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James J. Hodge essay on Akihiko Miyoshi

Exhibition essay

New Maps, New Poetics: New Works by Akihiko Miyoshi

by James J. Hodge

All images of the internet look the same! So runs the complaint voiced by media critic Alexander R. Galloway in his 2012 book The Interface Effect. In his artist statement Akihiko Miyoshi cites Galloway’s discussion of the ostensible “unrepresentability” of networks as seminal for his recent work. As Miyoshi notes, Galloway’s provocation has two parts: all images of the network look the same; and even at this late date in the twenty-first century we still lack a poetic or aesthetic vocabulary for imaging and imagining networks. Guided by a dual interest in both the material infrastructure of technology as well as the paradoxically sensual and intangible aesthetic experience of the internet, Miyoshi’s recent works in Through Lens and Screen, his latest exhibition at Circuit Gallery, provide a timely and sophisticated set of artistic responses to Galloway, and, by extension, to fundamental issues at the heart of contemporary visuality, technology, and experience.

Optically striking, playfully experiential, at once abstract and representational, Miyoshi’s new works gently recall the appearance of maps of the internet lamented by Galloway as all-too homogeneously visualizing the internet (for reference, just do a Google image search for the word “network” and you’ll sympathize with Galloway’s despair). Of course, Miyoshi does so with a profound difference. This difference can be felt in all of his sixteen new works on exhibit, and perhaps most profoundly in the series of three pieces called “Networks”: Protocol, Nodes and Edges, and Arpanet. Like generic network images, they evoke the internet as cosmic wheels of clustering galaxies of connection. But in Miyoshi, the network emerges as both an image and an experience: a space of abstraction simultaneously warmed and complicated by the presence of the hand of the artist as well as the works’ continual imperative to move around, to get closer, to see it from different angles, in effect to zoom in and to zoom out but also to move laterally along the surface of the painting in order to animate its character.

Each work in Miyoshi’s new collection features multiple layers of resin. Because each work contains images in distinctly laminated layers, the viewer’s perception of each image changes subtly as one moves around in studied proximity. Sometimes this means that a “red” element only exists through the combination of two layered colors, which have been selected to produce red when viewed head on. Sometimes this means that the images themselves seem to shimmer, blur, and re-articulate themselves when viewed from side to side, from the thickness of one edge around to another. Miyoshi’s uniquely sculptural approach gives his work a remarkable thickness and presence suggestive of a surface not merely to be looked at but also walked alongside and felt in different proximities so as to evoke a certain sensation of tactility. The resin layers contribute to an effect which simultaneously pulls the viewer in and around and pushes her away to get a bigger picture. There is no one perfect vantage from which to see these works. They must be seen in movement.

Layers constitute not only the decisive formal element of Miyoshi’s new work that unlocks their experiential dimensions. Layers also represent insight into Miyoshi’s broader engagement with digital aesthetics. As anyone, for example, who has ever worked with Adobe Photoshop knows, digital images can be constructed with unprecedented precision using different “layers,” or essentially elements such as found images as well as newly created images put “on top” of existing images. The application Snapchat’s famous “filters” represents another version of digital layering, often in the form of adding things like cartoon-like mustaches and glasses on top of the subject of a selfie. More generally, one finds layers everywhere in graphical user interfaces—since the 1980s the most popular way to interface with computers. The desktop metaphor of files, folders, and trashcans has normalized dragging and dropping pictures around on illuminated screens, actions, which, in turn, depend on the formalized layering of different images on top of others on the computer screen. In fact, layers are so commonplace in digital aesthetics as to seem perfectly ordinary and unremarkable. At this late date in the history of computing, layers often work so well as to be completely undetectable. Miyoshi’s work calls attention to this fundamental dimension of everyday seeing. There’s nothing natural about the way we use computers or perceive images on them. One of the great achievements of Miyoshi’s work is that he shows us how things might be otherwise.

One of Miyoshi’s key interventions is to re-articulate the relation of the digital and the analog. He does so not merely by addressing computers and networks through the traditionally analog medium of painting. His work also expresses the entanglement of human and machinic action through his layered approach to gesture. In general, the works on display have what might be called a “computational” character. They feature complex geometrical elements and patterns arranged with a sort of rigorous precision that only feels possible with the computer. In this regard, Miyoshi’s work recalls the abstract precision of early computer art such as the computer-generated prints of artists Frieder Nake and Manfred Mohr. As art historian Grant Taylor observes, the rigid precision of these early works from the 1960s led to the art world’s resounding rejection of the computer as a “soulless usurper.” This strident formulation derives in large part from fears that the computer would replace the “hand of the artist,” the unique character of artistic expression but also the perceived physical presence of the artist in the quality of brushstrokes and line. Well aware of the history of what used to be called “computer art” (and is now contestably referred to as digital art or new media art), Miyoshi engages and builds on the still-underrecognized achievements of these early artists. And, like the early artists, his work features a stark “computationalism” in its inclusion of grids, sharp lines, and network graphs. However, in a sharp departure from the tendencies of “cold” computationalism, Miyoshi’s work manifestly celebrates the hand of the artist through the use of gestural lines evoking a more “human” presence within and through the thickness of networked visuality.

Miyoshi’s use of gesture is evident in many of recent works, and perhaps most clearly in the 5-painting series entitled “Computer Drawings/Code Paintings.” Yet his use of gestural line differs greatly across these works. In For Loop the line appears mostly continuous. In Statement the line nearly disappears into a discontinuous sequence of pixels implying some phantom link between them. In a number of works, the line itself blurs slightly as it runs deeper into layers of resin and then back suddenly to the surface. In short, Miyoshi’s line represents no simple valorization of the humanity of the artist. If the lines feel a bit digital, there’s a good reason why! Miyoshi created the lines through a distinctly computational process. By capturing the movement of his movement of a mouse at a slow frame rate, Miyoshi was able to evoke the jagged, pixelated aesthetic of older computer paint programs and to express more conceptually the feeling of the hand of the artist at work at a tethered remove from conscious intention, the resulting image being part craft and part algorithmic program.

To conclude by returning to Galloway’s complaint as an inspiration for Miyoshi, let us revisit the beleaguered generic map of the network. The reason these images remain so ubiquitous is that they effectively present a comprehensible diagram-like picture of something very difficult to grasp: how the internet works. The internet functions at scales and speeds that often outstrip human cognition and perceptual ability. But it’s easy to imagine each point as a person (or at least as a laptop or phone) connected to other groups of persons and machines. Hence, the generic image of the network. This image of the network, however, communicates little if nothing about the material infrastructure of the internet as routers, cables, undersea networks, and more. By crafting—if not outright sculpting—his images in layers of resin, Miyoshi draws attention to the materiality of his subject while building on and advancing the generic genius of the network image.

Finally, for all the aspects of his work discussed above and more, Miyoshi answers the second part of Galloway’s complaint: that we still lack any poetics of the network. This last part of Galloway’s claim has been contested by various scholars, but it has never been refuted. Although he works offline in the analog and quite material world of “RL” or “real life,” Miyoshi’s new works provides a vibrant new way of beginning to see, feel, and think about the experience of networks in the twenty-first century.

James J. Hodge, September 2019
©James J. Hodge. All Rights Reserved.


James J. Hodge is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. His essays on digital aesthetics have appeared in Critical Inquiry, ASAP/Journal, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. His book Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art will be published this October by the University of Minnesota Press.