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DETROIT — In the three-minute video titled, “Robocop Suffers a Glitch and Takes to the Forest to Come Up With Hollywood Movies About American Landscape Painters,” a robotic voice makes the following statement:
Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade are brought back to life to make landscapes in computers for an alien civilization that creates simulations of other planets — and they team up to find out if life on Earth was ever real in the first place.
As summary statements go, this is possibly the best description for the aesthetics, ambition, and effect of Jeremy Couillard’s exhibit Believes in Reincarnation Hates Hugs at Youngworld. There are intense, animated tableaus and lush, digital landscapes that put the viewer in first-person perspective — I found myself remembering the graphic adventure game Myst, from the early ‘90s, when I sat in on the show’s eponymous video loop. The work here leverages some of the media platforms Couillard deployed for his installation, “Out of Body Experience Clinic,” at the Louis B. James Gallery earlier this year in New York, but tailored to the massive scale of the Youngworld gallery space. The “clinic” ushered viewers, one at a time, from a waiting room and into a darkened basement — an environment Youngworld Director of Programming and artist Ben Hall described as, “Not medically clean, but torture-chamber clean” — where viewers donned Occulus Rift glasses that guided them through a simulated, out-of-body experience.
Couillard has managed to flood the Youngworld scene with another psychically altering experience. The massive entryway roughly mimics the “waiting room” from the “Out of Body Experience Clinic,” with chairs on carpeted patches that face a large-scale banner featuring a panoramic still from the titular video loop. But once this banner — which cordons off the back end of the main gallery — is breached, attendees will encounter an otherworldly office setting with the familiar fixtures of cubicle partitions, desks, pre-fab chairs, and computer monitors creating three stations that run looping videos with content that is NSFW by virtue of sheer oddness. The “Robocop” video is the only one with dialogue (monologue, technically); the other two feature scenes that fall somewhere between precious moments and a furry convention. “Man and Mouse” lingers at close range while a person lovingly caresses the face of a human-sized rat. The other, “Lady and Penguin,” shows a joyful embrace between a woman and a child-sized penguin, captured at multiple angles and superimposed through fade cuts. In a separate, darkened room off the office gallery, a looping video bearing the show’s name runs at wall-size, like a short reel from the oddest drive-in movie you’ve ever seen.
All videos are rendered in high-definition computer animation, the current mien of virtual reality. Couillard’s signature seems to be dense color, hypnotic, repetitive movements — hand gestures, or waving flowers in the forefront of a scene — and statements that initially seem non sequitur, but take on increasing significance the longer you stay, like a psychedelic drug kicking in. Whether it counts as an official altered state or not, after half an hour in Couillard’s environment, all things lost proportion. As Couillard puts it in his artist statement, “Simulation produces a state of detachment, allowing acceptance of neither the present nor the future … and consequently allows all histories and futures to be understood and felt without the presence of a body.” Emerging from the insular and carefully orchestrated space made by Youngworld and Jeremy Couillard, I found myself surprised to find life waiting on the outside. For a short span, at least, I had to wonder if life on Earth was “ever real, in the first place.”
Jeremy Couillard: Believes in Reincarnation Hates Hugs continues at Youngworld (6121 Casmere, Detroit) through August 26.