"Ménagerie à trois"
At island6 we understand that things are not always as they seem. What is less clear is how we should feel about this. The rationalist within rages, dissolving falsities left, right and centre. But we hesitate – for it is also the primordial mystery of the world to which we cling, its reaffirmation for which we yearn. In the booming metropolises of the 21st century – and nowhere in the world are cities booming more than in China - this Nietzschean dichotomy undergoes a complex transformation.
A virtual reality encroaches more and more, into popular culture and the fabric of the city, rivalling traditions, cultures and the tangible world. Virtual reality – the term appears to occupy an alien space, to signify a plane defined by its complete and utter abstraction from ‘real life’. Sleek headsets and futuristic video-games perhaps come to mind. Yet virtual reality has long been an integral part of human civilization – the stories and myths of ancient societies exist, in their own way, as alternative realities emanating from a sprawling imagination. Virtual reality is a mirror to man’s true condition. The transformation of modernity is that, in fits and starts, man is becoming aware of this.
From within this stance, island6 have assembled at the REDDOOR lounge and restaurant a curious collection of virtual animals. This is our first show in this new extension to island6’s exhibition space in Shanghai. Electronic visions of LED goldfish and jack russells, budgerigars and pugs adorn the restaurant’s walls. Some gaze down expectantly upon diners below, haughty birds turn their backs in a measured nonchalance, whilst chihuahuas appear absorbed within a coherent world of their own bizarre imagination.
The human impulsion to domesticate animals is ancient. The first instances of men and wolves collaborating in the hunt are estimated at around 12,000 years ago, and since then the partnership between man and canine has taken many forms – security, poaching, war, and assistance for the disabled. Yet, as always, the practicalities of necessity are an insufficient measuring stick with which to judge human reality. We keep animals for more than just utility. We yearn the affection domesticated animals offer us. Pets present us with an opportunity to sculpt and model a suitably malleable, suitably ignorant, being, much like we would a child. They offer us human-like company. Just as virtual reality emerges as a mirror to lived experience, so too animals become mirrors for their human owners. We compulsively endow our pets with human qualities, but ultimately, can a dog know love? Can a goldfish mourn?
The works of island6’s virtual menagerie poke and prod man’s contentions about the bond between animals and man. But beyond this the artwork queries how this already complex relationship is transformed by the replacement of real living animals with automated simulations. In “Kay Ai Ess Ess Ai En Gee” LED birds on a wire hop and twitch, peering over your dinner plates. They stare resentfully as their luminescent plumage shines. But, lacking a third dimension and imprisoned behind a sheet of glass, they seem cold and ambivalent. In “Jack the Fatalist and his Master”, a Jack Russell gazes obediently upwards to his unseen transcendent owner. He seems docile enough, but the glint in his alert eyes betrays a slumbering savagery. You’ll think twice before crossing Jack’s eponymous master, whoever he may be. Similar sentiments of ambiguity and unease abound, along with humour, pity, trepidation. But step back, why get attached, these animals are all simulations, soulless LED projections. Still, that won’t stop your ‘awwwww isn’t it cute’ response to the doleful pug in ‘Wrinkled Spectrum’. It may be little more than an amalgamation of coloured lights, but it tugs at our heartstrings all the same.
If we are so easily moved by a collection of electric surges, then the conundrum must arise whether the real world is worth holding onto with so much vigour. We still maintain on a subconscious level a deeply embedded platonic hunch that this world of appearances is but a poor shadow of some underlying reality. Yet we at island6 sense that perhaps the intellectual tide is turning. In a pulsing, palpitating urban modernity, in which a glittering artifice seems to consistently trump an elusive and underwhelming authenticity, the simulations of virtual reality become outlets for our primal appetite for mystery and reverie. It is not in poverty but in liberation that we are weaned from an unhealthy worship of the truth.
This dilemma is explored in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 classic Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? In a dystopian 1992, animals are both rare and expensive, and to own a pet is a great privilege and symbol of status. Dick’s protagonist Rick’s real sheep Groucho died of tetanus, and so he covertly replaced Grouch with an electronic version, concealing the exchange from his neighbours. When Rick’s neighbour Barbour finds out, he laments, pityingly – “it’s not the same”. And island6 concur, it’s not the same. But neither is a virtual world inevitably worse. As our fidelity to reality in the strict sense loosens, a world of electrified virtual reality is not a nightmarish, but an exhilarating prospect. In the abandonment of gritty grey realism, we are greeted with a host of bright lights and dreams.