Realities In Collision

“Is the cyber world a more enjoyable place for you to spend your time than the real one?” asks songwriter Paul Williams in a recent Vanity Fair article. “Escaping real connection to ourselves and others through the world in our iPads, phones, and computers is a huge problem. After food it may be one of the biggest addictions we have today,” he continues.

Decades ago, artificial intelligence transformed into entertainment through video games, and we witnessed the earliest signs of cyber-addiction. The gaming industry exerts enormous influence on today’s culture, giving birth to its own characters, mythologies, online fora and even currencies, creating a cyber-world parallel to the one run by individual authors of photographs, videos and other shared media. In the other universe of gaming, individuals adopt virtual identities, behave anonymously and inhabit virtual communities in which they choose to become mere representations of themselves.

The advancements in imaging technology, from early bitmapped video graphics to hyperreal 3D images, have blurred the lines between the virtual and the real, between art and science, in our cyber-interactions. Our multi-sensory immersion with newly formed virtual “social” networks is creating massive ripples of sociological shifts whose impact on society only time can tell. This vulnerability of social identities created through the worlds of gaming and communication, and the formation of new realities that transpose real-world experiences into new truths, are portentous aspects of contemporary culture that artist Naomi Campbell explores in her works.

Campbell works at the intersection of art, science and social consciousness to create multisensory installations that merge her drawing, sculptural, photography, painting and technology skills. Duggal worked closely with Campbell for her recent show at the Yellow Peril Gallery in New York to help produce her series “Press Play.” The exhibition is comprised of a series of layered drawings, paintings and computer-generated inkjets on wood, paper, canvas and Mylar. The show features her pieces created as vignettes, each featuring figures in action against a “starved palette that creates a feeling of displacement.” The enigmatic figures seem to have jumped out from early video game consoles onto Campbell’s pieces. Her use of traditional watercolors and pencil sketches against the backdrop of digital imagery creates a strange tension.

“Suddenly, we are finding these realities assimilating onto one platform that is both real and imagined through the auspices of the computer,” Campbell observes. “The fine line that delineates the two disappears, and we live in suspended animations of time with its own hierarchy of rules of the ‘game.'”

Campbell builds her narratives atop transparencies of X-ray imagery, creating a three-dimensional illusion that questions the real versus the imagined. “The images in this exhibit refer to the series on the altered states of the virtual and real worlds of cyberspace. The backgrounds are composed of reconstructed layered X-ray composites of the body. These are then woven into the studio traditions of the painted/drawn environment of the figure and printed on a transparent substrate by Duggal. The result is a very powerful surreal effect,” remarks Campbell.

Each piece that Campbell creates with her playful video game-inspired characters engages the audience through an interplay of light and shadow, creating a 3D experience on a 2D surface. Noted art critic Jonathan Goodman poignantly remarks on her work: “Campbell is more committed than seems at first to the future of technology. Indeed, her representations seem to predict what is coming next. In the work on paper titled A Tree Fell, a baby is seen close-up, in front of a trackless wasteland, with hills in the background, one of which spews smoke like a volcano. It is by implication, an apocalyptic panorama, although pixels in the left of the work suggest that this is something fabricated rather than true. At the same time, the baby looks back at us, as if to question her future, which is indeed our own. Campbell indicated that the title of the work came from a poem by Carter Ratcliffe, a prominent critic in New York for some time. The point is that the kind of failed ecology described in this piece may well be our inheritance, which, to speak mildly, is less than sanguine.”

Although Campbell’s pieces bring out the unsettling nature of progress and an intriguing sense of uncertainty, she brilliantly uses multiple digital platforms: from scanning, to printing, to projecting and mounting, to create a dialogue about the very medium in which she creates. Some of the pieces Campbell creates are even dynamically controlled by a remote or cell phone app. But at the same time, they possess a degree of control over the viewer in their ability to affect the body’s inner rhythms. Campbell says that’s where the takeaway lies—in experiencing and realizing our symbiotic relationship with technology and its unnatural power to mechanize the human body.

It’s a thrill for us to work with avant-garde artists like Campbell, whose solid draftsmanship and training in historical artistic traditions coupled with her background in medicine and science make her a pioneer in an art form that begs refrain from any single genre.

“In a video game you can be anything you want. There are no limits, there’s total freedom. You never die. These are interesting dynamics at a sociological level. We are moving away from a certain type of reality. My pieces are a reflection of whoever the audience wants to be,” remarks Campbell.

Her canvas spans 100 years: From cubist and futurist paintings to iPhone gaming apps, Campbell brings them all together to make us aware of the “ubiquity of an increasingly pixilated world,” and most importantly, leaves us with a warning of the possible “dangers inherent when virtual space encroaches onto everyday reality.”

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