THE ART NEWSPAPER: Digital romance blooms between art and technology

This article is a report on the use of technology at Art Basel 2015 and was published in an Art Newspaper Fair daily in June 2015. It was written by Julia Halperin


Ed Atkins embraces technology in Happy Birthday!!! (2015), Cabinet, London (U51). Photo: David Owens

Computer animation, 3D printing and aerospace software are fast becoming tools of the trade for artists

Technology is changing the way artists work—and the kind of art they make—at an unprecedented pace. At Art Basel, galleries are presenting scores of works that would have been impossible to realise just 15 years ago. “Technology is catching up with artists’ imaginations,” says Patrick Armstrong of Tanya Leighton (M16), which sold The Hunter and his Dog (2015), a 3D printed sculpture by Oliver Laric, to a European collector during the fair’s VIP preview.

Artists are swapping paints for polyurethane and calipers for computers. “Lots of artists are like engineers today,” says Virginie Thomas of mfc-michèle didier (E6). The gallery is showing Masaki Fujihata’s Voices of Aliveness (2015), an iPad programmed to reveal a three-dimensional, augmented reality tunnel (€1,150 for one of eight editions).

Paul McCarthy used software developed by aerospace engineers to create the marble sculpture White Snow, Bambi (2013), priced at $2.8m at Hauser & Wirth (D10). “When I first saw the new sculptures, I said to Paul, ‘Bernini would cry if he were alive, knowing what you could do with a computer,’” says Paul Schimmel, a partner at the gallery’s Los Angeles branch. Digital rendering programmes allow McCarthy to create works that are “more layered and complex, but retain a kind of flexibility that is hard to do with sculpture”, Schimmel says.

“Increasingly, art created on a computer screen without the artist’s hands ever touching the sculpture is being realised and landing in major galleries,” says Andrew Pharmer, the co-founder of Workshop Art Fabrication in New York. Pharmer oversaw the 20-year fabrication of Jeff Koons’s sculpture Play-Doh (1994-2014). The technology to create the work’s cracked surface did not exist when Koons first conceived it. A sculpture from the same series, Cat on a Clothesline (Orange) (1994-2001), is on show at Gagosian Gallery (B11).

New media artists are also employing specialists to help execute their visions. “There is one guy in New York who writes software for many artists such as Sanya Kantarovsky, Darren Bader or Josh Kline. He is very busy,” says the curator Gianni Jetzer, who is organising a forthcoming exhibition dedicated to computer animation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (Suspended Animation, from 10 February 2016).

The growing accessibility and affordability of 3D printing has helped speed up artists’ adoption of the technology. When Frank Stella began experimenting with 3D printing in the 1990s, he had to track down a fabrication company that specialised in figurines and perfume bottles. (Stella’s assemblage Kraanvogel, 2014, which incorporates his early 3D printed strips, is at Marianne Boesky (P9) for $425,000.) Now, it costs as little as “a couple hundred dollars” to make 3D printed works, says the artist Myfanwy Macleod. Her 3D printed sculptures of marijuana buds are available at Catriona Jeffries (M12) for $9,000 each.

For more complex—and expensive—projects, a few collectors are stepping forward to finance the production themselves. The Turin-based collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is helping to fund the creation of new work for the Istanbul Biennial by Ed Atkins, whose video installation Happy Birthday!! (2014) is on show at Unlimited (U51). Atkins uses CGI and facial recognition to create avatars that appear to engage directly with the viewer. “I’m trying to find artists who can represent what is happening now and even anticipate the future,” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says.

The production process is normally invisible at art fairs, but it takes centre stage at the booth of RaebervonStenglin (N1). The artist Raphael Hefti has installed a state-of-the-art milling machine—the kind used to fabricate watch parts, weapons and even fine art. Visitors can watch as the machine reduces aluminium cylinders to dust in seconds. “Art production is much more outsourced now,” Hefti says. “An artist will give a small piece of clay to the production studio and ask them to make [the finished work] 10 metres high.”

While many private collectors still favour art created by the artist’s hand, some are embracing high-tech work. JTT Gallery (N7) sold its entire booth of video painting installations by Borna Sammak, priced between $20,000 and $50,000. Team Gallery (S15) sold the video installation Toys to Life, 2015, by Tabor Robak, for $65,000. Robak layers state-of-the-art transparent monitors atop standard LED screens to create “video art that’s closer to painting,” says the gallery’s Tom Brewer.

Despite the appeal of new technology, artists must remember that high-tech production is simply a means to an end, says Elizabeth Neilson, the director of the Zabludowicz Collection in London. “If all you are seeing when looking at a work is the technology it is made from then that’s a bad sign,” she says. “What’s interesting is when artists pervert the technology to get what they want.” Ed Atkins, for example, uses “motion capture to explore the inner mind and green screen as a stand in for emotional invisibility.”

Technology “has changed production profoundly,” says Jarrett Gregory, the associate curator for contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “But I think the real impact that technology will have on art of this era will be the repercussions of changes in social behaviour, the individual versus the crowd, or the global exchange, rather than production itself.”


The Art Newspaper

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