Essays

In Search of the Post-Internet at Art Rotterdam

Still from Cécile B. Evans’s "Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen" (2014), HD video (courtesy the artist)
Still from Cécile B. Evans’s “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen” (2014), HD video (courtesy the artist)

ROTTERDAM — When Andaz Art Donation awards were announced at Art Rotterdam last weekend, fair director Fons Hof held an impromptu Q&A with Samuel Saelemakers, co-curator of Intersections, a new space at the fair dedicated to artist-run initiatives and nonprofits. In that conversation, Hof used the term “post-internet art” to describe one of the Andaz-winning videos, Cécile B. Evans’s “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen,” which was on view in Art Rotterdam’s 12-screen dark space, Projections. Visibly discomfited by the term, Saelemakers swiftly — perhaps wisely — ducked responsibility for the labelling of artists and their work, passing it on to theorists and critics.

Whether you like it or not, Karen Archey and Robin Peckham’s 2014 exhibition and catalogue Art Post-Internet solidified the term “post-internet art” in our vocabulary. Archey and Peckham define it as work that’s “consciously created in a milieu that assumes the centrality of the network, and that often takes everything from the physical bits to the social ramifications of the internet as fodder.” Attempting to pin down post-internet art to a particular style is clearly folly, but there are some aspects upon which I think we can (mostly) agree, many of which were in evidence at Art Rotterdam 2015.

Work by Dominic Hawgood at South Kiosk (click to enlarge)
Work by Dominic Hawgood at South Kiosk (click to enlarge)

In the main section the commercial-gallery-at-the-fair tradition abounded: wall-mounted mixed-media collage was heavily represented, as was abstract acrylic painting, plus a smattering of neon and text work, all of which was sensitively framed or positioned to showcase its buyability. There was, however, also a generous helping of works that seemed as viewable on screen as they were in a booth, or that look like they should be on a screen when they were in fact physical objects in a room. London gallery South Kiosk brought Dominic Hawgood, whose backlit photography is a perfect example of this trend: he combines CGI rendering and elements of lighting design to lend a hyperreal sheen to objects as banal as a tube sock.

At Dutch gallery Torch, meanwhile, stood Tinkebell’s “Cupcake – My Little Pony,” a taxidermy horse on 3D-printed rollerskates with oversize cartoon eyes. The physicality of this piece is key to its impact: by combining the techniques of taxidermy and 3D printing, and applying the My Little Pony aesthetic to a real horse, Tinkebell managed to provoke responses from across the board, from animal rights activists to children. And when you dig a little deeper, you discover that Tinkebell has gone on to publish books filled with these reactions. By posting images of her work in open online forums, the artist invites criticism ranging from mild disgust to death threats. In this roundabout way, “Cupcake – My Little Pony” draws attention to the nature of online identity, particularly the tendencies that anonymity can bring out in its participants.

Tinkebell with her “Cupcake – My Little Pony” (photo by @tinkebell/Instagram)
Tinkebell with her “Cupcake – My Little Pony” (photo by @tinkebell/Instagram)

So, digital aesthetics and network sensibilities are almost as well established in commercial art as they are in everyday life. But it was at Intersections that I found contemporary art’s post-internet edge. The works there were vibrant and vital: it seemed no coincidence that this section was chosen to host Art Rotterdam’s opening press conference. Belgian gallery Komplot hung Michael Van den Abeele’s acrylic paintings of outer space on large denim canvases behind Jonas Locht’s automatic smog machines, while across the hall Hole of the Fox (also Belgian) was showing Benny Van den Meulengracht-Vrancx’s “Character Sheet,” a blown-up vinyl scoresheet from the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. The piece harks back to an offline age but breathes new life into in with this polished format, and also brings to mind the debates surrounding the social implications of networked gaming.

Filip Gilissen, “Listen to Your Dream” (image courtesy the artist)
Filip Gilissen, “Listen to Your Dream” (courtesy the artist)

While some works invoke a sense of the internet, others just plain look like it. “Listen to Your Dream,” by Filip Gilissen, represented jointly by Belgian spaces NICC and Bunk Club, comprises a series of photographs of a pair of lovable Labrador puppies, printed onto household mirrors and overlaid with feel-good quotes from Ancient Greek philosophers. If I hadn’t seen these at the fair, I’d have expected to find them on Instagram or Facebook. The dogs also attended the private viewing in matching gold waistcoats and hats.

Still from Cécile B. Evans’s "Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen" (2014), HD video (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)
Still from Cécile B. Evans’s “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen” (2014), HD video (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

The standout at Projections was Cécile B. Evans’s Andaz-winning “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen,” brought by Swiss gallery Barbara Seiler. The film feels like an homage to everything the internet has made possible in the past 15 years. Opening with an imperfectly rendered CGI version of recently deceased Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the nonlinear narrative goes on to cover a number of tales: a woman’s age renders her invisible, a dead girlfriend self-tags in her boyfriend’s Facebook photos, and on a home video a little girl cries as she apologizes for deleting a picture forever. All of these can, at times, seem ridiculous, especially to those of us that were around before the internet, but Evans uses a combination of CGI, green screen, and found video footage to disarm our scepticism by weaving a disturbing but ultimately heartwarming story of love and loss. The final scene, in which Yowane Haku, a hologram and one of the biggest pop stars in Japan, slow dances while singing Alphaville’s “Forever Young” is genuinely moving. “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen” is exemplary of Archey and Peckham’s assertion that “post-internet refers not to a time ‘after’ the internet, but rather to an internet state of mind — to think in the fashion of the network.”

Projections is now in its third year at Art Rotterdam. With it, the New Art section, and the addition of Intersections, Hof has created a foil to the fair’s growing maturity. As Art Rotterdam further enters the mainstream, one expects to see more post-internet art across the courtyard in the main section, where it will doubtless be tamed and framed in order to attract buyers. But this year’s edition proved that the fair isn’t just paying lip-service; it still wants to provide a platform for more experimental work.

Art Rotterdam took place February 5–8 at Van Nellefabriek (Van Nelleweg 1, Rotterdam, The Netherlands).

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