The Revenge of the Real: Dylan Neuwirth’s NOT A HOLOGRAM

Illusion rather than illumination is the nature of light in Dylan Neuwirth's layered, hanting solo show at GLASS BOX.

Posted on February 20, 2016, 4:49 pm
13 mins

Atop wooden supports sits a charred hunk of scrap metal webbed with carbonized detritus that fuse a couple half-melted water bottles to its surface. It looks like a remnant of an accident, a grisly one that probably involved charred flesh, too. What it’s doing in a gallery is not entirely clear. Is it another one of those postmodern, allegorical gestures that the uninitiated find obscure to the point of being offensive? It very well could be…until the sun goes down and the iPhone above it comes on and begins projecting onto it.

The charred surface becomes a textured map of a past supercontinent. Its shadow on the floor becomes its most distinct feature, surrounded by a virtual sea that disappears into the darkness around your feet. The manmade waste, an invention of convenience more than necessity, shines dimly.

Welcome to the non-world of NOT A HOLOGRAM, a show of five distinctive new works by Dylan Neuwirth. Each piece is titled like a filename, with the year as its extension and a prefix “NOT-A-HOLOGRAM_ .” For example, the aforementioned scorched Pangaea is “NOT-A-HOLOGRAM_TERRAFORM.MMXVI.” (For the sake of ease, I’ll refer to other pieces by the abbreviated, unique portion of the title.)

This titling process is itself a bit of a mind game. Postmodern theory gave us generations of “untitled” works, allowing for viewers to apply their own meaning as the artist stepped away and let the piece simply be inhabited mentally. As a reaction, some artists have taken to applying long, personalized titles to demand that the audience acknowledge the human presence (or the ego) behind the work. Neuwirth’s choice both applies a specific meaning and also positions the work as something both immaterial (an electronic file) and akin to a system file, inscrutable to most users, or a corrupting worm.

Of course, the objects here are not just files; they are aggressively material. Almost exactly below “TERRAFORM” in the front room of the ground floor (whose large windows are for the time covered with a dark film), is “SYNTHESIS-III,” a large, black, plastic tub on a prop of metal pipes, which also support two florescent bulbs cantilevered over the tub and its contents: a dark, stagnant pool filled with water plants. The large, flat leafs push against the light nourishing them. The effect is strangely even more sinister than “TERRAFORM,” whose azoic world is a primal unity, a world without terra incognita isolated by the surrounding sea. This is the dream of virtuality and total connectivity. For all its hints at swampy fecundation, “SYNTHESIS-III” instead feels isolated, cut-off, unsustainable and constraining of the organic matter it ostensibly supports.

It’s the only piece that alludes to light as the fundamental source of terrestrial life, via photosynthesis. Everywhere else, light is a means of fascination and illusion. This is especially true of neon, Neuwirth’s typical medium, which as a noble gas is already an otherworldly element extraneous to carbon-based life. As a light source, it is more glaring than illuminating, and certainly not nourishing.

"NOT-A-HOLOGRAM_ISOLAR.MMXVI," Dylan Neuwirth. Image by Nathaniel Willson © 2016

“NOT-A-HOLOGRAM_ISOLAR.MMXVI,” Dylan Neuwirth. Image by Nathaniel Willson © 2016

In the foyer, “ISOLAR” shows off another noble gas, argon, in a softly colored equilateral triangle that bathes the room in a deep, pensive blue. Above, on the same floor as “TERRAFORM,” blood red neon emanates from a scrawled glyph of a human eye with an X through it. On its face, such a form invites countless interpretations (No Saurons?), as both the eye and the X have many readings: the window to the soul, the act of seeing and being seen; negation or a solar cross.

If we allow the title, “LAZARUS,” to dictate to our reading, we may think of Lazarus of Bethany, the man resurrected by Christ in Biblical lore, who became symbolic of the latter’s mastery over death—the ability to reinstate biological life with the mind intact. The recently departed David Bowie titled his swan song “Lazarus” in reference to this lore, though for Bowie the opposite was true; biological life was irrevocably at its end and all that was left was to live on as a symbol. (To that extent he has. Just yesterday, a friend said that the death of Bowie had spurred him on to work more in earnest on his own creative projects, to not allow time to slip away. As he put it, “Bowie died for our sins.” He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment.)

Neuwirth is a devotee of Bowie, but this piece is not merely an homage. In a show of works that are all teetering on the abyss, “LAZARUS” is the one that points directly at it, that gazes into it. In all its references to the hope of transcendence from the real world through technology, NOT A HOLOGRAM shows these promises to be false, or at least poorly understood.

Sites and memes allow social media users to proudly declare “I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE with a viewpoint that treats absurdly reduced theories and discoveries with the sort of self-confident magical thinking of our most primitive forebears. Animal sacrifice guarantees a good harvest and “the cloud” is an ethereal, shimmering field of data/energy floating overhead.

Except it isn’t, and people aren’t readily waking to that. It’s apt that every work in NOT A HOLOGRAM requires electricity and is only fully appreciated in the dark, with the light of the “real” world shut out. In dimly-lit server farms around the globe, enormous caches of data are guzzling vast amounts of electricity and producing heat, and will continue to do so for as long as we cannot part with these fragments of recorded life, of externalized memory: pictures of cats, latte art and photogenic urban decay without end. If we can barely sustain these superfluous data stockpiles, what of the speculative immortality that people hope to attain through technology, say through an uploaded consciousness or escape into a virtual realm? Is there hope of that? If I consult my magic 8-ball, it says, “As I see it, Yes,” so I guess we’re in the clear.

Come to think of it, the blue room of “ISOLAR” totally feels like the inside of a divine magic 8-ball, but that’s probably reading too much of my own thoughts into the work.

“I must not look on reality as being like myself,” said the poet Paul Eluard, but of course we all do through the active imagination (especially poets like Eluard). We may suppose, much as animists and mystics do, that an individual life is a microcosm of all life (or all being) on some other plane, transcendent to this sublunary world in which we are all but marginally sentient nodes. But if one views the universe as a hologram of self, answering to one’s egoic will, already one has made the cosmos a fetid tub wherein one is just pressed against a scant light. If, beyond this, one aims to transcend oblivion or the body only to perpetuate self in this limited state, all hypotheticals become hellish. The irony is that a mastery of thoughts and senses that might release one from this state also tend to invoke ego-death and negate the desire for immortality.

It is not wrong to see the subtlest elements of oneself manifest in other aspects of creation; this allows for tenderness and sympathy. It is more fruitful, however, to see oneself not as locus from which reality is projected, but rather one of a billion projections of a locus, as many cultures have throughout history. The narcissism and technocracy of the time have us seeing the former, which leaves us seeing very little at all.

The fifth and final piece is “LIKES-WILL-TEAR-US-APART,” a black and white projection of Neuwirth himself…except not really. It’s a CG rendering of his face garbed in a cap and hoodie, blinking and tilting its head left and right, looking out toward the viewer, but not at the viewer: through the viewer, with the sort of disconnected, lightless gaze of one browsing the web aimlessly. It’s a familiar state (and not a flattering one), but rather than the bland, beige, residential backdrop that one usually sees in web cam footage, there lies in the distance a blurred, industrial landscape or ruin. The massive head of the avatar is disengaged from that world. Its attention is on the screen before it, which—in its large dimension—situates us inside the screen. We’ve entered the uncanny. It doesn’t feel like a Big Brother watching; the head is indifferent, gazing outward in hopes that it will be seen virtually…and liked.

Despite the initially bizarre array of media, NOT A HOLOGRAM coheres, telling different sides of one story. It is often disturbing, and a unique turn for an artist who has typically made work with light at its most pristine. Even in the neon piece, “LAZARUS,” Neuwirth has avoided using the clean geometry seen in other recent works, such as the pyramidal “INTERFACE” at Seattle Art Fair and Absolute Zero at Punch Gallery last winter. The eye glyph looks hand drawn, crudely. It’s certainly not the all-seeing eye of Providence, but beyond that, the beholder must make the determination. As for me, I see the unseeing eye of improvidence—Novus ordo seclorum, indeed.

Dylan Neuwirth’s NOT A HOLOGRAM will be on exhibit at GLASS BOX Gallery through February 27.  

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.