spring 2003
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Digitally Born - Digitally Manipulated Photography
Alessandro Bavari, Tom Chambers, Pablo Genoves, Sally Grizzell Larson, Jacqueline Hayden, Yoshio Itagaki, Simen Johan, Oleg Kulik, Daniel Lee, Jeff Murphy

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JACQUELINE ARENDSE :: Assistant Curator for The Alternative Museum
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 our reality.

"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 that reality.

"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 psyche.

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 Publishing Co.)
**** John Ruskin Modern Painters (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1873)

Credits: Curated by Geno Rodriguez