Still from Hope
Still from Hope

“I cannot describe what I see at the bottom of the sea,”says a pair of lips floating in tranquil waters. The sublime visual in Agnieszka Polska’s “I Am the Mouth” (2014), a digital video installation, dispatches these recursive puzzles like a disembodied oracle trying to describe herself to her petitioner. It’s a kind of minimalist exercise in which the artwork sorts itself out through puns, tautologies, and misdirection. “My words are the variations in pressure,” purrs the pursed mouth, which might be John Pasche’s notorious Rolling Stones logo—if it weren’t whispering mysteries.

This ominous opener to “Suspended Animation” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden sets the stage for a show that is at turns profound and obnoxious. Bringing together the work of just six artists, “Suspended Animation” is small for a survey of a genre: more like a sampling, occupying the museum’s basement level, with each video installation in a standalone sealed room. Even so, curator Gianni Jetzer makes a convincing case that digital animation, a newish vogue in contemporary art, follows the same paradoxical patterns as other watershed moments for new technologies in art history.

“Imagine the most common, inanimate, inert thing,” says the narrator in Helen Marten’s “Orchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom” (2013), a digital work that throws everything and the kitchen sink at the viewer. A CGI graphic of a cat floats across the video as the British voice speaks, some stray fields of color suspended behind it. At first glance, there’s no rhyme or reason to the work. An origami toad materializes, rotates in place, and disappears. Musical notes appear in a cluster, then rearrange themselves in the shape of letterforms and words: SEX ME/ FUCK ME/ BITCH. All the while, the imperious narrator drones on and on, in an absurdist stream-of-conscience monologue. “Ongoing patches of wetness. Continual wetness. Continual sweeping toweling resupplying, or, fingers hooked into crotches like palm trees bent in irresponsibly impossible poses. Ongoing patches of wetness”—all this, as the camera zooms in on a bunch of pears assembled like a still life on the marble buttocks of a statue in repose.

Start with what Marten’s piece isn’t: It isn’t abstract. While the video may juxtapose discordant objects and ideas, all of them are concrete and representational—they’ve got that much in common. And “Orchids” isn’t narrative. It’s a collage of images, a parade of things that indulge in a particular thinginess but don’t belong to a greater whole. Yet the piece is also assured and assertive. The crisp narration and brisk march of objects implies a logic and orderliness that isn’t available to the viewer, but seems storylike.

Frustrating, maybe, but familiar, too. The work unfolds like a persistent dream. Ed Atkins’ “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” (2013) also shares this quality, a nagging feeling that it should make sense even when it doesn’t. The protagonist of “Warm Spring Mouths” seems to dwell in some fluid space, perhaps a thinly disguised metaphor for the subconscious mind. The character’s long, digitally animated hair sweeps like a camera wipe between scenes. An uncertain narrator (who is sometimes the protagonist) relates a vision of gods with 12-inch pupils, 12-ton jaws, and 12-year metabolisms (among a lot of other inchoate transhuman babbling). The artwork reads like a metaphor for digital animation itself. Atkins focuses on hair, one of the more difficult features of a person’s face to capture in digital form. By magnifying the irrealism of the imitation hair, the artist hacks the so-called uncanny valley, embracing a conspicuously inhuman facial feature as, well, a feature, not a flaw.

Antoine Catala’s “The Pleasure of Being Sad” (2016) is the lone work to approach digital animation as a mechanical question. His work projects different crying faces onto a screen that changes shape. Embossed, teardrop-shaped panels emerge periodically inside the screen, which distort the faces of the portraits in the projections—a hypnotic inversion of the uncanny valley. There’s a sculpture in the room alongside Catala’s projection, but it’s pretty much irrelevant to the larger piece: Focus on the mesmerizing projection.It may come as no surprise that Catala made the piece specifically for this show, a counterpoint that offers up digital animation as a subset of portraiture, not a category or medium all its own.

Josh Kline’s “Hope and Change” (2015) is the culmination of an art exhibit that asks the same kinds of questions of viewers as a Turing test might. In Kline’s piece, President Barack Obama delivers an inaugural address—but through a glass, darkly. The president’s face has been digitally mapped, crudely, onto video of an impersonator giving the speech; the speech itself, written by a former (real-world) Obama speechwriter, is an alt-universe 2009 address in which Obama Prime condemns his obstructionist enemies for their various shortcomings.

As a political animal, I found my own feelings about the artwork colored by my feelings about the president. It would take some searching to find the viewer who simply sees the text as disturbing on its face, and not also soothing (or enraging) because it sort of stars Obama—if such a moderate unicorn even exists.

Had Jetzer stopped with those five artists, he would have delivered a tight survey about the conscious and subconscious minds, about imitation and replication, about the test limits between what we know to be real and what we cannot perceive as fake. Ian Cheng’s “Emissary in the Squat of Gods,” a pair of live simulations—at least I think that’s what’s going on—looks like a visual fit for “Suspended Animation,” but it reads like a non-sequitur. As a simulation, not an animation, Cheng’s work features a level of structural sophistication lacking in a show otherwise focused on depicting or relaying intensely personal, private, insular experiences.

“Suspended Animation” runs close on the heels of “Surround Audience,” the New Museum’s latest triennial, which opened this time last year. Three of the artists in “Suspended Animation” appeared in the sprawling New York survey, curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin, big names in the field of post-Internet art. Anyone interested in the questions raised by “Suspended Animation” may already know all the work that Jetzer brings to bear.

Still, even the initiated might find something new in “Suspended Animation.” The show represents a Freudian effort to classify the digital dreamscape, to give it some sense of order. Digital animation remains the unruly province of laptop studios. But here, a sense emerges of how digital text and object mediate a subverbal psychic plane—and then it’s gone. As with a dream, it’s the impression of each artwork, the residue, that stays with the viewer.

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