In a former Aegean slaughterhouse, dream machines display our relationship with technology

A Mediterranean island where there are no motor vehicles, only donkeys, hosts an exhibition curated by Gioni and Birnbaum that investigates the impact of technology on the human imagination.

Starting from June 2022, a persistent wind coming from the Aegean Sea makes an immense, solemn yet playful golden sun spin. It’s the Apollo Wind Spinner (2020-2022) by Jeff Koons, the sculpture that the patron and founder of the Deste Foundation Dakis Joannou decided to donate to the Greek island of Hydra at the edge of the Saronic Gulf, some 30 miles from Piraeus. Within a year, Koons' Apollo has already become a must-see landmark for both visitors and islanders, an incongruous presence, which becomes blinding at times, yet so pleasing to the eye. It looms above one of the rooftops of the Slaughterhouse, a collection of small buildings that has housed the Deste Foundation's temporary projects since 2009. All that remains of the former slaughterhouse is the rough, dim appearance of the stone and concrete rooms which hosts the exhibition "Dream Machines" curated by Daniel Birnbaum and Massimiliano Gioni until October 30th.

This collaborative exhibition that seeks to investigate the impact of technology on the human imagination stems from Koons's rotating monument and its juxtaposition with Marcel Duchamp's painting Coffee Mill, which Birnbaum cites in his essay for the book Apollo, published by the Deste Foundation.

 The coffee mill portrayed by Duchamp in 1911 preempts the irreverent intrusion into art of ready-made objects and “bachelor” machines, two key elements the curators use to describe the entire mechanism governing "this small exhibition conceived as a kind of travel sculpture." If ready-made objects suggest a certain idea of reproduction and attribute an aesthetic value that transports a common object into another context, the notion of a bachelor machine evoke a repetitive action devoid of any purpose triggered by a useless device. Despite their unproductivity, bachelor machines are desiring and imaginative devices, a powerful, erotic, and sensual metaphor. As the two curators explain, “the exhibition is a device gone crazy, spinning in circles, staging a mechanical dance, which is made even more absurd by the fact that it is presented on this Mediterranean island, where there are no cars nor mopeds, only donkeys.”

The first artwork visitors see is the Dynamo Secession (1997-2023) by Maurizio Cattelan, a seemingly useless machine. In reality, pedaling on this immovable bike can generate the electricity needed to illuminate the narrow rooms that host over thirty works among Dakis Joannou’s collection pieces and new commissions by artists such as Thomas Bayrle, Lee Bul, Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Cao Fei, Urs Fischer, Fischli & Weiss, Camille Henrot, Judith Hopf, Henrik Olesen, Philippe Parreno, Seth Price, Pipilotti Rist, Pamela Rosenkranz, Sturtevant, Takis, Andro Wekua and Anicka Yi.

Photo by George Skordaras

Modern man’s ambiguous and tortuous relationship with technological discoveries, which ranges from distrust and terror to attraction and identification, is one of the themes that “Dream Machines” attempts to explore through disturbing presences and reflections on the need for knowledge and emancipation. The almost imperceptible hand movement of Andro Wekua’s silent humanoid, Untitled (2014), placed in the center of the main exhibition space, is in stark contrast with the menacing sinuous force of a robotic snake covered in a LED lights membrane, Healer (Waters) (2019) by multimedia artist Pamela Rosenkranz. On one of the room’s walls, there are the twenty collages that make up A.T. (2012), a work by Henrik Olesen dedicated to the mathematical genius Alan Turing. The Danish artist depicted Turing in his legendary and dramatic dimension: a forerunner of the theory of computation and artificial intelligence and a homosexual convicted of “gross indecency and sexual perversion” in 1950s Britain.

The exhibition is a device gone crazy, spinning in circles, staging a mechanical dance, which is made even more absurd by the fact that it is presented on this Mediterranean island, where there are no cars nor mopeds, only donkeys.

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist firmly believes that people are increasingly separated by a glass screen, the screen of our computers, our televisions, and our smartphones, and that this “behind the glass” condition of ours can only be overcome by the kind of art that pushes us out of our solitude. His video, played on a cell phone placed on the ground, Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Lava) (Bastard Version) (1994), is a plastic representation of this paradoxical situation. This hellish scene frightens us and opens a small gap in our inured and tired perception.

Pipilotti Rist, Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Lava) (Bastard Version), 1994 Single - channel video and sound installation, color, on mobile phone; 6:20 min © Pipilotti Rist; courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine Photo: George Skordaras

Noting how smartphones have become an appendix of our body or even a bionic prosthetic arm is now all too obvious. Yet German artist Judith Hopf managed to create a poetic vision of this very observation. Her concrete sculpture Phone User 5 (2021-2022), on display on the roof of one of the Slaughterhouse's cliffside cubicles, depicts a solitary, anonymous human figure, clutching a cell phone in their hands while taking a photo of the horizon. A daily and mundane gesture suddenly becomes alienating to the viewer, who repeats the same action by pulling out their own smartphone, in an almost automatic reflex.

In collaboration with Acute Art, Corean artist Lee Bull created the augmented reality and NFT work entitled Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon Ver. AR22 (2022). Using an electronic device, a gleaming balloon, inspired by the famous Hindenburg airship which became a symbol of progress in 1930s Germany until it was destroyed in a disastrous accident, materializes in the sky over Hydra. It is interesting how the theme of the failure of modernist utopianism is explored by Lee Bull by precisely resorting to two rapidly expanding current technologies. Augmented reality and NFT have been rapidly changing the landscape of contemporary art since the market and artists have been placing high hopes on their potential future developments.

In “Dream Machines,” there are many liminal zones in which utopian conceptions and paranoid ideas, enthusiastic celebrations and critical attitudes toward technology blend together. At the extremes of this broad spectrum, there is on the one hand a reproduction of the mythical Dreamachine (1961) by painter and writer Brion Gysin, who regarded his invention as “the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed,” and, on the other, an illustration from 1810 depicting the psychic turmoil of Englishman James Tilly Matthews, who was convinced that a gang of criminals was spying on him using the radiations emitted by a huge air-jet. Sudden leaps forward and almost primal fears, mockery and denunciation of a surveillance state all alternate in the exhibition in a game of cross-references between past, present and future. The bachelor “Dream Machines” works thanks to the concentration of these different, and often contradictory, stimuli the many works on display represent in the matter of a few square meters, in a condition of forced yet happy coexistence.

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