Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about virtual reality. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are aflutter over Palmer Luckey’s rebooted VR system, Oculus, and it’s prototype consumer headset, the Oculus Rift. Updated with several key improvements – ‘it hacks your visual cortex,’ according to Wired – Oculus is not the VR system some of us remember from the early 1990s. Amidst all this buzz it’s easy to forget that a cadre of artists and designers were similarly interested in redrawing the boundaries between perception and physical experience long before the digital revolution.
In 1947, under the direction of Alexander Iolas, curator Nicolas Calas and surrealist designer Frederick Kiesler opened ‘Bloodflames’ at New York’s Hugo Gallery; a group show that included Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta and Isamu Noguchi. Kiesler’s brightly painted curved walls and floors were interspersed with Calas’s installation of unconventionally exhibited works – some leaning against partitions, others hanging from the ceiling. ‘We have to shift our focus,’ Kiesler would later write in Inside the Endless House (1966), ‘from the object to the environment,’ in order to bring them together and achieve a ‘clarification of life’s purpose’. The ‘traditional art object’, he concluded, ‘must be considered within the context of this expanding environment.’
‘Bloodflames Revisited’ curator Phong Bui’s provocative response to the 1947 exhibition, is timely given resurgent interest in virtual realities. Like Calas and Kiesler, Bui – also publisher and co-founder of The Brooklyn Rail newspaper – aims to reframe the relationship between vision and environment. Exhibited at two separate gallery locales on 10th Avenue and West 27th Street, Bui’s installation of over two-dozen works embraced Kiesler’s unorthodox exhibition design. With a dense layer of hay spread across the gallery floors at both locations, visitors crossed a network of raised red wooden platforms to view the works on display, which were set against brightly painted yellow gallery walls.
At the 10th Avenue venue, highlights included Lynda Benglis’s Baton Rouge, (1993–94): a titular play on words, the crimson-coloured tongue depressor-shaped wall installation made using encaustic techniques calls to mind a ragged version of John McCracken’s ‘finish-fetish’ sculptures. Will Ryman’s Untitled (2014), an undulating scarlet landscape of mounted polyurethane bullets, was chillingly prescient given August’s riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Speaking of violence, Daniel Joseph Martinez sprays blood in his computer-controlled installation, Redemption of the Flesh: It’s just a little headache, it’s just a little bruise; The politics of the future as urgent as the blue sky (2008). Fed by a vat containing synthetic blood, a programmed spray gun – its nozzle disguised as a furry rabbit with a gun-shaped hand coming out of its mouth – drenched the gallery wall at regular intervals. Roxy Paine’s neon light installation, Incident/Resurrection (2013), depicts an endless loop of agression. In a brief succession of events, a silhouetted man hits another with a piece of two-by-four, followed by the victim falling to the ground before the sequence begins anew. Whereas Martinez’s blood bath evinced unease through a steady accumulation, Paine’s was instantaneous.
The West 27th Street locale was cavernous. Proceeding down a single raised catwalk, the viewer was flanked by works. Reminiscent of Frank Stella’s early pieces, Deborah Kass’s rainbow-hued painting Daddy (2008), pitched at an angle from the wall, proclaimed in bold lettering: ‘Daddy I would love to dance,’ while across the walkway hung Glenn Ligon’s text-based painting, Niggers Ain’t Scared (1996). Mounted on the rear wall of the exhibition space, G.T. Pellizzi’s sculptural light installation, Constellation in Red (Figure 1) (2013), resembled a glowing crimson-coloured astrological diagram.
Understanding how we experience our physical surroundings and attempting to replicate their effects has been a concern for artists since the Ancient Greeks. Aesthetics dervies from aesthesis, variously translated as ‘sensation’ or ‘feeling,’ and understood by Plato as perception apprehended through the body. Bui, like the VR programmers in Silicon Valley, looks to expand our field of perception in order to reconsider the very ground of the world around us.