Santa Fe, Mexico — All Art is Virtual is the kind of catch-all title that made me wary even before I stepped inside the dark and bustling interior of the Thoma Foundation’s new media space Art Vault. The nonprofit gallery’s website states that the exhibition “proposes that all art can provide a virtual reality experience. No special goggles required.”
I hate VR headsets too (bad ergonomics aside, their aesthetics are symbolically demeaning), but this theme seems like an excuse to showcase almost everything in my new media collection. At Thoma, he holds items in a vast archive dating back to some of the earliest examples of digital art. All Art is Virtual features 20 works spanning 70 years (first entry is from 1962).
Fortunately, a series of narrative-driven works give shape to an exhibition that has the potential to transcend branding. A pyramid-shaped installation by Benjamin, squatting while playing the piano on 29 TV screens. The piece is titled “Black is the Color” (2015) and is the lyrics that echo as Simone’s three clips of her repeat endlessly. The singer’s drawn-out vocals steepen like tea and slowly melt into your ears.
Nam June Paik’s 1989 work “Portable God” is a two-channel video installation housed in a 1950s television cabinet, in psychedelic calligraphy to Allen Ginsberg, Elaine de Kooning, Confucius and other cultural figures. A covered altar. It is poignantly decorated with offerings such as rice and candles.
An ornately framed flatscreen loops seamlessly through Kent Monkman’s 2015 video painting The Human Zoo. The production casts the drag alter ego of a Cree artist as his sideshow performer on the streets of 1850s Berlin. She denied some of the hints after dancing enthusiastically to the drumbeats of her white male companions.
These works feel almost cinematic and exploit the ephemeral nature of the new medium. As they blossom, our understanding of them evolves and sends chills down our spines.In this sense, the exhibition’s piecée de resistance “Inverso Mundus” (2015) is a deliciously silly video opera by Moscow-based collective AES+F. Come to the extravagant tableau of the people enacting the reversal of social power (women trap men in stylized stocks, children knock their elders to the ground) and await the arrival of mutant zoo angels.
There are many other powerful works All Art is Virtual — Sandra Perry’s interactive rowing machine that drops you onto the deck of a slave ship, and the vertical scrolling skyline of Michael Bell Smith’s video game rivals Roku City’s magnificence. The whole sweep is dominated by bewildering eclecticism. With so many treasures to choose from, why not focus on a particular theme and edit from there?
This may be difficult compared to our current cultural landscape. As David Salle wrote in a chapter in his 2016 book point of view, we have entered an era of sensory overload. Photographs of everything imaginable, people and events are just visual weather. But that’s why it’s especially important that art, as Salle argues, “works differently” than other images that pass before us.
The Problem of Curating in the Spirit of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (like “center not held”) is the risk of simply mirroring a moment with a visual avalanche that is channeled by an algorithm but not completely controlled. Nothing more is needed. Something must be boldly cut out of the mass.
All Art is Virtual The Art Vault (540 South Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) runs until April 15th. The exhibition was curated by Jason Foumberg.