DETROIT — Like most Millennials, digital artist Chris Reilly almost compulsively consults a device that never leaves his side. So accustomed are we to the omnipresence of smartphones, though, that it might take a discerning eye to notice Reilly isn’t checking one. He’s looking at a digital meter that keeps him appraised at all times of his blood-sugar levels — he’s been a Type I diabetic since the age of two and uses a cell-phone-sized insulin pump that’s wired into his circulatory system to regulate his glucose levels. In other words, keeping tabs on his biological clockwork is a matter of life and death. Though none of the works in his current solo show, Body Clock at Cave gallery in Detroit, deal with diabetes directly — the stated themes are sleep, synesthesia, and self-portraiture — it seems almost impossible to dismiss a connection to this underlying condition.
“I think the impulse comes from a very intuitive place — or, I’m so aware that it’s all the way down into the base of my brain,” Reilly told Hyperallergic. “This could be my, like, shamanistic, right-brain diabetes treatment.”
Many of Reilly’s recent projects have dealt with intimacy and interpersonal relationships, so it’s interesting to see him working solo here. He’s the lone subject of all the show’s works, which encompass glitchy video collages, reflective wall decals, and a semicircle of Android camera phones organized into a sundial of surveillance. They represent a kind of progression through the ideas that have been floating around in his artistic atmosphere for almost the last decade. Among those are his thoughts on personal surveillance and self-monitoring, outlined in an article he wrote for Geez magazine in 2009, and a number of incomplete projects begun during a residency at the Samband Íslenskra Myndlistarmanna in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 2015.
The first piece you encounter, “Self Portrait in Reykjavík” (2015) is a roughly two-minute looping video that superimposes scraps of footage gathered during Reilly’s time in Iceland — particularly of barges moving across a sunset seascape — on a glitchy, animated self-portrait from the shoulders up. Reilly has applied some kind of transparency to aspects of the self-portrait, so the cut footage sometimes obscures his image. The work shows Reilly asleep in bed — the exhibition’s major visual theme — and treats his own form as a digitally matted object, cut from surrounding context and set against a solid background. Reilly is treading in the experimental space of attempting to capture or replicate dream states, synesthesia, and body clocks; the video is almost a thesis statement for the exhibition, setting up a surreal and prolonged meander through the artist’s Circadian rhythm.
Two works form the centerpiece of the show: “Analog Clock/Dreamcatcher,” a map of computer-generated island forms rendered in reflective vinyl stickers, and a “body clock” of Android phones mounted on selfie sticks, each playing fragments of videos — largely self-portraits of Reilly in repose — and occasionally emitting light that activates the reflective surfaces of the islands. These are an iteration of Reilly’s “Islands Game,” a collaborative drawing exercise that asks participants to connect the shapes with lines. Some are also the products of an island-shape-generating piece of software that Reilly created, a terrific example of his paradoxical efforts to codify randomness. The island map reflects light only in pieces, suggesting a neural network of floating-yet-connected ideas and emphasizing the sense of ordered chaos.
In the space between the two “clocks” stands a 3D, laser-cut figure that resembles Reilly’s glitchy silhouette as well as the odd, shifting geometric forms in some of the Android videos; the figure is a self-portrait in flux between physical body and digital avatar. Having established himself as a piece of virtual data, Reilly then replicates and multiplies it for the show’s final work, “33 Year Clock.” The full-wall projection represents a combination of software and video through which Reilly keeps time by the movements of hundreds of little digital images of himself in bed.
Reilly holds an MFA from UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, and like many contemporary graduates of that program, he leverages digital media and programming heavily in his works, and in his life. The day we meet up, he’s a little punchy and confesses to having stayed up excessively late the night before trying to implement a communication program that would automate the functioning between his blood-sugar reader and his insulin pump, which he calls his “artificial pancreas.” But Reilly’s work never feels like tech for tech’s sake, rarely falling into the trap of displaying expertise as a means of masculine posturing. His interest in tech tools seems to stem from the ways they can enhance human interaction or self-knowledge. His work feels comfortably nestled between traditional gender roles, more gadget-prone and geeky than many female artists get, but more sentimental, emotional, and vulnerable than the output of men with a high tech IQ. Reilly is the rare tech nerd more likely to attempt to data-map the workings of the human heart than to build a robot girlfriend.
For, in Reilly’s world, no one is an island — even the computer-generated islands on the wall are connected like a family tree. Self-portraiture is employed to showcase the artist in his most open and receptive states. Reilly uses his tools to make vulnerable, hand-cut constructions, or digital quilts, as he calls them. The work suggests there are no such thing as “scrap” ideas or wasted effort, but rather pieces of a wider network whose logic hasn’t quite resolved. One could attempt to force the connections, or, as Reilly has done, one could yield interesting results by first sleeping on it.
Chris Reilly: Body Clock continues at Cave (1600 Clay Street, Detroit) through July 19.