemed to mind that I ignored it, and someone even thanked me on my way out. I had tried to behave, honest, killing time with the drawings spelling out his plans, but forget it. This is video, with a long love-hate history when it comes to the conventions of TV and the movies.

Nam June Paik reduced a TV set to a prop in performance, while Stan VanDerBeek reduced it to explosions of color, light, and sound. Bill Viola still aims for spectacle, but the only one immersed in fire and water is he. Laura Poitras captures the experience of torture or of drones overhead, but her political point depends on that experience as interactive, with the responsibility on you. Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin are back, with video snaking through actual trees, simulated rocks, and industrial trash as people in and out of costume dance and scream. They mean the experience to be scary, too, although maybe only for those scared to death of gen Xers and millennials. The New Museum called its 2015 triennial, which Trecartin also curated, "Surround Audience," but it had its own short attention span.

Claerbout believes in immersion for its own sake, even if the experience comes at second or third hand—the dilemma of what the International Center of Photography calls "Public, Private, Secret." This is not about working conditions in the Third World, pop music, fascism, or other particulars. An earlier video downstairs takes one from a park bench into deep woods, which then somehow become a rainforest, before tracking back out and into the sky. As it does, the forest becomes a mere grove, and the clearing becomes a human landscape crossed by suburbs and geometric plots. Accompanied by soothing music, Travel all but begs to end with a cheerful slogan and a commercial sponsor. Still, as sunlight comes to the darkness of the Amazon, one cannot escape the glow.

The black swan

Amie Siegel chases ghosts, while leaving it open which ones she creates. They are not in the least frightening, although they draw on the fears and obsessions of others long past. They invite contemplation more than ghost-busting, in spaces that others took pleasure in contemplating long ago. Some appear in photographic negative as a sylvan, ghostly white. They are familiar landmarks, although one is unlikely to recognize at least two of them. Even when color appears, it cannot altogether dispel the mystery.

from Amie Siegel's Double Negative (Simon Preston gallery, 2015)She calls her first work Double Negative, and the negative spaces start with old-fashioned film projectors in a darkened room. They break up the black of opposite walls with glowing river landscapes, starring a swan. While the swan is black, the leaves and their shadows are a silvery white by the river's edge. They look like tinsel in December, only more translucent and glowing, and one could contemplate them for a long time. When a house comes into view, it seems much like an afterthought. Yet it once provided a center and a reason for its setting.

It looks more familiar on a third screen and in a more well-lit room, in color. Anyone who saw the Le Corbusier retrospective in 2013 will recognize it as the Villa Savoye—unless, that is, one gets it wrong. One of Modernism's most contemplative of buildings, it has modesty of a private home, the whiteness and rounded corners that give it the measure of its surroundings, and the stilts that turn the ground beneath much of it into an outdoor terrace without sinking the earth in shadow. It has influenced everything from country homes and a mile-high city for Frank Lloyd Wright to negative spaces for Rachel Whiteread. Siegel's color projection looks like a study in stillness and changing light. Her paired versions on film look like studies in opposites for Douglas Gordon, Vera Lutter, or Surrealism.

The film versions are double negatives—reversals not just of their subjects, but also of each other. Do not blame Siegel if they also do not quite pair up. One shows a copy after Le Corbusier in black in Canberra, where it serves as the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It is in the process, she explains, of duplicating its collection. The color projection includes a slow, inviting guided tour of its interior. Is every western museum an act of preservation or of usurpation, and is every collection a matter of pride or obsession? A second work heads for a different ethnographic collection, assembled by someone even more at the origins of Modernism, Sigmund Freud.

Fetish, in close-up and again in color, shows a hand, well, obsessed with what the artist pointedly identifies as the ritual cleaning of the collection. The hand lifts the items, which look like statuettes from high-school sports as designed by a very tacky late Renaissance sculptor, and transfer them one by one to the clean shelf. For Freud, every ritual or obsession would embody and protect against a fear. Just bear in mind that the caretaker is getting paid, and the most obsessive act may belong to Siegel. Besides, they really do invite contemplation. For a few moments at least, one can share in the obsession.

Siegel has shown others showing off before, with clips of "My Way" in "The Talent Show" at MoMA PS1 in 2011. Here she shows off herself, without the tackiness of others. Is a double negative a rhetorical flourish or a breach in etiquette? Does it mean a positive, a negative, or nothing at all? One can look without deciding, with pleasure in the silvery silhouettes and riverbank. One encounters a black swan once in a lifetime.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Cao Fei ran at MoMA PS1 through August 31, 2016, David Claerbout at Sean Kelly through April 30, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin at Andrea Rosen through April 20, and Amie Siegel at Simon Preston through June 19.

 

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