João Enxuto and Erica Love
by Peter Scott
Anonymous Painting 3D #V2 GE_N204_01, 2013, inkjet on cotton.
Expanding access to some of the world's great museums, the Google Art Project allows the “armchair” art viewer the option of virtual tours through cooperating museums' collections. Much like Street View, the online user can navigate more or less whatever they wish, moving up closer to iconic works of art than would be allowed in the actual space of the museum. Strangely vacant, the gallery spaces documented by Google's cameras are served up to an online public uncluttered by other vewers, lending the visits an air of exclusivity, albeit by viewers that must number in the millions.
In an effort to reach the broadest possible audience for art we may have arrived at something akin to the Jorges Luis Borges story recounted by Jean Baudrillard, which concerns a cartographer devising a map of the Empire so large that it has a one-to-one relationship with its real counterpart. A map so accurate that people began to mistake it for the real thing. Eventually the map begins to fray, and as Baudrillard describes the consequences: “It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.” What we once understood as reality has lost its grip.
Bringing some of these art works back from their virtual limbo, Enxuto and Love’s “Anonymous Paintings” enlist the capture tool screen grab, isolating the paintings offered up by Google and creating image files that once again become paintings. But in the case of artworks chosen for the “Anonymous Painting” project, there is something missing. Due to copyright restrictions, some of the images of the paintings one encounters on their online tour have been blurred, yielding ad-hoc abstractions, in many cases with gilded frames. So while the attempt at mapping the world’s great works of art for contemplation by the online masses has near utopian implications, the material world of ownership rears it’s ugly head, occasionally defying the presumed transparency of Google’s representations with a muted thud.
With the museum as their project, Enxuto and Love’s “Anonymous Paintings” are less about the fate of the medium of painting than the site (or lens, or screen), which mediates our experience of an artwork. As the museum both actively stimulates and tries to keep pace with the demand for culture, what we know as culture changes its shape. In order to grab attention and market share, famous “cutting-edge” architects are summoned to design new buildings, the scope of exhibitions expands to whole cultures (China: 5000 years, Brazil: Body and Soul), and distinctions between industrial design and the art object (The Art of the Motorcycle) disappear. Struggling with relevance in a contemporary culture that exists in a century which has all the centuries which preceded it accessible at the end of a finger, the museum must be part library, part entertainment center, and part shopping mall if it is to (so the thinking goes) “survive.”
Anonymous Painting 3D #V2 GE_S202_01, 2013, inkjet on cotton.
BUT WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THIS SURVIVAL? The expansion of museums online via Google Art Project is celebrated by some as a democratization of the experience of art, which assumes parity between the image of a work of art and the object itself. In some ways this equation is an old issue, as Walter Benjamin addressed in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. As Benjamin pointed out in his 1936 essay, by virtue of the fact that a film, for example, "controls the view" for us, the experience of film and painting are markedly different. When we walk into a room and view a painting, we are barely conscious of where our eyes go. The object exists in space and is inseparable from that space for that moment. The particulars of lighting, scale, and what might be next to the painting in question, all inform our experience of it.
Travelling through museum spaces via Google Art Project, we are in fact making our own film. Reproducing the art oblects in a reproduced space, we're invited to float through the exhibition. Disembodied yet tethered via our manipulation of the screen, we shoot forward and back, left and right, directing our movie (like any Google search) with unfettered ease. Benjamin’s ambivalent point about reproduction was that, while it liberated us from the rarified aura of the original and made the work accessible, in the case of film in particular (because of its ability to control the spectator’s view), it opened up the possibility of a kind of tyranny of the image. So it’s possible that what Google Art Project offers us is not a new “shared” experience of art, but the option for millions of personal tyrannies, each one of us in control, each one isolated in their experience, each one alone in Google’s virtual museum chamber, floating around with ease, distorting, manipulating, and inspecting with microscopic detail the hallowed original art object. An art object whose rarified tyranny has been replaced by the tyranny of its users, an embalmed image that passively awaits its next dissection.
Anonymous Painting 3D #V2 ME_02_748_01, 2013, inkjet on cotton.
Extracting their subjects from this digital funhouse, Enxuto and Love offer a reconstruction of the original, but, masked by the copyright protecting blur, the subject of the work remains enigmatic. Served up for “the masses” but held back by an unknown donor, the work is speechless, mute. Like a clumsy restorer who used the wrong solvent and melted the original paint, the crude smearing of the paintings’ images belie an aggressiveness that contradicts the benevolent aura around Google’s project. Content to obliterate those artworks that possess legal baggage which would interrupt their fantasy of “art for all,” we are asked to accept a few sacrifies on the way to their mission, a series of Tombs to the Unknown Artist, honoring those who fought valiantly yet died anonymously for the revolutionary cause of the universality of art.
And yet these anonymous cast-offs serve as ideal subjects for Enxuto and Love’s project. With no image to speak of, there is only a frame. Including the frame in their inkjet paintings on canvas, the original object has lost any distinction between frame and image. Erased by Google, the original artist’s conception is now recognized only by the ornament that houses it. Highlighting the frame, Google inadvertently reveals the “true” meaning of art’s distribution, dissemination, and interpretation; that those who control the means of production control the content, and that, while the art we see is presumed free of interference, it is fundamentally offering a private art experience for individuals isolated from one another, each one at their “terminal,” consuming art in private, stealthily wandering through what essentially is a dead, uninhabited museum.
What Google Art Project provides is not an experience of art but of visual information, algorithmic strings that coalesce into familiar paintings, mirages that we magically float in and out of. As miraculous as the first web search, it is also as mundane as googling a local dry cleaner, an efficient way to process information and then move on to the next task. In recovering the art object from this digital netherworld, Enxuto and Love also recover the necessary space that it inhabits, and by extension the limitless possibilities of how it might be received by a viewer that encounters it in that space. Taking the distorted cast-off and making it “real” again, the object has a new life, but with its attendant loss of meaning, it is now an object with no qualities; processed by Google and marked as unviewable, these objects are haunted by their lack of a subject, and as such they present compelling questions as to what the fate of viewing art is in an era of endless digital reproduction.
While Google is credited by some as democratizing art, their offering up reproductions of art to isolated viewers is in fact a more insidious form of privatization, one for which there is no obvious form of payment, but which dictates the terms of our interaction while giving us the impression that we are in control. With no recognizable image or artist, what remains in Enxuto and Love’s “Anonymous Paintings” is a kind of memory of the art object, but a memory that’s been realized in concrete form. As the museum serves its collection up as a reconstituted dream, the “Anonymous Paintings” bring back the unwanted remnants, allowing us to inspect them. Products of an "efficiency culture" that seems to gradually reduce all experience to mechanized interaction between isolated individuals, we may now reconnect in front of the work; an unconventional art object (no subject, no author) for “conventional” viewing, in a room, on a wall in front of which a viewer might be standing. A simple but, in the long run, potentially radical activity that reinvests in the significance of "where we are"; not a regression to the tyranny of the art object, but an acknowledgment that for a democratic experience of culture to prevail, it requires the establishment and maintenance of a real place and time for us to commonly coexist.
Anonymous Painting 3D #V2MO_05_01_02, 2013, inkjet on cotton.