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Issue 226

Memeplex™ Invades Your Cerebral Cortex

At Seventeen, London, a group show engineered by Joey Holder and Omsk Social Club presents itself as a creepy ‘Squid Game’-esque clinic

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 19 JAN 22

‘Engineered’ by the artists Joey Holder and Omsk Social Club (OSC), the group exhibition ‘Memeplex™’ at Seventeen presents itself as a chichi, creepily Squid Game-hued ‘neuro-ops’ clinic, decked out with what might be therapeutic paraphernalia or contemporary artworks, or perhaps both. In a form of Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP) game, we’re invited to don headphones and navigate the show while listening to a lulling narrative, told in the second person. The voice tells us that we’re disoriented patients who’ve just woken up from a medical procedure, before breaking into a husky rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 acapella track Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

Seventeen Memeplex 2021
‘Memeplex™’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and Seventeen, London; photograph: Damian Griffiths

Thus reassured, we’re talked through our surroundings, including a pair of works by Holder and OSC, both titled Memeplex™ (2021). In a sea punk turquoise ‘operating theatre’, a hospital bed is flanked by gleaming kidney dishes filled with vaguely fecal-looking seed pods, while in the neighbouring blush-coloured ‘recovery room’, a divan is spread with a crochet blanket and a Suzanne Treister-designed tarot deck. Our orientation complete, we’re informed that a number of memes have been transplanted into our cerebral cortex. Moreover, these ‘self-replicating’ cultural entities, which range politically from ‘Left to Right’, actually ‘live off the human brain’. When an ‘alpha meme’ inevitably emerges, it will typically have dominion over ‘80 percent of the mental strength of its host’. 

There is, however, some potential good news for visitors who value their cerebral sovereignty. Few of the clinic's patients ever regain consciousness, and the voice ascribes the fact we have awoken to our ‘neo-panthe[ist]’ genetics, which have apparently merged with those of plants, minerals and other animals, presaging an evolutionary future in which ‘the human of our history books [becomes] extinct.’ Does this mean the memetic scales have fallen from our eyes? The voice isn’t telling. It fades out, presumably leaving us to convalesce while watching David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ, a horrifying meditation on biotech and VR gaming that plays on a flatscreen opposite the divan. 

Memeplex, Seventeen, Installation view
‘Memeplex™’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and Seventeen, London; photograph: Damian Griffiths

A LARP game turns, in essence, on the question of what one’s player-character will do when faced with a given scenario, and to approach ‘Memeplex™’ as an exhibition rather than as a sci-fi nightmare is to commit the cardinal sin of ‘breaking role’. And yet Holder and OSC surely know this is precisely what most visitors will do. (What’s the alternative, run screaming out the door?) Looking at, for example, the disassembled and then recombined toddler buggies of ALIFVEFORMS Transformella, WÄCHTERIN (II) (2010–18), the work convincingly summons a dystopian medical facility, suggesting as it does a mobility aid designed for a post-human invalid, but it also has a sculptural presence that exceeds this narrative frame. Likewise, Minjeong An’s digital print Self-Portrait (2007) suffices as an anatomical diagram of sorts, but peer closely at the labelled body parts (‘Ugly toenails inherited’, ‘Diaphragm good at hiccups’, etc.) and we encounter a comic register at odds with the dark tone of the artists’ LARP. In a sophisticated curatorial manoeuvre, what Holder and OSC are asking of us here is to toggle between worlds – to swallow both the red pill and the blue in a single gulp. 

Seventeen Memeplex installation
‘Memeplex™’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and Seventeen, London; photograph: Damian Griffiths

‘Memeplex™’ is perhaps ultimately an exercise in (knowing) overdetermination. After all, even the most traditional group shows are devices for infecting us with a variety of memetic spores: the artworks they contain. Having completed my treatment, my personal ‘alpha meme’ appears to be Isaac Lythgoe’s sculpture Brains are the only thing worth having in this world (2021): a crouched, hieratic figure whose cranium is beset by a jeweled alien parasite. Some things you just can’t get out of your head. 

‘Memeplex™’ is on view at Seventeen, London until 5 February 2022.

Main image: ‘Memeplex™’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Seventeen, London; photograph: Damian Griffiths

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.