Not long after his death in 1968, Marcel Duchamp sprung the last trap he had set for the art world. Though he had supposedly “retired” from making art in 1923 to pursue chess, Duchamp, in fact, had spent 20 years working on his final masterpiece, the Ètant donnes, a multimedia installation intended for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Built from an old Spanish door and crowned with brick voussoirs, the thick wood of the door conceals a large oil painting (another trick; it was widely assumed that Duchamp had given up painting after his first Readymade) of a lurid dreamscape, visible only through a handful of cracks between planks. It is as if there exists an entire world, one liberated from the tiresome laws that govern our own, inside the work of art.
I’ve seen the Étant donnes several times, but what sticks with me the most is watching others look at the piece. Inevitably, it’s awkward—arms fork dorsally and necks strain in angles familiar only to chiropractors. It’s also a conductor for vulnerability: to look inside Étant donnes is to lose sight of the very body that enables that experience. Yet such contortions are not oversights by Duchamp, but are, in fact, his intention (or one of them, at least). There may indeed be a world inside the work of art, but that does not mean it is a simple matter to go there—in effect, we have to commit to an experience without the flesh with which we piece the world together.
I couldn’t help but think of the Étant donnes when, last week, I was sent a photo of Timothy Wang’s Yang Meh Meh, the centerpiece of the artist’s MFA thesis exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design. Yang Meh Meh is the answer to the question none of us had the whimsy to ask: “what if a giant stuffed animal was also a virtual reality headset?” Fabricated (so to speak) from several sheep worth of wool, Yang Meh Meh invites the viewer to plunge into a slit on the animal’s backside, where an Oculus Rift is fastened and loaded with a recreation of a dream Wang once had.
Suffice it to say, it looks ridiculous.
But, of course, that’s the point. Wang has been working with virtual reality for roughly two years. In particular, he’s been exploring the cumbersome relationship between “real” space and the space represented inside the headset. In Unicorn (2014), for example, Wang set up a synopticon—an inversion of the asymmetrical vision characteristic of Bentham’s panopticon; rather than one watching the many, the many watch one—in which a single “performer” wearing an Oculus Rift explores a fantasy landscape while their “vision” is projected on the wall behind him. The viewer becomes the viewed, the full range of their phenomenal experience freely available to other spectators.
“I was trying to go back in time and space”
Yang Meh Meh picks up on similar themes, but extends and exaggerates them in particular ways. The title, in Chinese, is composed of a double diminutive affixed to the word for “lamb,” a common way to refer to children’s toys. And, in fact, the Brobdingnagian lamb of Yang Meh Meh is based on Wang’s own childhood stuffed animal, given to him at birth by his mother, and infused with all sorts of maternal symbolism. Likewise, the dream that Wang has adapted for the Oculus Rift consists of a disembodied, matronly voice whispering loving, comforting phrases to the viewer.
If this all seems rather saccharine, I doubt Wang would disagree. Speaking over the phone, he told me that his mother, who he rarely saw as a child, was nevertheless hugely invested in insulating Wang from the world. “As a parent,” he explains, “my mom kept me very sheltered. So [Yang Meh Meh] is kind of a boundary; sometimes you feel uncomfortable in the space.” The symbolism is transparently Freudian and Lacanian—what is Wang doing if not staging birth in reverse, enabling the viewer to tumble back through the mirror stage and into a digital womb?—but I’ll leave the psychoanalytic dimensions of Yang Meh Meh unmolested. What’s more interesting, I think, is the discrepant, affective qualities that Wang is trying to convey. Because the work is so personal, it’s very hard not to get the sense that you’ve wandered into someone else’s dream, a space that was designed neither for you or your inner self.
For Wang, this personal discomfiture carries a larger message about virtual reality and the devices we use to bring that reality into being, and to mediate our experience of it. “I was trying to go back in time and space,” says Wang, suggesting that whatever comfort is extracted from this experience is inseparable from a retreat to childhood and away from the world of lived experience. His point, as I read it, is not some hackneyed philippic about the danger of immersive technologies, but the co-contingency of comfort and insulation. One helps affirm our lives; the other helps us hide from them. Wake up, sheeple!
But consider this: it wasn’t until 1959 that the word “virtual” possessed any discursive link with technology. Prior to that, “virtual” simply meant “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact.” In this sense, the virtual has been with us as long as imagination, and the artifacts we use to inspire it, has been. Dreams, memories, psychological refuges—all might be said to be “virtual” in some way or another, and so carry with them the risk whereby prisons start to look like shelters.
How appropriate that the work of art, in this instance, is both an enabler of, and warning about, this experience—which brings me back to Duchamp’s Étant donnes, another work about the awkwardness of marrying human bodies to virtual spaces. The virtual realities of Wang’s Yang Meh Meh and Duchamp’s Étant donnes are not, of course, synonymous. But I propose that they aren’t entirely distinct either. Though the methods and materials change, the message doesn’t. You don’t need a headset to experience virtuality; all you need is a head of your own.