An Uncomfortable Collision

. February 8, 2019.
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UMMA’s “Art in the Age of the Internet: 1989 to Today”

“Art in the Age of the Internet: 1989 to Today”, an exhibition in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, features artists from around the world, with works centered on, and influenced by, the Internet. On display through April 7, it is a thought-provoking and, at times, uncomfortable exhibit.

Before entering the gallery, a discombobulating thrum of bass, static, and voices emanate from the exhibit. The first work to catch the eye is Judith Barry’s 1991 five-channel video installation IMAGINATION, Dead Imagine. The video, 15 minutes in length, features close-ups of first a woman’s, then a man’s, face being covered in viscous substances, followed by a variety of insects being trapped in the substances covering the faces.

There is no clear path to walk through the exhibit, with works throughout the exhibit space that draw the viewer in, before thrusting the viewer out again, like so many Internet windows opened on a screen. The low, cacophonic sound that initially greets the viewer comes from a combination of sources. The first is thewayblackmachine, an ongoing piece that began in 2014 by artist collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? which incorporates 30 monitors that features music, sounds, video and photos with racially-charged images. A

Another source for the sounds is French artist Camille Henrot’s 2013 work, Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute film that combines several representations of origin stories from various cultures and traditions.

Other works feature “Infrastructure of the Internet,” like Trevor Paglen’s photography of undersea NSA cables or his Plexiglas cube with computer parts. Still others examine the illusion of privacy and safety, one example is Lebanese artist Rabih Mrouré’s 2012 piece, The Fall of Hair: Blow-Ups, depicting seven blurry images of gunmen pointing machine guns at the photographer. The photos are from the first year of the Syrian Civil War.

Contradictions abound

One of the exhibit’s most striking aspects is its compelling contradictions. Subject matter that is exceptionally serious and personal is presented in a way that feels absurd and impersonal, like Frances Stack’s film of simple avatars reenacting the artist’s transcribed conversations recorded during online video sex chats.

Some pieces are executed in a classically trained technique, but the subject matter reflects that of an X-rated reality show. One example, Celia Hampton’s collection of gestural depictions of individuals painted in real-time from chatrandom.com, includes voyeuristic postures and masturbation.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction occurs when you leave the exhibit, experiencing a feeling of having seen too much and, at the same time, not enough; that you have been given a glimpse into an intimate moment of life, but no more than a glimpse and no more than a moment.

The expansiveness of the internet

The exhibit’s intensity comes from its astute recognition of the expansiveness and randomness of the Internet. There are pieces that reflect the traditional idea of art, while most pieces make the artistic technique tertiary to the artistic message. Personal, political, and social messages abound in “Art in the Age of the Internet: 1989 to Today,” allowing the exhibition to accurately reflect the infinite assortment of ideas, people, places, and things to be found on the Internet, creating an uncomfortable collision between art and reality.

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