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Beautiful New Worlds. Virtual Realities in Contemporary Art Zeppelin Museum / Friedrichshafen

Perhaps it’s the ever-so-slight motion that catches your eye. The first thing you see as you walk into the Zeppelin Museum’s “Schöne Neue Welten” (Beautiful New Worlds) exhibition are little viewfinders, dangling on springs. They’re tethers between this exhibition on virtual reality and its unlikely venue, a provincial German institution devoted to the history of airship technology, housed in a gorgeous Bauhaus railway station. Each viewfinder contains a sample of stereoscopic images used to promote zeppelins in the early twentieth century, black-and-white photos refracted into a 3-D illusion. For head curator Ina Neddermeyer, this primitive virtual world was a vital preface to the cutting-edge realms that form the exhibition.

The parallels are dark, and perhaps all too apposite. This is, after all, an exhibition about the political uses of technology. Where once zeppelins became flagships for fascism, so too have virtual technologies abetted a contemporary variant on that ideology. About halfway through the exhibition, two films dueling on opposite walls complete a terrible loop. One shows virtual reality being used to train American soldiers, while the other shows how it helps treat the PTSD they suffer as a result of the wars they fight (Harun Farocki, Serious Games I & III, 2010).

The effect is brilliant. From sunny halls to darkened corridors to spartan rooms, there’s attention to flow and presentation that enlivens every aspect of the exhibition. Yellow guardrails, seemingly ripped from a Metro somewhere, gently guide visitors through the open-concept space.

One notable presentation stands out. Becoming Dragon, by Micha Cárdenas, is a 2008 mixed-reality performance in which the artist dramatized her experience in the online game Second Life. It is presented at the Zeppelin Museum as a recording of the artist immersed in the game, projected onto a wall. She lived as a dragon in the game for 365 hours, intending to parallel the imposition of a yearlong waiting period for transgender people who sought sexual reassignment surgery. If you were forced to take a yearlong test to prove you are who you know yourself to be, why not become something else in the meantime? Those possibilities blossom in gaming universes, and several of the works in the exhibition play with that.

The politics of a new commission from New York-based German artist Florian Meisenberg, whose installations combine painting and sculpture with digital media, are more subtle and certainly more playful. Pre-Alpha Courtyard Games (raindrops on my cheek) (2017) is an elaborate VR setup in which you manipulate a virtual wireframe that only you can see. Onlookers, who see only your disembodied hands projected onto a nearby wall, must piece together for themselves what you are doing.

Meanwhile, the more visceral politics of the refugee crisis manifest in the virtual film Journey to Mars (2016) by Halil Altindere, which ironically posits Mars as the only place willing to accept Syrian refugees (this pairs neatly with another piece — Forensic Architecture’s Saydnaya, 2016) — which shows how VR can reconstruct Assad’s prisons from the memories of its survivors). Like the Nest Collective’s Let This Be A Warning (2017), also included in the exhibition, Journey is a virtual film. But Warning is more unsettling as it’s slightly more involving, with your interactivity limited to looking around furtively while rooted in place. You are an interloper astronaut on an African world, treated with all the loathing and suspicion that migrants to Europe often experience. Your highly constrained ability to move makes this piece brilliantly expressive; you feel like a helpless passenger rather than a mere observer. This urgent masterpiece from Nairobi anchors the collection.

You’ll find wickedly involving porn here (Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s DICKGIRL 3D(X), 2016) and weirdly wonderful commentary on Silicon Valley (artist duo Banz & Bowinkel’s Palo Alto, 2017) — all held together by the through line of political implication. Most important of all, however, a case is made for emphasizing the reality of the virtual. The line between simulation and the reality it imitates becomes blurry here, as it should. Neddermeyer and her colleagues deserve credit for capturing it all.

Still, one imagines, in a few weeks’ time there’ll be more than a few broken headsets, toppled PC towers and impossibly tangled cords from all the inevitable roughhousing that the equipment will experience. Reality intrudes in more mundane ways, after all.

Museums still haven’t quite figured out how to bridge the virtual/physical divide, and the Zeppelin Museum is no exception. The headset itself is, invariably, an art object in any installation — a point made clear by the contribution of a VR set from the 1990s displayed here under glass. At the Zeppelin Museum the headset is, in the case of Altindere’s Journey to Mars, surrounded by a semicircular mural depicting the sci-fi publicity of the installation; in the case of Let This Be A Warning, suspended spider-like from the ceiling in an austere room; in the case of Courtyard, adrift on a carpet surrounded by the carpet-like playfield of Meisenberg’s virtual world. An attempt was clearly made to give each headset and computer a meaningful place in the installation. Banz & Bowinkel leaned into it by making their computer tower a glittering, branded affair of plexiglas and LEDs.

Art and design are restored to their unity here; the tech is part of the aesthetic experience. But the displays remain somewhat anarchic as well. As with VR itself, there is no final word on what it all means, what it’s all for, or where it’s all going.

You can see this as a failing, but it must have been so with the zeppelins of old. And we again return to the unsettling analogy that frames this exhibit and wonder if we’ve already sailed into the storm.

by Katherine Cross

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Lito Kattou Eleni Koroneou Gallery / Athens

It is night and you are walking in the streets when, suddenly, the lights go out and you become tangled in darkness. Your sense of location shrinks while your sense of temporality expands. You wait for the moon to stop masking the sun, as if in a startling solar eclipse. Or, you wait for the police to decide that the fight is over and that it is okay to switch the lights on, as if on a Friday in Exarcheia, Athens. “Night Fight,” the first solo show by Lito Kattou at Eleni Koroneou Gallery, is similarly muffled across a poetic distance and a violent proximity.

Near the gallery entrance, two “Demands” (all works, 2017) read: “let us remain in the past” and “let us forget who we are.” The texts are rendered in mirror-finished PVC, in a font suggesting a graffiti tag, whose decontextualized affect here is not unlike that of a fresco in a museum. It is not clear from whence they have been displaced, nor who is making these directives. Suffice to say, they recalcitrate the looming present — even though their reflecting surfaces (temporarily) curb the images of the sculptures opposite them, in the lower level of the gallery. There, five freestanding elements are arranged in a seeming clockwise formation and are equipped with textiles printed with ring braids, cut-out aluminum scars or flattened plastic swords, to be used as decorations and weapons, tattoos and talismans. Coated in shining violet and blue car paints, these steel “Warriors” are assemblages of alphabetical symbols: the tops form semi-/circular and straight lines, while the bases are S-shaped trestle legs with a potentially basculating pendulum hung between. Thus, these otherwise thin, graphic signs suggest the possibility of oscillation or, more generally, movement — a gesture as simple yet potent as the leg moved forward in a kouros-type statue.

Such sequencing of references to, and divergences from, ideas of humanness and aliveness is amplified by the “Evening Shadows” series: slim aluminum silhouettes of body parts mounted on the walls, whose indexicality speaks of haunted ontologies and sculptural absences. Crucially, these frictions broaden Kattou’s investigation of the politics of volume, manifesting the latter as a problematic premise upon which the qualities of subjectness and agency are granted. In this sense, they participate in a transformative process of mythopoesis, aimed to politically open the way for new space-times populated by subjectivities yet to be known.

by Bianca Stoppani

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Luciano Fabro Simon Lee / London

In 1967 Germano Celant observed how Luciano Fabro (1936–2007) “reproposes the rediscovery of a pavement, a corner, or the axis that unites the floor and ceiling of a room. He’s not worried about satisfying the system, and intends instead to disembowel it.”

In their elegant austerity, these early works explain why the artist required a separate stanza of the Arte Povera manifesto. Instead of attempting to expose the prevailing aesthetic structure through poverty of materials, Fabro sought to pare down the intellectual scaffolding with which the viewer approached works of art.

All of the pieces here use metal or glass to dislocate the situation in which they are encountered, both by the body and by the eye. Exposing their surrounding spatial — and therefore institutional — limitations, works such as Croce (1965–2001), a large stainless steel cross, and Asta (1965–2001), whose pole hangs from ceiling to just above the floor, blocking an exit, occupy as much space as possible with the minimum material necessary. Visitor throughflow is routed via a series of works: Tondo e rettangolo (1964–2004), Mezzo specchiato mezzo trasparente and Tutto trasparente (both 1965–2007), and Buco (1963-2005), partitions of cold metal, glass and mirror whose clinical designs target the gallery as a transparently corporate entity — all white walls and potted plants — in a prescient reflection on our own late-capitalist reality.

Other, more playful constructions seem nonetheless to be stress testing the space. Mounted to the wall at one end, Ruota (1964–2001) and Squadra (1965–2001) flex and bend under gravity’s weight, in so doing softening the sculptures’ hard design in a way that reflects the artist’s historical role as a bridge between developments in Italy and post-Minimalist narratives abroad. As the artist once proclaimed: “I need to know how my hands function on something which remains static. The form of Italy is static, immobile, I measure my hands’ mobility against its stillness.” Fifty years on from the manifesto, Fabro’s original scenography reveals the immobility of our fabricated selves.

by Alex Estorick

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Alex Katz Gavin Brown Enterprise / New York

Alex Katz turned ninety years old this year. Yet despite an age that would slow most people down, he seems as if he’s just getting started with this inspiring show of paintings whose ease of composition and masterful use of color are simply a joy to look at.

The exhibition consists of twenty large-scale works completed over the past two years. While the landscapes, cityscapes and portraits that make up the show are familiar themes for Katz, these new paintings show an artist who has perfected his use of line and color. Pared-down renderings of places and people, such as his wife Ada or the landscape near his house in Maine, explore subjects  he has returned to throughout his career, and to which he has intimate connections. With cream-colored trousers, blue T-shirt and comically tall farmer’s hat, set against a dark-green background, Ada (2016) is a character we may have seen before, and exudes a perfectly balanced symphony of paint and image.

Because so much of what Katz paints is caught up in his private history, viewing these works can be like reading an intimate diary. But like any good diary, a lot is left to the imagination. Take Cityscape 3 (2017), a painting of a church with a small cross at the roof’s apex and neighboring building, with wispy clouds in the blue sky behind them. This scene could be from Manhattan, rural Ohio or a million miles away. And while the simple, unadorned building is a trope that Katz has returned to again and again, he makes it feel fresh and effortless. The pleasure of viewing a Katz painting stems in part from its use of color and composition: the hues are so perfectly matched that you wonder if any other combination would be as effective, while the way the lines and brushstrokes work within the pictorial plane deliver just the right amount of ambiguity — teasing the universal out of the personal. With these new works, it seems as though Katz’s hands have directly translated the subject of the artist’s gaze into a Katzian take on reality, where the familiar is turned into something mysterious yet intimate — like an old friend who teaches you something new every day.

by Aaron Bogart

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Nilima Sheikh Chemould Prescott Road / Mumbai

 

I’m towing my boat across the ocean with a thread.
Will He hear me and help me across?
Or am I seeping away like water from a half-baked cup?
Wander, my poor soul, you’re not going home anytime soon.

 

Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded’s words (translated by Ranjit Hoskote) are inscribed on a free-hanging canvas along with other poems and excerpts of poems that speak of separation, migration, statelessness and waiting without an end in sight.

Sixteen such canvas scrolls hang, back-to-back, from a wooden and metallic structural support that resembles a folding screen with eight leaves or panels. The work, by Nilima Sheikh, titled Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016–17), has been placed in the far corner of the gallery space. Arranged in an arc, it draws you in and enfolds you in its multiplicity of voices and images.

Sheikh’s casein tempera paintings, on canvas supports measuring nearly seven by three feet, attempt to illustrate the histories of North India, including the Partition of Punjab in 1947, by translating discursive text, folklore and poetry into a pictorial language. To achieve this, she engages with other histories as well as poetic, craft and visual traditions from India and East Asia. Prominent among these extrinsic influences is her collaboration with Sanjay Soni and the family of Vishnu Prasad Soni of Mathura in Northern India, who are practitioners of Sanjhi, the traditional art of designing and cutting paper stencils. The motifs, painted with the aid of the Sanjhi stencils, add a layer to the canvas and appear in all the works. This pattern of recurrence is also true of the illustrated characters and stories that appear in Sheikh’s works. Contextual texts extracted from historical accounts, folktales, fiction, poetry and journalism are stenciled either on the top sections of the scrolls or positioned among the illustrations — maintaining a rhythm of interplay between word and image.

The work was first exhibited at Documenta 14 in Kassel earlier this year. In the current exhibition, it is accompanied by eleven new smaller works displayed in the adjacent “Wooden Room.” Themes of lamentation, displacement, longing and memory echo in these tempera paintings made on handmade Sanganer paper.

by Roshan Kumar Mogali

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Simon Denny Fine Arts, Sydney

To most, the term “Silicon Valley” invokes the idea of American tech-billionaires based in San Francisco. It is the foundation of a modern technological force that now underscores everyday existence; smartphones, search engines and social networking sites all have their origin and spiritual home within its vicinity. What is perhaps lesser known within the popular (or rather Western) imagination is the city of Shenzhen, sometimes described as the Silicon Valley of China and renowned for its technological industry and enterprises. This is the city that conceptually foregrounds Simon Denny’s latest solo exhibition, titled “Shenzhen Entrepreneurial Form.”

Shenzhen is a fitting location for the New Zealand-born, Berlin-based Denny to base his latest work upon. The artist has become renown in recent years for his large-scale installations that interrogate the complex intersection of technology, corporate culture, labor and society within the twenty-first century. A 2015 installation titled A Secret Power for the Venice Biennale, for instance, was a critical examination of the contemporary world as reflected by NSA PowerPoint slides leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

“Shenzhen Entrepreneurial Form” is technically precise and clinically executed. Contained within a single room, the work consists of three large synthetic plinths, perched atop light box platforms and imprinted with colorful airbrushed images of electronic innards and Chinese text characters. A documentary video of factory workers in Shenzhen projects onto one wall, while a deconstructed karaoke microphone sits encased within a glass cabinet on the opposite. The effect is almost church-like, akin to a kind of technological altarpiece, and it feels both complex and calming: a shrine to the achievements of late capitalism, to the bizarre ingenuity of wireless karaoke microphones and the artificial glow of LED lights.

This is not without critical intent, however. In an accompanying essay, Denny extrapolates that “China aims to encourage self-sufficiency via a program of mass entrepreneurship; a meritocratic system wherein everyone has access to the tools for creating their own business, and thus a means of supporting themselves. In short, this could feel like Thatcherism on steroids.”

The show is distinctly complimented by the newness of the gallery space itself. Its director, Ryan Moore, previously of Modern Art London, has recently relocated to Sydney, with Denny’s show only the second to be held in the new space. An upcoming show of work by another Berlin-based artist, Juliette Blightman, has solidified the gallery as a showcase for international contemporary art — much needed within the current Sydney art landscape.

It is an extremely promising start for the young gallery. Denny’s installation forges a sense of critical engagement with the far-reaching impact of technology under late capitalism. As the century progresses and global markets continue to expand, the effects on society are yet to be fully realized. Denny’s contemplative body of work essentially begs the question: What now does the future hold?

by Emily Grant

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