Art Encounters | Art in the Age of Virtual Reproduction

One of the strange things about the internet is that I now have friends I’ve never met. I even have friends on the internet that have seemed hesitant when I suggested we meet in proper: in the real world. Only when I mentioned I’d be where they actually live, it became apparent their hesitancy is really a desire not to meet. My first response was to feel insecure, to question the validity of the term ‘friend’ when applied to an existence on the internet, a life on screen.  My other instinct was to question my inability to adapt to a world where the meaning of friend has changed. Today, we can live online and develop a sense of community online, without that sense of community bearing on the real community we live in. But this is strange to me. It’s something I’ve thought about since Sherry Turkle published her brilliant book Life on Screen twenty years ago, and the changing sense of what an identity is was first revealed to me as a problem.

What does it mean to engage with the old without trying to instrumentalise it in some way?

But something strange happened over the last month that forced me to think of this again.  I was in the process of lighting a fire in my sitting room, having returned from walking around the grounds of an Abbey near to where I live, when I received a phone call from the artist Ben Reilly. He said he liked the first Art Encounters article I wrote for Headstuff, the way it was written from a personal point of view. He inquired if I’d be interested in writing something for a publication to accompany a solo exhibition he was having in GOMA in Waterford in March. After we finished speaking, I felt a little uneasy; I didn’t want to commit to writing about art I hadn’t yet seen, it would be kinda weird if I then did see it and don’t actually like the work.

I woke up the next day and wrote a text along the lines of ‘I’m really sorry Ben, I appreciate that you liked what I wrote, but I’m just too busy.’ Just as I was about to send the text, I received an email with a whole series of thumbnail images of Ben’s work, along with titles and snippets of information. I looked at the images with a degree of haste only to be intrigued by the sense of weariness in the profiled work, the same sense of weariness I feel trying to keep up with such a fast-changing world. I liked the work. As I went out for a walk again, I couldn’t get this sense of the past, for some reason the 1940’s specifically, out of my head after looking at the images. That weekend I wrote a text titled ‘The Old and the Weary’ for the show and began to think about why I’d written what I had. Ben’s work made me think about what it means to relate to the past beyond its recycling in TV shows and films, music and popular culture. What does it mean to engage with the old without trying to instrumental-ize it in some way?

Bladderhead Ben Reilly
Bladderhead Ben Reilly

The work Bladderhead was a game changer in this regard. I love the name for a start. I first heard the word ‘full bladder’ when in hospital as a child and always found it funny. How did our ability to urinate become aligned to the word bladder? Bladderhead is a figurative sculptural piece of a weary /exhausted head. Exhausted, possibly, by both the mayhem of Brexit and Trump and the new tele-technologies that deliver so much information about them. A bladderhead must be a head that doesn’t think, that’s forced to just function, and can be simply understood as either full or empty. I could just imagine a nurse saying, ‘is your head full?’ And I would reply, ‘No, sorry, I’ve been watching videos of Trump all day.’ Ben’s work treads this ground explicitly, compelling us to think of a world defined as full or empty, of binary divisions where you either have or you haven’t, are or are not.

Bladderhead detail Ben Reilly
Bladderhead detail Ben Reilly

This weariness I had been feeling fostered an appreciation of what is palatable in Ben’s work. Pieces like Bladderhead channel a sense of inertia and jadedness. It wasn’t really surprising that Bladderhead brought me back to the work of Mark Fisher , and his lament for lost futures, how weary he felt with a culture saturated with remakes, retakes and recycled forms of a past just past. Bladderhead seems similarly concerned with a weariness that comes from using the past as a resource. It is as if Ben wants us to engage with time, to move beyond the instrumental use of the past for just making new things. It’s as if Ben’s work, and Bladderhead is just one example, encourages us to think about the past as something more than a resource to dip into at will.

When writing the text for Ben’s show, I noticed on Facebook another virtual ‘friend’ was having a solo exhibition at Wexford Arts Centre, nicely titled ‘I Wanted to Write a Poem’ (which I learned is a quote from William Carlos Williams). I first came into contact with Jonathan Mayhew’s work when he presented a video piece called Blink at a symposium given over to Black Metal Theory. As research for a book on experimental documentary-based feature films, I needed to find out more about Black Metal (one of the main films I focus on is called A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, which is kind of about Black Metal). That day, I wandered up Baggot Street and took a left turn until I found the venue for the symposium, Gallery X. I was close to turning around and running back to the bus having arrived, such was the impression the scary, even Satanic art that adorned the walls of this basement private gallery had on me. But I stayed, gave my paper, and ended up enjoying myself immensely. I learned a lot about Black Metal in all its guises. Jonathan’s piece screened in his absence, capturing the main thrust of the symposium: the attempt to understand the often preposterous nature of an extreme music subculture defined by crazy costumes, faces painted like a corpse, and the band performers hanging about in large wooded areas.  

He is everything I ever wanted to be in a writer: unconcerned with publicity, wedded to the underground, committed to the counterculture in its original form, hateful of a media that wants to turn him into another author celebrity. How could you not love this writer?

I spoke that day about a film that ends with a Black Metal band performing in an Oslo club.  In the months that followed, photographs of the same wooded areas of Norway so specific to Black Metal culture began to appear on my Facebook feed, posted by Jonathan – I soon learned he was living in a rural part of Norway. We conversed online and realised we both have Scandinavian partners. Then, I saw a piece that he was exhibiting posted on Facebook had taken the only existing photograph of the great American writer Thomas Pynchon, blown it up and toyed with it accordingly as subject matter, and I was intrigued again, all this virtual stuff getting tangled up with the real. I can safely say that had I not discovered Thomas Pynchon as a 20 year old my life would have taken a different path. My love of Pynchon comes not just from his brilliant novels but his rejection of the media, the fact that he hasn’t been photographed since the 60’s and maintains such guarded privacy. He is everything I ever wanted to be in a writer: unconcerned with publicity, wedded to the underground, committed to the counterculture in its original form, hateful of a media that wants to turn him into another author celebrity. How could you not love this writer? When I signed up to do a PhD in the late 90`s, I had proposed to do it on Pynchon; I dreamt of spending years of my life making sense of Pynchon.

Vineland Jonathan Mayhew
Vineland Jonathan Mayhew

But it didn’t materialise. Maybe the world wouldn’t have it. But here was Jonathan making art about my hero; I wanted to learn more. So when I saw that he was exhibiting in Wexford and already knew Ben was exhibiting in Waterford, I got it into my head that I would do an Easy Rider road trip down south to see Ben’s and Jonathan’s exhibition, perhaps with my son, and visit the sunny South East. I envisaged heading down through the Galtee Mountains into Waterford and then crossing Dunmore East into Wexford, uncommon territory for someone from the West of Ireland, in pursuit of the real: an encounter with art that would both satisfy and engender my curiosity. But the trip didn’t materialize as such. Or it hasn’t materialised just yet. What I was really hoping to do was exit the virtual for a while: get into the actual. I knew these artists as virtual presences on my computer and I had, beyond everything, become weary of this. By doing an Easy Rider I could cast this aside, consider it insufficient. In other words I could come to terms with the lack that the virtual world instills in us, the void it fosters. I could leave, for a few hours, that space Jean Baudrillard famously called the ‘desert of the real.’ 

I fantasised about a trip that would materialise as something other than that a flicker on screen: a search for the aura in an age of virtual reproduction.

To do an Easy Rider meant grabbing the actual by the horns, driving down south in hope of moving from the virtual to the actual. Because a part of me is still affected by Walter Benjamin’s milestone, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production, I seem to think of the aura of the work of art as real. In the essay Benjamin considers what it means to experience the art object’s presence as a singularity, a one-off to be appreciated in the flesh: That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,’ he writes, ‘by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.’ Now, there are a number of reasons Benjamin’s essay began resurfacing in my mind. Firstly, I was considering a road trip to the sunny south East because of work that appropriates an image of Pynchon that has been reproduced ad infinitum, and which has subsequently become synonymous with the writer’s absence as a media figure since the photo was taken: the marked lack of knowledge about what Thomas Pynchon looks like today. It seemed to me that Jonathan turned to the iconic image to reflect on what the aura might mean in the age of virtual reproduction, or in an age of virtuality. The work explores, by contrast, the aura that has built up around Pynchon as a result of this one image circulating endlessly in the virtual realm (Pynchon famously appeared in an episode of The Simpsons with a bag over his head). But secondly, I also wanted to see a number of pieces by Ben outside their reductive photographic reproduction as an on-line image: feel the aura of Bladderhead and Zeppelin. Put simply, I wanted to escape the virtual for a period of time: to go hunting for the aura in the virtual age.

It’s strange the idea of a road trip came from the virtual realm, from all those films where setting out on the road is akin to embracing our freedom. When I thought about writing this, all the virtual exchanges that impacted upon my thought process, I fantasised about a trip that would materialise as something other than that a flicker on screen: a search for the aura in an age of virtual reproduction. The sunny South East became, in this moment, an object of desire: both elusive and tantalisingly close.


The Old and the Weary is a solo exhibition of work by Ben Reilly running at the Gallery of Modern Art, Waterford from 11th March to the 30th April 2017.

I Wanted to Write a Poem is a solo exhibition of work by Jonathan Mayhew running at Wexford Art Centre, Cornmarket, Ferrybank South, Wexford from 27th  February to March 25th.

An article on the British artist John Akomfrah’s work Dara made reference to in the first Art Encounters column has been published by Open Library of the Humanities last month and is available here.

Featured image: Logical Validity is not a Guarantee of Truth, courtesy of Shower of Kunst.

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