THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION
Art and Technology in the World of Gasper Jemec

 

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight, or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II

 

The old adage declares, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” That injunction to take the languorous, extended approach to an art exhibition, pondering the paintings, savoring the sculpture from a leisurely three-hundred-sixty degree tour, seems wildly out of place in a consideration of the modus operandi of Gasper Jemec. A prolific devourer of ideas and media, on the eve of the opening of this fantastical show he was continually bombarding this writer with rapid-fire images of new paintings, drawings, installation plans, photos of the inviting encontrArte gallery space, of himself on a motorcycle (oddly enough, helmet off and at rest), ravishing beauties drinking wine against the backdrop of Spanish sunsets and clips of pounding music to be included in the gesamtkunstwerk implicating paintings, sculpture, the “Internet of things,” electronic music and architecture that he has assembled in a devastatingly inspiring space in Barcelona.

As opposed to the gratifying and even re-assuring permanence of the usual art historical subject, static and composed, we have sheer velocity. The speed with which Jemec painted and then installed this wickedly clever show reminded me of the uncanny industry of spiders who weave elaborate webs overnight, transforming spaces into their hypersensitive networks built to lure. Part of the incentive to work at such speed is the technological half of the exhibition, what the artist calls the “parallel” image-producing mechanism of iPads, engineers and code, the thematic “Internet of things” that weaves his paintings and cyber-imagery in one highly sensitive filament. Like John Henry in the bizarre tale of the “steel driving man” who frantically  (and fatally) tried to lay train track as fast as the hydraulic mechanism that was set to replace him, Jemec was whipping paint across vast tracts of canvas in a pace that matched the development of the “augmented reality” by which the viewer will encounter the cybernetic flamingoes which give the show its title. If the machine can move that fast, the brush on the canvas can beat it. The results are the bravura paintings, including the incandescent major painting Lorenzo, which reminds me in the best possible ways of the chromaticism and sheer luminism of Pierre Bonnard. As the paint dried on that terrific paean to Iberian solar power, he fires off an image ofThe guardian of the Sun, an even larger example of the kind of technical sprezzatura that flings the gauntlet down to Watson, or whatever the computer programmers offer as their virtuoso.  

These paintings are the “old-time” elements in this show. The counterpoint to this is an intensely clever, for some irresistible, panoply of cybernetic images, including those convincingly real flamingoes that will magically appear on the viewers’ tablets. You are almost forced to make a choice. The excursus into technology is merely the latest chapter in Jemec’s wildly diverse career, as international as it has been multidisciplinary. The range of his interests is almost genetically broad. His father is an artist and his mother a distinguished art historian. He grew up in Ljubljana, now in Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia). After undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting and media (this bears attention) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, he added postgraduate work in painting at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and in sculpture at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where he held a Herder scholarship from the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung FVS from Hamburg. His work has been widely exhibited in solo and group shows all over the world, in museums, galleries and other important exhibitions such as Venice Biennale, Essl Musum and Museumsquartier in Vienna, Salamatina Gallery in New York, Vinzavod Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, European Parliament in Bruxelles, Art Center Berlin, Studio 1.1. Gallery in London, European Central Bank in Frankfurt. He has resided and worked in Indiana, Los Angeles, New York, Vienna, Hamburg, Venice, Sakaide, Valencia, Moscow and London. Before this collaboration with Ulrich Dietz and Code_N in Barcelona, he has had well-received exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the United States. From each locale and collaboration, he has drawn influences and inspiration, swiftly folding new stimuli into the response that becomes the next round of work. His London exhibition two years ago, for instance, may be characterized as an installation within which paintings and sculpture took their places in a web finely spun by a master curator. Both the works and their context were part of his broader vision, artist acting as curator and impresario. He commented at the time:  “I see all media as a installation. One happens to be two-dimensional, the other three. Because any object (imaginable element) always exists in relationship to everything else and we can refer as well to our minds/emotions/hearts.” This additive process has now been extended to digital media.

Permit me to confess to a personal bias. I have heard for too long about the lovely, ecstatic nexus of technology and art. The accelerated rush toward the tantric collaboration between technology and art is, at this moment, exhilarating for artists who love the allure of a fresh, new tool in the studio and engineers who have gazed longingly on the relative freedom of the artist and wished they could be that cool. As many significant exhibitions (and even museums, if you count the Loeb Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have demonstrated, the so-called art world is ready to lay down the red carpet for computer science. This reminds me of a chapter in business history that came a bit late for the moment when the prescient Andy Warhol admitted that any moving image, flickering in the corner of a gallery or museum, was bound to divert the attention from the paintings. Back in 2000, when the Internet was a novelty and major business deals were at stake, the utterly stiff head of AOL, Steve Case, declared that the “battle for the eyeball” would be won by the computer screen and that other media would fall behind. After ruining a great media company in the process (Time Inc.), Case turned out to be right although the business story pivoted to a struggle between Google and Facebook as well as other social media sites. Although art and technology are still flirting with each other, in some ways they are testing each other too and I feel that one of the most interesting aspects of Jemec’s exhibition, and of encontrArte as an institution, is the testing of this ballyhooed relationship.

Walk into the gallery. Make your selection. You can head to the painting. You can take your gadget to the wooden podium where a flamingo will magically appear, thanks to some adroit programming and “enhanced reality.” Or head to the window, and bask in the sunny Mediterranean. The window test is one of the time-honored challenges to the phenomenological values of art as mimesis. I choose the paintings. The checkerboards offer rhythm, the gold and blues in complementary counterpoint touch something primal in my brain, that balance of wavelengths that seems so ingrained it cannot be denied. His Majesty King Algorithm can do marvelous and beneficent things, I concede (sequencing genomes, cheating Wall Street, matching lonelyhearts) but none has the touch and life of the paintings Jemec calls “classic media,” to differentiate them from the technologically produced images coded for the exhibition. The most rewarding image I have seen? It is an intimate, delicate drawing in blue ink that seemed like the ripple on top of a brook, a mere sketch I suppose but it defies translation into the 0 and 1 of digital scanning.It pairs with the amazingly original “liquid site-specific installation” up the narrow stairs from what was once an industrial laundry where Jemec (at last notice) was planning to flood the floor with a super-smooth blue or pink solution. It makes sense, if you think of the flow of ink and paint that in the viscous and orgastic spilling of religion that we call Romanticism, but take a moment in the paintings to consider the flex of the wrist, the genuinely formidable turn of the brush. Here is an academically trained painter showing you what no computer could emulate, that curve that the grid misses.

Sorry. It is 2015, the computers have won and we need to return to the balancing act between machine and art. This can be done, but it takes a certain artist and a certain kind of engineer. As Jemec points out, “It is important that on all of the new works will a flamingo appears, sometimes just a silhouette, a mimetic shape or just a sign, anything that conveys an element of the flamingo.” He notes that the cyber-image is “parallel” to the paintings, and even a luddite such as myself is familiar with the metaphorically sexy notion of “virtual reality.” As the artist, working with engineers on site-specific graphics, points out, “The main focus is in making a document that works as well as an art work. Into this synthesis of man and machine, enter (and I love this part) the musicians. If you enjoy the hypnotic work of the German group Kraftwerk, one of whose rather daunting videos features robotic manequins sporting under the pulsing logo “MACHINE,” (implicitly machine vs. human) then the pulsing and unabashedly electronic score made by A Coral Room for this project will lift the experience of the visual art (both “classic” and cybernetic) to a formidable height. Even this, however, has its origins in the way in which music has been made for centuries. Forgive me for being such an old-timer, but as I nodded in rhythm to the music for the exhibition, I could not help but think of the pulse of a great Philip Glass score, or, going backward, the “tom tom” of Cole Porter’s lead to “Night and Day” and even the ostinato of a Handel or Vivaldi concerto. Hopelessly academic or romantic, this is my way of acknowledging the aesthetic appeal of a note that taps our senses. Like the monotone applied solidly and even a bit flatly by Picasso in one of his 1920s-era still lifes, which the great critic T.J. Clark has declared “the truth in painting,” the monotone of the score for this show returns us to something that Jemec always accomplishes when he lays his blue paint down on canvas. Clark did not invent the idea of “the truth in painting.” Cezanne wrote about it in his letters (consumed with doubt), and Jacques Derrida tried to write a book about it. As opposed to illusion, the truth in painting is tested. There is always something about technology that feels fake or theatrical, but the challenge to computer imagery posed by a strong painting can allay those fears as long as it does not submit. It was genuinely re-assuring to see the word “sparring” in this communication from CODE_n Culture, which took up the challenge of the technological aspect of the exhibition. Jemec calls them the “continuous sparring partner on board.” That counterpoint is precisely the sort of test that both art and technology need in order to make them strong. Neither will ever be able to convincingly pull the skeptics into a position where they admit that what they offer is real. What bald-faced lies inhabit both the museums and chat rooms! Allegories are implicitly ulterior. I think people who get off on Internet porn or wear out their retinas on video games are frankly pathetic. The “battle for the eyeballs” translates into a test of veracity and meaningfulness. When ISIS moves in on a museum, they don’t unplug the computer displays, they take a jackhammer to stone sculpture, because the dangerous truths reside in the art. Any artist who yokes them in the same harness but makes them contend has to exert the power of his medium in a way that interrogates the capacity (bad pun) of the electronic processor.

No less a lyric poet than Walt Whitman, would write an ode to “A Locomotive in Winter,” in which he rhapsodizes in this sincere way: “Thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels”). He recognized science as muse rather than censor. “Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet, but always his encouragement and support. Science underlies the structure of every perfect poem,” he wrote in the 1855 preface to The Leaves of Grass, one of the great precursors to Modernism in poetry. Take this further, and the next stop on this train might be the machinery in a Leger painting. Recall the ardor with which he embraced the barrel of the cannons he used while fighting in the trenches of the Somme. Or ponder the strange, Kubrick-like love of the chocolate grinder that Marcel Duchamp turned into the most delicate of his compositions, The Bride Stripped Bare and The Large Glass. Museums have already made a home for this unlikely marriage of machine and painting. Now it is Gasper Jemec’s turn to bring Ra’s flamingoes, most unreal of birds, into a fascinating and challenging art space in Barcelona. As his collaboratorHenrik Sprengel, co-founder of encontrArte, comments: "The artist uses flamingos as a symbol of the experience of a specific space and time, articulating the process of art making that Gasper associates with encontrArte art, culture, education and Barcelona’s environment. Gasper is contacting the future and making it true.”

 

Charles A. Riley II, PhD

New York

March 4, 2015

 

Charles A. Riley II, PhD is an arts journalist, curator and professor at the City University of New York. He is the author of thirty-one books on art, architecture and public policy, including The Jazz Age in FranceStudies for Construction,  Arthur Carter, Ben Schonzeit (all published by Abrams), The Art of Lincoln Center (Wiley), Aristocracy and the Modern Imagination, The Saints of Modern Art, and Color Codes and the forthcoming Echoes of the Jazz Age (all from the University Press of New England), andSacred Sister (in collaboration with the noted avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson). He is a guest curator of the Chimei Museum in Taiwan and the Nassau County Museum of Art and has presented exhibitions devoted to Rodin, Picasso, Surrealism and contemporary art. He has written over a hundred exhibition catalogue essays and his articles on art have appeared in several magazines, including Art & Auction, FlashArt, Art & Antiques, Antiques and Fine Art and Hamptons Art Hub. He is a former reporter for Fortune magazine and former editor-in-chief of WE magazine, and has participated in cultural policy and educational think tanks internationally. A graduate (summa cum laude) of Princeton University, he received his PhD from The Graduate Center of City University of New York.




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