EXHIBITION REVIEW: Jon Rafman
Rafman repeatedly challenges the boundaries between the material and virtual in projects such as ‘The Nine Eyes of Google Street View’, for which he is best known. This ongoing project collates surprising poignant images that range from the unsettling, the beautiful, and the downright strange, all taken by Google Street View’s nine automated cameras mounted on cars. These photographs explore the contemporary experience via the contrast between life documented by a robotic camera and what Rafman calls humanity’s ‘search for for connectedness and significance’. This theme is explored once again in this latest exhibition of works made over the last five years.
Rafman has risen to the challenge of engagingly presenting his video pieces by making a series of interactive installations, filling the former Methodist chape with structures that propose a full-bodied engagement with artworks. This ranges from a ball pit filled with monitors; cupboards concealing screens and speakers, into which guests climb; a massage chair facing a screen; to a waterbed from which reclining viewers watch a film mimicking the movements of the bed. These are no mere gimmicks, however: each environment offers an additional layer of meaning to works on screen.
Take, for instance, 2014’s ‘Mainsqueeze’ - an unrelenting yet poetic survey of some of the darkest recesses of the internet, compiled of images, video, and text found online. Underlying the images of obscure fetishes, cruel pranks, and bizarre dating simulations, is the human need to connect; a need made desperate in an increasingly alienated digital age. Rafman alludes to this undercurrent by placing viewers in a ‘Hug Sofa’, which holds one in a comforting - yet ultimately unfulfilling - embrace. Themes of consumption and sickening over-consumption also predominate: a disembodied voice in ‘Erysichthon’ (2015) screeches, accusingly, ‘Your fantasies can never be quenched, can they?!’
Rafman’s latest work, commissioned especially for the exhibition, also combines video with installation to great effect. ‘Sticky Drama’ (2015) is based on LARPing (Live Action Role Play) communities and the imaginary worlds of childhood. On one side of the space is the bedroom of a young girl, festooned in a baffling mixture of the expected - a patchwork quilt, posters and stickers - and the uncanny, including quantities of luminous green goo. The source of this goo becomes evident by turning your attention to the video on the opposite wall: an epic and fantastical tale of warring factions of costumed children. The fertile imaginations and sometimes frightening violence evident in the games of the young is vividly dramatised to a soundtrack by American experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never.
However, what is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the exhibition is ‘Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze)’ (2015), a large-scale artificial hedge maze in a dim room, reminiscent of the landscapes of computer games. This is populated with strange, digitally-manipulated portrait busts from Rafman’s ‘New Age Demanded’ series. These illuminated sculptures loom out of the darkness as one negotiates the maze. In the centre, one finds an Oculus Rift headset guarded by an eight-foot sculpture. The installation as a whole nods to the collapse between the material and the digital, as the headset offers the visitor the experience of a virtual voyage into the cosmos - starting with a digital rendering of the maze itself. The hypnotic female voiceover from Rafman’s earlier video work, ‘Still Life (Betamale)’ (2013) comes to mind: ‘As you look into the screen, it is possible to believe that you are gazing into eternity’.
For all its technological fascination, at its heart Jon Rafman’s work is about humanity: human needs, human fallibility, and the way we negotiate new and ambiguous terrains. Whether you are personally invested in the digital realm or not, this focus is ultimately what makes Rafman’s exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection so successful.
‘Zabludowicz Collection Annual Commission: Jon Rafman', Zabludowicz Collection, from 8th October - 20th December 2015.
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