You’re in a dark room. A video gallery in the Walker. Before you, a film of a rainstorm plays in a continuous loop. Thousands of missile-like droplets pelt a nondescript gray surface, and the close-up locks in on the tiny wet bomb blasts. It’s meditative. Soothing. An abstract painting in motion. You could zone out here for hours. In fact, go ahead. Take a breather.
Just know that the whole thing is completely fake.
The droplets? Those are actually candy wrappers, tiny scraps of plastic—about 7,000 of them—bunched perfectly to look like micro-splashes. They’ve been positioned on the gray surface, filmed, meticulously re-shuffled, and filmed again. The “rainstorm” is a stop-motion animation. And that soothing patter you hear? That’s actually the sound of an egg frying. Nothing is wet. Nothing is even moving.
In short, you’ve just been delightfully entranced by simulated reality. And you’re not even worried about it.
“Rain,” by the German artist Thomas Demand, is a masterwork of mimetic realism. And in its lovely, poetic—and completely disingenuous—way, it makes a perfect anchor piece for Lifelike, the new exhibition at Walker Art Center, which opens tomorrow.
The show, as you’ve probably heard, is all about hand-made art pieces that expertly mimic everyday objects. There is a five-foot-tall comb, made of enamel and wood. (It is so fastidiously proportioned and sensibly rendered it somehow evades absurdity.) There’s a wax-cast janitor, his shoes scuffed and his spirit beaten, leaning against a wall. There are sculpted “weeds” sprouting from seams in the gallery tiles. There is even a jaw-dropping, get-the-f***-out replica of a bee, by the Massachusetts artist Tom Friedman—which Friedman made with his own hair. A fuzz of pollen dusts the tiny insect’s jowls.
Here’s the thing: We were supposed to feel threatened by this kind of chicanery. It’s the simulacrum. The authentic fake. The death rattle of art’s ineffable aura and the gloating, doomsday victory lap of all things post-modern and terrifying. So why are so many of these pieces—like Demand’s “Rain”—so loveable?
Well, for one, because the images in Lifelike are intentionally banal and pedestrian. A brown paper bag. A cash register receipt. Jasper Johns has a replica of a slice of toast, for god’s sake. Another reason is that they’re handmade. The sneakiest maneuver of this show is how the art smuggles a conceptual chill beneath the guise of objects that are both totally known and produced in a reassuringly craft-like way. Nostalgia and familiarity are the Trojan horse.
But Lifelike is at its very best when this patina of comfort gets peeled back—when the dread lurking underneath can air out its stink.
The freakiest (and best) thing in the show is James Casebere’s enormous, panoramic photograph of a suburban community in Duchess County, New York. The image has an unnerving gloss. The boxy, generic homes are too immaculate. Their shadows are a little too sharp on the manicured lawns. The trees are too stiff. Stare at it for more than a minute, and you risk inducing an anxiety attack. The creepy lawn hedges begin to embody a horrifying garishness.
Of course, the image is a fake. Casebere builds exact models of suburbs out of cardboard and Styrofoam and then photographs them—in super high-contrast digital—so that they look hyperreal. It’s an unfiltered dose of the uncanny, Freud’s fancy term for the peculiar state of something seeming at once familiar and totally, disturbingly alien.
Lifelike thrives on this push-pull. The art’s conceptual, but it’s also—like the fake rainstorm—handcrafted and processed-based. There’s a dose of existential emptiness, but it’s tempered by childlike wonder and fun. It’s like tasting just enough of a drug to grasp its power, but not freaking about losing your mind.
In other words, it’s probably going to be a huge crowd-pleaser.
And you’d better enjoy it while you can. Both the MIA and the Weisman Art Museum are planning their own reality-destroying shows, which will open over the next year.
And they’re not going to be as nice about it.
After Hours Preview Party Friday, February 24, 9–midnight, $35
Opens Saturday, February 25
Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., walkerart.org