It can’t eat a Madeleine, but can a machine have a Proustian moment? Join us as we explore memory and media in flux, examining the common threads between Guy Yanai’s recent exhibition at KÖNIG GALERIE and the AI-driven works of Refik Anadol.

Elizabeth P. Harris | Ed. Peter Traynor | 3 July 2022

Monica Bonvicini "Small Pendant" (2021) - Agora Digital Art
Monica Bonvicini, Installation view of Small Pendant (2021), aluminium cast, glass, electrical wire, 9.5 x 40 x 7 cm. Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE. Photograph by Elizabeth Harris.

In the hallowed (but deconsecrated) rooms of Saint Agnes’ chapel in Berlin, you can wander through a medley of media, from river stones found by Zhanna Kadyrova (gird yourself for a € 7,000 price tag, and consider pulling on your wellies to find your own), to a flaccid glass penis by Monica Bonvicini (titled Small Pendant, steering away from the opportune title of Fragile Masculinity).

Refik Anadol, Machine Hallucinations – Forest Simulations: A (2021), AI data painting, video loop, 16 min 0 sec. Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE.

At diagonally opposed points in the gallery space stand Refik Anadol’s Machine Hallucinations – Forest Simulations: A (2021), and Guy Yanai’s debut solo exhibition In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The former is a pixelated current of data points that seems to inhale and exhale as it morphs its colours and forms. The second is a collection of firmly static, flat perspective oil paintings. Anadol’s work reminds you of everything and nothing as it never crystallises into a fully discernible subject, while Yanai’s images are clear but decidedly separate from the viewer. Stylistically, the pieces are opposite. So, well may they be kept far away from each other in the bleak rooms of KÖNIG GALERIE. But an undertow of human feeling connects the works in unexpected ways. 

Guy Yanai, Getting Dressed (2022), oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Yanai’s exhibition title comes from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, excerpts of which I read in one of my university French classes, taught by the acclaimed translator of Proust’s work, James Grieve. He was beloved for pedalling around campus on a retro bike, sporting a paper-white moustache, and dressing in sturdy linen shirts with voluminous sleeves pulled from a medieval French tapestry. Nearly as memorable as his eccentricities were the readings from Proust that he assigned. The abiding message imparted to us was that Proust and his audience are forever searching for the answers to the questions of who we each have been as we have grown and aged, and how our future selves will remember the process of becoming.  

Yanai extends the fleeting experience of becoming captured by an iPhone snapshot into a more protracted timeline. His detailed and methodical process of applying small units of oil paint, like pointillism without the points, breaks the image down and adds detail for the eye to explore. Equal intensity is given to every aspect of the image – a single strand of hair, a bedspread, a nipple, and the sky. We never fully meet the eyes of Yanai’s subjects who turn away from us or are obscured by a curtain of hair. We remain disconnected, fenced off in a field of our own memories.

Refik Anadol, Machine Hallucinations – Forest Simulations: A (2021), AI data painting. @ Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE.

Each little patch in Yanai’s images has the potential to prompt a memory, much like Proust’s Madeleines. But what might a Proustian moment mean to a machine? Anadol’s works — which make heavy use of artificial intelligence — may answer these questions. Anadol’s Machine Hallucinations – Forest Simulations: A is fed by an immense photographic dataset, generating dissolving forms that recall (but slightly escape clearly representing) nature: What could have been a tree becomes what may be a wash of sand and sea. The images are sensory doorways to memories that are just out of our reach. They conjure involuntary memories, with the twist that they are informed not by the remembrances of human consciousness, but a mass of data points. But what is memory if not data? And if artificial intelligence can cause echoes of the past to reverberate in our minds, does this have any less human power than when such memories are kicked off by a delicious French treat? The visually overwhelming flow of Anadol’s data painting may have been titled a ’hallucination’, but the way it places recognisability just beyond our fingertips feels more like a memory we are scraping through our minds to grasp.

Guy Yanai, Young Woman Eating Fruit (2022), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Yanai is deeply concerned with surface. The way his little rectangles of colour seem to click into place, emphasising the application of paint, condenses the visual field. The wash of Mediterranean light equalises the foreground and background, unifying these liquid building blocks into a single work. In Machine Hallucinations, the surface is non-existent — the bubbles of data-driven digital paint pop and float in another field of vision and existence separated from us only by a glassy screen. Both of these methods can stir unconscious memory and associations, as we either focus in on the surface appearance of each detail of a work, or fall into its depths trying to find a unified image, we experience something like the feeling of trying to remember: Something is on the edge of our mind, the tip of our tongue, just beyond the immediacy of the present.

Refik Anadol, Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams (2021), AI data painting. Courtesy of the artist.

In this period of flux when analogue artists are exploring the digital, as digital artists experiment with how to translate traditional media to the virtual world, ignoring comparisons between such practices risks an impoverished discussion of how the digital can be explored by contemporary artists. Anadol’s road from painting to pixels runs to a crossroads with Yanai’s path from technology to the tangible.  The nexus where they meet is memory: Exploring how different media can call forth unexpected memories can help us understand what the difference between RAM and human memory is. It’s a question worth pausing to ponder. It is a shame that KÖNIG GALERIE didn’t delve into these comparisons, and rather left these pieces to bookend its gallery space, with the coarse grey walls filled with other pieces acting as a buffer of cerebral grey matter in between.  It leaves this curatorial opportunity disappointingly ineffective in the mind of the visitor, as impotent as Bonvicini’s downcast pendant.

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