In his 1981 book, Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard explores what he perceives to be the increased fragmentation of society and reality in a chapter entitled “The Precession of Simulacra.” Using the map in Jorge Borges’s short story On Exactitude in Science as an allegory, Baudrillard discusses the blurring of boundaries between the real and the simulated. This new period, he argues, is comprised of models and signs that no longer have an origin or signification. To support his argument, he mentions psychosomatic illnesses, among other “simulated” phenomenon. “The Precession of Simulacra,” is an important work in postmodern theory, and it has inspired many works of art and writing, including Don DeLillo’s The Airborn Toxic Event from his novel White Noise. Though it is a work of fiction, DeLillo’s story illustrates many of Baudrillard’s theories, from psychosomatic symptoms and the simulation of power, to reality television and simulated living environments. As he recounts the story of a family evacuating its home after a chemical spill, DeLillo creates a suspended reality where time, space and events are fragmented into snapshot-like scenes. Postmodern theory continues to be prevalent in contemporary art, and the influences of DeLillo and Baudrillard’s texts are evident in many works of art. One such example is David Altmejd’s current exhibition Juices, at the Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Juices is made up of two recent works by Altmejd, The Flux and The Puddle, and The Eve. The Flux and The Puddle is a large sculptural installation. It is an immersive environment that seems to have been constructed directly from Baudrillard and DeLillo’s texts. The piece is made up of a towering matrix of plexiglass boxes, containing nightmarish humanoid forms, disembodied human and animal body parts, synthetic fruits and ants, and puddles of resin. Like the giant, potentially-toxic cloud in DeLillo’s story, Flux commands attention. It is awe-inspiring and terrifying. It takes up most of the main gallery space. The viewers walk around the structure, but can only ever see a small portion of it at a time. The viewer struggles to make sense of the piece, much like the Gladney family and the other evacuees trying to understand the Airborne Toxic Event from fragments of information and misinformation they encounter.
Following Baudrillard’s theories, Flux illustrates both fragmentation and simulation. It is unclear where the piece ends and the gallery and begins. It devours the reality of the gallery experience. The viewer is not just looking at art: the relationship between the viewer and the piece is much like Baudrillard’s description of the Loud family and the simulacrum that is television. The simulacrum begins when the distinction between passive and active, real and unreal, and entertainment versus reality breaks down.
The plexiglass structure is surrounded by walls of mirrors, further fragmenting the space and creating the illusion of Flux continuing into infinity. Because of the nature of the mirrors, the viewers become part of the simulated environment of the piece. The viewer begins to be unsure of what is “real” and what is “art” or simulation, and if there really is a distinction between the two. This questioning and sensation of the hyperreal is closely linked to Baudrillard’s text.
In the upper portion of Flux, a series of coconuts are suspended in mid-air. Upon closer observation, it becomes clear that they are arranged along a trajectory of motion, as if the viewer is seeing still frames from a moving picture. Following the line of coconuts, the mirror that is directly adjacent to them is broken, as if a coconut actually moved through space and shattered the glass. This creates the simulation of the movement of a coconut. The viewer witnesses a record of the coconut at every stage of the trajectory at once. He or she is able to perceive several coconuts as a single coconut moving through space. This illustrates the fragmentation and freezing of time and motion in space. It is a simulation of movement and cause and effect. There is a duality of perception in which the viewer sees something that can be perceived as one or many, and this duality plays with his or her understanding of reality. The cracks in the mirror draw attention to the simulated space within the mirror, and the shattering of reality. This fragmentation of reality, time and space makes Flux a microcosm or model of Baudrillard’s simulacrum.
Although Altmejd’s work expresses many of the facets of Baudrillard and DeLillo’s postmodern theories, “The Precession of Simulacra” looks at the illusion of the the world as a whole. While Altmejd creates a sculptural simulacrum within the Andrea Rosen gallery, it is precisely the gallery setting and the notion of “art” that reins in his expression of Baudrillard’s theories. Baudrillard argues that “reality” itself, is no longer real, but the illusion of Altmejd’s work depends upon the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. He or she is always, on some level, aware of being in a gallery in Chelsea, looking at a work of art. The minute the viewer ponders the construction, materiality or meaning of Flux, the simulation is broken, and the consciousness is returned to the “real”.The simulation begins and ends at the gallery door: the minute one leaves, one returns to the reality of the New York City streets. While Baudrillard and DeLillo argue that the simulacrum is all-encompassing, Altmejd’s work is self-conscious in its simulation. Once everyone is aware of a simulation, it no longer simulates, it pretends. Perhaps Altmejd’s works explore the limits of the theory of simulacra. It makes the audience aware that a simulation can really only exist when the audience is unaware of it.