Deja-vu in Humlebæk

Displaying marginal innovation, Louisiana’s Being There shows familiar post-internet art with a dash of humanism.

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Three-channel HD video 4:3, shot on 16:9 film with 4.1 surround sound. 13:19 min.

Louisiana’s group show Being There is the first Danish institutional take on what elsewhere would have been called a post-internet exhibition. And even though the curator, Mathias Ussing Seeberg, chose not to invoke this particular term, which is now entering its first decade in existence, the exhibition’s curatorial approach exactly matches the original definition of “post-internet” — and the concept’s by now obvious observation: that the digital and physical spheres of human experience have become inextricably entwined for anyone on the planet who live with an internet connection.

In light of that, it is a little disappointing to immediately learn that out of the ten artists invited to take part in Being There, all live in either the USA or Western Europe, and all – excepting Asian-American Ian Cheng – are white. If the argument against curating exhibitions with diverse representation in mind is that the main criterion should be “artistic quality”, Being There also sadly fails to consistently deliver on that score.

Among those who do deliver we find the canonised contemporary artist Ed Atkins, who also had a solo show at x-rummet at Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Gallery of Denmark) last year. Here, Atkins’s Ribbons from 2014 is shown on three large, sculptural screens installed in Louisiana’s subterranean arched hallway. Using a slickly alluring mode of expression, Atkins presents us with the animated avatar Dave; a tattooed, impotent and – importantly – naked man caught in digital purgatory. Alone in the world, Dave alternately sings to us, pisses, farts and drinks himself under the table – oscillating between self-deprecating resignation and failed attempts at reaching out.

Within this universe all communication is fragmented in misguided fanfare and interrupted speech. Devoid of the social tools that would enable him to establish meaningful relations with other people, Dave’s loneliness, existential desperation and substance abuse end up being put on display for distanced observation. The reality Dave occupies – a possible allegory of life with social media – offers neither resolve nor satisfaction. This is to say that in Atkins’s work, we find little of the techno-optimism (or “techno-complicity”) with which post-internet art is often associated.

Similar reservations can be found in e.g. Louise Gagliardi’s atmospheric, but materially disappointing digital paintings, Living Downstream (2017), which also give the human condition centre stage. Here, loneliness is not presented as something that is necessarily experienced in states of isolation – as in Dave’s case – but as something that may equally well be experienced in the competitive company of others. Or in Cécile B. Evans’s aesthetic caricature of a Hito Steyerl video, the instant classic Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen from 2014 a video montage about a new, disturbing species emerging on our planet: the digital living dead.

Louisa Gagliardi, Vicious circles, 2017. Part of Living Downstream, 2017. Gel, nail varnish, print on PVC, 115 x 150 cm.

Some may regard these darker perspectives as incompatible with post-internet art. Some may point to the underlying humanistic (rather than techno-deterministic) focus of the exhibition as atypical. Yet others may describe Being There as a post-internet exhibition par excellence.

Such a span of interpretations reflects a situation where the designation post-internet is now used, interchangeably, to describe a scene, an aesthetic, a range of subject matter, a critical sensibility and basic observations about technological revolutions.

Since Seeberg quite understandably did not wish to adopt this confusion around the term, it is not surprising that it has taken time – especially for a large institution such as Louisiana – to produce their own qualified perspective on the field. It takes time to develop a distinct perspective that has its research in place, that is clear-cut in its mediation of its subject matter and which can hold its ground in the face of art history. To put it in other words: to be disappointed that Being There comes late to the party as a post-internet exhibition would be unfair.

I would happily concede all this if Seeberg and co. had spent the intervening years formulating observations, asking questions or considering theories that pinpoint or add something of significant value to the field. But when you offer up a curatorial concept that is identical to the fundamental definition of “post-internet”, when you show the usual post-internet-suspects, and when the concept itself is demonstratively ignored without anything of substance being offered in its place, the overall effect is weak.

Of course, it’s not every curator’s task to reinvent the wheel. Instead a curator may select artists that add nuances to a generic theme and then go on to install their works so that they complement each other by virtue of the exhibition design. And I would have happily conceded this point too if it weren’t for the fact that Being There is separated into nine individual rooms, one for each of the nine art projects, with no obvious narrative sequence to connect them – and with great variations in terms of quality.

Bunny Rogers, Leda (Painted and Erased), 2017. Installation view, Being There, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Louisiana.

Progressing all the way along the axis from Ed Atkins’s compelling Ribbons we find, at the weakest end of the spectrum, Bunny Rogers’s installation Leda (Painted and Erased) from 2017. Here we are presented with a high-school-esque memorial to a dead cartoon character whose reproduction in a painting is reminiscent of the artist herself. As a child Rogers was unable to distinguish between TV and “reality”, and in a sense this resonates with how we relate to digital technology today.

For Being There she has given physical form to certain elements from the TV show – such as a basketball hoop, a mop and wallpaper. Consequently, the accompanying text claims, she has created “a collapsed environment between a physical and virtual existence”. However, it is impossible to register (not to say care about) this collapse of two worlds when we are not offered some insight into their individual makeup. Or, to put it in other words: when we are offered no insight into the TV show and, hence, no opportunity to identify with the cartoon character, the artist is the only person who can experience the collapse of the two worlds and activate the installation’s performative potential – the ritual of grief. A world of visual markers of jeune fille feminism cannot offset the fundamentally disengaging nature of Rogers’s installation.

If, then, it was not crucial to Louisiana that the artists featured at this exhibition should deliver art to “the highest level”, it is all the more frustrating to find that once again the local, practising art scene – not to mention every place outside of the USA and Western Europe – is ignored. That kind of provincial internationalism would be unthinkable in the very cities that the artists featured in Being There live and work: New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and Zürich. Let this be a call out to all institution directors to take on their responsibility to engage with the artists within the communities of which their institutions are part. Might it not be possible – insofar things like attendance figures, branding and so on are of primary concern – that local audiences would be interested in occasionally seeing local perspective represented?

Despite its evasive approach to the concept of post-internet and an emphasis on a humanistic perspective, Being There has little new to offer for anyone familiar with the term post-internet art. But the exhibition does have several good works on show.

Ryan Trecartin, Temple Time, 2016, HD Video, 54:32 min. Part of the installation Lake Anticipation, 2016, by Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin. Photograph: Pierre Le Hors.