The Chaser, the Ambusher, and the Fickle.
The worst labyrinth is not that intricate form that can entrap
us forever, but a single and precise straight line.
– Jorge Luis Borges
Titled after the ghost characters from the classic arcade game Pac-Man, Bernhard Buhmann’s latest solo show The Chaser, the Ambusher, and the Fickle dissects issues of identity and societal uncertainty in a world teetering at the edge of technological singularity.
Released in 1979, Pac-Man was the first game to feature ‘intelligent’ characters. The Ambusher in the original Japanese version, for example, aimed to intercept the player’s avatar. When the game appeared in America, however, the ghosts were called Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. Each renamed character’s behavior – the intention in the code – was obscured.
Using Pac-Man as a analogically rich platform from which to launch his investigations, Buhmann’s work considers how mistranslations and deceptions define how technologies infiltrate the world, and how that can create society-wide unease and unrest. From artificial intelligence to cryptography our lives are increasingly dictated by technologies that few understand. “I am fascinated by phenomena which draw their strength from vagueness and confusion,” says Buhmann. “Those moments of historical and societal uncertainty when fears and hopes affect how we imagine the future, how we behave amongst each other, our emotional states.”
The show marks a striking evolution in Buhmann’s work. Previous shows presented figurative and abstract works alongside each other, yet here the works all inhabit a liminal space between the two. A previously modernist-medieval fairground palette has given way to a bolder range: the 216 “web-safe” colors rebooted in oil. And from the sometimes measured, theatrical distance of earlier works, we now crash-zoom through the fourth wall to find ourselves face-to-face with a punch-blackened eye (Karate Kid, 2018); to peer into the circuits of automata (The Chaser, 2018); to marvel at the totemic intricacies of characters carved in data (Two Princes, 2018).
As well as links back to Constructivism and Cubism, these works share a conceptual entanglement with the autopsy paintings of the early Enlightenment. Displayed on the table in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) is the corpse of Aris Kindt, the musculature of his arm opened for us to examine. This is the stuff we are made of, the painting insists. Buhmann’s works conduct their own autopsies. Splayed open are the binary geometries of our 5G-enabled embodied cognition; the fiber-optic viscera our always-on characters are weaved around. Rembrandt famously signed his anatomical subject: a recognizable ‘R’ carved into the whorl of the corpse’s belly button. Now look at the bulbous B-shapes in Buhmann’s The King, 2018. These are self-autopsies. And this is the challenge for artists now, as a whole haunting of misnamed techno-ghosts are invading and reinventing the labyrinths we’re corralled into: to cut open and peel back the glimmering silica skin; to dissect and display the intention and biases in the code our lives are written in.
Text by Martin Jackson