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SWAN SONG: Virtual Escape

Alexey Shlyk, Alexey Shlyk & Ben Van den Berghe 2021
Belgium
Swan Song is the first instalment of the ongoing  project Virtual Escape. It explores the impact of image technology on the necessity of human physical presence, thereby raising questions about the status of the constructed, idealized image that lasts eternally. Consisting of photographic works and a four-channel soundscape, the installation takes over the exhibition space, immersing viewers in an unsettling atmosphere of vanity, of the passing show of life.

Ancient belief has it that before swans pass away, they belt out a final graceful chant. But do they sing their most beautiful song out of sorrow for what has been, or solace for what has yet to come?

Seemingly triggered by every movement, a distinct sound swells, swirls into the space. Is it the fluttering of birds or shuttering of cameras?
Scanners adorn the walls. They turn what they see into bits, strips of colour, as their way to quantify the real world. What are these little black boxes looking at? Or perhaps rather, who?

Blurring the boundary between this fiction and reality, the aluminum grid finds an extension as the frame of a large-scale photo-multigraph.

This type of photography allowed for a person to be seen from all angles at the same time. However, the woman’s gaze in this image changes. Uncertain, a tear escapes; a serious reflection follows; lastly, a fierce look in the lens of the scanner behind her.
Where is the artist in this setting? Is he in control? By any means, it is not a photographer portraying this female model, but a machine. It captures her, forever. In the final moments of her heyday, she is eternalized. Her physical presence, her weary body is made redundant by her digitized, idealized rendition. Her digital double is destined for an everlasting life beyond her own.

The floral still life is depicted at a similar moment in time: right before the flowers start to wilt. In line with the painterly tradition of haunting vanitas, this funeral floral arrangement acts as a reminder that all luscious luxuries of this world are trifling and transitory, that all passing life is but a preparation for a divine afterlife. Furthermore, in this image the vase is actually scanned, as was the woman’s body - both concrete holders of worldly possessions. Should these specific containers then be given up in exchange for a virtual, eternal bliss?

The grey face, an editable layer, also talks of transcendence. By improving the real to get the ideal, the disturbing decay is deceived. There is no fading in this fabricating. What possibilities does this entail? What kind of future, of presence, prevails: physical or virtual? Is it really Eden or Inferno? Miracle or misfortune? Could it be the swan song for us all?

Swan Song is a site-specific, total installation and the first instalment of Alexey Shlyk and Ben Van den Berghe’s ongoing project Virtual Escape. This research embraces the ambiguity of the human relationship with technology and focuses on the impact and implications of fast-developing image technologies (such as computer-generated images, visual effects software and artificial intelligence). These cutting-edge tools not only raise questions on the modalities of image making, but also on the (dis)trusted status of the image as a “quote from appearance”. Furthermore they affect the relationship between the real and virtual realm: which one are we escaping to? And from?

Text by Eline Verstegen

Our special thanks goes out to:
Labhise Allara, Willem Badenhorst, Edwige Baily, Rens Cools, Glenn Geerinck, Geert Goiris, Benjamin Hertogs, Ksenia Kuleshova, Amélie Remacle, Joris Ribbens, Alina Saenko, Eline Verstegen, Thor Vermin, Edi Winarni & Edi Danartono.