Paul McCarthy and Christian Lemmerz Show the Brilliantly Disturbing Future of Virtual Reality
Ten is a bit early in the morning to come face to face with a pulsating, golden Jesus, especially when the Jesus in question is leaking a little bit.
I’m at the preview of two new virtual-reality commissions, by Christian Lemmerz and Paul McCarthy, that are debuting as a collateral event of the Venice Biennale, thanks to the Faurschou and Giorgio Cini Foundations.
German-born, Copenhagen-based artist Lemmerz has been working with the Danish company Khora Contemporary to construct a virtual-reality Son of God, the centerpiece of a roughly three-minute, looping experience titled La Apparazione (2017). Begoggled spectators are able to circle around a levitating, golden Jesus, shoving their noses directly against his rib cage, if they so desire.
Anyone expecting a staid religious experience will be sorely disappointed. Lemmerz is best known as a sculptor, often carving marble in order to convey debased, mutilated, bloody subjects—executed so finely that the horror has a real elegance about it.
Translating his vision into virtual reality seemed like a logical next step. The Jesus figure in La Apparazione is roughly based on a small-scale bronze sculpture that Lemmerz made in 2013. The figure, Lemmerz says, consciously blends ideals of Renaissance painting and comic books, creating what he calls a sort of hybrid between the Silver Surfer and Jesus.
Working with Khora Contemporary’s technical crew, and enlisting a female performer wearing a motion-capture suit, Lemmerz was able to realize this quietly disturbing spectacle: An intensely muscled Christ’s pecs heave as if to burst, with rivers of molten gold spewing from various stigmata. A carefully orchestrated soundtrack—noises of wolf-like snarling, of what could be tendons or sinew slowly ripping—jacks up the unease.
“The funniest part,” Lemmerz tells me, “is that, for the first time, you can see what’s inside my brain. The only time I’ve seen something similar is when I was young and took LSD. I never did it again. I saw monkeys and Mickey Mouse dancing on a table. Not very Christian.”
Oddly enough, one of Lemmerz’s first, unrealized ideas for a virtual reality piece involved representing a physical beating very similar to that in Jordan Wolfson’s controversial Real Violence, currently on view in the Whitney Biennial.
“You have to be careful with this absolute seduction machine,” as he calls VR. “Obviously there are the first images that come to mind to work with.”
Lemmerz also scrapped the idea of portraying a pornographic act: “Too obvious.” In the end, his golden Jesus mingles both sex and submerged violence with something harder to define, and perhaps more uncomfortable.
The artist had been waiting for years for VR technology to catch up with his own grand ambitions. He finally found a partner in Khora Contemporary, which launched in Copenhagen in 2016 and has previously undertaken virtual reality projects with Erik Parker and Tony Oursler. Lemmerz likens the experience to being on the ground level of a field whose impact he predicts will be comparable to that of the first trompe l’oeil paintings, or early cinema.
“I feel totally avant-garde,” he says. “This is pioneer stuff; even people who aren’t interested in art want to try it out. It’s a bit like the beginning of movies.”
Khora Contemporary’s second commission on view in Venice, with Paul McCarthy, underscores virtual reality’s potential as a chamber of highbrow anxieties. Building on themes from his ongoing series “Coach Stage Stage Coach,” McCarthy has built 11 variations of the piece in virtual reality; two of them are here.
The viewer is dropped into a luridly carpeted room with a swiftly replicating group of female figures who saunter, float, molest, and abuse each other; the f-word is wielded like a blunt weapon. McCarthy’s characters—an older woman in a red satin dress, and a younger blonde girl with a serious Village of the Damned vibe—taunt each other, and the viewer. If Lemmerz’s Jesus involves a quasi-somber contemplation of the horrific, McCarthy’s VR experience is about claustrophobic overload, with its protagonists getting in (and sometimes through) your face.
Both pieces deliver a condensed emotional experience in a way that would be frankly unimaginable using other media. Lemmerz, whose multimedia practice has always been rooted in the fundamentals of draftsmanship, sees virtual reality as an inevitable next step.
“On the one hand I’ve got a tool to make a drawing, like the cave painters did,” he says. “And then you’re in this absolute magic box of the newest technology.”