Alex McLeod, with the aid of algorithms and a 3D printer, has made a whole lot of work for his show, Ghost Stories, which opened last week at Division. Upon arrival at the gallery, there’s much to take in. Prints, videos, and sculptures fill the Division side of the large warehouse space and pour over into the side of the space that is usually reserved for the Arsenal shows.
I start in the top lefthand corner of the gallery (if you’re coming in through the door). Here, a long wall displays a staggered, horizontal line-up of seven video monitors. Each plays a looped animation featuring an alien-looking form which repeats a simple movement.
At first glance, the short clips look like the kind of high-gloss, hypnotizing animations one might see while scrolling along on Instagram, maybe advertising for something like a start-up that provides visual meditations for mental health. In one animation, a semicircular extrusion resembling iridescent metal spins around its central axis with the precision of a jewelry box ballerina. Two deep purple floral shapes twist and pulse back and forth like jellyfish. Each subject is floating against a monochromatic background in cheerful hues of turquoise, blue, and marigold.
These objects (or are they organisms?) exist somewhere between sculpture and animation, and between reality and fantasy. They are rendered with life-like textures, ceramic and brushed metals for instance, which absorb and reflect light like they would in the real world. Sometimes the forms look familiar. You can almost place them before they seamlessly morph into something strange. As sculptures, they are pleasing to the eye: lively and dynamic, proportioned in their blend of organic and synthetic forms and patterns, lush with detail.
There are also many large-scale digital prints which line most of the walls. I stop in front of a landscape of mountains, a lake, and coniferous trees rendered entirely in varying shades of cream and rosy pink. It looks distinctly incomplete, roughly-hewn with polygons representing the planes of the rock faces, elongated triangular prisms make up the branches of the pines. It’s like a video game where the textures haven’t loaded yet: a weird universe of its own.
On one wall is a series of prints featuring some of his digital models and landscapes on irregularly-shaped boards, which are cut and arranged to look like a 3D shape seen with perspectival foreshortening. With these, it seems the artist is explicitly laying-out ideas that emerge more subtly in the rest of the exhibition: the play between illusion and reality, dimension and flatness.
My favourite pieces in the show are the sculptures. It’s with these works, where the once-digital forms become physical things taking up physical space, that I get the greatest sense of the forms being alive – residents of our world. One large alcove houses most of the sculptures which have been planted upon plinths of varying heights. There’s a teal, partially-deflated dodgeball, plugged on one side with a baby blue thorn, like a pacifier. It rests upon a nest of synthetic fur the colour of cotton candy. A lumpy, intestinal cactus-like thing appears to be growing out of the white surface of the plinth. From afar, it looks like its covered in royal blue velvet or silk but up-close, it’s apparent that this effect is created by 3D-printed layers of shiny Polylactic Acid (a naturally-derived plastic) which form tiny terraces on the objects’ outer surface.
It’s remarkable and amusing how McLeod uses the instruments at his disposal (shape, texture, and colour) to imbue his sculptures with an almost cartoon-like sense of personality: their attitudes implied by their forms. In all his work, but with these pieces especially, the artist communicates his curiosity about the human reaction of sympathy and personification towards inanimate things based primarily on their appearances.
In the exhibition text (and in the title of the show) a lot of interpretive weight is given to the idea of the forms being “scraps” or “dead characters, pixels, and codes” which tell “ghost stories” from “beyond the [technological] grave”. To me (and I think probably to other viewers who aren’t in-the-know about digital rendering) this emphasis is not so clearly reflected in the work itself. Maybe I’m missing something, but aside from a couple of the prints, everything looks pretty complete, polished and also pretty lively to me. What makes them dead or unfinished? In what way are they scraps?
Perhaps it’s that they would normally have been a part of something larger: a background feature in a video game, a commercial, or an animated movie, but instead they have ended up here, memorialized in a gallery. Still, I can’t help but feel that this theme could have been expressed more clearly in the work, or otherwise not have been promoted as the central focus of the exhibition.
To my mind, the show felt like it was about the biological status of life in an age when technology affords us new ways to imagine and convincingly image what life could look and behave like in other worlds, or in the future. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of what it means for something to be living, and how the human mind perceives the alive-ness of things in our environment.
Noticing patterns in McLeod’s Saturnalian garden, I find myself considering the symmetries between the mathematical systems that create organic life (the golden ratio and other sacred geometry) and the seeds of code that unleash algorithmic growth in 3D renderings, animations, and other imaging systems. The combination of chance and universal laws that cause both to continue generating, replicating, evolving, and unfolding.
What is the enigmatic quality of being alive anyway? And will we ever be able to simulate it? The show allowed me to envision what might be on the horizon with the forthcoming advancements of science and technology. Spurring these kinds of inquiries, the exhibition looks to the future. With its endearing, radiant, and benevolent inhabitants, McLeod’s vision is surely a Utopian one.
The show will continue through to June 8th. I'd recommend seeing it in person! Here is a link:
And here's one to McLeod's website: