In Jon Rafman’s 2013 film, Still Life (Betamale), we watch furries and hentai sourced from the deep web while a flat voiceover delivers a speech about leaving one world to enter another. It’s the promise virtual realities offer us: escapism. This idea is at the center of Grand Tour, the inaugural two-person show featuring new works from Rafman and Keren Cytter at Feuer/Mesler, one of two new Lower East Side galleries founded this year by Zach Feuer and Untitled director Joel Mesler (the second gallery, Mesler/Feuer, occupies the same space Untitled once did).
As in Still Life (Betamale), much of Rafman’s work has investigated the more disturbing ways people construct their lives around the computer, both virtually (online gaming communities, fetishistic subcultures of the deep internet, etc.) and physically (the spaces in which the computer sits in the home of heavy users, referred to by Rafman as “troll dens” or “caves”). His recent work explores these same themes and environments in large-format prints, depicting den desks and keyboards littered with detritus: empty energy drink- and coffee-containers, half-eaten foods gone to rot, over-the-counter pill bottles, and so on. These prints act as a kind of portal between the real world and the virtual one.
Jon Rafman, You are Standing in an Open Field (Waterfall), 2015, Archival pigment print, polystyrene, resin, 58 7/8 x 78 ¾ x 3 ¼".
Image courtesy of the artist and FEUER/MESLER, New York
Juxtaposed with the keyboards in the foreground are stock images of waterfalls and sunsets, like those found on old desktop screensavers, or generic Homer-esque paintings of boats battling sea at storm. All six prints are covered in clear resin, which, applied unevenly and to different degrees, as if spilled or sprayed, imbues in the work a tangibility. Not to mention a cheeky joke, the resin invoking the various sticky substances—soda pop or semen—one might find around computer dens.
Projected in the corner of the gallery’s first room is Cytter’s video, Rose Garden. The work is a kind of pastiche of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film The Golden Age (1930). It’s set in a rural bar called the Rose Garden, presumably named after the slogan of an infamous Marine Corps recruitment poster which hangs inside: “We Don’t Promise You a Rose Garden”. However, this slogan, ignorantly repurposed by the military, was taken from the 1964 memoir, I Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden, about a schizophrenic woman who creates her an elaborate make-believe world in her mind.
Keren Cytter, Rose Garden, 2014, Video still, 8 min. 57 sec. Image courtesy of the artist and FEUER/MESLER, New York
This is appropriate given the style of the film: multiple plots coexist independently, their scenes overlapping. The storylines comprise loose reenactments of scenes from Buñuel’s film, yet are incongruous and delivered without introduction or exposition. A middle-aged man crows about his teenage son, who stands next to him polishing a shotgun; a woman is wooed by a man while her boyfriend buys drinks at the bar; a man in the back whispers dirty talk into a payphone; the female bartender smiles on the other end of the line. The dialogue is generic, as if written by a child, and at times doesn’t sync up with the actors’ mouth movements. The soundtrack changes moods, none of which fit the visual. The film feels like an alternate reality.
The final work in the show is a collaboration between the two artists and a conversation between their interests. In the second gallery room sits a large wooden and aluminum box built by Rafman, titled Cabinet. The box, unfinished, its skeleton exposed, is an isolated viewing space designed specifically for watching a film by Cytter. Inside the box sits a single chair, its back big enough to block the view in and out. While sitting in it you can see only the TV in front of you, which plays Cytter’s film, Siren, on repeat.
Keren Cytter/Jon Rafman, Grand Tour, 2015, Installation view at FEUER/MESLER, New York. Image courtesy of the artist and FEUER/MESLER, New York
Siren is a collage of digital footage, video from on-computer camera, and a screen share of Cytter’s own monitor as she edits the very film we watch. Instead of focusing its attention on the machinations of cinema, as Rose Garden did, Siren is interested in the various ways in which video lends itself to narration, fictional or biographical, real or implied. It’s part art-house, part student project, part parody. It also samples video from other sources, a small post-appropriationist gesture.
The idea of “avatarization” is at the center of both artists’ works, albeit in different capacities. For Rafman, it’s the digital avatar, a descendant of McLuhan’s theory of technology as an extension of the person—a prosthesis. Rafman is interested in the people who live more in virtual reality of the internet than they do in real life, where they sit behind a computer screen. Cytter, on the other hand, conjures a conceptual avatar, like a mask in theater, a narrative device that frames the way we understand an individual’s identity. In both circumstances, artificial worlds are created around the central subject, be it cyber geeks or people who make movies of their lives. These are the people who live in their own rose gardens.
(Image at top: Jon Rafman, You are Standing in an Open Field (Jungle), 2015, Archival pigment print, wood, resin, 59 ¼ x 44 x 1 ½". Image courtesy of the artist and FEUER/MESLER, New York)