JACQUELINE ARENDSE :: Assistant Curator for The Alternative
The clearest thread that runs through Digitally Born is the
artists' use of fantasy in portraying their unique visions.
Being able to manipulate images with the touch of a button
has opened a rich vein for the artist's imagination to delight
us, but more often to alarm and provoke.
"The problem of knowing infects fantasy"*
Many works of art employ elements of fantasy, but because
we've come to understand these elements as conventional
ways of expressing certain ideas, we do not focus on their
ontological status. As a result, art meant to be perceived
as fantastic exists under that burden of convention.
The artists in Digitally Born intend a bizarre and obviously
impossible fantasy, using photography, a medium more commonly
employed for realistic portrayal to push us beyond the
immediate and perceptible to a deeper understanding of
"Fantasy is parasitic on realism"**
Reality is the starting point for fantasy and the fantastic
world can only exist beside the facts of the real world.
Certainly artists from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth
century worked hard to create convincing representations
of that world, and for photography, one of its greatest
appeals since its invention has been its ability to vividly
capture reality. So why expressly use fantasy?
Some artists are compelled to confront any positivistic
conception of physical materiality with the idea that fact
is not all there is in life and so in art. The inner world
of the human mind and its subjective experiences has great
value beyond the material world. Fantasy is a way to further
explore this human reality -- and what better way to explore
everyday reality than with the tool designed to capture
it? The images of Digitally Born manipulate the rules of
reality to create fantasies that uniquely explore the human
psyche. But they not only explore, what is born of this
digital world is a means to deeper understanding of our
human, inner reality because these fantasies have transformed
"O I may love him, I may love him, for he is a man
and I am only a beech tree."***
The artists in Digitally Born use fantasy in mocking or
playful modes, jesting and questioning, sometimes bitterly,
sometimes bizarrely, and usually with an undercurrent of
pathos, as an expression of human needs.
Simen Johan creates a stream-of-consciousness photography,
that he calls, "a kind of automatic writing, the feedback
of my consciousness" that employs the real and the
fantastic to create a conflict between our inherited precepts
of right and wrong in order to cause a disturbance in us
and provoke a dialogue with our conscience. His images,
although artificially constructed, appear to portray specific
moments in time. Johan says of his images, "I use
images that I have photographed myself as well as images
I've found. By outputting my images onto photographic negative
film and then printing and toning them conventionally,
I obtain a photographic quality that opposes the general
expectations of computer-manipulated imagery. This creates
a deceptive sense of familiarity and nostalgia and emphasizes
further the characteristic of photography to provide evidence.
It contributes to factual and informational content, which
further influences the viewer to approach, on an imaginary
level, my scenarios as real and perceive my characters
as actual beings. I combine parts of different faces and
bodies that reveal a sense of truth about my character's
state of mind and being." Johan uses the actual to
reveal the subconscious by creating fantastic and disturbing
creatures in his photographs.
Creatures also come to life in Daniel Lee's work, when
he intermingles human and animal forms. The rules of reality
are bent so that these characters become physically --
not just symbolically -- connected. Lee begins with stark
portraits of real people photographed with a large format
camera, and then manipulates these into an unsettling metamorphosis
of animal-like forms. Images of certain animals are transferred
to a person and the resulting manimal creature sparks an
instant insight into the character without the need of
a setting or environment. We transfer our experience and
knowledge of these animals to this character almost unconsciously.
This linking not only serves to enhance our interpretation
of the character, but drives our emotion about the character
as well. Lee combines his photographic and drawing skills
in one medium, digital photography, which he uses for his
appropriately named "Manimals" series.
Like Lee, Pablo Genoves creates a convergence of different
artistic disciplines and an intersection of reality and
fantasy. He combines appropriations or his own original
images with photographs of previously painted canvases
and transforms them digitally. These works have the false
appearance of painting reproductions. Mr. Genoves is fascinated
with the resulting intangible space created by this mixture
of mediums, which is also the gray area between literal
photographic representation and surreal fantasy. This virtual
space creates a particular feeling, a feeling he calls
the "artistic" feeling. He says, "This 'non-place'
allows me to engage in a dialog between traditional pictorial
elements and the photographic digitally manipulated image
as a way to represent reality."
Jacqueline Hayden also creates digital composites -- photographs
of older figure models and photographs made of ancient
statuary in situ -- which critically engage the visual
history of aging. The photograph is, according to Ms. Hayden, "by
its analog and societal nature a copy, a reproduction of
'something real.' The digital age [however,] is challenging
the power of the photograph's veracity. I am attempting,
in my Ancient Statuary Series, to question the presumptions
of that truth." By creating these fantastic images,
Hayden is examining what is true and false in photography
and in reality.
Alessandro Bavari has made many photographs of people,
animals, objects, architecture, landscapes, and fossils.
He uses these images as the toolbox for his work, which
is greatly influenced by Indo-European cultural myths and
allegories. To create the fantasy inherent in these myths
and allegories, he has developed a personal artistic language
using these original photographs and industrial and organic
materials, incorporating photographic processes and computer
digitization, which according to Bavari, then leads to "a
kind of contamination among the arts dissolving the boundaries
that distinguish them" and dissolving the boundaries
that separate the original photograph from his fantastic
vision. His manipulation of his original photographs creates
a narrative that describes unconscious urges and desires.
Oleg Kulick, better known for his 'artist-animal', or
more specifically, 'artist-dog' performance art, again
uses a dog in these Digitally Born images to ask a basic
question about the essence of being human. By placing a
dog laying an egg in the domestic scene of a family around
the table, he alludes to the fairy-tale of the goose laying
the golden egg and so comments on greed. Like Bavari, Kulick's
allusion to allegories or fairy-tales makes use of narrative
fantasy in these photographs as commentary on the human
The major conceptual and thematic aspects of Jeff Murphy's
photography have been the search for religious identity.
According to Murphy, "my work examines the role of
the spiritual in a contemporary framework that deifies
technology and looks to technology as savior." The
works begin as objects photographed in a studio using a
digital camera, then are manipulated digitally to produce
fantastic scenes such as the Virgin Mary holding a half
peeled banana, a decaying sweet potato nailed to the cross,
and apples swimming in a primordial sea of technology Our
expectations are jarred by his juxtapositions and we are
forced to consider why, to engage with him in the implications
of his radical spirituality.
Creating a surreal structure in art allows one to see
the world of the spirit in terms of human psychology, the
inner world of man. The journey into the dream-like world
of the mind is one step into fantasy. Tom Chambers believes
that, "with the use of technology humanity becomes
more outward-focused and object-based, while losing its
spirituality. Natural wisdom and intuition are masked.
In my work, children and animals are used symbolically
creating a surreal landscape, which depicts human vulnerability.
Using layers of symbolic opposites, such as animal/human,
spiritual/sensual, and natural/man-made, I juxtapose conflicting
images to create an improbable, but imaginable view of
the world." Like all the artists in Digitally Born,
using the expectations of the real and the imaginable is
central to creating the fantasy of the invented world to
express ideas about the spirit.
Yoshio Itagaki takes on the spirit of a country with his
combination of animation characters in the real landscapes
or historical art of Japan. We see what at first seems
to be a playful comment on Japanese history and contemporary
society. But this light-hearted and apparently open play
of the imagination, eventually leads to a contemplation
of what is lost when this unreal world is created.
National loss is poignantly brought to mind in the images
of Sally Grizzell as well. Her dream images recall a sense
of dramatic historical transition, be it World War II or
September 11. Like all dreams, fantasy can evolve into
nightmares and become dark and cruel. Grizzell's images
comment on our post-September 11 world through the juxtaposition
of whimsical paper airplanes with the ominous conditions
of an air battle. By using a light-hearted, childish plaything
against the backdrop of a conflagrant war, she brings to
mind recent unsettling feelings of our loss of innocence
in a battle that seems at once frightening and unreal.
"Contemplate the various forms of definite evil which
necessarily occur in ... the world"****
John Ruskin in his book Modern Painters conceives the
fantastic imagination as one of the defining characteristics
of humanity and its highest art. He explains that the student
artist must concentrate on realistic studies, which store
the mind with visual fact, the great artist on the other
hand, creates imaginative transformations of reality which
most of his audience will receive as fantastic distortions.
By creating such unusual and unexpected images of the world
of matter and spirit, the great artist produces a work
that enables us to perceive with his eyes and imagination.
Each artist transforms the world according to the strengths
and limitations of his own character, imagination, and
age. Ours is a digital age and the imaginative transformations
of reality in fantastic, digitally born images transform
our world according to the vision of these artists.
The images of Digitally Born are part of a continuum that
includes the sublime, symbolic, grotesque, and satirical.
They comment on what it means to be human and helps us
see better because we see ourselves in these fantastic
guises. We can contemplate war and its consequences; remember
our menacing childhood fantasies; recognize our fear of
aging and its frightening inevitability; we can even identify
with an animal that we believe captures our elusive self.
The artists in this exhibition are constructing aesthetic
worlds, worlds in which they blur the border between the
fantastic and the real, pushing viewers into the space
between fantasy and reality born of their digital images.
In so doing, these artists are developing a new conception
of reality based on fantasy, and synthesizing a radical
idea: that fantasy, which depends on our view of reality,
is now also influencing our perception of ourselves and
thus transforming our own reality by its very presence.
* Eric S. Rabkin The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1976)
** From George P. Landow, "And the World Became Strange:
Realms of Literary Fantasy," The Georgia Review, Volume
33, Number 1 (Spring 1979)
*** George MacDonald Phantastes (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans
**** John Ruskin Modern Painters (London: Smith, Elder & Co,