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Work / Art

Surreal, disturbing, NSFW and utterly thrilling: the work of Jon Rafman

I really thought I was over art that involved things like sitting in ball ponds (see my review of the Carsten Höller show, for evidence of this.) That was until I saw the astonishing and very much NSFW new Jon Rafman show. Taking over multiple rooms and levels of the Zabludowicz Collection gallery in north London, the exhibition comprises a series of video works in strange and immersive settings: the ball pool, a seat that squeezes you (developed for children with autism, according to the gallery) and the set of a teenage girl’s bedroom spattered with green gloop.

I’d only really encountered Jon’s work previously in the form of his Google Street View-based project 9eyes, in which he pilfered the oddest images from the mapping service and reappropriated each one so that it not only became art, but a miniature soap opera-esque narrative. These new works take on the same themes of reappropriation and found imagery, but with far more sinister overtones. The first piece we encounter is the aforementioned ball pool. On seeing it, I did a little initial shudder: great, more “fun”, disposable art for Instagram. On slipping inside, I instead did a little internal whoop. It was sublime: the angles and the depth so perfect for the position of the ominously overhanging television. Everything with Jon is so carefully designed as to make each element feel as natural but dissonant as possible: reality becomes fiction and everything feels somehow frightening. It’s glorious.

The ball pond piece shows videos formed from merging strange internet fetish footage and shots that set out to purely to disgust. Vomit and cigarette ends and debris strewn around a computer keyboard and a bedroom reduced to grimy detritus are seen while ominous voices suggest the omnipresence and omnipotence of screens and a sort of frightening unreality that turns domestic spaces into nightmares.

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Jon Rafman, Still Life (Betamale) 
2013 (still)
Video, 4.54 mins
Courtesy the artist

The odd internet fetish theme continues – crush fetishes, furries and role play abound – while grotesque imagery is never far from the screen. Rather than simply conflating his findings in video games and memes and weird corners of the digital landscape, Jon weaves them into pieces that feel like fables or entirely new works, which make us question ourselves and the very nature of art. The merging of films with the very physical pieces we’re forced to watch them from, such as massage chairs, water beds and gaming pods make them into sculptural entities and add a visceral new dimension to the pieces.

The show is drawn together by strange electronic music, some of which was created by Daniel Lopatin. This reaches a dramatic denouement in the film shown in that teenage bedroom we mentioned, the newly commissioned work Sticky Drama. This is Jon’s first fully live-action short, and uses a motley crew of a cast with 35 children shot around London. We see an at times hilarious, at others disquieting tale loosely based on the interests of Live Action Role Play (LARP) enthusiasts, with the odd gusto of a school play reimagined by kids more familiar with programming than props.

The final installation in the show moves from screens to sculpture, as we wander a large maze peopled with abstracted busts. At the heart of the maze is a huge gold figure, which the viewer stands before in an Oculus Rift headset. It’s utterly disorientating and strange, a final punctuation mark in a show that seems to force you to question what’s real, what’s not and what’s acceptable in things we accept as truth and fantasy. Bewildering and terrifying, Jon’s investigations into desire leave you feeling dirty, invigorated and thrilled that artists like this exist.

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Jon Rafman, Mainsqueeze, 2014 (still). Video, 10:26 mins.
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman and Daniel Lopatin, production still from Sticky Drama, 2015. Photo: Tim Bowditch
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman, New Age Demanded (Swerveman Silicone), 2014
Image courtesy the artist, Zabludowicz Collection, and FEUER/MESLER, New-York
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman, Remember Carthage, 2013 (still). Video, 13.43 mins.
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman and Daniel Lopatin, production still from Sticky Drama, 2015. Photo: Tim Bowditch
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman, Mainsqueeze, 2014 (still). Video, 10:26 mins.
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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Jon Rafman, A Man Digging, 2013 (still). 8.20 mins. Image courtesy the artist
Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection

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‘Jon Rafman, Nine Eyes, Lungomare 9, Maggio, Bari, Puglia, Italia, 2009, courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection’