In Front of the Marble Screen

Myths of the Marble at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter boasts luminous algae, computer games and prosthetics. But a fondness for new technology gives it a rather one-sided swipe-friendly tactility.

Jacolby Satterwhite, En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance, 2016. Animation and HD video.

It is hardly a coincidence that the “Post-Internet” phenomenon didn’t receive a single mention at the press view of Myths of the Marble, held on a slightly too-warm winter morning at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. There comes a time when the latest buzzwords are no longer buzzing. That time may now have come for the term “Post-Internet”, which many of those in the know have been busy distancing themselves from during the last year – in veritable Harry Potter fashion (He-who-must-not-be-named). The artists who were first associated with the term and benefited from the limelight it generated have certainly long since dashed off. Quite understandably. Who wants to be the poster child of an ism?

Myths of the Marble
Ane Graff, Cayetano Ferrer, Chris Marker, Daria Martin, Florian Meisenberg, Ignas Krunglevičius, Jacolby Satterwhite, Rachel de Joode, Shahryar Nashat, Sondra Perry, Susanne Winterling
Henie Onstad Art Center, Høvikodden

But don’t be deceived. The discussions that have branched out into the wildly proliferating Post-Internet undergrowth – about screen-based digital existence and all that this entails in terms of reflections on surface and skin, identity and body, surveillance and self-monitoring, immateriality and materiality – are of course still present in contemporary art. And that also holds true for the exhibition at HOK, subtitled “Contemporary art and the virtual”.

The two curators Milena Høgsberg (HOK) and Alex Klein (Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia) have invited a total of eleven artists, and seven of the works presented are quite large all-new productions created especially for this occasion, which comprises the current exhibition at HOK and a subsequent show at ICA in Pennsylvania.

The exhibition is arranged as a sequence of solo presentations. Visitors pass from one room to another, with each room set aside for a specific artist. Approximately half the works require the use of headphones/VR headsets. This means that the works do not overlap in any way; there is no contact between them. It also means that the overall order of your exhibition experience has been predetermined.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016 and Chômage Technique, 2016. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / HOK.

We begin with Sharyar Nashat’s room in the lobby, lit up by pink light. Here we find the video work Present Sore (2016), which cuts between footage of skin, flesh and surgery-induced gashes and openings, presenting a range of questions about surface, plane and the prosthetic potential of the body. And we end with Susanne Winterling’s installation Glistening Troubles (2017) in an exhibition room that very appropriately offers a view of the fjord outside. Appropriate because the work is about a particular type of algae, dinoflagellates, which live in water and become luminous when their surroundings change, enabling them to e.g. warn us against the consequences of global warming.

Such an overall structure, taking us from Nashat to Winterling, might be said to suggest a narrative about object/abject relationships ranging from a bodily to a planetary perspective. One might also stretch the point a bit and say that similar themes appear in some of the works in between, for example in Florian Meisenberg’s painting installation that invites visitors to interact with the work via VR headsets, or Sondra Perry’s installation, which offers a critique of 3D technology, for example of computer games using pictures of real-life basketball players for their animations without having secured the rights to do so. In truth, however, the exhibition layout serves mostly to direct the visitors’ movement through the exhibition rather than to present a stringent narrative.

But other things are stringent in Myths of the Marble – certainly the predominance of new technology. Here are screens, computer-generated animations and virtual reality – but also simple glass sheets and glass display cases that support this aesthetic. The result is an exhibition characterised by a uniformly glossy, swipe-friendly tactility. If we stick to the marble metaphor one might say that emphasis has been placed on the shiny, almost ethereal quality of marble. It is presented as something you cannot resist touching, rather like the swiping interface of smartphones: we are all infants around our phones, constantly cradling and petting them. Just as tourists can be seen pawing at marble sculptures from art history every day, petting famous big toes and other appendages into ruin in their eagerness to connect with the alluring material and its religious, artistic and historic aura – also a kind of “virtuality” with a long-standing tradition that draws on another quality of marble, as stone and material. However, this latter quality remains largely ignored in Myths of the Marble.

Florian Meisenberg, Of Defective Gods & Lucid Dreams (The Museum is Closed for Renovation), 2017. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / HOK.

Even though I personally don’t get much of a thrill from moving 3D furniture around Meisenberg’s installation via a VR headset, new technology is obviously well suited to exploring issues pertaining to the virtual. At the same time it is striking to note that a more physical, material exploration of the virtual is almost entirely absent at the exhibition. One of the welcome exceptions to this rule is Ane Graff’s What Oscillates (2017). Typical of our time, the work is a display sculpture featuring copper wire, aluminium, fibre optics, bismuth and other materials of the kind found behind the glossy screens that are so ubiquitous in contemporary life. The same applies to Daria Martin’s 16mm film Soft Materials (2004): it shows footage from a laboratory that develops robots which mimic human intelligence. One of the phases of this development work takes the form of poignant, touching interplay between dancers and mechanical dolls connected to each other by skin, antennae and movement.

Perhaps the one-sided focus on the smooth, representational (screen-like) qualities of marble, rather than on its properties as a malleable stone/material, means that questions concerning the virtual that Myths of the Marble wants to explore remain largely synonymous with the digital and the questions that follow in the wake of the Post-Internet discussion. Fine by me. We’re a long way away from having exhausted the subject, and the fact that the curators have prompted the creation of many extensive new productions for this event is a delight in itself.

I have a sense that the curators wish to invite a more specific interpretation of the virtual, even though this did not come across clearly in the exhibition itself – and the catalogue, which might shed additional light on this, will not be published until the show arrives in the USA. In view of this I will take the liberty of pointing out a reference that has been at the back of my mind ever since I first heard the title of this exhibition: the artist-cum-writer Amalie Smith’s elegant novel Marble (2014), which is about marble, infrared photography, ancient polychromy, digital 3D models, archaic statues and love. It may well have nothing to do with the title or concept of this exhibition, but in the absence of a catalogue it can certainly be read as an excellent primer on the subject of “contemporary art and the virtual”.

Ane Graff, What Oscillates, 2017, detail. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / HOK.