virtually real Petros Chrisostomou Bruce Ingram Grant W Miller James Moore Suzanne Moxhay Jamie Tiller Julia Willms Simon Woolham Dawn Woolley
Virtually Real First published in 2011 to coincide with the exhibition Virtually Real, 1 March 2011 – 21 May 2011 © The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, except where otherwise stated All images © The Artist 2011
ISBN-13 978-1-874331-44-5 EAN 9781874331445
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise, without first seeking the permission of the copyright owners and of the publishers.
The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery University of Leeds Parkinson Building Woodhouse Lane Leeds LS2 9JT Front cover Image: Bruce Ingram, Thousand Years III, 2008 Back cover Image: Dawn Woolley, Interloper (fence), 2008/9 Designed by James Moore and Dawn Woolley Printed by the University of Leeds
‘In these angles and corners, the dreamer would appear to enjoy the repose that divides being and non-being. He is the being of an unreality’ Gaston Bachelard1 FROM the origins of spatial realism in paintings to the flattened planes and spaces of modernism, the illusion of space has been a central aesthetic concern within the canon of art history. In a visual culture where photography and CGI create facsimile spaces that are disposable and instantly digestible, this exhibition aims to bring together work that subverts the representation of space. Each work contains an element of trickery that confounds rather than confirms our expectations of reality. The artists ask the viewer to believe in the integrity of their scene, inviting them to look closer and explore the fiction of the space they have depicted. Like Bachelard’s ‘being of an unreality’, the spectator must allow themselves to inhabit a space that is situated between reality and the imaginary.
1. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Boston, 1994, p145
The title words Virtually Real form a somewhat oxymoronic concept. Philosophical ideas of the term ‘virtual’ reveal it to be something that has the properties of an actual thing; something that can issue real effects. We take ‘virtual’ to mean not real, but displaying qualities of ‘the real’. Following that definition the other title word ‘real’, is characterised as a confirmation of truth, of a physical existence. It is perhaps best described by Philip K Dick,
when he wrote ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away’2. This draws our attention to subjective and objective realities, and describes an unmistakable definition of the objective ‘real’. Objectivity is highly problematic when you try to define it or pin it down. Art works are always subjective to the artist who created them, offering a unique vision or interpretation of reality. Works of art are embedded with the intricacies of the individuals who produced them and the training, discourse and cultural experience that they have undergone. In this exhibition, the artists play on our assumptions of objectivity. The art works appear to represent reality but on closer inspection we apprehend a certain feature or detail that stops us believing in the initial interpretation and the subjective nature of the work comes to the fore. This inevitably leads to a group of works that display some traits of surrealism and the uncanny.
2. Dick, Philip K. “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Selected Literary And Philosophical Writings, Ed. Lawrence Sutin, New York, 1995, p261 3. Plato, The Republic, Trans. Desmond Lee, London, 1955
Philosophical explorations into an individual’s understanding of the real run at least as far back as Plato. One of Plato’s main concepts was that we don’t live in a world where things ‘are’, but in a world where things ‘seem’. In his work The Republic3, written around 360BC, Plato describes a theoretical experiment called The Parable of the Cave. In the parable, we are asked to imagine a group of people that are held captive inside a cave, and have been there for their entire life. The captives are held in a fixed position so they can only see one wall of the cave and
cannot move from that viewpoint. Behind their position is a blazing fire casting light onto the cave walls. In-between the captives and the fire is a walkway, along which the captors move, holding up objects so that they cast their shadows in view of the captives. The only visual experience that they have is these fleeting shadows moving across the wall in front of them, and their perception is reinforced by their discussions amongst themselves about what they are seeing. The experiment moves on with one of the captives being released, initially to explore the cave, revealing to them the world outside their line of sight. They gain understanding that the shadows they’ve been looking at are not real. The freed person is then released from the cave into the world, where they see the fullness of reality. In the parable the captives inside the cave represent ordinary people who live in a world of illusion, where the visible world that they focus on in everyday experiences is imperfect. The freed person is able to attain the most accurate view of reality in a constantly changing world. They are the only one with a concept that there is anything beyond the ‘reality’ of the cave wall. They naturally return to the cave to explain their findings to the other captives, but face rejection and ridicule from them. As a group the captives exist in a consensual ‘virtual reality’. It is thought that Plato intended the freed person to signify a philosopher, in particular Socrates, his famous teacher who was
killed by the Athenian state for his philosophical views. The idea Plato cogitates on in the parable, that people understand reality based on data that agrees with their perception, education and shared experience, is central to many philosophical fictions. A well-known example is The Truman Show4, in which the central character Truman Burbank lives a staged life inside a TV show – a fact which is entirely beyond his comprehension. From his subjective point of view, reality is the world of the small town he lives within. A chain of events allow doubt to creep into Truman’s world, and the closer he looks at the surface of his surroundings and the relationships with his friends and family, the flimsier it all seems. The story climaxes with Truman’s desperate attempt to break out of the fake that he has become convinced he is living within. The TV show’s creator, acting as the captor from Plato’s cave, and as a kind of God that oversees Truman’s reality, is convinced that Truman prefers the fake cell that he lives within to the rough, unsafe real world outside of the studio. The choice of whether or not to remain inside a known fiction - a virtual reality - is central to the films conclusion. 4. The Truman Show, Dir. Peter Weir, Paramount Pictures,1998 The plot of this film is widely acknowledged as being influenced by Philip K Dick’s novel Time out of Joint although it is not a direct adaptation.
In this exhibition we hope the artworks ask the viewer to question their perception of reality. The artists play the role of the captors in Plato’s cave and The Truman Show. The audience is imprisoned by the apparently straightforward reading of the works, but then becomes aware of the constructed nature of the scenes. Like Truman, or the
released captive from the cave, the spectator is unable to return to belief in the original illusion. * Invented architectural space forms the basis of James Moore’s work, where subject matter is constructed inside a computer modelling programme. The paintings Sea Wall and Railings are derived from a collage – or model – that is built from small sections of hand painted paper, which are in turn scanned into the computer rendering application. A virtual snapshot is taken of the scene and the resulting image becomes reduced back to the realm of painting. The work City 17 is the result of a different process – it is a reproduction from a computer game. Moore explores these environments with the eye of a photographer, ‘moving’ around the levels ignoring the intended flow of the game, instead looking for a good virtual photo opportunity. The snatched stills are then used as a basis for an oil painting on canvas – pulling the hi-tech dynamic virtual space back to the archaic realm of painting. By presenting these virtual spaces in the form of paintings, a relationship to reality is implied. It’s not immediately apparent that the paintings aren’t depicting real places; it could easily be believed that they are ‘normal’ landscapes. The audience sees reality although they are only looking at shapes and shadows, like the captives in Plato’s cave.
Like Moore, Suzanne Moxhay creates artwork that is seemingly realistic but is in fact completely fabricated. Manipulation of space drives the process of her work through its different stages. ‘From the photograph, to the print, to the three dimensional set in the studio, and then back to the photograph, imagery is continually moved through real and illusory space.’5 The works show beautifully collaged scenes that retain the elaborate characteristics of the source imagery – bits of moiré print pattern can be picked up on the surface of some elements, put side by side with hi-resolution pieces of image, forming a seamless whole that is grand in scale. Sampled sections of photograph are repeated throughout the composition, creating a uniformity that is comforting and familiar rather than disruptive to the implied realism of the scene.
5. Moxhay, Suzanne
Grant Miller’s paintings intensively explore the illusion and construction of space. They create a visual experience that appears abstract at first, but reveals itself to be a highly complex physical space. The effect is of a net of fragments of the real world – some architecture perhaps, or the deconstructed remains of an interior – entwined within organic pulsing layers of physical paint that web across the rigid layers. The intricate complexity animates the paintings and allows the viewer to become lost in the hierarchy of colours and forms; subtle layerings of resins, opaque grid lines and vanishing planes. The paintings bring to mind a description written by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception. ‘…the house itself is not the house
seen from nowhere, but the house seen from everywhere. The completed object is translucent, being shot through from all sides by an infinite number of present scrutinies which intersect in its depths leaving nothing hidden.’6 The architectural spaces in Miller’s paintings are seemingly both interior and exterior, giving the viewer the feeling that they are experiencing multiple angles of perception. * Much of the artwork in this exhibition could be said to evoke uncanny sensations. It is a concept defined by Freud in his 1919 essay The Uncanny7. It describes the uncomfortable strangeness, or even fear, experienced when viewing something that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. In his essay, Freud outlines various scenarios that could trigger an uncanny experience, such as a foreign object or event invading a familiar domestic space, or seeing a human-like automaton that borders on familiarity.
6. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, London, 2002, p79 7. Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, Trans. David McLintock, London, 2003 8. Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley”, Energy, 7(4), 1970, pp 33-35
In the 1970s the roboticist Masahiro Mori, noted for his pioneering work on the emotional responses of humans to non-human entities, published an article entitled ‘The Uncanny Valley’8. It described the responses of test subjects to humanlike robots. He noted that the more closely the robots resembled human beings, the more they appeared virtually real, and the greater the level of acceptance by the test subject. However, when the robots became too human the test subjects began to react negatively towards them.
He found that ‘when our perceptual system switches over from noticing the life-like aspects of the robot to underlining the discrepancies’9, the test subjects expressed feelings of eeriness or discomfort about the appearance of the robots. He called the point at which they became too life-like and repulsive to the test subjects ‘the uncanny valley’.
9. Hollander, Ari. “Playing Games with Painful Memories: Designing VR Exposure Therapy Simulations for PTSD”, [http://seriousgamessource.com/features/feature_053006_ptsd.php], 2011
Although this research was only ascribed to humanlike robots, the perceptual system could also describe our experience of viewing some of the artwork in this exhibition. There is an initial viewing state of familiar acceptance for seemingly straight forward imagery. Then the mind begins to register certain incongruous details that lead us to question the initial reading, and finally we no longer look for the everyday aspects of the scene, only picking up on the aberrations that reveal it as a falsity. This effect operates to some extent in all the works included in Virtually Real. As in Freud’s definition of the uncanny the artwork
and the realms they describe transform from homely and safe into unknown and unexpected dimensions. They become unheimlich10 – something that was supposed to remain secret or concealed but became visible to the viewer.11 Like the humanoid robot in the depths of the uncanny valley, the details that expose the unreality of the artwork become visible to the viewer. The sense of intellectual uncertainty is defined by the homely familiar setting and its unhomely and disturbing details.
10. In Freud’s The Uncanny, a central concept involves the words heimlich and unheimlich, roughly translated from German to mean homely and unhomely. 11. Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, Trans. David McLintock, London, 2003 12. Woolley, Dawn
Dawn Woolley’s photographs voyeuristically depict partially concealed women. The images appear to be real but they have an uncanny nature which prolongs the look of the viewer and exposes the artificiality of the scene. As the spectator notices the cut edge of the paper, the women’s bodies are revealed to be two-dimensional cut-out photographs. Like Mori’s humanoid robot the legs appear to be life-like (or death-like) but are not living, they are artificial imposters. ‘The spectator also undergoes a transformation from voyeur to fetishist as the body is revealed to be an inanimate object.’12 In the work the two-dimensional and three-dimensional are juxtaposed in a comment on reality and idealisation. Jamie Tiller’s photographs also play on the notion of the familiar and the unfamiliar as described by the uncanny. Marginal architectural zones are used to confuse pictorial space, in which real places appear unreal and border on being compressed abstract planes. The works in his Black
Box series are photographed at night without any human presence. The locations appear so unnatural and empty that '… the city itself becomes illusionary, like the set of a film or a computer generated architectural model.'13 The method of photography used here gives the images a strange sheen, dislocating the scene into something that looks highly artificial. The artwork becomes the spatial equivalent of an automaton – something that resembles reality but in a tooperfect manner that isn’t able to suggest life. The relationship between real and artificial spaces is explored in Julia Willms’ video Revision, and in her accompanying photographs. Her work clearly juxtaposes elements of homely and unhomely imagery that sit together in a surreal space that is intriguing to view. Her video projection seamlessly merges existing architectural space into something strangely subverted; offering the viewer a convincing version of reality that slowly disintegrates into impossible situations. ‘The installation is about the threshold between the real and the imagined space. The spectator stands in the real space and is invited to cross the threshold and step into the image.’14 *
13. Tiller, Jamie 14. Willms, Julia
It is unsurprising that our visual senses are confused by the conflicting imagery in artwork that confounds dimensions and prevents normal registers of scale. In recent neuro-psychology research, Richard Gregory defined our
visual perception of the world when he wrote, ‘vision is certainly not infallible. This is largely because knowledge and assumptions add so much that vision is not directly related to the eyes’ images or limited by them – so quite often produce fictions.’15 We often don’t see what is in front us, but instead see what we expect to see, our vision being heavily informed by our preconceptions and expectations of the world around us. We buy into visual fictions, or more accurately, we see what we expect to see when presented with a familiar-looking image. Much of the artwork selected for this exhibition contains a blurring between the boundaries of the real and the illusory; the disjuncture between reality and imagined spaces. Our attention is vexed by some incongruous elements that disrupt the seemingly straightforward interpretation of the scenes. Some of the artwork in Virtually Real plays on the role of assumption in sight.
15. Gregory, Richard. Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. Oxford, 2007, p6
On the first instance of looking, Petros Chrisostomou’s work confuses our sense of scale. As Richard Gregory describes, our knowledge and assumption tells us that we see a real interior space with a monstrously scaled sculpture domi- nating the room. As we take time to interpret the subtle visual clues within the photographs we are able to determine the visual trick, that the room is miniature and the giant sculpture is an everyday object. Space and scale become tools to explore ideas of value and commodity. ‘The sensation of the uncanny is achieved through a disjunction
in the work, due to the contrasting elements that have been combined, that allows the viewer to speculate the real and the imaginary…’16 Bruce Ingram’s work in this exhibition also contains a blending of dimensional forms. The collages take on a physical presence and exist as sculptures, blurring boundaries between figurative sensibilities and abstract materiality. Through the creation of organic forms and found imagery alluding to gardens and nature the audience is transposed to an imaginary space. The titles such as The Midnight Garden add to this departure to fantasy. Ingram’s tree sculptures titled Thousand Years relate to the art form of bonsai, the capturing of a contemplative scene that miniaturises the majesty of nature down to a tiny scale. In Ingram’s work the real is reconfigured ‘…through a playful and experimental process of collage and collection, the experience of the everyday world is gathered and organised within new forms of art works.’17 Images lifted from different periods of art history are mixed with the consumer culture of today resulting in works that confuse space and time.
16. Chrisostomou, Petros 17. Ingram, Bruce 18. Woolham, Simon
Simon Woolham’s Pop-up drawings also inhabit the space between two and three dimensions. Beginning with biro drawings, ‘…dilapidated environments come to life in a skint version of enchantment: a tree stump or a broken fence are filled with the meanings of the events that go on around and about them.’18 Cut and folded paper transform
everyday objects into emotive sights for memory and recollection. When viewed as a group, the three dimensional drawings form a coherent world with the snippets of narrative that unfold in each ‘location’, like memories of overheard conversations. The particular locations described in Woolham’s pop-ups conjure nostalgic recollection for the spectator. *
19. Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra And Simulation, Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, Michigan, 1994 20. The Matrix. Dir. Andy & Larry Wachowski, Warner Bros Pictures, 1999
Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal is a fitting place to bring this essay to an end; it’s a concept central to his work Simulacra and Simulation, written in 198119. Hyperreality is a theory that was heavily referenced in the film The Matrix, and involves a negation of reality, and an adoption of simulations and virtual spaces as the predominant realm of existence. According to Baudrillard, the hyperreal is located in all the simulated places in the modern world that offer a saturation of signs, narrative and imagery – places such as casinos, theme parks, shopping malls, movies, video games and social networks. With ever more sophisticated technology the simulation became the predominant experience. In The Matrix these ideas are taken to their extreme and reality is completely concealed by the simulation – or as Morpheus says to Neo ‘The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.’20 It could be said that art exists as part of the hyperreal - especially if an artwork attempts to blur the boundary between reality and simulation.
The aim of Virtually Real is to bring together artworks that play on the senses and assumptions of the audience. Like the shadows in Platoâ€™s cave or the simulations of The Matrix, the artworks offer a veneer of reality, but unlike the captors mentioned above, the artists do not intend to hold us within the illusion, but merely to show us the other possible spaces of imagination and memory.
James Moore & Dawn Woolley 2011
Julia Willms Revision, 2007 Video, 5:52 mins (looped), edition 3/3 + 2EA
Icarus, 2008 Colour photograph on Diasec Courtesy Galerie Xippas, Paris/Athens
Reflexion, 2008 Colour photograph on Diasec Courtesy Galerie Xippas, Paris/Athens
4, 2008 Colour photograph on Diasec Courtesy Galerie Xippas, Paris/Athens
Midnight Garden, 2006 Mixed Media Courtesy Spring Projects
Thousand Years V, 2008 Mixed Media Courtesy Spring Projects
Thousand Years III, 2008 Mixed Media Courtesy Spring Projects
Untitled ( DAI â€“ 312) 2007, Mixed Media
Detail: Untitled ( DAI â€“ 312) 2007, Mixed Media Untitled (PRO-63) 2007, Mixed Media
Sea Wall, 2010 Oil on Canvas
City 17, 2010 Oil on Canvas
Railings, 2010 Oil on Canvas
Sirocco, 2007 C-type Print on Diasec Courtesy of BEARSPACE
Sequoia, 2008 Archival Digital Print on Aluminium Courtesy of BEARSPACE
Detail: Sirocco, 2007 Ctype Print on Diasec Courtesy of BEARSPACE
Black Box #4, 2007 C-type Print on Diasec
Black Box #3, 2007 C-type Print on Diasec Kabin Collection
Revision 2007 Video, 5:52 mins (looped), edition 3/3 + 2EA
Urban Household 5 2008, Digital Collage, Ctype Print on Aluminium, 1/5 + 2EA
Urban Household 1 2007, Digital Collage, Ctype Print on Aluminium, 5/5 + 2/2EA Courtesy of Andrea Bozic
Chase Pop-Up 2009/10, Biro Pen and Collage on Paper
The Sheds Pop-Up 2009/10, Biro Pen and Collage on Paper
The Shortcut Pop-Up 2009/10, Biro Pen and Collage on Paper
The Pissy Shed Pop-Up 2009/10, Biro Pen and Collage on Paper
Dawn Woolley Interloper (fence) 2008/9, Colour Photograph
Interloper (stockings) 2008/9, Colour Photograph
Detail: Interloper (fence) 2008/9, Colour Photograph
Acknowledgements Layla Bloom, Tony Rae, Hilary Diaper, Zsuzsanna Reed Papp, Laura Millward, Hollie Kritikos - Blades, Liz Stainforth, Paul Whittle, Peter Farmer, Solomon Papasavva, Jennifer Cuff, Lucy Jackson and Mindy Lee.
01/03/11 - 21/05/11
‘In these angles and corners, the dreamer would appear to enjoy the repose that divides being and non-being. He is the being of an unreality’ Gaston Bachelard FROM the origins of spatial realism in paintings to the flattened planes and spaces of modernism, the illusion of space has been a central aesthetic concern within the canon of art history. In a visual culture where photography and CGI create facsimile spaces that are disposable and instantly digestible, this exhibition aims to bring together work that subverts the representation of space. Each work contains an element of trickery that confounds rather than confirms our expectations of reality. The artists ask the viewer to believe in the integrity of their scene, inviting them to look closer and explore the fiction of the space they have depicted. Like Bachelard’s ‘being of an unreality’, the spectator must allow themselves to inhabit a space that is situated between reality and the imaginary.
The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery Parkinson Building, Woodhouse Lane, University of Leeds. Leeds, LS2 9JT