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This Exhibition Claims That “All Art Is Virtual” 

SANTA FE, N. Mex — All Art Is Virtual is the kind of catch-all title that made me wary even before I stepped into the dark and buzzing interior of Thoma Foundation’s new media space Art Vault. The nonprofit gallery’s website states that the exhibition “proposes that all art can provide a virtual reality experience — no special goggles required.” 

I also dislike VR headsets (aside from their bad ergonomics, their aesthetic is not too bad). iconically mortifyingThis theme could be used to showcase any type of media in a new media collection. Thoma has the goods here, in vast archives that go back to the very beginnings of digital art. All Art Is Virtual features two dozen works spanning seven decades (its earliest entry is from 1962), but what’s the curatorial glue?

A sequence of narrative-driven artworks gives form to an exhibition that is capable of transcending its branding. Nina Simone plays the piano and croons across 29 television screens of a pyramidal installation created by Paul Stephen Benjamin, an Atlanta-based artist. The work is titled “Black is the Color” (2015) which is the lyric that echoes through it as three clips of Simone endlessly cycle. The singer’s drawn-out vocal steeps like tea, slowly resolving to the ear.

Nam June Paik’s 1989 work “Portable God,” a two-channel video installation enshrined in a 1950s television cabinet, is a psychedelic, calligraphy-covered altar to Allen Ginsburg, Elaine de Kooning, Confucius, and other cultural figures. It is decorated with rice and candles. 

An ornately framed flatscreen seamlessly loops Kent Monkman’s 2015 “video painting” “The Human Zoo,” which casts the Cree artist’s drag alter ego as a sideshow performer on the streets of 1850s Berlin. At the end of her frenetic dance to a drumbeat struck by a white male companion, she’s denied a share of the tips.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, “Black is the Color” (2015), three-channel digital video (color, sound) on 30 CRT monitors (© Paul Stephen Benjamin; photo by Jason Wyche)

These works feel nearly cinematic, masterfully harnessing new media’s temporal nature; as they bloom, our understanding of them evolves and deepens in spine-tingling ways. In this vein, the exhibition’s pièce de résistance is “Inverso Mundus” (2015), a deliciously bonkers video opera by the Moscow-based collective AES+F. Enjoy the extravagant tableaus of people performing social power reversals (women locking their male counterparts in stylized stocks, and children wrestling elders to death) and stay for angelic arrivals of the mutant menagerie.

There are many other strong artifacts. All Art is Virtual — Sandra Perry’s interactive rowing machine that drops you onto the deck of a slave ship, Michael Bell-Smith’s vertical scroll of video game skylines that rival the splendor of Roku City, a central room filled with strange puzzle boxes by artist-scientists — but the whole sweep is ruled by a perplexing eclecticism. There are so many treasures to choose, so why not pick one theme and edit from there.

This can be more difficult than it appears in the current cultural landscape. David Salle wrote this in a chapter from his 2016 book. How to See, we’ve landed in an era of sensory overload in which “images have no fungible sense of authorship; pictures of every imaginable thing, person, event, are just so much visual weather.” But, as Salle contends, that’s why it’s particularly crucial for art to “function differently” from the rest of the imagery flashing past us.

Universal Everything, “Communion” (2010/2020), single-channel digital video (color, sound) on projector (© Universal Everything)

The problem with curating in the spirit of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“the centre will not hold” and all that) is the risk of simply mirroring the moment, with its visual avalanche, channeled but not quite controlled by algorithms. No one needs more of that — we need to boldly carve something from the mass.

Nam June Paik, “Portable God” (1989), single-channel video (color, silent) on two CRT monitors in artist-modified wood cabinet with altar offerings
Michael Bell-Smith, “Up and Away” (2006), single-channel digital video (color, sound) on monitor (© Michael Bell-Smith)
Josh Tonsfeldt, Untitled (2017), single-channel digital video (color, silent) on artist-modified LCD monitor, fiberglass cloth, urethane resin, pigments, and found materials (© Josh Tonsfeldt; photo by Charles Benton)

All Art Is VirtualArt Vault, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 540 South Guadalupe Street. Jason Foumberg curated the exhibition.

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