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Virtual Art, Building a Solid Rationale

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N10

An absence, not a presence, was the most striking thing about art in 2003.

In all the exhibitions I saw this year, including massive biennial roundups in Venice and Havana, there was a notable decline in the amount of art made and shown on computers. After a flurry of interest when the new digital art forms first started to sprout, there seems to be agreement that they have yet to bear much fruit.

Anish Kapoor's "Marsyas," above and below: Evoking the idiosyncratic forms generated entirely inside a computer's electronic brain. (Marcus Leith And Andrew Dunkley -- Tate Photography)

There's something about the TV tube that imposes an oppressive sameness on the art that's viewed on one. There may be 16.7-million colors on a decent computer screen, but that doesn't come close to the range of tones, hues and brightness that we can find in nature, source of the paint and stone and wood and metals that go into more traditional art forms. Computers can work wonders for art that's mostly about words and ideas, or about notions that can live only in cyberspace. (A favorite Web site of mine, by cyber-artist Luke Murphy, includes a "mile long" virtual line, and a "mile square" field of black, that you're invited to explore with your scroll bar.) But add an important visual component to a work of computer art, and even the best flat screen falls flat.

Which doesn't mean that art has simply turned its back on virtuality. Given how crucial computers have become in modern society, that would be an insane leap into irrelevance. Instead of ignoring computers, a few artists have begun to make works of un-wired 3-D art that talk about our experience of cyberspace.

The first piece I noticed working in this vein was by veteran British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who earned his reputation using aggressively natural materials such as coarse stone and raw pigment.

Last spring in London, at the massive South Bank power plant that has been retooled as the Tate Modern museum, I caught the last day of a Kapoor piece called "Marsyas," said to be the largest indoor sculpture ever made. Kapoor completely filled the museum's soaring Turbine Hall with a strange, stretched-rubber form that looked vaguely -- very vaguely -- like three building-size red megaphones connected at their mouthpiece ends. Not a great metaphor, but it would have to do, I thought, as I contemplated Kapoor's miraculously complex abstract form. And then I realized why I was having such a hard time coming up with real-world analogues for Kapoor's shape. It doesn't have any. Its closest parallels are in the idiosyncratic forms generated entirely inside a computer's electronic brain. "Marsyas" looked like the kind of 3-D graph that an economist might use to visualize the relationship of three very unstable, weirdly related variables. Imagine trying to plot the relationship between changes in doughnut consumption, the Dow Jones average and a teenager's emotional swings, and your computer might spit out an on-screen "Marsyas."

It's not just that Kapoor needed a computer to come up with his strange form, or to have the thing engineered and built -- though I'm told computers did in fact play crucial roles in bringing "Marsyas" to life. It's that, regardless of how "Marsyas" came to be made -- even if it had been drawn by hand then clinker-built in wood -- it evokes experiences that we are familiar with from our first encounter with them on computer screens. Architect Frank Gehry uses computers to build unusually swoopy shapes, but they remain simply strange forms. Works like "Marsyas" actually seem to illustrate a silicon-chip world.

A more recent exhibition took some of the same ideas, and pushed them beyond abstraction. Works by young New York sculptor Robert Lazzarini, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art until Jan. 4, begin with a few iconic objects: a Stradivarius violin, a phone booth, a Stanley claw hammer, a Smith & Wesson .38, a skull. Images of these objects are then scanned into a computer and stretched far out of whack along a number of dimensions all at once. And then the objects' newly altered forms are realized in three dimensions once again, as hand-crafted sculptures made out of the materials of the originals -- fine woods for the violin, blued steel for the revolver, bone paste for the skull.

Lazzarini doesn't only manage to charm and intrigue us with computer-distorted versions of beloved objects -- though he does that, in spades. He manages to profoundly confuse our perceptions of the world by taking distortions that ought to be possible only in cyberspace, and making them come true in real objects that share space with us.

In new work showing until mid-January at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, British art-star Tony Cragg has made strangely shaped objects that involve manipulations of the everyday -- as he's always done. But now those manipulations seem to have taken place in a computer. A giant vessel, something like a plastic foam clamshell from McDonald's, seems to have been folded in on itself in ways that normally require Photoshop and a fast processor. Another sculpture looks rather like the liquid-metal android from "Terminator II," in a moment of extreme indecision about the shape he's planning next -- or maybe he's just suffering from a particularly nasty virus, caught by the computers that output him.

The pleasure that I've taken from the distinctly material sculptures of Kapoor, Lazzarini and company doesn't mean I've simply given up on immaterial artworks actually made and watched on computers. After all, it took about two decades for artists to figure out how to use video to full effect. But the fact that artists making solid objects have managed to use computers so well underlines a crucial point: Art can't depend on the technology that makes it; it has to depend on the stuff the technology lets it talk about. Including, sometimes, that technology itself.

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