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Hallucinatory Dystopias in Comma Space’s Latest Show: Body Experiment : Reflection of Technology

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Pack up your Halloween costumes – reality’s spooky enough in this brave new world where hallucinatory, science-fictional dystopias lurk just around the corner.

Body Experiment: Reflection of Technology, the latest show at Comma Space 逗号空间, corrals a sinister mix of technological and bodily themes with swivelling laser beams, sonic control systems, and ancient fossils resurrected through 3D-printing. Tucked away in a lively space in the Mayfair Industrial Building, the exhibition probes a pressing question in this age of iPhones, AI and QR codes: what does it mean to inhabit a human body when virtuality has seeped into every dimension of our lives?

The show brings together two multimedia installations — Tristan Lim’s Hallucigenia (2021) and Hye Joo Jun’s Body Check (2020). Curated by Seungah Lee, it’s the second edition in Comma Space’s ongoing curatorial series, INBETWEEN, following Anthony Chin’s S$1996/- S$831.06/-, an inquiry into the hidden mechanics of the art world. INBETWEEN’s broad curatorial concept brings together issues as diverse as the environmental crisis, the pandemic’s impact, and technology’s rapid evolution, seeking to capture the ever-shifting, transitory nature of the contemporary world.

Accordingly, Body Experiment confronts the tension between virtuality and embodiment, inviting viewers to stand in the liminal, disquieting atmosphere that Lim’s and Jun’s works generate. Stepping out of the creaky cargo lift and into the corridor leading up to Comma Space, one encounters a pair of intricately-ridged, white stele-like tablets, each raised to eye level on a glass-and-aluminium structure that exudes the cool neutrality of a laboratory or museum. Between them stands a worn wooden chest, on which a pair of speakers are placed.

Tristan Lim’s Hallucigenia (2021) Image courtesy of Sheryl Gwee.

In Hallucigenia, Tristan Lim draws on images from the histories of art and science alike, delving into the fantastic and the inexplicable. The sculptural stele on the right is a three-dimensional reconstruction of a 500-million-year-old fossil named Hallucigenia Sparsa, which derives its name from the Latin hallucinato, meaning “wandering of the mind”.

Hallucigenia Sparsa, the weird, worm-like animal whose fossils have been found in Canada and China. It’s a bizarre creature alright, with protruding spikes as long as its legs and no apparent head. In fact, as Lim explains, it took scientists decades to realise that they had been looking at the worm-like organism upside-down.
A closer look at the detail of the Hallucigenia tablet which attempts to reconstruct the fossil.

From a distance, Hallucigenia’s rough, ragged surfaces resemble weathered rock, bringing geological compression — the way fossils are formed — into play. Lim reiterates these allusions in a video which plays on the phone embedded at the top of this sculpture. Tilted on its side, a screaming face appears onscreen in black-and-white, bleeding in and out of a constantly morphing terrain map of the original site where the Hallucigenia Sparsa was discovered.

In his other sculptural tablet Lim references a scene from Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting, The Nightmare, where a demon perches on a sleeping woman’s chest as she lies splayed over the edge of her bed.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781), oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fuseli’s demon recalls the colloquial Mandarin term for sleep paralysis, gui ya shen — literally “ghost pressing on one’s body” — a phenomenon that the artist has experienced for much of his own life. Episodes of sleep paralysis can be terrifying, and in an interview with Berny Tan, Lim describes the “primal, inexplicable” fear and exhilaration of being conscious, yet unable to move.

“[W]hen you wake up weak and gasping, heart rapidly pounding, and dreading sleep again, it really does feel that you can actually die from it,” he explains. 

While the visual allusion to Fuseli’s painting isn’t immediately obvious in Lim’s work, what’s interesting is how Lim painstakingly transforms the painting into a sculpture via digital imaging and 3D-printing technologies. This process literally and symbolically entails a sort of reverse-compression, as he creates a 3D model of the image, translating light, shade and colour into solid depth and texture.

The flatter, smoother surfaces of the sculpture represent the whites of the painting, such as the woman’s blouse, while darker areas, like the demon’s crouching body and the woman’s hair, are more heavily corrugated. Mounted on a glass pane, the sculpture rests on an upturned smartphone which displays a writhing, greyed-out image of the Hallucigenia Sparsa, highlighting the suffocating sense of compression that sleep paralysis causes.

Hallucigenia can be read as a virtual “excavation” of sorts, a journey into the unknown recesses of a psychosomatic realm where the body is immobilised. It grapples with a disturbing vision of a post-human future, where we are stripped of all bodily agency, but nonetheless remain hyperaware of violations to our bodies. In this future, might our fossilised remains, like the Hallucigenia Sparsa’s, be flipped over again and again under the intense scrutiny of more evolved beings?

These questions of agency and control segue into Jun’s Body Check, which probes the ethics of using technology to monitor and shape public behaviour.

Hye Joo Jun, Body Check (2020).

Walking into the installation can be disorienting — plunged into relative darkness, I adjust my eyes, taking in the bare contours of the room, which is bisected by a thin line of green light. A revolving device casts a red laser-outline of a rectangle about the room. This menacing line sweeps restlessly and intrusively over the viewer’s body; I couldn’t help thinking of the “clock” arena in the Hunger Games movies each time I sensed the line approaching me.

In a video projection on one of the walls, tiny white figures flee from a spatter of explosions in vain, as the target ring on the neon-red screen stays trained on their bodies. The sequence then transitions to a sleek commercial for military technology rendered in blue — a colour known for its psychological associations with safety and authority. The red filter soon returns, as a broadcast speaker, with the subtitles “Siren Name: Federal Signal Thunderbolt” appears onscreen, before the video flicks back to scenes of aerial warfare.

Video still from Body Check (2020)
A grating, high-pitched noise fills the space, as Jun’s work incorporates ultrasonic-oriented speakers used for crowd control and military policing.

I’m told that the video in Body Check was composed of found footage, including videos of the Taliban, and a real-life advertisement for military-grade weapons. Though Body Check seems at first glance, little different from an immersive first-person shooter game, Jun’s appropriation of existing images and technologies situates the work’s dystopian vision firmly in modern-day political realities.

What draws Body Check and Hallucigenia together then, is an acute anxiety over the sanctity of the human body, as it is scrutinised, dissected, and penetrated — both visually and physically — by technologies beyond our control. While Jun connects these bodily anxieties to terrorism and military action, Lim treads into the realm of Lovecraftian horror, evoking a sense of powerlessness in the face of incomprehensible, supernatural forces.

Setting these distinct perspectives in contrast was clearly a well-thought-through curatorial premise, but I did wonder if the connections between the works could have been made more explicit spatially. Encountering Body Check in the near-total darkness of an enclosed, quiet gallery space was quite a different, even disparate experience, as compared to viewing Hallucigenia under fluorescent corridor lights as other tenants of the industrial building jostled by.

Despite the challenges of working within a relatively small space, Body Experiment: Reflection of Technology does raise important questions about the human body’s agency and violability that I believe will become more pertinent as we venture deeper into the twenty-first century.

If you’re interested in what emerging artists have been up to in the cutting-edge field of “new media”, do — as the influencers like to say — watch this (Comma) space.

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Body Experiment: Reflection of Technology runs until 31 October 2021. The exhibition opens 1-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays, though you may make a viewing appointment from Tuesday to Friday via art.commaspace@gmail.com. Tristan Lim will be giving a tour of his works at 3pm on 31 October. Find out more at https://comma-space.com/body-experiment/.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are courtesy of Comma Space and the artists. 

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