What can we learn from the compelling and strange Mirrorcity exhibition at the Hayward Gallery London, a show exploring the relationship of the physical and the digital
Over 20 Artists or Artist groups including collage artist John Stezaker (below),
tech/internet artist group LuckyPDF and Ursula Mayer whose film and installation is a hypnotic, mythic piece exploring issues of gender representation.
The space Mayer has created to show the movie, which includes talismanic or totemic objects you see in the film made me feel like I was in one of those early Star Trek episodes, the ones full of 60s theatrical excess and magnetically alien objects and beings.
What was remarkable about Star Trek, even watching as a kid, were the narratives that made being human no more exceptional (or less exceptional) than the strange creatures, beings, objects of different planets, and as you move through the Mirrorcity, the experience of visiting a different world slowly envelops you. What kind of space is this? It’s teh kind of spcae that makes you think about space, the Mirrorcity is both real and a reflection. Just like our relation to the digital, but it also suggests a more complicated relationship to the digital than simply a virtual reflection of the physical. It reminded me of writer Michel Foucault’s tricky but illuminating observation on the idea of the mirror and utopias, on how mirrors can unsettle our simple sense that mirrors reflect. “In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror.”
The Mirrorcity, a world the same but different from the physical world we inhabit everyday.Here’s some thoughts from the Press Release: “Thanks to our increasing dependence on the Internet – and in particular on various types of social media – much of our life can now be said to take place between two realms: the virtual and the physical. Over the last century writers, thinkers and artists have all explored alternative realities, seeing the mirror as a portal to a shadowy world subtly different from their own. Now, with our reliance on the virtual world of the Web, we find ourselves inhabiting digital mirror-worlds that echo our own.” Mirrorcity is not simply the digital mirror of the real world, but the space that opens up between the physical and digital.
The scale and range of work (Lindsay Seer’s exhibit is the upside-down hull of a boat, inside of which is a two-screen ‘cinema’), the installations and spaces within the larger space, the strange objects (Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq’s glossy black stealth-like blades FALLING STARS II) and the furnishings of Laure Prouvost’s installation below, whose absolute strangeness transforms them from simple objects into ‘Things’. Mirrorcity teaches you a lesson in the art of disorientation.
I was reminded of a book I read with my children a few years back by China Miéville, Un Lun Dun, about a world parallel to London. Check out this review of Un Lun Dun by Josh Lacey in The Guardian, where he cites this passage from Miéville’s book, about the technology powering Un Lun Dun. “Mildly Obsolete In London. Throw something away and you declare it obsolete. You’ve seen an old computer, or a broken radio, or whatever, left on the streets? It’s there for a few days, and then it’s just gone. Sometimes rubbish collectors have taken it, but often as not it ends up here, where people find other uses for it. It seeps into unLondon.” One of the many themes explored by different artists Mirrorcity is that of ‘belonging’.
There’s a dawning realisation as you battle to make sense of this experiential art, that the way you have of looking at the world you bring from outside the gallery is of little use. The decisive moment is the realisation there is no obvious way to navigate this show, that you are lost, and that realisation of being lost is inspiring in a world of digital customization, of your life being pre-anticipated. For some reason, this moment of clarity occurred while watching Susan Hillier’s visualisation of signals from the Big Bang with a low-level soundtrack of people describing unexplained encounters. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Maybe we should just enjoy the ride.
What can we say, Hard and Soft. Think Anne Hardy who builds sets (like Thomas Demand) and shoots them, maybe because it’s more ‘authentic’, or maybe fabricating these fictitious places then shooting them is a reminder of the magical artifice of the photograph. It might be a ‘real’ construction but the story of this place exists in your imagination.
Or Laure Provost’s (the conceptual artist who featured in Wantee her Turner-Prize-wining work) installation, a journey round the physical space of her fictional grandfather’s studio.
Art Meets Commerce
Maybe because of the scale of the show, and the curation, these pieces felt like individual experiments, tests, ‘what if’, the work felt like iterations, a long way from the big statement art of the YBAs in the 90s and early part of the century. Maybe we are – as an interviewer suggested to Michael Schrage author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis – over the cult of the Big Idea. But I guess the premise of the show made me wonder how businesses and people are going to manage the transition to a world where objects become activated as part of a network, no longer simple inert things but nodes in relation to many different other things. It made me think of our own relationship to the digital which is more complicated and richer than simply a shadow world. Mirrorcity bristles with ideas does what the best shows and ideas and experiences do – stretch the brain so that when it settles back into place it is a slightly different shape.
One Question for the Artist
I’d ask photographer Anne Hardy who she imagines living/working in the spaces she builds.