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Review of Art rétinal revisité: histoire de l’oeil

Digitalarti Mag #4Digitalarti Mag #4

Noisy Viral Threat : Joseph Nechvatal
Review of Art rétinal revisité: histoire de l’oeil
Manuela de Barros

Published in Digitalarti Mag #4
October 2010

On September the 11th, Joseph Nechvatal was in his parisian gallery, talking to friends, journalists and scholars about his exhibition and more generally about his work. That day is no longer the same as other days for many, and being a New Yorker it might even be more significant to him. Especially if we have a look at his works and the layers of history, signs and meaning they convey.

His exhibition in Galerie Jean-Luc & Takako Richard, is entitled Art rétinal revisité:histoire de l’oeil. There starts the reflection: painting, representation, perspective, and other important aspects in art history are revisited and reconsidered - as it ought to be with the kind of works Nechvatal is presenting and because he is a pioneer in digital art. In 1986, he started making images with computer technology but as the same time never gave up with the idea of classical representation. And he goes far in the decision to put nothing aside, as the canvases he shows can be printed pictures of ancient art reminiscences perpetuated by the digital. A Renaissance sculpture can then appear, or the specific flooring of a demonstrative perspective painting in its beginnings, put in an historical convex mirror by its recomposition with the insertion of computerized deformations.

The link is not just with classical art, as the concept of Retinal Art comes from Marcel Duchamp’s repulsion for painting and the fact that art offers satisfaction, he thought, to vision only; art for the eye and not for the mind. Then to a certain degree, art as object of beauty had to disappear and leave place for concept and meaning. Nevertheless Nechvatal links this to the History of the Eye, Georges Bataille’s philosophical novel; the vision in art he calls upon is consequently quite different: the body is there, powerful in desire but mortal by essence. The animal rage shown by the protagonists in Bataille’s text is tamed but the vision it brings is still there.

Along with Walt Whitman, Nechvatal “sings the body electric”, where the body is also soul and the soul is echoed in Nature. But the electricity has changed its quality and is now virtualized in the form of pure data. And if representations of eyes welcome us to the exhibition, anuses are there as well, doubling the vision, strengthening the troublesomeness and blurring the boundaries between what is presentable and what is hidden, between the outside and the inner space, across what we see and what actually is, and in what we show versus what we are. In that logic, the scientific images (the eyes and anuses come from medical archives) coast along an evocation of the Black Eye, his representation of shadows evoke metaphors of Plato’s cave and of Chinese traditional theatre, and are mixed with the appearance of computed data on the canvas.

Images - the representational - are there in force, but always merged into an abstract vision. Several iconic dialectics are combined, mixing periods, styles and domains. We get other examples when, in a number of works a colored vertical line appears on the surface, invokeing a subtile reference to Barnett Newman’s strips, and the American style and its predominance of abstract theory in Modernism.

Double Entity Identity is examplar of the search Nechvatal embarked upon in 1986 that he never stopped: from a large abstract canvas, actually the printed result of a computed image, emerges a Lazarus face; on one side a red strip recalls the modernist rhetorics on purity and autonomy in painting. Is painting dead? Robotic painting commences and can perfectly stand amongst former models, all in the same image. Not renewal but rebirth.

The hermaphrodite is another theme that Nechvatal has used from the beginning, crossing the line through time and space. It goes back to Plato’s mythology and Ovidius’ Metarmophoses, but is also a highly contemporary figure that speaks to the transformation of the human body by way of genetics, modern medical techniques, and post-humanist considerations. Nechvatal realizes this with a poetic sensitivity not common in the field of computer-mediated art, albeit with the efficiency of concrete demonstration in the flesh.

There is a final and drastically important step in all the stratum of references and significations, techniques and mediums. Since 1991, the artist has worked on computer depictions of viruses, and from 2001, in collaboration with Stéphane Sikora, he has combined the notion of computer virus with that of artificial life. The viruses are introduced into an image and literally eats it. The eye and anus presage the allegory of this virtual chemistry. The depiction on the canvas is an instant in the process of destruction of the heterogeneous figure. He shows the modus operandi on the iPad screen as canvas.

Viruses are indeed a metaphor of destruction. Put alongside virtualization, abstraction and codification, it also emerges as a political metaphor. Not only does the body explode in these procedures, but the mind as well by its total immersion into noise. For Nechvatal, the multiplication of image has a corollary in the merging into noise. We can mention Don DeLillo, another New Yorker, whose novel White Noise evoked the persistent rumor created by the constant presence of media in our lives since the 60s. Or his other novel, Mao II, named after the Andy Warhol painting, where he explores the place of the artist in a world of violence and intolerance.

The noise created by those means is a form of deep solitude buried in seemingly apparent multiplicities. Here, the artist wants it undeviated from its original purpose and has created a Viral Symphony, generated with sounds eating the image (performed on September the 26th in the Galerie Richard), an exploration of what noise is, and what it does deep inside.

This is art with a brain, for sure. But when a mutitude of visions, Plato’s cave, the end of art, virtual data, viral destruction, and environnemental noise are put side by side, the message and meaning of Nechvatal’s work becomes clear: How can we step up from illusion to understanding? How do we go from shadow to light? And how can we break the chains that retain us? In the recycling of all the subjects he says, by a historical understanding; to cope with complexity directly with a refusal to fall back on the facileness of duality. We have to peel away layers of the cultural onion, enter into noise, and face the enemy.

Galerie Jean-Luc & Takako Richard

video of the show

Joseph Nechvatal is part of the DigitalArt Promotion fund with Piano Eye, DVD video, 3.21s, 3/7/2009.

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web version of Art rétinal revisité: histoire de l’oeil review

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