Amidst the renaissance of digital art shows in 2021, exhibitions such as Cory Arcangel’s “Century 21” and EPOCH’s “Replicants” stand out for reframing the boundaries between virtual and the physical while questioning the impact of technological progression.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
When everything came to a grinding halt last year during the onset of the pandemic, art fairs and galleries attempted to convince the rest of us (and probably themselves) that Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) were the advent of technological innovation in the art world. Truth be told, the diverse array of installation shots on a website seemed no different from an uploaded PDF.
Even then, stuck in lockdown, people seemed hungry for something more in their digital experience of art, leading to the obsession with Nintendo’s simulation game Animal Crossing and the viral Instagram account (@tussenkunstenquarantaine) recreating iconic works of art in real life with random household items.
This appetite found the beginnings of satisfaction in 2021. One of the most promising effects of the NFT boom this year is the renaissance of exhibitions showcasing all manner of digital art in a myriad of ways—art in virtual realms via VR, AR and more, purely physical exhibitions of new media art, hybrid editions showcasing digital art both online and IRL. Even better, some of these exhibitions dared to boldly explore the progression of technology and its impact on humanity and the earth.
As part of a lookback on 2021, here are five digital art exhibitions which stood out or resonated this year.
“Century 21” at Greene Naftali
American artist Cory Arcangel is known for his prolific technology-based art, exploring the nature and impact of video games and software. The new media artist’s first solo exhibition at Greene Naftali and his first show in New York in five years continued this theme and exploration.
The exhibition, which ran from 5 March to 17 April, was especially noted for its grim overtones. While the most talked about work at “Century 21” was a supercomputer playing a seemingly addictive mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the work that best captured the crux of the show was slightly more understated.
In a rear gallery, flat-screen monitors played recordings of bots liking every tweet from the corporate accounts named in the title of the installation elleusa, equinor, equinox, etrade_financial (2020). Next to the screens, airline barf bags hung on the walls with printed cliché Twitter phrases such as “I don’t know who needs to know this” and “Let me be clear”. The artwork’s portrayed hollowness of social media and content marketing definitely ring true to life.
“Nam June Paik” at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
No list on digital art exhibitions is complete without Korean American artist Nam June Paik, the “father of video art” who passed away in 2006. SFMOMA’s highly anticipated retrospective “Nam June Paik”, which ran from 8 May to 3 October, was the first major Paik show in the United States in over two decades as well as his first large-scale survey on the West Coast.
Five decades of the artist’s work spanning across mediums and continents showcased the relevance of Paik’s consistent and definitive expansion of the term “media art” and his commentary on the relationship between society, media and technology in our time.
One of the exhibition’s standout works is Paik’s 1968 video sculpture TV Chair, featuring a closed-circuit camera pointing down at a clear plastic seat with a television screen placed beneath and facing upwards while televising the camera’s feed, an overhead view of a sitter, to that person’s bottom. Doesn’t that feel uncannily like our digitally focused hermetic lives during the pandemic?
“The Breakdown Economy” at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
While the Netherlands’ Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen recently made news for the opening of its 40-metre-tall mirrored flowerpot premises that looks set to be Rotterdam’s signature building, the museum’s most intriguing project in 2021 was, in fact, online.
Building on the museum’s show in 2017, “Change the System”, where around 50 designers and artists proposed solutions for our current flawed lifestyles, “The Breakdown Economy”, launched in April this year, takes a hard look at breaking down the plastic being produced around the world in order to bring “the maelstrom of plastic pollution to a halt”.
Created by Studio Klarenbeek & Dros and artist collective Atelier Van Lieshout, the online exhibition, which runs till 31 December, proposes imagined alternative production chains, featuring replicas of plastic design objects from the museum’s collection made from a material developed using seaweed.
Also, designers Koehorst in ’t Veld produced a graphic installation detailing the growth of bio-based and fossil-based economies over recent decades, emphasising the real world urgency of the issues examined in the exhibition.
“Replicants” at EPOCH
The artist-run virtual experiment EPOCH, created by Los Angeles-based artist Peter Wu+, has been makingwaves all year for its exhibitions using XR—an umbrella term describing augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies—to create haunting and sumptuous landscapes.
However, “Replicants”, running from October 2021 to January 2022, was aptly named Best International Exhibition by Flash Art magazine’s winter edition. Borrowing the name of bioengineered beings in the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, “Replicants” models its virtual environment after Queen’s Road Central in Hong Kong, expanding a reproduction of the street and surrounding buildings of Woaw Gallery to showcase work by diverse digital artists. Additionally, the exhibition itself was released as an NFT in conjunction with the opening of Woaw Gallery’s IRL group show “Teknolust: Objectophilic Futures”.
The exhibition’s transcendence of physical-to-virtual-to-physical boggles the mind, especially regarding the endless possibilities of techno-reproductions and exhibiting art today.
“Proof of Art” at Francisco Carolinum
Held from 10 June to 15 September, the exhibition could be accessed at the Austrian museum Francisco Carolinum’s physical premises and on Cryptovoxels, a blockchain-based virtual world. While much was made about the launch of The Digital Francisco Carolinum, a long narrow virtual space with floors connected by a floating staircase, the hybrid exhibition’s true strength is its ability to dwell deep into the storied history of digital art in all its forms.
“Proof of Art” features the likes of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s A Commercial for Myself (1978), foreseeing social media’s emphasis on self-branding, as well as blockchain-based art before the NFT boom, such as Harm van den Dorpel’s generative screensaver Event Listeners (2015), which MAK Vienna bought with Bitcoin, pioneering museum acquisition on the blockchain.
The more digital art evolves in the years to come, and it will likely do so rapidly, the more important it becomes to examine the roots and trajectories of this type of art with exhibitions like “Proof of Art”.