This first large-scale exhibition of works by Jon Rafman to be shown in an Italian contemporary art institution, curated by Diana Baldon, is presented by Fondazione Fotografia Modena and Galleria Civica di Modena, brings together a selection of multimedia installations, tracing the arc of the Canadian artist’s practice from 2011 to the present. Employing a variety of media—including photography, video, sculpture and installation—Rafman explores how reality and simulation have become increasingly homogenized in contemporary society.
From early in his career, Rafman (Montreal, 1981) has investigated the ramifications of our reliance on technology on our perceptions of reality. To create Kool-Aid Man (2008–11), Rafman spent three years exploring the virtual-reality platform Second Life, in the guise of the titular avatar, to discover the myriad incarnations of its digital “inhabitants.”
Rafman also drew from the Internet and its multiple online communities as archival resources for the three videos comprising his Betamale Trilogy (2013–15)—Still Life (Betamale),Mainsqueeze and Erysichthon—which are among the installations included in this exhibition. Watching the Betamale Trilogy, the viewer feels trapped in a vortex of scenarios that are traumatic yet seductive. Rafman skillfully conveys the ambiguous lure of the Internet, which seemingly promises freedom and the discovery of new worlds, yet, in reality, imprisons you in a space tracked by algorithms and monitored by agencies that process, then sell, your navigational data.
Rafman’s extensive research on both the Internet and the deep web has enabled him to assume the mantle of amateur anthropologist and digital flâneur. He investigates the epistemic collapse over recent years of the distinction between the digital and authentic worlds.
Memory is a major theme in many of his works. In A Man Digging (2013), which comprises footage from videogames including Max Payne 3, the main character speaks of the intrinsic mutability of memory and how it allows for the rewriting of individual and collective history. While the narrator nostalgically drifts along in search of his fragmented past, Rafman transports us, via the glinting surfaces of memory, to the furthest reaches of reality. The video Remember Carthage (2013) tells the story of a man who sets sail on a ship bound for Tunisia in search of a mythical city in the Sahara Desert that existed at the same time as Carthage. Despite its legendary status as the “Las Vegas of Maghreb,” however, no trace of the city remains. Composed of footage from Second Life and the videogame Uncharted 3, the film again features an off-camera voice detailing the sublime architectural beauty of ancient civilizations. Remember Carthage explores not only memory but the contemporaneity of history, since—thanks to technological developments such as videogames and Second Life—even history can now find a different form and influence.
The video Dream Journal (2016–17) comes from Rafman’s habit of animating his dreams using amateur 3D software, and has a soundtrack composed by James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never, with whom the artist has collaborated previously. Two young female protagonists—a stereotypical millennial and a child warrior—set off on a Dantean journey within a dystopian universe. The narrative interweaves imaginary scenes with characters from classical epic tales to yield a series of darkly surreal incidents: this is Rafman’s unconscious mind, augmented by online surfing, rendered visual.
Greeting visitors at the entrance of the Palazzina is the artist’s latest work, Legendary Reality (2017). An anonymous protagonist narrates a journey through what appears to be a sci-fi landscape—although he could just as easily be sitting at a computer screen on which historical depictions have become conflated with virtual experiences.
FONDAZIONE MODENA ARTI VISIVE is an institution dedicated to the presentation and promotion of contemporary art and visual culture. Directed by Diana Baldon, it comprises Galleria Civica di Modena, Fondazione Fotografia Modena e Museo della Figurina.
Palazzina dei Giardini
Corso Cavour 2
Modena | Italy
Jon Rafman, Dream Journal 2016-2017, 2017. Colour HD video with stereo sound. Music by James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never. Runtime: 49 min 17 sec. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers.