Virtual Gaze Exhibition Statement
‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’
Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936
As the pandemic unfolded, our world view inadvertently shifted from the physical to the virtual. Our loved ones and colleagues were rendered to the maximum degree of pixel density our devices could handle; we became our front-cameras. The tradition of illusion in art shifted into our palms and we were now the illusion; every online image a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil.
Of course, well before the pandemic, we willingly became devoted subjects of surveillance capitalism, embracing a marked escalation in technological addiction framed by a backdrop of environmental and economic catastrophe. The subsequent governmentally and socially enforced separation only served to underscore our late-capitalist mentalities: we are alone, but technology can save us. Accepting the pandemic as our final, complete baptismal immersion into hyperreality (in case there were any specks of reality still lingering), one recalls the French philosopher Guy Debord’s pithy 1967 ‘Society of the Spectacle’ portending, “the spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate.”
Surveillance capitalism, to underscore, is an economic system focused on the commodification of personal data with the express purpose of generating profit. Baudrillard defines hyperreality as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality”. Reality is no longer discernible as we live in our blessed, optimised, panopticon lives. We’ve exchanged our natural personhood to become branded commodities emancipated from the shackles of history, free to curate our personal newsfeeds with maximum algorithmic effect. At the same time, we are ironically shackled indelibly to our own personal histories as every moment is recorded with or without our consent. Time and space, the two constants, are no longer that constant.
‘Virtual gaze’ has been created with these ideas in mind. The screen is the muse: both its contents and its surface. Each work ruminates on the virtual world through the mediums of painting and sculpture. The works are formal studies into material properties of what comprises a painting or sculpture (for example paint, canvas or stretcher bars) underscoring them as physical objects and therefore exploring their verisimilitude, their reality versus virtuality. They are not images to scroll past, they are paintings. The sparseness of the works disrupt a traditional reading of art – and digital images – where subtly of texture and materiality become vehicles for meaning. Narrative can be interpreted through material, through perception and light, through the sharing of a unique space and time between human and work.
The French painter Charles Lapicque said that the creative act should offer as much surprise as life itself, so for this show works venture well beyond earlier works. Silk obscures and enhances, offering a tech-esque shimmer and obfuscation. Heavily worked metal sits alongside natural linen beside raw rock, an orgy of cavelike primitivism and sophisticated mechanically-produced synthetic material. The imperfect stitch and the few visible marks become focal points and exist almost as accidents: their existence linger as human question marks, as ontological smudges.
Artworks are sometimes arranged as a screen may be, constructed from arranged pixels. The composition for the work, ‘Situating our dreams’, was taken from a composition algorithm generator commissioned and made by a coder in Ukraine. ‘#FFF3D3’ is a combination of studies translating a digital colour (the hex value of the title) into panels using a variety of media and surfaces, interpreting the colour at different times of the day and in different lights. ‘A primal condition’ was created through seeping colour through the reverse of the canvas, using the texture of the paint and material to dictate appearance. Metal works evoke the industrial nature of the screen, but at the same time contradict this perfection through their organic, vulnerable makeup.
Ironically the JPGs of ‘Virtual gaze’ will become the end product in the lifecycle of the works and will be the way the works will be largely viewed and remembered, reproduced any number of times. The philosopher Walter Benjamin said that technology drove a shift from art as something of contemplation to that of distraction because of its reproducibility. Technology directly impacts sense and perception, two factors which ultimately affect “humanity’s entire mode of existence”. In a world where we are the product, where we are endlessly reproduced in the hyperreal, you might wonder what Benjamin would say about humanity’s current mode of existence.
Morgan Stokes is an emerging artist based in Sydney. ‘Virtual gaze’ is his second solo show with Curatorial+Co. In 2019 completed a four-month residency in Berlin followed by a year long practice in Germany. He holds a Master of Design from UNSW. His works can be found in private collections across Australia, the USA, Germany and around the world.