by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
Entering Canadian artist Jon Rafman’s exhibition of new works at Berlin's Sprüth Magers gallery feels like stepping into a distorted sideshow funhouse after having ingested psychoactive substances. Titled Counterfeit Poast, the show is centered on two immersive experiences: a video installation in a dedicated darkened room, and an adjacent octagonal chamber featuring five large-scale paintings set against a vinyl wallpaper buzzing with visual information. Ambiguous warped figures face the viewers from the walls of the chapel-like image-laden installation; on the video screen, they address them directly in confessional-style narratives. And the stories they tell are as nightmarish as the onslaught of haunting, anamorphic imagery that illustrates them.
In one episode in the video installation, also titled Counterfeit Poast (2022), a young, obese teenager sits in a filthy bedroom talking to the camera about why he feels like he should be—or indeed, may already have been in a former life—a walrus. His face twists and gnarls as he talks, his features becoming increasingly grotesque. Images of walruses appear in sequence, also gnarling into pulpy monstrosities. In another episode, a young pink-haired zillennial argues that it’s hypocritical to claim that eating dogs is wrong only because dogs are cute. A sequence of images shows furry creatures that could be recognised as adorable puppies held by their doting owners, but they are distorted into masses of fur, eyes, and teeth, as if put through a food processor. These disturbing images, it turns out, are generated by a machine-learning algorithm that translates the artist’s instructions. The software produces the uncanny visuals based on Rafman’s text input. And his texts, in turn, are developed from messages and memes circulating in online chatrooms, 4chan boards, and reddits. “These technologies," Rafman explains his interest in the image-generating tool, "allow me to construct rich new virtual worlds. I combine the language of video games and pop culture with classical references to create my own 'Boschian' 21st century hellscape and purgatory."
The five works in the octagonal room are produced by similar technological means. But unlike the video works in which it’s clear that the images are digital, these works are given a different materiality. They are rendered in acrylic on canvas but rather than having been painted, they were printed on prepared canvases which had been manipulated to appear as if the images were done by hand. Yet there’s no correlation between the placing of the faux brushstrokes on the canvases and the images featured. Here, Rafman presents a suite of hackneyed visual tropes such as a children’s bedroom with balloons, or a kissing couple—yet in this octagonal room, reminiscent of a wildly disorienting hall of mirrors, every detail is unnerving and dreadful.
Rafman, who emerged among the so-called “post-internet” generation of artists in the previous decade, mines the niche, self-referential fringes of the internet in his body of work, and dives deep into the concrete realities spawned from its subcultures. Through video films and installations, he explores the social effects of digital media and virtual platforms, the worldbuilding of video games, and the endlessly generative (and degenerate) potential of meme culture. His interest lies in the crossovers, the points in which these realms have a real impact on the world beyond the screen. It comes as no surprise then, that his new work should home in on the ways in which AI-generated imagery reflects existing systems of sense-making and visual references while at the same time impacting them in ways, we are not yet able to predict.
“I think there's something both repulsive and attractive about the imagery,” Rafman adds. “I am actually trying to fight nihilism. But I fight it by telling stories that create meaning, even if the stories are about confronting the darkness and potential meaninglessness and the horror of reality,” he explains when I ask if he considers himself a pessimist.
The new works are grotesquely powerful, and induce a gnawing existential angst. No wonder, considering that the distressing reality the artist charts here is the gradual elimination of a common experience. As the past few years have shown us, there are no universal references, common momentous events, or even facts that everyone can agree on. What happens to our psyche, the artist might be asking, when our perception of the world around us is always being questioned? Or when it is only possible in the form of a continuously distorting series of perspectives?
One of the episodes in the video delves into the eroding relationship of a young couple. The man had become obsessed with paranoid conspiracies, and believes he is being monitored and directed by a secret agent. He keeps finding handwritten notes in his apartment full of codes he cannot decipher. He becomes so consumed with exposing this scheme, that he is unable to recognise that his wife is trying to reach out to him, leaving loving messages on tiny notes around the house for him to find. The viewer is privy to both perspectives as the narrative moves back and forth between their two versions of reality. “In a post-truth world, how do we even communicate with each other if we have no reference points or any sort of stable consensus of what is reality?” Rafman asks.