With Microsoft's new HoloLens upping the ante on virtual reality just as Google Glass sunsets, Portland artist Jeremy Rotsztain finds his exhibition, Electric Fields, at the crossroads of technology and aesthetics. One of the most intriguing and troubling art shows ever mounted in a Portland gallery, it throws a new cog into the enduring quandary of where real life ends and art begins.
From the Pygmalion myth of ancient Greece to Mary Poppins and the gang jumping into an alternate universe inside chalk drawings, fictional characters have long muddied the waters that flow between the sensate world and the realm of dreams. Rotsztain takes this several steps further. He pairs an Oculus Rift headset with "generative software-animation algorithms" to simulate what it would be like to walk around inside an abstract painting. In Electric Fields I, II, and III, which are animations displayed on wall-mounted screens, arcing loops of gestural abstraction appear to slowly turn, twist and float upward, like a ticker-tape parade in zero gravity. Coupled with an ambient soundscape by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, the animation induces a meditative state verging on the psychedelic.
Then there's the immersive virtual-reality program Ascension (@Upfor), the show's pièce de résistance. When you put on the provided VR goggles and look around, you see an approximation of the gallery you're in, but it's filled with bands of color squirming like airborne eels. You look down, and gestural ribbons are coming out of the floor; look up, and they're rising like vapors until they exit a silo high above. The technology isn't yet perfectly 3-D, but it's close, and it's no big leap to imagine a program wherein you could walk through one of van Gogh's iris- and sunflower-dotted fields (shades of What Dreams May Come), or the entire Louvre, for that matter, attended by some sexy cyber-docent wearing a…but I digress.
The exhibition points to the larger question of whether virtual reality will expand our purview or shrink it to the size of our living rooms, where we'll content ourselves to stumble around with our headsets and holograms, with no need of actual people. Rotsztain's simulation is as delicious and rich as foie gras. But foie gras is made from geese force-fed in cages. If, increasingly, we opt for experiential seductions that simultaneously sate and isolate us, we risk becoming both the cagers and the caged.
SEE IT: Electric Fields is at Upfor Gallery, 929 NW Flanders St., 227-5111, upfoprgallery.com. Through Feb. 28.