Critique: ‘Drawn From Borders’ Online Exhibition

‘Drawn from Borders’, virtual installation view; image courtesy of the artists and Artlink

Artlink, Buncrana, Donegal
21 May 2020 – Present (ongoing)

The demarcation between real and virtual experiences is one which has recently come into sharp relief. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced cultural institutions around the globe to shut up shop, a host of museums and galleries have tentatively begun to dip their feet into the world of virtual exhibitions, whose emergence has been accompanied by a cascade of articles questioning the very validity of such an approach. This transition to the virtual is one that has been recently performed by the ‘Drawn From Borders’ exhibition, curated by Rebecca Strain, as the quietened space of the Saldanha Gallery, Fort Dunree, has been, temporarily, reanimated as a traversable digital environment. The space itself, produced by artist and animator Mark Cullen, whose work is included within the exhibition, is a virtual facsimile of the real on which it is modelled, and is even augmented by the addition of an extra gallery room; one of the benefits in leaving the confines of the physical realm is that architectural modifications become perfunctory.

Whilst the very concept of a virtual exhibition is nothing new to those acquainted with developments in new media art, the model is still something of a novelty for more traditional art institutions. Rather serendipitously, the theme of this exhibition – organised broadly around the topic of borders, and more specifically the partition of Ireland – is particularly well suited to a virtual reimagining. Each of the works on display examine the immateriality of border as an abstract construct, a critical perspective that finds an analogy in the seemingly strict distinction that we often make between the real and the virtual. Upon accessing the exhibition, the viewer’s disembodied form is transported into the gallery, wherein they are immediately confronted with an unnatural sense of stillness. Although galleries typically encourage the performance of sterility on behalf of their visitors, this recreation is strikingly eerie, with only the sounds of your avatar’s footsteps present to break the initial sense of disquiet.

The works are exhibited here as they would be in the physical environment, with the only noteworthy discrepancy being the housing of video works within individuated floating booths. During a virtual tour of the exhibition (delivered via Facebook), Strain, after viewing Janet Hoy’s Turning and Turning (a short video work which takes Yeats’ The Second Coming as inspiration), referred to the art gallery as an emotional space, a place where you were free to be an emotional being. Although much is lost in the transition to the virtual, I feel as if this sense of freedom is one which is heightened, as laying hunched over a screen, eyes fixated on flickering images, is an experience that most would associate with a sense of privacy. Of the works of art themselves, Paul Murray’s Along the line is a standout, as its tiny, pixelated-looking form draws the attention of the eye. Upon closer inspection the nuanced touch of a human, rather than digital, hand is evident in its geometric design. A detail from a much larger work being produced on ash, the diminutive snippet on display here aids the viewer’s ability to comprehend and appreciate its visual complexity – something which can often be lost when larger pieces are displayed in the virtual.

When we refer to our present condition as ‘post-digital’, to contemporary life as ‘post-internet’, it does not mean such frameworks have been surpassed, but rather they have bored so deeply into the fabric of existence that we begin to take them for granted. That is to say, in a certain sense they become naturalised. If we resist the logic of binary operations that would rigidly oppose one with the other, the virtualisation of the gallery environment can be seen as just another facet of everyday experience that has been subsumed and integrated into the structure of our global digital network. The construction of, and viewer envelopment within, three-dimensional digital spaces is but one method by which this process of virtualisation is occurring. Although at the present moment the gap between the real and simulation is still significant enough as to make the format somewhat jarring, the lacuna is always closing. We’re not post-3D-virtual yet, but the road ahead has been mapped.

Laurence Counihan is an Irish-Filipino writer and critic, who is currently a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the History of Art department at University College Cork.