Art

Embracing Mortality in the Face of Big Tech’s Domination

Ben Gocker isn’t yearning to be released from the impermanence of his body. His work shows his acceptance of nostalgia and melancholy.

Installation view of Ben Gocker: Foskers & Egg Whites at P·P·O·W Gallery, New York (all images courtesy of Ben Gocker and P·P·O·W, New York)

The American futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that humans will achieve immortality by the year 2045 in a process known as the Singularity. This notion has gained significant traction in the tech world. Kurzweil is currently the Director of Engineering at Google, and in 2011 the Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov began funding the “2045 Movement.” Itskov’s project aims to transfer our personalities into carriers superior to the human body.

Deep skepticism toward this view pervades Ben Gocker’s Foskers & Egg Whites, an exhibition of painting and sculpture at P·P·O·W that exemplifies the artist’s patient and obsessive process, involving the imperfect workings of the human hand. (Some viewers might also recognize Gocker’s eccentric pencils from Scaredy Cat City, a 2014 show at P·P·O·W, reworked into new pieces.)

“Coney Island” (2019), a triptych consisting of wood, paint, steel wire, tin, rock, and rope, includes the phrase “Immortality by 2045” in arches at the top of its center panel. Perhaps an artist’s desire for immortality doesn’t seem so surprising. But, by evoking Kurzweil’s prediction, Gocker’s aims are altogether different. While “Coney Island” bears the telltale signs of flawed human action, the artist isn’t yearning to be released from the impermanence of his body. His work shows his acceptance of the distinct pairing of nostalgia and melancholy.

Installation view of Ben Gocker: Foskers & Egg Whites at P·P·O·W Gallery, New York

On the side panels, Gocker provides an abundance of visual stimuli. There are small painted cats, looking curious and content, their renderings reminiscent of those found in old comic strips. One looks like a version of Heathcliff. Their familiarity is a bit like their names being on the tip of one’s tongue. Perhaps this is the essence of nostalgia: sensations driven by a simultaneously distinct and incomplete memory.

Near the cat, at the top of the left-hand panel, are the flattened top ends of keys, as if the keys have broken off in a lock. Gocker surrounds the cats with names such as Beethoven, Uncle Bert, Rafiki, and Icarus. These names resonate with the artist’s indictment of Big Tech’s overreach. In the 1994 Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, love is immortal, not the human body. Meanwhile, Rafiki, the shamanic mandrill from The Lion King (1994), and Uncle Bert, demonstrate uneasiness with the future envisioned by the 2045 movement. Uncle Bert references Whitman Grimm’s Ghost Stories, issue 58, entitled “Uncle Bert’s Children.” The lower panel of the issue’s cover depicts three adults recoiling from a ghostly woman dressed in early 20th-century garb. The accompanying text asks, “What is the specter’s silent warning?” In Gocker’s case, the specter isn’t a ghost. It’s the threat of being transformed into a machine.

Prince, the iconic musician who died in 2016, is yet another figure who bears significance throughout the show. The word appears four times in “Coney Island.” The first work in the gallery, “Sheila E” (2019), named after the percussionist who worked with Prince during the mid-1980s, establishes Prince as a running motif. As in several of the other works, Gocker has fashioned small wooden slats, a bit like clothespins, and painted them with bright primary colors. Their diagonal arrangement gives the work a vibratory feeling.

Installation view of Ben Gocker: Foskers & Egg Whites at P·P·O·W Gallery, New York

Gocker surely remembers the musician’s 1993 contractual dispute with Warner Bros., in which Prince changed his name to a symbol and performed with the word “Slave” written on his face. This gesture was a declaration of self-determination. Gocker’s rejection of corporate-driven attempts for immortality is an analogous move. The artist has no interest in replicating the master–slave relationship that digital technology subtly recreates.

“Things that Don’t Last” (2019) draws the artist’s commitment to impermanence further to the surface. This work also uses an array of wooden slats to spell out words like “Songs,” “Snowballs,” and “Rage.” Many of the works in the show use the structure of word search activities designed to foster literacy in developing readers. Each thing named in this piece has a lifespan. Perhaps Gocker’s discomfort with Kurzweil’s prediction is its alteration of what we have always known: not only that we die, but that we must die.

Most viewers will recognize the influence of Jasper Johns in Gocker’s work: the color schemes and inclusion of detritus or trash-like objects in the painting. But where Johns is more invested in formalism, Gocker fuses formalist concerns with an interrogation of a large cultural phenomenon, like Big Tech’s quest for immortality.

Installation view of Ben Gocker: Foskers & Egg Whites at P·P·O·W Gallery, New York

“Michael Crichton” (2019), reminiscent of Johns’ hatch mark works, “Corpse and Mirror” (1976) and “Dancers on a Plane” (1979), is an intriguing work in this regard. Crichton, who passed away in 2008, is mostly known as the author of techno-thrillers such as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. A consistent theme throughout his books is the fraught relationship between humans and technology.

In the early 1980s, Crichton published a book on computer programming for novices, in which he argues that programming a computer will make you feel good. Years earlier, he published a coffee table book called Jasper Johns (1970), in which he describes the artist’s methods and offers interpretations of his work. Crichton serves as a silent specter like the old woman in “Uncle Bert’s Children.”

At the heart of Gocker’s work is a deep commitment to impermanence and independent thinking. He does not assume any right to live forever. An algorithm does not drive his thoughts. He wants to see whether we’re paying attention, or if we even have any mind left after the continual blitzkrieg of Big Tech’s dominance.

Ben Gocker: Foskers & Egg Whites continues at P·P·O·W Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 12.

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