In January 2014, a picture turned up on a number of news platforms. It showed a screen swathed in deep grey smog standing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On it a huge sun shone out of a blood-red sky. According to the headlines, Beijing’s residents were so hungry for daylight that virtual sunrises were being set up on screens all over the city. The report was false; it was only a scene from an advert. It had been readily believed; for a public conditioned to computer-generated worlds, a simulated sunrise was an absurd but feasible scenario.1
The »act natural« exhibition has brought together three international perspectives in digital works which engage with the relationship between technology and nature in the 21st century and explore the creation of digital imagery. Technologies such as environmental mapping have long since meant that the image is more spatial and an illusory sensation. It is only logical that the curator Manuel Rossner has installed the works within a space, recreating the spaces of the Parisian Galerie Eva Meyer. The aura-like atmosphere of the White Cube meets its digital equivalent in which three works, which themselves engage with simulated spaces, enter into a spatial relationship with their presentation – which is also simulated.
In the early 1980s, Jean Baudrillard developed a theory of a society which completely replaced reality by a system of signs, in which only simulacra exist, a simulated hyper-reality; in our contemporary digital culture this is more tangible than ever before. Reality is, as the philosopher and media theorist wrote, composed of matrices, data banks and commands. All three artistic positions represented in the exhibition explore digital simulacra, overemphasising their inherent mathematical abstractions and their hyperrealist nature. When Kim Laughton, for example, includes the Utah teapot in his work – the oldest 3D model in computer graphics2 – it is a self-referential gesture to say: look, this is how pictures are made today, this is how simulated worlds have become standardized.
Joe Hamilton too draws our attention to the constructed nature of the digital world when he assembles photos found on Tumblr to make hyperreal collages on his Tumblr blog 'Hypergeography'3 (produced between April and August 2012), or makes artificial arrangements of found material in other artworks. In these pictorial worlds, similar to the environments created on computer by Kim Laughton, fragments of digital culture appear together with views cut from landscapes: tablets, internet memes, avatars, helicopters, glass facades and snippets of graphics come together with moss-green hills, stylised sections of sky, tree trunks, houseplants, greenhouses and blades of grass. In these works, the contrast between culture and nature is presented as a radical clash but, at the same time, they are reconciled, as all the elements are part of a single digital presentation and embedded in the pseudo-harmonious hyper-realism of our age with its seemingly perfect surfaces.
The appropriation of found image and video files and graphics from the internet and the creatively subversive use of software continue to be widely used strategies in digital art. Yet artists also position their art quite consciously within the traditions of art history, revisiting classical genres and media categories such as landscape and sculpture. Two of cermâ’s past exhibitions of works from the digital avant-garde were appropriately titled »what we call painting« and »what we call sculpture«.
For his project 'En Plein Air'4, Rick Silva went out into the open air with a laptop, just as the impressionists once went out with their canvases to capture the atmosphere of different lights. Silva built 3D models of what he saw – hills, rivers, woods – on his computer, then finished them in the studio and presented them together with details of the location, time of day and temperature in a blog, creating a whole archive of simulated landscapes. These too draw the viewer’s attention to their construction. They are models which float in a virtual space without any visual context, obviously built with 3D software. Just as the impressionists once made colour their subject, Silva now foregrounds technology.
The three contributions to this exhibition use well known strategies to demonstrate new ways of engaging artistically with nature; ways which show very clearly how far our idea of nature is changing in the contemporary world which is shaped by anthropology and technology. Landscapes in art were always surfaces onto which the world’s state of mind could be projected, constructs which mirrored cultural processes. Our current mind-set is one in which we are happy to believe that a simulated sun can replace one that can no longer penetrate the smog.