Video artist Jonathan Monaghan's striking 'Escape Pod' fuses together all sorts of objects—human, animal, and other—that nature never intended.
In David Cronenberg's 1986 horror masterpiece The Fly, Jeff Goldblum plays scientist Seth Brundle, the creator of a set of so-called Telepods capable of teleporting matter from one pod to the other. While teleporting himself across the room, Brundle unwittingly fuses his DNA with a housefly and becomes a trash-eating monster with a raging libido.
Three decades later, video artist Jonathan Monaghan has arrived with an installation called Escape Pod, which revolves around a continuously looping 20-minute animation suggestive of a future where Telepod technology has developed to allow fusions of living matter with buildings, video games, and designer sofas. Whereas The Fly was fixed on a human scale by the limitations of cameras, actors, and conventional special effects, Escape Pod unfolds in a sleek, floating realm susceptible to radical shifts in scale. Although the aesthetic look is closer to video games than cinema, Monaghan's concerns resemble Cronenberg's old-school body horror. To what degree has our physical matter been irrevocably jumbled with the commercial culture that we live and dream in, online and off? Monaghan envisions a world where these impossible fusions become breathtakingly real.
VICE: With Escape Pod you've filled a world with numerous hybrid fusions. There aren't any human characters per se, but there's still pieces of human viscera floating around. An elbow here, an anus there.
Jonathan Monaghan: I like to think of the environments and objects in my work as part of a postapocalyptic, dystopian world, where technology kind of becomes alive and takes over everything else and evolves into a new thing in weird ways. The escape pod is this high-end luxury pod that's also a life form.
Some of these things are pretty while others are monstrous. There's one in particular that I can best describe as a sort of radial UFO composed of three architecturally distinct levels, with enormous testicles and a retractable escalator dangling from the bottom. The world of Escape Pod seems not too far removed from The Island of Dr. Moreau .
They're funny and surreal, but they also have a very ominous quality about them. There's an ambiguity about whether they're life forms or architecture or what. It's a metaphor for what happens when we put our lives on digital platforms and everything blurs together.
If there is a main character or avatar in Escape Pod, it's a golden deer, whom we meet after passing through a portal and emerging from his butthole and also witness being born from between the cushions of a very expensive BoConcept sofa. Why a golden deer?
If you look at mythology, Japanese or Western, the deer represents something otherworldly and unattainable. He's able to traverse these different worlds. Being golden represents power, and the material desire that goes along with it. I want you to see the disconnect between our reality and the reality I'm creating, which is a metaphor for how digital technologies shape our reality. That's where the deer comes from.
Visually, Escape Pod uses the vocabulary of exploratory video games like Myst. Why do you choose to work in this style?
Even though I operate as a video artist, I think my works have a bit more in common with video games than they do the history of cinema. I think of these works as windows onto another world, a world that parallels our own, but where our elements and imagery are mashed up into something new. They're not quite films and they're not quite video games, but somewhere in between.
Can you describe any artists or experiences you had that inspired you to become a fine artist?
I looked at a lot of video art. Matthew Barney was a big influence in a number of ways. I think what I got from studying these works was the feeling that I could produce something like that, but that I could do it with the skills I was already proficient in. I didn't have a studio or a big budget—I didn't even know how to use a camera—but I could do it with what I knew.
It seems like we're in a renaissance right now for video art that doesn't involve a camera.
Totally. It's like The Man Without the Movie Camera right now, if you think of Dziga Vertov's groundbreaking film work. It's a virtual world now, and we're figuring out how to film in it. It's a magic world that I create and I film it, just like a cinematographer would. Before I knew anything about art, the big draw of 3D graphics was the ability to create something that was photorealistic. It was something that I was really excited about because it felt like it had a lot of power.
The photorealistic world of Escape Pod is full of impossible scenarios and movements, beginning with a duty-free store full of weapons and riot gear that is unlike any you'd encounter in reality. What motivated you to create these kinds of environments?
They're idealized environments that relate to wealth and power, and they're all rendered with a very slick, seductive, commercial aesthetic. There's lots of elements that can be very banal, like the duty-free store, but there's always this surreal, fantastical interjection. We see car commercials and slick product photography and visualizations of condos or whatever, and I'm complicitly working like that. [But] I'm appropriating that aesthetic for a much different purpose.
The video for Escape Pod is listed as being available for sale in an edition of three. What does selling a work of digital video art involve for you?
All of my work, including sculptures and photographic prints, it all begins as a digital file. With this video, the collector would acquire a super high-res master copy in addition to a nice case that I designed and made, and they also receive a unique ID that relates to a Bitcoin blockchain transaction, which is a kind of cryptographic certificate of authenticity. It's one way to certify a digital file, which can be infinitely produced, and identifies it as the original. I'm experimenting with these cryptographic ways of certifying digital works. Whether it's a collector or a museum, it gives them the ability to maintain some control over the digital file. That said, nobody's quite figured it out yet, there's no one way of selling digital work.
Where does your process start? Do you design in digital and build everything from the ground up?
My process usually starts in a place like a museum, where I hoard images and concepts and motifs and themes from the rich history of Western art. I start by sketching out the objects and environments in a small notebook. Then I take my sketches and sculpt them into 3D on a computer.
I see a strong thematic line between Escape Pod and the work of Matthew Barney. The jumping off point between Escape Pod and something from The Cremaster Cycle would seem to be the human body. Everything Barney undertakes is on some level a physical challenge where he tests the body, whereas Escape Pod works in a hypothetical space.
As far as bodies and materiality go, something that always interested me with digital animation was that it offered you the ability to render or create images that are very seductive. They could be soft like fur or supple like flesh, but ultimately there's always going to be this frustration that you're left with a flat image that you can't get into.
My work is very realistic and I make it look seductive and inviting, but there's always a disconnect or barrier to entry. I work with that disconnect as a way to parallel the disconnect that we often get when engaging with technology. I'm playing with the need technology always has to be more realistic or natural.
Escape Pod is on view through May 3 at Bitforms Gallery at 131 Allen Street in New York City.