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“Ghosts in the Machine” Art Exhibition

| July 25, 2012 | Comments

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“Ghosts in the Machine” exhibition at the New Museum

Tracking Humanity’s Unconsummated Relationship With Technology at the New Museum’s Nervy & Ghosts in the Machine Art Exhibition

The title of the New Museum’s recently opened three-floor “Ghosts in the Machine” art exhibition comes from the phrase coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe Rene Descartes’s idea of the split between mind and body. For Descartes, the machine is the functional physical body while the mind is the animating spiritual ghost, able to outlive its ephemeral host. The theorized split points toward certain deep human desires; first, for our bodies to be machines that respond to our desires automatically rather than getting in the way, and second, for immortality, and the hope that our individual consciousness does not end with our short lifespan.

These twin impulses also drive the exhibition, which is posed as an examination of “the prehistory of our digital era” by its co-curator Massimiliano Gioni in the catalogue. The show stretches roughly over the course of the 20th century, weighted toward 1940 through 1970 (it excludes any specifically Internet-related pieces). The earlier work on display often presents technology as a positive, utopian force: outsider artist Emery Blagdon’s intricate metal mobiles made of foil, tape, and wire (1950-80) were meant to heal and empower the body, as was philosopher Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Energy Accumulator (1940), though both take on an undertone of irony in light of their practical failures to really work.

Other artists delve into the downfalls of the ghost/machine dichotomy. Henrik Olesen’s piercing collage series “Some Illustrations to the Life of Alan Turing” (2009) shows the philosopher as a tragic figure unable to escape the mortifications of the body even as his mind pioneered the future of computer technology. Caught in a homosexual act, Turing was forced to undergo hormone therapy as an alternative to prison, and eventually committed suicide at age 41 in 1954. Phillipe Parreno’s “The Writer” (2007) is a video of an 18th-century automaton scratching laboriously with a pen on paper — no ghost, just a machine communicating language it doesn’t understand, endlessly.

“Ghosts in the Machine”’s mixing of breathless enthusiasm with incisive critique feels instructive given our own era’s overwhelming obsession with technology in the form of the Internet and social media. The exhibition treads into a period when art was seemingly made less for humans than for technology itself: see Op-art painter Victor Vasarely’s quote in the catalogue predicting that his paintings would some day be made by and for “cybernetic machines… more impartial than the best human beings could ever be.”

The label of “New Aesthetic” has emerged recently to refer to art or phenomena that reflect on how contemporary machines, such as satellites and computer networks, perceive the world around them. If the “Nouvelle Tendance” art of the ’60s and ’70s (note the similarity in terms), on display in the show with pieces including Getulio Alviani’s hypnotic metal disk (“Disco,” 1965) and Grazia Varisco’s blue and black kinetic sculpture “Schema Luminoso Variabile” (1962-63), represented work created in approximation of machine needs, then the contemporary New Aesthetic represents our desire once again to become the machines. No artist at the New Museum succeeds in integrating the paradoxical desire to both be technology and to control technology, and, one suspects, we won’t figure it out this time around, either.

Art Exhibition

“Ghosts in the Machine” runs at the New Museum through September 30, 2012. 

New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
212.219.1222

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Category: What's On