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january 30, 2001 ::

010101 - museum component
Art in Technological Times

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMONA)
Online component opened: January 1, 2001 (ongoing)
Museum component: March 3 - July 8, 2001

A dialogue between artist *Sonya Rapoport* and critic *Barbara Lee Williams*



Barbara Lee Williams: At the entrance to this much anticipated exhibit, I was immediately engaged by two disparate things: the opening piece "Ephemere," 1998, by Char Davies and the first of the 'Think Texts,' computer monitors with quotes by various artists, writers, and scholars [Roland Barthes, Erik Davis, Abbie Hoffman, W.E.B. DuBois] on the impact and character of the new technological age -- its pitfalls as well as its joys-- and which promised an opportunity for viewers to interact by adding their comments. I rather liked the idea that I would 'contribute' content to the exhibit via the' Think Texts' but, ironically, I never discovered how we were to do this thus, for me, the promise of easy and significant interactivity was misleading.

Sonya Rapoport: Some of the commentary of the "Think Texts" seemed to dispute the implied premise of the exhibit - that technology somehow enriched these works. And, while you may have been intrigued, I was dismayed that, at a rather large art exhibit, I was expected to spend time reading quotes. In retrospect, after experiencing the whole exhibition, I felt these quotes were compensation for the lack of 'thought-provoking' content in the artworks. They do detract from the time and energy one has for viewing the works. The museum should give out copies of these texts. It makes me wonder: is this the death of the information age? Are ideas to be alienated from the content of the artworks themselves? And, presented this way the texts seem to give more power to the historian/theorist/curator -- than the artists.

BLW: This is a difficult and important issue: how much explanation is useful and/or apposite as an integral part of a work of art, or for that matter, of an exhibition? It seems to me that the installation of the works should make clear the exhibition's premise. And, too often texts, even rich texts, seem to substitute forcomplexity in the works themselves. The necessity of extensive texts is an artistic failure and several works here at SFMOMA fall victim to this.

SR: Some of the commentary of the "Think Texts" seemed to dispute the implied premise of the exhibit - that technology somehow enriched these works. And, while you may have been intrigued, I was dismayed that, at a rather large art exhibit, I was expected to spend time reading quotes. In retrospect, after experiencing the whole exhibition, I felt these quotes were compensation for the lack of 'thought-provoking' content in the artworks. They do detract from the time and energy one has for viewing the works. The museum should give out copies of these texts. It makes me wonder: is this the death of the information age? Are ideas to be alienated from the content of the artworks themselves? And, presented this way the texts seem to give more power to the historian/theorist/curator -- than the artists.

SR: Yes, I think that, in this case, it's a curatorial failure not to assemble thought-provoking work. And here,to quote one of the curators; "psychology is kept at bay."

BLW: But, let's talk first about the opening work(s). Char Davies' "Ephemere" is well-known having been shown at various venues around the world. But, I had not seen it previously and found myself immediately engaged: it is composed of two video projections, set in a dark room, with accompanying sound track. What I read as visual references to organic matter (artificial but lovely) -- a murky water scape with floating plant-like elements, shifting starry skies, an imaginary sunscape) on the left screen. This seemed intriguingly balanced by the immediate drama unfolding on the right -- which was, of course, a screened image of a woman placing virtual viewing equipment over her head and being gently assisted by a male. Her figure, softly backlit, was romantic, the unscripted movements quite dance-like.

Obviously, one is eager to see the latest pieces by artists whom one admires. And I found "Ephemere," to be one of the strengths of the exhibit. I do believe that visual art must be like a great novel: enjoyable and instructive for more than one viewing.

Éphémère, an art work by char davis

SR: It was very sexy - although I admit I am a little impatient with Char's piece after two viewings elsewhere. Also, Barbara, I was busy figuring out which of the two works I was actually seeing although identified by wall labels. Which piece was which? On my previous viewings, the screens were merged into one, simultaneously showing the participant and the environment. i.e. The participant was groping around within the virtual environment and controlling by movement what is seen. This immersion into the environs is what virtual reality is actually about. Here, I didn't get that feel, but the two separate screens do add an interesting graphical discourse.

What I really enjoyed was the silhouette, the creation of classical chiaroscuro played against "natural" phenomenon. While graceful,this visual play seems to have little to do with the immersive intent of the work. This installation subverts the intent of the work -- and I found similar subversions in other works in the show, namely the pieces by Jochem Hendricks.

BLW: We should get back to this idea of the installation subverting the artist's intent but first, a final observation about Char's work. It would not have been possible without modern technology and it made me reflect upon the dichotomy between appearance (the seeming lovemaking) and reality (she was technologically absorbed in something personal and individual -- and NOT at all involving the man).

SR: Char's work is an anomoly in this show because the virtual technology is the core of the piece. This exhibition mostly contains art in retrogressive formats (sculpture and painting); works that use technology to express or create artifacts simlarly to those that previously were "hand" done. Take, for example, Rebecca Bollinger's sketches on vellum of thumbnail photoshop scans. Her interest is in artifacting computer indices -- the art of visually expressing data-bases. She is "recursing to objectivication" -- there must be a more creative way to integrate technology into aesthetic forms.

Also, there must be ways to exhibit the intent of the art, rather than translating the art into a conventional format -- fit for a museum. Ironically, at the pre-exhibition panel presentation, Rebecca Bollinger showed an early video tape which was comprised of a list of alphabetically ordered words with manipulated sound and text images -- there was nothing of the "precious object" about that! And it related far more directly to the 'age of technology' than her pieces shown in the gallery.



BLW: Of the pieces on view by Bollinger, I feel that "Important Documents" (2000), 25 tiny drawings, interpretations of the results of various Internet searches -- including an "Elvis Presley" search and one for the "Declaration of Independence" -- has true potential. If we could ponder the redrawn "webscans," the work could raise intriguing issues about arbitrariness, or the role of chance on the internet -- and in life -- and about technologically determined associations vs. human ones. However, Bollinger's delicate drawings, tho charmingly hand-crafted, are truly illegible, thus obscuring the conceptual impetus behind them. This is a work that ALMOST succeeds but, in the end, simply looks delicately pretty. To understand the piece one has to resort to the catalogue and, thus, again, we run into the idea of text being essential for a work to be understood and evaluated.

In this same room, alongside Bollinger's drawings, was an army of tiny figures created by Karin Sander, titled "1:10" (1999-2000), in reference to the scale of the figures to their real life models. I am curious to hear what you thought of them, Sonya. Our colleague, Roger Malina, mentioned to me that he had seen these tiny models previously, and that they do not seem to improve with repeated viewing. In fact, the tiny, isolated figures do not resonate on any level. Is it enough that they were created by a digital three dimensional camera? If the resulting creation seems hollow, I do not think their inclusion in the show was warranted.

SR: I think they belong here as a technological feat: the creation of realistic sculpture without the artist's intervention. This echoes what the notorious realist sculptor, Duane Hanson, produced as commentary on American culture two decades ago. Sanders' small army of figures at 010101 did not arouse my interest any more than the few figures of hers I had previously seen (at the Oliver Art Center at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland CA). However, in her panel presentation, she presented herself and her work as thoughtful and conceptual. But this object-orientated display takes up a lot of gallery space with neither conceptual nor aesthetic effect. The work reminded me of toys.

BLW: I far prefer the San Jose Museum's inclusion [in their parallel show: *"Blurring the Boundaries"*] of Antony Gormley's piece,"Field," 1991, composed of 35,000 small, handmade terracotta figures placed shoulder to shoulder and filling the gallery like a tiny ghostly hoard. These were charming and quirky; a little ominous in their similarity, but distinct --each is slightly different in form and expression (a marvelous accomplishment when you consider they had only eyes, no mouths or noses). They clearly reference important issues: individuality, over-population, the silent, even threatening, potential of a crowd. Not to mention that, in filling the gallery completely, they forced us, the visitors, out: art took over and claimed that museum space. In contrast, Sander's work seems empty.

SR: Unlike the San Jose Museum show, 010101 is not an exhibition of vanguard installations but a play field. Although there are several complicated, large scale installations/interventions here, they are more like 'fun and games' for the museum visitor. The children we ran into jumping on Tatsuo Miyajima's computer display carpet of projected animated numbers and letters, illustrates this. As did the bigger kids climbing through the Melatonin environments, ostensibly to get energy or go to sleep, created by the Swiss architects, Decosterd and Rahm. And the biggest kids, the adults, were busy spraying heat on a wall to reveal words underneath a layer of paint-- but words with no logic or context.

BLW: I agree that many of these pieces were superficial. Yet other works I've seen by some of these artists, including Tatsuo Miyajima, are stimulating. Ironically, some months ago, SFMOMA showed a digital piece by Miyajima that was mesmerizing with its constantly changing clock measuring each moment while the dizzying whole created a sense of a timeless void.

SR: After previous exposure to his work, Miyajima's hop-on piece, although beautiful and great for kids, doesn't wear that well with me.

BLW: Is the problem with SFOMA's show just the selection of work? What do you think about the overall conception? What conclusions can we draw from the works assembled in 010101 and from the way in which they are assembled?

SR: David Ross pulled an unexpected coup with his title, "010101: Art in Technological Times." The phrase "010101" created the expectation that we would see art about technology -- but that is not what we got. The title was either misleading - or misread by us. Whereas the San Jose titled for its installation show, "Blurring the Boundaries," delivered what was expected: art that blurred the boundaries among painting, sculpture, conceptual art and interactive installations. Ross's participating artists were mostly not familiar. Their work was a regression to the "art" object, to games, to landscapes with few people and sculptures. Is this the future? The end of "information/informative" art?

BUT it is SFMOMA that truly blurs the boundaries -- those of disciplines: architecture, design, education, and art forms: tech, digital, painting, and sculpture. To blur art into these disciplines obliterates art into to a common denominator rather than letting each form develop to its individual potential. This show erases the hierarchy in art forms. Sadly I feel this is what is happening to other intellectual and cultural pursuits.



BLW: Sonya, you have avoided discussing the most obvious of these 'regressions' at SFMOMA: the techno-surrealist paintings by Adam Ross and Chris Finley. I have to say that I found them an inexcusable inclusion in this show. Ross's technoscapes were an embarrassment -- as if the curator sought to find canvases that somehow related to technology regardless of the fact that they were devoid of content. The Chris Finley, a brown and beige canvas with a smattering of abstract 'sign' graphics created by image-manipulation software, was absolutely boring -- I saw dozens of people walk right by it. And the inclusion of Lee Bul's "Supernova" (2000), is wearying. There are no revelations here -- no complexity or depth -- and little aesthetics, tho Bul's stuff is certainly unique in its appearance (pasty white and with an expansive tangle of roots but dull, dull).

These works suggest that painting is, in fact, a dying art. Which, while scarcely a new or profound revelation, is interesting in the context of such a traditional art museum. Ironically the title of this section (identified in the catalogue tho not the show) is "Old -fashioned Forms in Newfangled Times, or Why would anybody in this hip and modern world bother making paintings?"

SR: I keep asking this question of everyone who paints.

BLW: Personally, I am not ready to abandon painting, yet! And, despite the overall weakness of the paintings in 010101, I found two artist's works in this section to have appeal and potential. Rodney's nocturnal video of an isolated woods -- haunted by the sounds of a persistent helicopter with searchlight -- was rather eerie and used sound to great effect. The ideas here need to be developed, but the images were lush and the experience interesting if frustrating in that they did not lead to anything more active or suggestive. Also, Andreas Gursky's hyperreal digital photographs transform the spaces he selects, especially empty modern buildings, and into images of austere beauty. Tho tucked away behind a splashy work, and thus easily overlooked by the casual viewer, his seductive photograph of a Taipei lobby (1999) has staying power.

Finally, tho it was not part of the painting section, Heike Baranowsky's "Auto Scope" (1996-97), a fast-moving video of urban skylines with close ups of brick walls and barren trees that fold together like Rorschach prints, also has potential. I found this piece less successful than French artist Marie Sester's rich video evocations of Vegas, with their complex explorations of architecture and identity, BUT, Baranowsky's piece is grand in scale and conveys the emptiness and loneliness of much of 'professional' and industralized urban locales.

SR: Barbara, the paintings are a tough one for me. In spite of technical availability, I didn't see any "painting" break-throughs -- only renditions of Clifford Still, Salvador Dali and Al Held. Their counterparts here are obvious. One sculptural piece, Roxy Paine's wax blobs, oddly captivated me -- a big yogurt-like machine produces an immediate product. Banal, yes, very, but the big red blobs, after they are manufactured, roost along a bench like golems. I think of them as updated Lynda Benglis styrofoam pourings from the 60's.

BLW: In looking at the whole of the exhibition, I was glad to see that the selection of artists was quite international. However, you observed that many of these artists were young, or relatively unknown. Do you think the show would have benefited by including a few 'old masters' of art incorporating technology?

SR: I would not have advocated the inclusion of well known tech old-masters. The Char Davies was enough for me. The consistency of the cool, albeit questionable, statement of object-craft and interactive play-time would have been dismantled. This show is difficult to "patch" considering the diversity of the curators [design, education, new media, painting] and the attitude of keeping psychology at bay.

BLW: In keeping with the playful aspect of the show, Gregory Barsamian's robotic creations -- like his flying putti that metamorphose into helicopters before our eyes -- would have maintained the childlike allure of this show while raising intriguing issues about the subconscious, perception and even history. But the element most needed here is content: art focused on issues that inspire or disturb us -- this is essential and true to our complex time. This would include art like Graham Harwood's altered digital works which are socially provocative yet profoundly beautiful; these would have raised significant issues and added much needed depth to this selection of technologically manifested art.

So, while this is hardly the landmark exhibition we hoped for, I think it raises interesting questions: what IS the future of painting in the age of technology? How significant are works that incorporate technology into their means, but not their meanings? What role should text play in contemporary art? And, perhaps most importantly, how has technology enriched the ability of art to reflect upon our modern times, to create art that inspires and provokes?

source ::  

Sonya Rapoport, artist
Email: <>
URL: <>
Barbara Lee Williams, art critic, art historian

:: reposted with permission from
*Leonardo Digital Reviews*

:: live dossier
*01.01.01: art in technological times*

:: grafik
still frames from Éphémère (1998),
an interactive fully-immersive visual/aural virtual artwork


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