Simulation was big in the 1990s. It underpinned Umberto Eco’s hyperreality; it was the model for Jean Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra; and it featured strongly in Marc Augé’s theory of the non-place. In the arts, too, there was plenty of simulation: there was The Matrix by the Wachowskis in 1999, but also The Truman Show (1998), not to mention the photographs of Cindy Sherman and Thomas Demand. The point, for most of these thinkers, filmmakers and artists, was to demonstrate that there was no ultimate ‘Truth’ or authenticity outside of the image – and no humanity inside it. To stress this, many equated simulation with machinery and mass production, with digital codes, ones and zeros.
Two decades on, simulation is still a theme in contemporary culture. However, as the impressive solo exhibition of the Norwegian artist Ane Mette Hol at Galerie Kadel Willborn showed, the terms of the debate have changed. Hol’s drawings are simulations of the process of building up, or breaking down, a gallery show: dusty floors (After the Dust Settles #2, 2012), cardboard boxes of TL lights (Untitled [Artificial Light], 2013), stacks of papers (Untitled [An Incomplete Set of Copies], 2012), a sketchbook (Untitled [Sketches #3], 2013). In its self-reflexivity, the commentary on its own practice and position, the show initially seemed to align itself smoothly with its postmodern predecessors. There were two differences, though, both of which signalled a radically divergent approach to the art of simulation.
The first difference was the artistic medium: in stark contrast to photography, which favours the eyes, drawing is first and foremost a medium of the hands. By handcrafting objects that were machine-produced, Hol does not merely reflect on the nature of those objects, but also inflects them with a meaning they otherwise do not possess. Carefully copying with a coloured pencil the printed letters on the cardboard boxes (Untitled [Artificial Light]) or the colours on the A4 wrapping paper (After the Dust Settles #2), Hol inscribes value into the kinds of things we normally discard as junk. It’s an old tradition, and yet in its play on more recent techniques it feels entirely new, entirely relevant.
The second difference was the topic Hol chose. Many of the postmoderns dealt with events or sites of specific significance. Baudrillard, for instance, wrote about the First Gulf War, while many of Demand’s photographs are modelled after crime scenes. The idea was to problematize the authenticity of these events. The Gulf War didn’t happen, Baudrillard wrote. Not because there weren’t any casualties, but because all casualties, human, material or financial, had been calculated beforehand. So when the war took place, it in fact played out a script already written. In contrast, Hol concerned herself in this exhibition with non-events, with non-places – the cleaning of floors, the hanging of lamps, the white cube of the gallery before or after installation – in order to turn them into something akin to an event, into a place. For one of the exhibition’s most elaborate pieces, After the Dust Settles #2, the artist spent days crayoning 500 A4 sheets of paper with white dry pastel and arranging them on the floor, only to remove them immediately after, leaving just the traces of dust. What this work pointed to, movingly, was precisely the placeness of the gallery as a non-place. It mapped, quite literally, the effort, skill and personality that goes into the maintenance of a space intended to accommodate everything without memory of its previous occupancy.
As far as I could tell, the show did not have a title. But if it had one, it should be this: ‘Occupancy.’ For what Hol did here was nothing less than to return the human to the simulation.