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Review of Jan Robert Leegte’s exhibition Clear Obscure by Manique Hendricks

04/10/2019
Manique Hendricks

Introduction

Jan Robert Leegte’s ‘Clear Obscure’ exhibition fills the Ge­nieloods with draw­ings and per­for­mances. The draw­ings refer to the prac­tice of chiaroscuro from the Re­nais­sance pe­riod. The com­puter per­for­mances range from doc­u­ment per­for­mances and syn­thetic wilder­nesses to recita­tions from be­hind the wall of the black box. As ar­chi­tec­ture the in­stal­la­tion mir­rors the en­vi­ron­ment of Fort bij Vijfhuizen, cre­ating an im­mer­sive land­scape of mul­tiple per­spec­tives, frag­ments and times – http://tiny.cc/4ojibz

Review: Synthetic wilderness and performative machines

Often when media art is exhibited, all the cables, media players, screws and other wires are carefully hidden, taped away or painted over, concealing the items that are necessary to exhibit the artwork. Not with Jan Robert Leegte, in his solo exhibition ‘Clear Obscure’ at Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, all the structures of the projection panels are visible on the back, the climate system is obviously present in the space and his pastel drawings are ‘naked’ within the frame without any glass to protect them. This choice is representative for Leegte’s interest in transparency in relation to technology, which was introduced as a term in computer programming in in 1969 that “would form the foundation of computer interaction that everyone could intuitively understand – at the cost of hiding all inner workings of the machine.” [1] In 2019 almost all complexities, such as code, are carefully hidden behind intuitive user-friendly interfaces. But if we can’t really see it, can we still fully understand what is going on behind our LCD screens?

Within the exhibition, that took place in the industrial Genieloods of the Kunstfort, several pastel drawings are hanging from the metal walls. These drawings are simple in design but extremely powerful in form; in thin white and black lines Leegte translates digital forms like clickable tabs or bars to the physical world, moving closer to the bodily act of actually pressing buttons.

Drawing nr 7, Jan Robert Leegte, 2018, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij.
Installation view Clear Obscure, Drawings, 2019, Jan Robert Leegte photo by LNDW Studio.

With these works (and maybe also with the brilliant title of the exhibition), he directly refers to the art historical tradition of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark, essential to his 2D sculptures on brown paper. Next to 2D works, the space is also filled with the sound of a voice, monotonously reciting names and email addresses. No Consent (A recitation of everybody I ever emailed with) (2018), is a single channel audio work exploring the boundaries of exposing digital private information. Like a dadaist poem, the software uses existing data – Leegte’s mailbox – to compile a exhibitionistic ballad, exposing everyone Leegte has ever emailed with.

Another theme, often occurring in Leegte’s works is the relation with nature and tradition of land art, perfectly fitting with the green surroundings of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen situated in the middle of the polder of the Haarlemmermeer. Leegte is no stranger when it comes to connecting land art with the digital; in 2013 he recreated the Robert Smithson’s iconic landmark ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) in Minecraft. At the Kunstfort, the relation with nature and how nature is read through technology becomes clear in his work Repositions (2018-2019), consisting of three larger than life projections. The three projected landscapes, all different in color and feel, hypnotically shift into new positions before the viewers eyes. Most striking must be the Yves Klein blue monochrome landscape, which is as a matter of fact, a Google Maps screenshot of one of the deepest parts of the ocean in the middle of the pacific. On the other side one of the highest point of the world in Tibet deviates within the frame of the projection in pink/orange tones interspersed with white snow and emerald green spots – representing man-made lithium mines. While the landscapes continuously move and tilt within the frame, every composition seems to be different.

Installation view Clear Obscure, Repositions, Wilderness, Jan Robert Leegte, 2019, photo by Jan Robert Leegte.

By using live algorithms, Leegte makes the landscapes dance, while performing a sequence of poses like two vogue dancers battling against each other at a ball. This dance, set in motion by a human through code but performed by a machine reminds of Bruce Nauman’s Wall/Floor Positions (1968) where the artist moves through numerous poses in relation to the wall and floor, using his body to analyze the space. At the Kunstfort the computer is the performer that explores the space of its own frame. Performativity has not always been linked to technology because it has traditionally has been associated with “intentionality, reflexivity, sense-making, embodiment, repetition and transgression”, while the technological “refers to deterministic operations without semiotic or affective qualities.” [2] But in current times and within processes that require human input in the form of data or code the separation between human agency and nonhuman procedurality has blurred and have entered a steady relation of performativity.

Just like the landscapes of Repositions, the nature within the single channel video Synthetic Wilderness is not inhabited by humans. The new wilderness seen from above is completely computer simulated and looks like a perfect green environment at first sight with leafs crackling soothing in the wind while casting light shadows in the lush grass. At the same time this picture of paradise is quite alarming; we struggle to preserve nature on our planet and battle climate change but we keep improving in creating digital nature in video game engines. What if that is all we have left in the end?

Installation view Clear Obscure, Repositions, Jan Robert Leegte, 2019, photo by Jan Robert Leegte.

Leegte’s oeuvre is filled with art historical references, explorations between the digital and nature, between human presence and absence, transparency and opaqueness. The world that Leegte presents to spectators is one that is often abstracted but still recognizable, visually attractive and beautiful. At the same time his interpretations of notions of privacy online and the way we see nature through technology are a warning; we should have a closer look at the non-transparent omnipresent technologies that shape our daily lives and the way we look at the world.

Jan Robert Leegte (1973, the Nether­lands) lives and works in Amsterdam. He re­cently par­tic­i­pated in sem­inal ex­hi­bi­tions such as Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery in London, and Open Codes at ZKM Karl­sruhe. His work has been ex­hib­ited in venues such as MAAT Lisbon, MOTI Breda, iMal Brus­sels, and No­made Art Space in Hangzhou. Leegte’s first solo show was Sculpting the Internet (2017) at Up­stream Gallery.

1 Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen

2 Leeker, Martina., Schipper, Imanuel., Beyes, Timo. Performing the Digital, 2017, Bielefeld, p. 11.

Manique Hendricks (1992) is an art historian. She works at LIMA, the institute for media art in and art platform 37PK. As freelance curator, writer and researcher Manique focuses on contemporary (media) art, visual- and digital culture touching upon themes as identity, representation, camp and club culture.

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1 Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen

2 Leeker, Martina., Schipper, Imanuel., Beyes, Timo. Performing the Digital, 2017, Bielefeld, p. 11.

Manique Hendricks (1992) is an art historian. She works at LIMA, the institute for media art in and art platform 37PK. As freelance curator, writer and researcher Manique focuses on contemporary (media) art, visual- and digital culture touching upon themes as identity, representation, camp and club culture. Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook