Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory. Yale University Press, 2018.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 24, 2019–January 12, 2020

My favorite museum in New York is the Met Breuer on 75th and Madison. It was still the Whitney Museum of American Art when I first visited in the summer of 2012. I was fresh out of my military service in Korea, during which time I had fallen hard for a girl who studied painting at her university. We still talked on Facebook, but it was clear that, with my returning to college in the states, we weren’t going to work out. Plus, it seemed like she was always surrounded by oppas offering to carry her books or buy her coffee.

I guess I was still trying to connect with her, like in some corny anime, for when I arrived in New York to take the MCAT several months later (yes, I was the pre-med who played the violin), I made it my goal to visit every museum in the city. My ignorance of the art world shows from the fact that I did the Met and the Guggenheim in a single day, with a hot dog in between from a Halal cart. All I remember from that marathon is reading a description of a painting by Yves Klein: he had painted it by dipping naked girls in blue then using their bodies as brush.

The other museums on my list included the Neue Galerie, MoMA, and the Whitney. The Whitney resembled a nuclear bunker from the outside. Inside was a retrospective of a Japanese artist called Yayoi Kusama. I got a time-stamped ticket to stand inside a room made of mirrors and filled with Christmas lights. If life equaled loneliness, I thought, then being trapped in a room like this was not so bad.

That was seven and a half years ago. I gained 15 pounds since then. I married someone else. I’m still not a doctor (four more months baby!). The Whitney is now a white behemoth by the West Side Highway. I have been there three times since its opening, but always thought the galleries too large, the tourists too many compared to the few artwork. The old Whitney is now the Met Breuer, the chic counterpart to the medieval treasure-vault that is the Met. Besides the name, not much has changed. Its concrete façade still projects like a beached whale past the brick skyline of Madison Ave. The elevators are still the size of master bedrooms. A new perk is that, if you are a student from NY, NJ or CT, the amount you pay is up to you. I have gone as low as $2.50.

Last month, in New York for residency interviews with time to kill, I headed to the Met Breuer to see a retrospective of Vija Clemins. I had heard of her from a friend in San Francisco, knew that she was famous for her photorealistic drawings of the ocean.

Men were tearing up the asphalt in front of the museum. Moncler-clad women passed me with their Pomeranians while I dumbly waited for the Walk sign. Despite the construction noise and the dog shit smeared on the pavement, New York is still New York – she does not need to court you.

I entered the museum at 10:30am on a Tuesday.

“Could I get a student ticket for $5?” I said, feeling generous.

“Yale University student,” the ticket officer read off the top of my ID.

“Ever heard of it?”

I got off the 5th floor to a nearly empty gallery. Here were Celmins’ early works: still lifes of electronics, hand-drawn facsimiles of newspaper clippings, a 3-foot replica of Pink Pearl erasers. The first galleries of a retrospective always give me relief. The genius is there, sure, but it is still human. One can imagine the hand layering paint on the canvas, can imagine the artist’s dissatisfaction at her work, not yet an immortal thing apart from herself. It’s like watching a young Obama practicing his speech in front of a mirror, stuttering at an awkward pause, letting out a barely audible shit.

I paused at a window that looked out to an apartment being gutted out. In a few weeks, it’d be refurbished with Miele and Bosch and listed on Zillow for 1.5M, with $3,000 HOA fees a month. “More than half of our residents live in subsidized housing,” the program director at Mount Sinai Hospital had said. I’d made the wrong career choice, but alas, it was too late.

I took the stairs to the fourth floor where the exhibition continued. The sheer number of steps hinted at the height of the gallery below. I opened the heavy door and entered a dazzling, white space, with men in black standing in its corners. In the center, encased in glass, were two identical stones.

Two stones

one found object and one made object (bronze and alkyd)

What a mindfuck. The two stones looked exactly the same: light beige in color, speckled like a quail’s egg, their edges worn smooth under a river. From outside, there was no way I could tell which was real and which was fake.

Wait, what does real even mean?

It was then that I woke up from the Matrix.

 

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Virtual reality (the strap-on sort) is in vogue these days, but Celmins’ stones show that all art, in essence, is virtual reality. Beginning from the earliest cave paintings from 40,000 years ago, every brushstroke has been an attempt to create a reality independent from the one we breathe and die in. Literature has the same purpose: a novel, a story, or a poem is a Horcrux that will outlast one’s physical death. “That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of,” Hemingway concludes his 1958 interview with the Paris Review.

Yet our five senses are notoriously difficult to deceive. You look up from a novel to the airport gate waiting area and are instantly transported back to a reality where your neighbor is gobbling up a quarter-pounder. Visual art is better placed in this respect: as the saying goes, seeing is believing. No wonder it was hijacked for religion from the very start, with the discovery of perspective and the invention of oil paint being necessary steps in creating an ever-meticulous afterlife.

Since people no longer buy God (or read novels, for that matter), technology has taken the baton of creating a virtual reality where we can escape. Imagine putting on a VR headset to enter a 3D city created from Google Maps, peopled with faces and voices constructed from the entirety of YouTube. Imagine walking down a street in that city, with motion sensors that register your stride length as well as the saccades of your eyeballs. Imagine the sound of rain, created spontaneously by a recurrent neural network trained on recordings of actual rain, flooding through your headset to give you ASMR. Grand Theft Auto, a popular open-world game where you run over cops with your Lambo, may one day be indistinguishable from reality.

To a species for whom dissatisfaction is hard-wired into the brain (this helps you survive, but prevents happiness), the opportunity to escape your life with a couple of clicks is alluring. When was the last time you went on YouTube or watched Netflix? We spend more time looking at a screen than at reality itself: virtual tour, virtual concert, virtual sex. Deep-learning has spawned a new genre of pornography called DeepFake (don’t ask me how I know this) where faces of celebrities are merged to existing porn, down to the wink of an eye and the curves of the lips. Modern Pygmalions in Japan have wed anime characters.

But the creation of virtual reality raises the question of whether our world is also virtual. To find that both of Vija Celmins’ stones are made, that neither is real – that would be the ultimate joke and horror.

 

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Morpheus: If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

 

Morpheus wasn’t the first person to come up with this idea. A dude named George Berkeley, who happens to be the namesake of Berkeley College, said the same thing in the 18th century, stating famously, “To be is to be perceived”. Way before that, there is a Buddhist tale of a master and his pupil who watch a branch moving in the wind.

“Master, is it the branch that moves, or the wind?” the pupil asks.

To which the master answers, “It is neither the branch nor the wind, but your mind.”

In fact, people fool with their sensory perception on a regular basis. It requires no fancy technology, only a strip of LSD. I was once on shift in the emergency room when a high-schooler walked in claiming that his eye was falling out of the socket.

“Do you see all this blood?” He pointed at a piece of tissue in his hand.

“Where do you see the blood?”

“Right here!” He pointed at the crumpled, spotless piece of tissue. His pupils were dilated, his hands trembling.

“I ask this question to all my patients,” I began. “What you tell me here is confidential, unless you pose a threat to yourself or others. What recreational drugs do you use?”

“You can’t tell my mom.”

Even those of us who don’t do LSD go on a trip every night: we dream. Everything in the dream seems real to us though the dream world does not exist in reality. You believe that you are driving, but there is no car, no road. You believe that you are fighting with your mother, who has been dead three years. You hear and are wounded by words that are never spoken.

Then there are people who are trapped in a dream-state even while awake. This medical phenomenon is called psychosis, a chief component of schizophrenia. These patients hear voices in their head, just like when we dream. They believe ludicrous things that cannot possibly be true, just like when we dream. They are paranoiac, just like when we dream, and they often believe that the doctors are in a plot against them.

I once dreamt that I was being locked up in a psychiatric ward for an unknown reason. The doctors, who were working for a powerful agency, were making me swallow pills, tying me to the bed, and injecting drugs to numb my brain so that I would not expose their secret. This is how schizophrenics must feel, I thought, once I woke from the nightmare. What would it feel like to have one’s reality denied, to be told that what you hear and believe are all voices in your head?

This is why I am not going into psychiatry.

 

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Morpheus: You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

 

Sometimes I dream that when this life ends I will enter a truer life – that Earth is a tiny atom in that truer, bigger world, where kids play with marbles the size of our known universe. Perhaps the world is made of infinite, nested universes. Zoom into these black letters enough and discover that they are made of cities.

I left the museum around noon and walked downtown. The city was getting busier, each man and woman guided by some purpose. The buildings of Midtown towered above me. Pigeons the size of chickens grazed on spilt rice on the sidewalk. The Uptown express train rumbled beneath my feet, carrying a thousand people like pixels of light across a screen. If this was virtual reality, whoever designed it sure did a good job. Someone must have had to set the speed of light and the elementary charge, have had to define the mathematical constants of pi and e. How many iterations did it take? “I believe more and more,” wrote Van Gogh, “that God must not be judged on this earth. It is one of His sketches that has turned out badly.”

Who made this world?

Are you watching me?

Wyatt Hong | wyatt.hong@yale.edu