Has Post-Internet Art Come of Age?
Artist-to-watch Yves Scherer's Berlin show suggests so.
When we take a retrospective glance at the art world in five or ten years, it’s a safe wager that fall 2014 will be mapped as the point at which post-internet art entered the mainstream. The often nebulous genre essentially refers to art that reflects on the context, conditions, and possibilities produced by our über-connected, online society. It has been featured in a hate-piece in Art in America’s November issue and as the central tenet of Scott Reyburn’s market report from Frieze London two months before for the New York Times. One of its biggest proponents, the collective DIS, was appointed to curate the 2016 Berlin Biennial (see “DIS Will Curate 2016 Berlin Biennale”). And, a slew of galleries have now built an entire identity, and a market, around the movement.
As the AiA take suggests, post-internet art is a far from universally accepted or appreciated movement—save perhaps unwittingly by urban sellers of the indoor palm plants that have, for whatever reason, become post-internet fans’ calling card. To an extent, part of that problem is one of age; some of the artists aren’t really or are just barely digital natives. In those cases, the work can remain too focused on the novelty of the internet and its modes of presentation rather than the conditions it produces. It can also simply be a misnomer for other, research-based practices.
But Yves Scherer dives as deeply as any of post-internet art’s more-notable adherents. His debut show at Berlin’s Galerie Guido W. Baudach—alongside Kate Cooper’s phenomenal exhibition currently up at the KW Institute for Contemporary art—is the most ‘contemporary’ show I’ve seen all year. Entitled “Closer,” it filets the post-internet and its theoretical bases with a fluency that suggests Scherer may not yet be fully cognizant of its resonance.
Take the tatami mats that form the show’s second-most prominent motif, for example. One double-bed variant lies more or less in the middle of the gallery. Others are hung within Perspex vitrines having been burnt, sliced, painted, or otherwise altered. A third set aren’t tatami mats at all but instead prints of the mats’ characteristic rice straw surface on canvas. It’s a fairly out-of-left-field reference for a Swiss-born 27 year old who splits his time between London, where he recently graduated from the Royal Academy, and Berlin.
Or is it? As I was soon to find out from Baudach, the tatami mat is in fact Scherer’s preferred sleeping spot when in London – he bounces between friend’s apartments or lives in places too small to have defined sleeping or living quarters. That’s no odd quirk. It’s a domestic manifestation of the state of play, which Yann Moulier Boutang and others have come to call Cognitive Capitalism. This is also the defining set of socio-economic factors that have surrounded post-internet artists as they’ve come of age: where work becomes brain-only work performed by the always-on-call, lifelong freelancer, tapped onto a laptop from bed or a café, and for which pay is often a distant prospect measured in quarter-long waits.
In the discrete schema of the exhibition, however, the mats delineate a residential interior. The space is populated by tabloid photos of celebrities dragging unsexily on cigarettes, opposed by a video—which looks on at Scherer’s female friends taking lazy drags framed by twilight—that would sell anyone a Marlborough, sketched-on curtains, and four life-size nude statues of English actress Emma Watson.
Each Emma is suited to a slightly different taker. One is pristinely white, save for a scribbled signature. Another is lightly splattered with pink paint, wears stockings, and has its face made up to look like an anime character. A pale pink statue’s nightgown appears to have just slipped off its shoulder, the floor around it marked numerous times with “#heforshe,” the hashtag for Watson’s recently-launched campaign for UN Women. A copper-covered Emma has been crated, the boxes interior padded with sound dampening foam and a fan installed on its side as if the shipper was worried she might expire without fresh air. A fifth sculpture, also copper or bronze, stands in a lily pond outside the curtain that’s meant to form the door to Scherer’s created-home in pure bourgeois fashion, despite the pond having been created with cheap, utilitarian carpet.
It would take a rather astute Watson aficionado to immediately recognize that the sculptures depict the actress. In strict terms, they don’t. To create them, Scherer scoured the web, pulling hundreds of recent images of the actress—a partial archive of the photos has replaced the gallery’s website for the duration of the show—to create a three-dimensional digital model of her based on an “average” of those images that could then be brought to life using a 3D printer.
The works’ jumping off points are numerous. It’s as good a critique of Google and Facebook’s averaging effect on what was once a utopian vision of an infinitely diverse internet, as it is a takedown of our weirdly-intimate relationships with celebrity, with Instagram delivering a by-the-minute diary of famous strangers’ private lives (the classic paparazzi photos on the wall recall just how distant that relationship used to be only ten years ago.)
If the exhibition could be misread, it would be as a direct commentary on female exploitation and objectification. Its press materials make passing reference to the trolls who threatened to expose nude photos of Watson following the HeForShe announcement. And though, of course, that context is unable to be excluded from any analysis of the show now, the sculptures were started long before—one was shown at Art Berlin Contemporary, which took place the week before the initiative’s launch.
Like the tatami mats, the choice of Emma Watson was, if I had to guess, one based on the artist’s personal taste and perhaps the fact that, more than most entertainment notables, there’s nothing particularly bad or even controversial that one can say about the 24-year-old actress-cum-model. But there are others who could have taken her place—men too.
What it really breaks down to, where affect does and should be found in “Closer,” is within the exhibition’s most easily overlooked sculpture. Off to the right, as one enters the interior of Scherer’s abode, a desktop computer tower sits almost as if it’s being used to run the video playing around the corner. On closer inspection, however, a glowing, blue light shines inside the black metal frame, illuminating a sole male figure cross-legged on some computational structure, quite literally living within his computer.
To some ears, that might sound direct to a cringe-worthy degree. But it strikes its key with painful intensity. It exposes, like the best art, something we know but don’t really like to admit. The internet at once connects us to an unprecedented degree and alienates us to a magnitude no theorist of the industrial revolution or even of 20 years ago could have predicted. We can watch anything, learn anything, order anything on displays of varying sizes. We can create and print out our dream companion or even a gun, for that matter. People, in their fleshy existence, cease to really matter. Except, of course, that they do.
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