“You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.”
It’s a line out of World on a Wire, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 virtual-reality thriller about the jolts and ruptures within a vast nesting doll of simulated worlds. The quote also appears in the titles of two works by Oliver Payne. RX-78-2 (You Are Nothing More than the Image Others Have Made of You) (2015), consists of three wall-mounted pieces of powder-coated aluminum: a jewellike red pentagon flanked by two white segments tapering outward and upward to form a wide V. The flat metal pieces are shaded to give the illusion of depth, and the form is immediately recognizable — to fans of mecha anime — as a somewhat analytic rendering of the “V-fins” that adorn the forehead of the epochal original Gundam robot. Untitled (Holbein’s Skull / You are nothing more than the image others have made of you pt. 2) (2016), is a mirror fabricated to the same dimensions as Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), with the great anamorphic skull ink-jet printed in the appropriate position. No other elements from the famed double portrait have made it in, and the piece firstly brings to mind those old novelty mirrors with masthead and cover lines for Playboy’s Playmate of the Year or Time’s Man of the Year. Of course, we are encouraged by Payne’s identification of the latter work as something like a sequel to consider how the two both relate back to Fassbinder’s rumination on virtuality and to each other, beyond the obvious fact that each uses the old Pop move of extracting and repurposing an icon.
Mirrors are everywhere in World on a Wire, a Borgesian thematizing of illusory reality. Payne’s Holbein quotation plays on the idea of the vanitas, both the more modern implication of the term — gazing into the mirror, the requisite selfie — but also its original meaning of futility, emptiness (here made literal). But what we miss in the erasure of The Ambassadors is everything but the ambassadors; their faces are fungible. Instead it’s the textiles, tiles, furs, tools and instruments, all the meticulously rendered details of sixteenth-century material culture. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say the same would be true for us: should some person a few centuries from now be looking through a collection of selfies with Holbein’s Skull, her interest would surely be with the phones and the apparel thirstily subsumed by the mirror. The people of the future don’t care about your face; it’s your Nikes they want. Put another way: one implication of the work is that it historicizes our own images of our stuff in the present.
Payne included Holbein’s Skull in his recent show at Overduin & Co., in Los Angeles, called “Seven Objects.” So it’s an object of images of objects — a characterization that would serve equally for RX-78-2: a metal manufacturing fantasy from the image world of anime, made material. In this, however, he is very much not alone. Countless mecha enthusiasts have assembled and painted model Gundam figurines and busts from Bandai kits. While Payne’s piece, on the one hand, functions as a kind of tribute to that world of obsessive and participatory fandom, his Gundam — flat and shaded — seems suspended between model, image and object.
And yet the distinctions here are, more or less, irrelevant. What matters is that “others have made” them — and that, of course, is capitalism. We live through and make meaning through having, not having, hating, thinking about, reconsidering things that others have made.
The Mobile Suit Gundam series (1979), from which the RX-78-2 Gundam comes, introduced the convention of the piloted robot. The robot has no identity, autonomy or personality as such — it is merely a reflection of its pilot. But the opposite, in a way, seems also to be true.
You are nothing more than the image others have made of you. The most obscure word there, and perhaps the only one about which important questions remain, is you.
RX-78-2 and Holbein’s Skull both present images to be slipped into and out of. And that is how images and objects (both terms have assumed almost mystical significance in certain quarters) function in Payne’s work. As often as not made by others, they are malleable, capacious loci of shifting or contested meanings, individually and collectively negotiated. Think of all those kids applying tiny brushes to Gundam figures, or better still, making their way through video games.
In his video Untitled (Shadow of the Colossus / In a Landscape) (2013), you see a tightly framed, unmoving shot. The setup is symmetrical. Two of everything: speakers, oscillating standing fans, potted plants, Technics 1200s, incense holders and burning incense sticks. Dead center: just one mixer. On the wall there are two flat-screen TVs, and on each an unseen player steers the protagonist through the vast, lonely landscapes of Shadow of the Colossus (2006). They start from the same spot in the game, but their paths quickly diverge. Meanwhile, the turntables are both playing the same recording, John Cage’s “In a Landscape” (1948), and it’s a question of how long until they fall out of synch. What kinds of variation will there be among the other elements — the plant leaves, the incense smoke? It’s an allegorical scene about the logic of games: complete freedom within sometimes-arbitrary strictures; creative possibility within what’s already given (the Technics 1200s on their own are the great symbol of this principal).
The video also seems almost to function as a translation between worlds, a description that actually covers quite a bit of Payne’s work. This can, as we’ve seen, entail materializing media or recontextualizing specimens from subcultural spaces and activities. His is an art of simple gestures, and things often feel as if they’ve been plucked from somewhere, out of a field of activity. They are familiarly totemic, tokens of a not-too-distant place.
In two related series from 2013, for example, he used different parts of video-game-arcade cabinets: control panel overlays (the laminated graphics with holes cut out for joysticks and buttons) affixed to framed mirrors; and plexi marquees turned upside down and backwards and backlit inside a light box. While these pieces memorialize the arcade as a social space, they also register the passage of the hardware into nostalgia-tinged fetish items. There is a strange specificity that these control-panel overlays assume when framed, and the near total disappearance of the world of arcades coincides with the expansion of a world of replacement parts and repros for kitting out games in Brooklyn bars and collectors’ basements.
It is significant that the marquees and control-panel overlays are both framed, presented as discrete and clearly — even traditionally — demarcated art objects. The same holds for a lot of Payne’s work with found objects. His campily sci-fi — almost operatic — Weed Container sculptures (2016) feature the colored plastic canisters widely used in LA’s marijuana dispensaries, placed on plexi plinths and lit from below. In a 2012 series Payne attached plastic rock-climbing holds to black or white monochrome paintings on canvas. But it would be a misreading to suggest that these acts of framing and placing were about equivalences, that by bringing video games into the gallery — or punk or skateboarding or any of the rest of it — Payne was making a case for videogames to the art world. As much as his objects and images present a glimpse onto other worlds, they are two-way portals — the gaze passes this way as well.
Of course there are portals and then there are portals. And Payne has made a sequence of works based on the video game Portal (2006), published by Valve. In the game, you try to make your way through a series of rooms using a “portal gun” to create interspatial passageways. The two termini of a given portal appear like a breach in physical space: roughly human-sized ovals with a flaming outline — one blue, one orange. You step through one, you come out the other. What you see though one terminus is the perspective of standing where the other is. Put one end of a portal on the wall and another on the floor: through the one on the wall you will look upward through the one on the floor. Payne replicates this mechanic, producing a pair of photorealist murals of portal ends in different rooms in a gallery or opposite ends of a convention center hosting an art fair. In 2015 he created a portal with one end at Nanzuka in Tokyo and the other at Aishonanzuka in Hong Kong for a simultaneous show at both spaces. Through the “Portal Paintings” you see the physical details of the other space as well, of course, as art — either his or someone else’s, depending on the context.
Often mesmerizing, the “Portal Paintings” are also very funny, in part because of the absurdity of rendering the dynamic movement of the game static with a painstaking trompe l’oeil mural. They are at once extremely realistic and gleefully unreal, both more and less real than the game itself. With their blank, fixed depiction of art objects and art spaces, the “Portal Paintings” insist on the art world as a sphere of illusion. I mean this here not so much in the Platonic sense but, rather, that as a set of social configurations and operations with rituals and discursive practices that make meaning — and money — through commodities, the art world is no different than any of the other worlds from which Payne reports.
Because illusion is everywhere in this work. Or rather, it offers a strange balance between illusion and literalism. Which brings us back around to the simulations and virtual reality where we began. “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Payne’s interest, I think, has little to do with the widespread fascination with images we see in a lot of recent art — their seductions and overwhelming ubiquity. And his concern with illusion suggests less Baudrillard’s hyperreality than it does something closer to Zizek’s reality of the virtual: that even if we are always only perceiving images, those images assume a kind of reality because they structure our interactions with the world.
The pictorial rupture created by the skull in The Ambassadors — beamed in from another world and a different picture plane — insists not only on the futility of all that stuff — the globes, the furs etc. — but also of the painting’s facility and exquisite verisimilitude. Like fineries and scientific instruments, the very act of depiction, for Holbein, becomes a metonym for the vanity of wealth and knowledge. Both objects and images are illusory. But then so is the skull. It’s an illusion about how our illusions are illusions. And now it’s on a mirror.
Eli Diner is Flash Art associate editor.