It seems as though I have been waiting for virtual reality all my life. Ever since I first heard the term many decades ago, I have been looking forward to sensual and emotional immersion in a miraculous new kind of space.
But now virtual reality is virtually here, and I find that all it does is make me queasy.
“Myths of the Marble,” the new show in the main galleries at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Aug. 6, bills itself as a critical exploration of this emerging terrain. It consists of seven newly commissioned works, along with other works, most of them recent, that use technology to defamiliarize the everyday and realize the fantastic. It was organized by ICA curator Alex Klein in conjunction with Milena Hoegsberg, her counterpart at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo, where the show was first seen.
The marble of the title refers to the 1972 NASA photograph of the Earth floating in space, an image that changed the way many people looked at their place in the universe. It also refers to the material from which many museums and the sculptures within them are made. According to the gallery notes, “The ‘myths’ explored here address the museum as a site of world-making and the experience of art as a vehicle for the reorganization of the senses. At a moment when the capacity to depict the world in high definition has never been greater, reality itself is understood as a construction.”
The curators argue that the virtual should not be seen simply as an escapist technology, but “also reclaimed as a way to mobilize a new political imaginary.”
I frankly don’t want to imagine the politics implied by a work like Jacolby Satterwhite’s En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance. In this funny, sexy video, unclad muscular cyborgs in chains power a spaceship that looks like a huge piece of jewelry. The scene is ebullient, like a Depression-era Busby Berkeley musical with a cast of gazillions, and, as with those films, there is something thuggish and totalitarian just beneath the surface. It shows us how technology can enable one man to make an entire world shaped entirely by his desires.
I’m not sure how Cayetano Ferrer achieves the infinite vistas of Endless Columns (Chicago School), but it seems mostly to depend on that familiar and old window to the virtual — mirrors. Somewhere in a black void is a column that contains bits of decoration by Louis Sullivan and his Chicago rival architect Daniel Burnham. What we see is countless such columns, which somehow don’t all look alike. There are lights along their sides, and music. It is quiet, trippy, and invites long contemplation.
A nearby work, Shahryar Nashat’s Hard Up for Support has a female voice that incessantly welcomes us to the ICA. The work consists of a thin video screen and a large prismatic shape that looks like plywood but turns out to be marble. On the smartphone-proportioned video screen, we see close-ups of body parts. When I found myself wondering whether I was looking up a nostril or an anus, I decided it was time to move on.
By far the oldest artist in the show is Chris Marker, the late French experimental filmmaker who achieved prominence of a limited kind in the 1960s. Ouvroir the Movie (2010) uses the now primitive-looking Second Life platform to create a virtual museum that contains tributes to filmmakers Marker admired, and many very funny parodies of famous artworks. For instance, Manet’s famous picnickers sit on the grass, but the female nude is not in their midst but on a video screen. Marker is being playful here, and he is not trying to say too much. But his intelligence and the lightness with which he uses it make much of the rest of what’s here seem clumsy.
The show’s one work that uses full virtual reality equipment is Florian Meisenberg’s Of Defective Gods and Lucid Dreams (The Museum is Closed for Renovation). It certainly made me feel clumsy. Wearing an HTC Vive headset and wielding controllers in each hand, I weaved about, summoning images of furniture from a sort of blob in the ceiling, watching them float around a three-dimensional gridded space, then, without meaning to, making them vanish.
I was beset with two sets of anxieties. The first was that I would fall down or vomit. When I pushed that aside momentarily, I wondered whether what I was seeing was really as dull as I thought it was — or whether I was doing it wrong. If art goes VR, I am going to have to train myself to see it. Otherwise, I will never be able to get beyond the technology to figure out whether I am experiencing something worthwhile. All the time I’ve wasted reading books when I should have been playing video games!
The theft and commercialization of individuality by game-makers is the subject of Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection. It is a two-screen presentation that documents that her brother, a college basketball player, had his body and his movements copied without his permission for use in a video game. This practice of appropriating young, mostly black, bodies can be seen as a sort of virtual enslavement — not as horrific as the real thing, but a violation nevertheless.
The presentation takes 17 minutes to unfold. In the middle of it, a man sat next to me for a few seconds, took out his phone, and got a screen shot. He didn’t actually look at it. Like many museum visitors, he simply captured it for later, more likely never.
As couple of weeks ago in Vienna, I watched as a dozen young women took selfies in front of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting — a high-definition construction of reality in its own right — without once stopping to look at the painting. This behavior is so common one scarcely notices it any more.
But the man with the phone at ICA seemed to have reached a kind of perfection. He had gone to an exhibit on the virtual, and given himself an entirely virtual experience by looking at nothing at all.
Myths of the Marble, on exhibit through Aug. 6 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. Admission is free. Hours: 11a.m.–8p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday & Friday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday. Closed Monday & Tuesday. Information: 215-898-7108 or icaphila.org.