You’re Living in a Greenhouse

Artificial light is linked to the demand for ceaseless economic growth in Istvan Virag’s pessimistic exhibition debut.

Istvan Virag, Hypnagogic Hues, White Skies and Other Proxies, installation view. Photo: Istvan Virag.

As part of Hungarian-born, Oslo-based Istvan Virag’s first solo show, Hypnagogic Hues, White Skies and Other Proxies, the windows of the artist-run gallery Podium have been covered with several layers of blue mesh, similar to the material found on scaffolding during façade renovations. The tightly woven nylon threads act as a simple filter, imbuing the natural light entering the gallery with a blue tint, not unlike the light that strikes the face and retina when staring into a laptop or phone. Such blue light is not uncontroversial – plenty has been written about how blue light inhibits melatonin production, thereby interfering with our sleep, which in turns increases the likelihood of everything from obesity to cancer.

In the video White Skies and Other Proxies (all works 2019), artificial light and its ability to affect human psychology and biology is linked to capitalism’s demand for unlimited growth. A woman’s voice speaks about a satellite system used to measure the intensity of light on the Earth’s surface. Earth is supposedly getting two percent brighter every year, and studies demonstrate a correlation between the amount of light visible from space and GDPs. Close-ups of a beetle fixed in place by a light box are juxtaposed with images of a woman receiving skin treatment by means of a cyborg-like mask that emits blue light. Along with images of an ultra-modern skyline of a Chinese city at night, these sequences create an indelible impression that exposure to blue light, like the light that can be measured from space, will only increase in scope, including in private spheres. The gentle, careful editing and the theory-tinged observations create a sense of distance that makes it possible to imagine the video as the product of an artificial intelligence or some other alien life form.

Light as a carrier of information is the theme of the installation Pixel Pitch, vol 1, which consists of a large LED panel of the type used to display commercials on building facades. The work is installed so that you are forced to stand close enough to be able to observe each of the red, green and blue diodes which join to form the individual screen pixels. A fast-paced montage video, consisting of elements such as 3D-rendered urban settings, skyscrapers, and automated manufacturing, becomes hazy and abstract: equal parts patterns of light and image. The materiality of the screen only grows more insistent the longer one watches the video loop, counteracting the sense of immersion usually prompted by high-resolution, crystal-clear images.

In 24/7: Late Capitalism and The Ends of Sleep (2014), art historian Jonathan Crary writes about how screens, medications, and fibre optic cables – along with unsustainable demands for economic growth – erode the distinction between work and leisure and, therefore, our access to deep, uninterrupted sleep. The blue light emitted by LED lights is an essential feature of the infrastructure of 24/7 capitalism, and in Virag’s detached staging it becomes a drowsy cocoon, a sign of passive acceptance for the way things are.

In interpretations of the use of lamps and light boxes in work by artists associated with relational aesthetics, such as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, light is often thought of as something that structures social life, but it is rarely seen as alienating in the same way as in this exhibition. In that sense, Virag’s works have a much clearer aesthetic and thematic kinship with cyberpunk movie classics such as Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), where neon signs and moving images invade all available surfaces in dystopian megacities. But, as always, when reality catches up with the speculative futures of past fiction, certain differences apply. In Virag’s impactful portrayal of the new Chinese megacities, it is LED lights, rather than the now endangered neon signs, that make the city a 24-hour, restless, ever-growing economic machine.

Istvan Virag, White skies and other proxies, 2019, video still.