“Time Flies So First Things First” is an excellent installation of unframed photographs, both taken by a camera and generated from within the computer game Grand Theft Auto V, that proceeds along the walls of the high-ceilinged space of Fou Gallery. Curated and installed by artist collaborators Fernando Villela, who is originally from Brazil, and by Zhe Zhu, from Mainland China, the show examines, by implication, the place of photography today. As the press materials inform, the images establish a stream-of-consciousness that points to insights and awareness generated by a computer-driven esthetic, which mostly but not completely holds sway over the exhibition’s experience. The images range from genuine photos of outdoor urban scenes to abstractions to pictures taken by a camera established inside Grand Theft’s artificial representations. One wall is given simply to rectangles of a single color–black, gray, blue, brown, and purple. This element of the show would seem to negate the photographic image itself, which is the true theme and subject of the duo’s interest. Photography today has been extended by technological advances, but, perhaps inevitably, the advances have also resulted in a diminished reading of the genre’s historical commitment to high esthetics. Artifice is preferred to art. This change, coupled with contemporary art’s preference for popular culture and for theories outlining what the medium is capable of, indicates that an informal approach, coupled to a highly conceptual reading of picture-taking, lies at the base of what Villela and Zhu are doing.
The seemingly offhand nature of this show’s installation underscores the fact that image-making increasingly has taken the path of an intellectual exploration, based on random juxtapositions and technological innovations. In this show, we find many versions of truth and narratives, which are meant to direct us, along the line, to the larger story of creativity itself. In one suite of three pictures, we see on the left, a clenched hand, isolated by itself; in the middle, a larger picture of a light on a table, bordering on abstraction; and on the right, a completely chance image of a soda cup and straw, along with an open book. All three photos border on the abstract–the images that we recognize are subsumed within the larger, more or less nonobjective composition. The inclusion of abstraction within a representational picture must mean that Villela and Zhu are exploring what images mean in a visual culture that has incorporated abstraction into creative endeavor for decades now, as well as an examination of a chanced creativity based entirely on casual inspection. This kind of thinking is about as far from modernist formalism as we can get. It is part of an accepted populism in art, which prefers raw, unarranged experience to the greater measure, both formalized and conceptual, of earlier art. At the same time, this show’s underpinnings reflect the artists’ concern with the philosophical implications of their efforts–without a conceptual base, the work could easily be thrown over as being too aimless.
What, then, are we meant to do as an audience? It seems we cannot read the work as imagery alone. At the same time, good art cannot be justified by theory alone. The image must stand as an integrated presentation of something, no matter whether that presentation is abstract or recognizably real. In the wall completely given over to abstraction, developed by the placement of small, rectangular sheets of differently colored paper, we read the papers’ arrangement as an argument for the innate attractiveness of nonobjective account. The juxtaposition of the rectangles is innately pleasing. At the same time, its usefulness within the larger boundaries of the show must be looked at. Its meaning, in conjunction with the photographic realism available in the show, must be based on the notion that such imagery can and does compete with and, often, even complete the realism coinciding with it. How? By advancing an independent esthetic that looks good even as it strays away from something recognizable. The beauty of abstraction has been with us since the beginnings of art, hidden though it was within figuration. In the case of “Time Flies,” both this particular piece of the show and the overall employment of its images persuade us that abstraction can be isolated, by itself, or part of a greater design. The question is, Can the abstraction be related in any way to the comprehensive thematic nonchalance of the exhibition? This is highly interesting as a query, mostly because we are attempting to find the connection between the show’s artificially composed art and the casualness infusing it. But it is extremely difficult for someone to link a formal expression to the ambiance it produces. Still, it must be attempted, especially in the case of “Time Flies,” whose spontaneity is communicated both in the subject of the pictures, which feels entirely random, and the general installation of the imagery.
Perhaps, in an attempt to partially avoid these questions, we see Villela and Zhe retreating to an art composed inside the utterly counterfeit environment of Grand Theft Auto V. This game has the capacity for players to photograph the game’s images from within its environment, rather than shooting the picture on a camera while facing the screen. The collaborators did edit the game to some extent; their audience could see the changed, three-minute video on one of the artist’s cell phones, presented with the photos on the wall. To those who play Grand Theft, the imagery is entirely familiar–mostly occurring in nature, out of doors. The effect of envisioning a believable nature generated by a computer program, on a tiny telephone screen, is only slightly short of miraculous. But, at the same time, we know it is entirely spurious. One understands that this is, increasingly, the way art is made. But a certain amount of skepticism cannot but occur: it is becoming increasingly accepted, and also strange, that the artificial is just as genuine as the actually occurring. Perhaps this is finally what “Time Flies” is about: the concomitant existence of a manmade reality alongside a concrete one. The implications of the exhibition direct themselves toward a consent between the synthetic and the true–surely a dubious reconcilement! But it looks like this is becoming increasingly so. While “Time Flies” has its own integrity, if that is the word to use; at the same time, it feels like we should worry about whether art like this is problematic due to a loss of authenticity. Certainly, the collaborators have redeemed the promise of an art that is multidimensional, in both a formal and thematic sense. But it is also true that the problem of legitimacy remains. In fact, the excellence of the show only underscores the point that we are moving away from a truthful resonance toward a sham existence, one determined by technological imitation, rather than the real thing.