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IRL: Investigating Reality
RideLogan White

This art show blends surrealism & realism to question what reality even is

Curator Indira Cesarine shares a series of works which open conversations around our public, private, and performed lives

In a world which we are increasingly experiencing online, IRL – or ‘in real life’ – is used to distinguish between things that exist in cyberspace and things that exist offline in the ‘real world’. The rising use of apps such a Facetune and Photoshop evidently skew our sense of reality to a point where it is becoming difficult to distinguish what is real and what is fabricated or exaggerated. “We live in a culture so immersed in social media, it is often impossible to distinguish reality from the edited, retouched, fantasy lives led online. As we become more dependent on the digital world, we equally crave authenticity and the truth,” explains curator Indira Cesarine in the context of her current exhibition, IRL: Investigating Reality, at New York City’s Untitled Space.

Self-described as a collection of visuals which are “very intimate, works charged with self-interrogation, vignettes of reality, explorations of realism, revelations of private lives, as well as works full of satire and humour that address the intersection of the digital and physical worlds”, the show showcases 46 artists, from Jeanette Haye to Logan White, and Leah Schrager. Below we talk to Cesarine to find out more about the show’s intentions, censorship, and showing our naked self.

What is it that made you want to curate this show?

Indira Cesarine: Over the last few years, our lives have become increasingly clouded with social media and technology and it’s influence on our culture. I was curious about how artists would respond to the theme, ‘IRL: Investigating Reality’ and what ‘reality’ means to them in today’s digital world. The ‘reality’ of our lives that is posted online can be so incredibly misleading and manipulative. As we have become more reliant on technology, the internet, and social media, it is often impossible to distinguish reality from the edited, retouched, fantasy lives led online. We have created these false alter egos of perfect lives, retouched faces and bodies, and perfect families that are shared to the world. I feel like ‘reality’ has become so distorted through this lens, it’s important to have a reality check. As we become more dependent on the digital world, we equally crave authenticity and the truth. I felt it was good timing to get back to ‘IRL’ and see what artists have to say about the subject.

“Social media is very addictive, and even when people know it’s not necessarily making them happy, they feel obligated to participate as there is this fear that if you aren’t online that you don’t even exist anymore” – Indira Cesarine

Many people use the internet, specifically social media as a sort of diary, a void they can scream into. Whereas others use it to portray an identity that is an exaggerated version of their own – exactly what your exhibition is calling out. In light of this do you think the internet has caused us to be more connected or more disconnected with each other and in what ways?

Indira Cesarine: It’s a double-edged sword – on one hand, the internet allows us to connect with others around the globe in a way that has never existed before. The connections made online often carry out into the real world in real ways – whether is an online date that results in marriage or a friendship that forms, a painting that gets purchased on Instagram that hangs on your wall, or even just discovering and following others you admire. On the other hand, many people are literally living in front of their computer screens and smartphones and never meeting in real life, not having real friends or even real experiences but doing it all virtually – which can lead to intense loneliness and unhappiness as we need physical connections and experiences as humans to feel alive. I think feeling ‘disconnected’ has become a real problem for a lot of people. Even looking at social media and the exaggerated lives that are posted online can lead to loneliness and feeling inadequate when you compare your life to the lives of others. I think social media is very addictive, and even when people know it’s not necessarily making them happy, they feel obligated to participate as there is this fear that if you aren’t online that you don’t even exist anymore.

A lot of the works in the exhibition depict a lot of nudity, particularly in women and some of which – not all, as the human body should not be assumed as inherently sexual – have sexual connotations to them, why do you think that is?

Indira Cesarine: I think nudity and sexuality are 100 per cent part of ‘real life’ and it made perfect sense to me that a lot of artists were drawn to address these subjects, and have nudity or sexuality as important themes in their work. At the end of the day, we are all born naked, and all at some stage of our lives have sexual experiences. (I hope!) Inherently when you strip down and address ‘reality’ it is the human experience that is the most relevant and that includes the body and bodily functions as being some of the most essential components of ‘real life’. The internet addresses sexuality in different ways – internet porn is by far the most searched for and watched content online, yet on social media the censorship against nudity and sexualised content creates an equally exaggerated false reality of the world we live in.

I was actually really shocked we posted ‘Girls will be Girls’ which is a graphite on paper drawing by artist Jeanette Hayes, and it was flagged as ‘adult content.’ The fact that you can’t even post something that is literally a creative rendering drawn in pencil – shows just how insane censorship on social media has become. I think artists in the show are in many ways also fighting against this by addressing these themes in their work – as this is ‘real life’ to them. The realities of human experience should not be shut down by corporate social media giants.

We had an artist withdraw her work from the exhibit as she felt there was ‘too much nudity and sexual content’. It just shows the fear people have when it comes to being human. This is something I wanted to actually emphasise in the show rather than shy away from. I wanted to literally strip down to the basics of feeling alive and let artists address ‘reality’ with all of its guts and glory – which includes nudity and sex.

Are there any works in the exhibition that particularly grab your eye and what is your interpretation of them?

Indira Cesarine: There is an incredible variety of works across all mediums in the show. A few that really stood out to me include Katie Commodore’s painting ‘Greg and Tiffany’ which depicts a man making love to his sex doll, which I find on one hand hysterical and on the other hand touches on the reality of men and their growing addiction to sex dolls. The fabrication of sex dolls is has skyrocketed into a 20 billion dollar industry and is expected to hit $30 billion by 2020. Buket Savci’s painting ‘Home Alone’ which depicts a man nude with a laptop on his bed, clearly in the act of pleasuring himself, also struck me as very IRL. Interestingly, instead of watching porn on his laptop he is watching himself and it becomes a sort of infinity mirror of narcissism and pleasure. The raw intensity of Becky Flander’s photographs really stood out to me as well. She discovered in her early 20s that she could urinate standing and often employs female urination in her images, which vary from real life self-portraits of herself using a urinal to the rather surreal image, ‘The Eye Squirting’. In her artist statement, she describes her work as ‘returning the gaze from between the legs, as if from an additional seat of consciousness, akin to a third or fourth eye… born of a rooted physicality in which bodies are something to be both transcended and fully inhabited.’ Artist Dani Lessnau takes the reality of voyeurism to new level with her pinhole photographic images. She turns her own body into a camera obscura to record intimate moments with her sexual partners by inserting a pinhole camera into her vagina, directed outward and taking long exposures of her lovers in various acts of intimacy.  

There are also some incredible works that relate to real life experiences, rendered with incredible technique, that are not remotely sexual, but rather embrace reconnecting in a variety of ways, such as Reisha Perlmutter’s oil on canvas of a woman swimming titled ‘Plumeria’. The energy of being one with the crowd is brilliantly captured in Mary Henderson’s oil on canvas ‘Pop’, while the simplicity of a woman getting dressed is incredibly powerful in ‘Soujourner II’ by Daniela Kovavic. Artist Alison Jackson cleverly recreates the imagined private lives of celebrities with her images that look so real it’s difficult to believe they are staged. Her work blurs the boundaries of reality and fantasy in a very mentally provocative way, and challenges our preconceptions while addressing how photography can transform our relationship to what is ‘real’.  

I was also personally inspired to create work specifically for the exhibit. In a series of photographs titled, ‘Escape in New York’, I captured the story of a girl who hits the streets of New York naked in a desperate attempt to reconnect with herself and feel alive. It was very liberating for me to do this shoot as nudity is so taboo in America. It was great to see the model totally let herself go and run through the streets of city naked and free… It was a rather cathartic feeling as an artist to run with this narrative and let go of all the social constraints and expectations that are thrown on us to be or act a certain way. I also went out to Brooklyn to shoot a portrait series of a girl named Annie, who agreed to be photographed doing what she would normally do alone – which including lounging around nude, texting and cooking while on her phone... there is an uninhibited rawness to the images which are completely unretouched. She is very natural in her own skin, which is exactly what I wanted to portray.

“Perhaps it’s time to turn off the machines and hit the beach, have sex, get naked, fall in love, or just feel the earth between our fingers, accept our imperfect bodies and imperfect skin” – Indira Cesarine

Surrealism seems to be a common theme in works shown in the exhibition. In an exhibition that is about depicting real life in an age where editing and retouching have taken over, why do you think the artists have chosen to use some of these features in their work?

Indira Cesarine: A lot of the artists in the exhibit address the blurred lined between the ‘reality’ of our physical selves and how technology affects us, as well as the intersection of the digital and physical worlds. I think addressing those themes lends itself to works that have a surreal component, that ask the question: what is reality in an age of technology? It has become as real as flesh and blood and the air we breathe. I think there is also the reality of our emotions, our dreams and fantasies, and allowing our minds to accept the mysteries of the unknown. Everyone has a different reality and many of the artists employed creative techniques to engage their own intimate or personal narrative. Surrealism revolved heavily around the unconscious mind and in many respects often asked the same question: what is reality?

What do you hope the ultimate take away from viewers of the show will be?

Indira Cesarine: I want this exhibit to be a call to action, to get off your phones, turn off your computer screens and get out there and experience life. How many hours are people spending per day in front of their computers and on social media? Statistics say the average person is spending 11 hours per day in front of screens – which is the majority of our waking hours.  It has completely taken over our lives – and it’s up to each of us to say enough already. Perhaps it’s time to turn off the machines and hit the beach, have sex, get naked, fall in love, or just feel the earth between our fingers, accept our imperfect bodies and imperfect skin. I wanted the artwork in the exhibit to compel the viewer to explore their own reality. How can we collectively as a culture, as well as individually address the effects of technology on our lives? Is it really making us happier and more connected? Maybe not. I think it’s important for exhibits like this to spark that dialogue and get the conversation going. What is real, what is true, what does ‘reality’ mean to you? And where are we going with all of this? Are we just going to be plugged into machines all day? Living ‘virtual’ lives with digital families and friends? I hope the viewer asks themselves all of these questions and more and gets ‘reconnected’ through the artwork.

The exhibiton runs from June 6– June 21 in the Untitles Space, New York