In his most recent body of work, exhibited in ‘Free Update’ at Kindl, Bjørn Melhus explores the pervasive grasp that mass media holds over society. As with his previous work, Melhus uses multi-layered narratives and soundbites captured from YouTube clips, film and television, posing as a large ventriloquist dummy in bizarre futuristic and digital landscapes.
In ‘Can You See My Art?’ (2018), Melhus stands in a kaleidoscope cyberspace, like a set from Willy Wonka on psychotropics. He’s a vibrant shade of fuchsia, clad in tights and a bright orange vest. He looks at the viewer, and the triumphant voice of a well-known YouTube celebrity emerges from his mouth, complete with light vocal fry and up-speak. The voice persistently and shrilly asks us: “Have you seen my art?” The phrases, taken out of their context from an ‘unboxing’ video, are repurposed by Melhus as a commentary on the art market and art fairs.
Perhaps the most uncanny aspect of the work is the fact that the phrases that the YouTube star (via Melhus) incessantly chants at the viewer are not so contextually strange at all. The blatant consumerism, the constant drive for newness and the urge to purchase, own, throw away and repeat, are not strictly relegated to the realms of YouTubers’ bedrooms in Sacramento, California. The mutable and persistent mechanisms of capitalism obviously and notoriously inundate the art market. An intentional mirroring by Melhus makes this explicitly clear.
Before entering the room where Melhus’ latest film ‘Sugar’ is exhibited, you are introduced to the eponymous character via various screens, where Sugar performs for you, establishing himself as the protagonist. Sugar can dance, Sugar can wave. Sugar surrounds you. You become comfortable with this bobble-headed figure, the physical appearance seemingly friendly, approachable: his body made out of what looks like terry cloth. In the next room, Sugar enacts his pre-programmed destiny: to find the last human. His quest is prefaced by a commentary on the state of the world, using quick flashes of violence, stampedes in malls and other imagery that is now pervasive in the press and in our collective consciousness. Once again, Melhus pinpoints capitalism, mindless consumerism and the erosion of empathy as a contemporary epidemic, in this particular video, citing this as the cause of the end of the human world as we know it.
Melhus deliberately subverts the typical opposing relationship of human and robot: in his work, the robot is empathetic, emotive and caring and the human mimes a glitching piece of technology, repeatedly running into walls and persistently saying again and again: “Who that?” If you followed the exhibition route from ‘Can You See my Art’ to ‘Sugar’, you will recognize the nasal voice of the YouTube star, her repetitive phrases now being rattled out by a defunct human. In the end, it is Sugar who possesses a soul, the human past the point of discernible consciousness.