Being Bjarne Melgaard, Virtual Reality between Freedom and Control

By Elda Oreto

My Trip by Bjarne Melgaard is a dark and liberating Virtual Reality inhabited by psychedelic monsters, bright colors and hypnotic electronic music. The project was carried out in collaboration with Acute Art (https://acuteart.com), an agency that produces Virtual and Augmented Reality for artists. The VR is the beginning of a partnership with the Julia Stoschek Collection which will show the artwork in its Berlin exhibition venue until December 15th, 2019.

The virtual world created by Melgaard is a 14-minutes futuristic and alienating journey. Sitting in a chair, in an environment with a pink mirror and a fitted carpet, the visitors wear a VR helmet, made of special glasses and headphones for the experience. The journey begins. you find yourself in a parallel universe, sitting in a chair in a dark hall; there is a panel with indications on DMT or Dimethyltryptamine, a chemical drug present in many plants and in the cerebrospinal fluid of human beings, which, when is synthesized, it becomes an hallucinogen. My Trip is the story of Melgaard’s experience under the drug. The chair moves. Something is pulling you into a room at the end of the hall. 

The minute after, you’re inside the head of Bjarne Melgaard himself. The first overwhelming feeling is vertigo. It is like being on a rollercoaster while falling down. But here everything feels stronger. The electronic music composed by Romina Cohn, DJ and filmmaker from Buenos Aires, helps to cross a gate between the real, physical dimension and the virtual and mental one. In the untidy room, there is a bed and shirts hanging from the ceiling. Then comes a frightening surprise. You’re not alone in the room. There is a huge octopus with a human face and a mini bowler hat on his head. It’s Octo and it is a sculpture by Melgaard. With him there is another character familiar to Melgaard’s universe, The Light Bulb Man. The Man is sitting at a desk where he smokes DMT and watches a series of monitors in front of him.

Suddenly the room dissolves and you find yourself floating in space, where other characters come out of kaleidoscopic lights. There is also Stig Sæterbakken, the controversial and acclaimed Norwegian writer and translator, who took his life in 2012. The adventure continues between submarine abysses, a desert island where ravenous sharks eat the Light Bulb Man, and a fly over the sea; lastly, you’re in the sight of a killer demon who eventually slashes your throat. 

In conclusion, it is simply addictive. It’s a shock to resuscitate. In this work, the artist has collected all the characters in his practice so that something of his experience persists inside a cutting edge medium like the VR. The norwegian artist, who lives and works between Oslo and New York, was invited by the Swedish art critic Daniel Birnbaum, director of Acute Art, former director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Rector of the Städelschule, to realize the first of a series of works part of a program dedicated to the possibilities of VR and AR as an art medium. Among the artists invited: Mark Leckey, Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Marco Brambilla and R. H. Quaytman.

Although Melgaard had previously worked making films like Untitled (Bjarne Melgaard interviews Leo Bersani), 2011, All Gym Queens Deserve to Die, 2000, Pepto Abysmal, 2013, Antwerp, 2012, Untitled (Smartphone Video), 2017, through this project, he had the opportunity to experiment with the new medium. He wrote a story and sent it to the Acute Art team and together developed the VR. Bjarne Melgaard’s constant research unfolds through all expressive forms. Considered to be Edvard Munch’s direct heir in Norway, he established himself as an ‘enfant terrible’ of the international art scene in the early 2000s when he showed a series of sculptures which represented obscene monkeys. But the provocations aroused by his work have been still many since then; for example, in 2013, he presented the Allen Jones sculpture series which depict women posing as furniture. All of Melgaard’s practice is on the border between what is acceptable and what is not. Since the beginning of his artistic career, Melgaard’s installations have focused on subversive themes, often inspired by subcultures such as Heavy Metal music and S&M. Transgression is an attitude that brings transformation and can be lived out without being trivialized or normalized .Bjarne Melgaard took part in the Venice Biennale (2011), Lyon (2013) and Whitney (2014). In Oslo, in 2013/2014, the Astrup Fearnley Museum hosted an exhibition with his works of the last 20 years. In 2015, the Munch Museet inaugurated an exhibition Melgaard + Munch – The End of It All Has Already Happened, where the practice of the two artists is directly compared.

In My Trip, Melgaard takes up the main theme of his research: the idea that  suicide and anti-natalism are the salvation of humanity and the only true act of liberation. This topic presents an antinomy that matches perfectly with the VR: the chaos, the frustrations and the anguish of an existence absorbed in the machine of the consumption of life blend with the loss of the real corporeality and the intensification of the visually induced sensations of the VR. However, the paradox that mixes life and death goes even further. In fact, all this is unspeakable since the virtual experience is individual, like life; and this fundamental solitude is the only thing we can share. In the movie Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze, a failed puppeteer finds access to the actor’s consciousness and uses and abuses it, until he remains imprisoned in it. The possibility of meeting the other becomes the extreme experience of possession. In My Trip, Melgaard plays with control over the viewer, what freedom is and how and to what extent it can be exercised. The ambivalence of Virtual Reality is the perfect medium to tell this story.

Images > Bjarne Melgaard, still from My Trip, 2019. Courtesy Acute Art and the artist