5 AUG – 29 AUG.2020
A solo exhibition by Harry McAlpine
As an artist based in Melbourne, what have the last few months been like for you?
The whole experience, as bizarre and sometimes stressful as it was, has been extremely stimulating creatively. Especially because my practice so often focuses on human behaviour and psychology, there was ample of that to observe and think about. The opportunity to see how people behave in novel situations and environments was un-nerving, but incredibly interesting.
Can you tell us about the ideas behind this particular body of work?
For the last year and a half or so I’ve found myself interested in the way in which our digital economy has manifested over the years, specifically social media and how it has become so influential to how we perceive reality. Of course, we’re a very tribal species and one way that we’ve always delineated between tribes is through the narratives and stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the world. We exist within a constant data stream of endless information and use story telling as a tool for compressing this information into ideas that are sensical enough to help us function in the world. However, these stories, be them religious or more contemporaneously political and ideological, have a tendency to contend with each other and we’ve seen this play out throughout time immemorial.
How do you see these ideas in action, now?
Over the last decade we’ve seen a fundamental shift take place, given that the virtual/digital aspect of our experience of the world has become so constitutive, we not only view the world in our differing ways, but are given an entirely different vantage point. Our newsfeeds, YouTube suggestions, and other recommended content, curated to our individual likings and dis-likings, unconsciously by algorithms designed for one singular purpose, and that is to captivate our attention, and as much of it as possible. Either by appealing to our outrage or affirmation, these platforms have engendered a state of ideological ghettoization. We also see what one might think of as the next iteration of this phenomenon, which is this growing world of conspiracy thinking. That our virtual consumption of the world could be so disparate as to have some of us thinking that the world is in fact flat.
Can you tell us about some of the key people who have influenced you and how they have impacted upon your practice?
As far as imagery is concerned it will be no surprise to hear that my biggest influence has been Michael Borremans. His use of the figures in his paintings and the absurdity of the imagery has been a huge visual influence in terms of how I try to deal with the subjects in my imagery, and how I try to communicate my ideas. Otherwise I’m not sure. I don’t often think about it consciously to be honest.
You are a photorealist, working from photographs you have taken yourself, of orchestrated situations which include handmade sculptures, once again, made by you. Your work is the compilation of numerous media. Can you tell us about this and your process?
I think this is partially due to my not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a photorealist artist. I appreciate that it has been a predominant element of my practice thus far but as a ‘genre’ I actually find it highly un-interesting, and it doesn’t really achieve anything conceptually for me. Not as much as the actual images themselves do anyway. I think highly rendered drawing has become a dimension of my practice as fortuitously as any style or genre becomes a part of anybody’s practice. I think it started out as merely enjoying the ‘impressiveness’ of it, as young people with egos often do, but as I’ve evolved as an artist and as a person, I’ve quickly realised that merely impressing people with technical skill doesn’t nurture a creative or meaningful practice for me. The process and imagery conveys my thinking more than my skill with a pencil ever will. I hope to be defined as an artist because of my capacity to embed thought and feeling into material and not because I can recreate shapes and tonal variations onto a piece of paper effectively.
The subject of the majority of your works is yourself, your partner, your brother or close friend. Is this the result of being practical or is there more to it in terms of the inherent narrative within your work?
At the risk of providing an uninteresting answer to this question I can confirm that my choice of subjects is purely in the interest of convenience. In fact, I actually want the subjects in my images to have as little personality and character as possible. As I don’t really view them as individuals with individual narratives. Instead I view them as representations of a broader humanity and as architypes of the human condition as a whole, such as how the characters in Greek mythology or religious stories, for example, function as expressions of fundamental human architypes that we all possess. Similar to Borremans in fact, this is something his work has taught me. This would explain the deadpan faces within my work, or even more yet, the complete concealment of faces in my work. So, when I see myself, my partner, my friends or brother in my work, I see them as nothing more or nothing less than, figure #1, figure #2, figure #3 etc.
Within your work there is often the depiction or suggestion of another person/people. It seems that you use the dynamic between the subjects to suggest tone and feeling, can you tell me more about this?
Yes, I think the dynamic between people in my images, as expressed through their action, is perhaps the most effective tool I have with this theme, considering the whole phenomenon can be defined by people and their interrelations. It is especially effective at achieving (as you rightly point out) tonal suggestions. You will notice that I haven’t made the coerced/coercer narrative so strong or violent. The victims sit/stand calmly and comfortable. They aren’t bound by chains or forced overtly to look through these low-fidelity vision-narrowing apparatuses. This is because I wanted to capture our collective willingness (unawareness) to be a part of this vast social experiment, we call social media.
One of the things that I found most interesting about all this is the fact that when the internet saw its conception, there was actually a lot of well-intentioned optimism amongst its pioneers and developers. The intention to make the internet as free and accessible as possible, and not become yet another unattainable commodity only to be enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. This was to be a revolution that would bring the world together. Ironically it is this well-intentioned philosophy that’s ushered in the advertising model with its myriad flaws, that defines the platforms we use most today. Anyone that has grown up with the internet will be familiar with a slight feeling of repulsion or irritation at the idea of having to pay for an online service or platform. Just imagine having to pay for Facebook, Instagram, google maps or our email accounts. But these developers have to find value somewhere, and as the free market has always and will always do, it found it in our attention and data. My point is, this whole phenomenon is not some evil plot designed to wreak havoc on our social institutions, norms of civil discourse or propensity for group think. This is the result of a few good intentions, the indifferent and effective functioning's of a free market, and a complicit audience content with its free content and platforms. Only at the price of a small portion of our cognitive freedom.
There is a dualism present within your work, for example neatnik drawings of makeshift binoculars. Why do you choose to present ideas in this way?
I’ve put a lot of thought into why I’ve used the ‘lofi’ (as you’ve called them) materials. I’m not sure I even fully understand it, it has something to do with my interest in how human beings have the capacity to imbue latent meanings into the objects and materials of the world. I believe it has its roots in the philosophy of phenomenology. For example, the way in which we imbue the notion of courage into that of the Lion, or freedom into the Eagle. Or the concept of regeneration or rebirth into a lotus flower. Ultimately these meanings only exist in our minds, and we project these meanings outwardly onto an objectively meaning-less world, but they are so real to us as a species that we experience meaning as an intrinsic part of the universe. Like some elemental substance we assimilate into our experience. I try to use material, objects and imagery with this notion in mind. Perhaps I’ve chosen to use cardboard, fragile tape and other such things to communicate this notion of our becoming a commodity of sorts. Or perhaps I just enjoy the ordinariness or household-ness of these items. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate these ideas with some shitty material I had lying around the house.
EyeContact- Peter Dornauf
Oh, consummate and real reality, where really art thou?
It was Plato who first alerted us to the epistemological conundrum with his cave allegory. Then Kant put his own spin on it, placing the phenomenon at odds with the unknowable noumenon. Today however, we are more concerned with the various screens and filters that technology throws up that separate us from or manipulate the forms of our perception/reception of reality.
Contemporary American politics has thrown into sharper relief the tricky question of distinguishing fact from fiction, truth from the counterfeit, while Baudrillard added to the riddle with his notion of the loss of the ‘real’. This is where artist Harry McAlpine comes in. He engages with the complete network of this theory and sets about messing with our minds by employing a method of representation in his work that, well, blows our minds.
First he takes a black and white photograph of his artificially constructed subjects. Then he meticulously copies the photographic image onto cotton (rag) paper using charcoal, rendering the duplicate close to the original.
We are at three degrees of separation here, the viewer completely fooled by the hyperreality, suckered in by the simulation where every fastidiously crafted strand of hair or tiny crease in the cardboard is made to look immaculately photographed. Replica and original defy distinction.
There is also a nice frisson between the faultless surface and finish of the work and the low rent materials used in the props — cardboard boxes, makeshift binoculars made out of cardboard tubes. This somehow lends credence to the ‘reality’ of what we are looking at. Then the images themselves confront the question of perception itself. McAlpine presents his figures wearing various devices over their heads and eyes — boxes with the ubiquitous eyeholes punches in, bifocals (empty toilet rolls) heavily and roughly taped to the face; even a virtual reality headset.
What is being toyed with is that we, in the digital age, are as it were, locked inside the territory that was more literally explored in the film, The Matrix. We are all Neo types, trying to negotiate our way inside the dark labyrinth of constructed reality pitted against the real, ‘forced’ to wear a visor or mask through which we peer at the world, unable to tell shadow from authentic substance.
The idea of the mask is an old trope used in art that reaches back to James Ensor, Emile Nolde, Picasso, Magritte (The Lovers), Louise Bourgeois (Woman House), and more recently, Cindy Sherman and Ndiritu Grace (The Nightingale). But McAlpine, building on that and others who have made the TV head images all-pervasive, has contemporised the stratagem. We all wear boxes on our heads, looking out at a world riddled with shape shifting platforms that belong to the mass/social media, acting as screens that interpret, distort, deform, filter, censor, manipulate, enflame, edit and colour reality.
The title, Frankenstein, given to two of the works in the show, plays on the notion that science/technology has created yet other monsters who stalk the corridors of the world, heads bent so long into their devices that they take on the behaviour of automatons. These new “hideous sapient creatures”, heads filled not with straw, but fake news, conspiracy theories, inflated rhetoric, alarmist narratives, false hopes, fetishised suspicions, cultures of fear, the tyranny of the current, the madness of the melodramatic, dread of the future, silly panics and the socialisation of fragility, are versions of the new postmodern Prometheus.
Siloed is an engaging exhibition that has instant appeal, where certain key works strike the viewer with abrupt and telling force, and where the photorealist artistry is a jaw-dropping delight.