Art & Photography

Jon Rafman: A Man Digging

The artist’s show at Seventeen has William Kherbek musing over Dante’s Divine Comedy and examining the gap between the virtual and real

Jon Rafman, A Man Digging, installation view. Courtesy of Seventeen London

Now that he’s got the Dan Brown seal of approval, it’s okay to talk about Dante without seeming pretentious. If you know your way around the Divine Comedy and you find yourself at Jon Rafman’s show A Man Digging at Seventeen Gallery, you might just find yourself pondering an often-quoted line from Dante; it appears in Eliot’s The Waste Land and other places; entering the Inferno, Dante watches the souls of the damned passing and he says, “I had not thought death had undone so many”. Dante and his spirit guide, the Roman poet Virgil, watch the entirety of condemned humanity passing before their eyes at the gates of Hell and the poet is like, completely, “OMG sooo many dead ppl!! : (“, text-speak being the contemporary equivalent of terza rima.

I blame Rafman for my descent into the lower circles of satire. In the video work from which the show takes its title, the viewer is guided through a series of virtual spaces as a disembodied voice discusses the quest for immediate, unmediated experience and his ultimate reliance on representations and images to convey or express the need for real connection. In each of the rooms in the video lie bodies, lots of them. Shot to death and bearing picturesque entry wounds, they lie in states of ruin on the floors of cells, of farmhouses, of nightclubs. I had not thought first-person-shooters had undone so many. The images are strangely a bit banal at first, who under the age of 40 hasn’t seen a few thousand virtual murder victims by now, but then, listening to the text they end up doing more than just representing the speaker’s search, they embody it, quite literally. They become your immediate experience yet they are unreal cities and unreal people.

Jon Rafman, A Man Digging, Installation View. Courtesy of seventeen London.

A Man Digging works beautifully as a primer for its companion piece, a video titled Remember Carthage screening in an adjoining room. As I watched the unhappy characters in A Man Digging, I thought to myself how, in the past, the first experience people would have had of cities they’d never personally been to were photographs which at least had a claim on representing “reality” of some kind. Then, as technologies advanced, cinema was the way people saw distant cities. The cities were essentially scenery, real, but in an imagined context.

Now, in video games, cities are digitally reconstituted in extreme fidelity but are completely representations with a sort of Baudrillardian relationship to reality, too real to be real. In these unreal-real cities, you spend your time pursing villains and zombies or wreaking havoc. In the future, how many kids will have first seen, say, Paris or Tokyo from the gun sight on a video game? It’s good preparation for Remember Carthage a video which details another traveller’s quest to find a lost city. It’s full of loops and confusions, representations of Carthage as an idea and as a location, the ranting and ravings of Cato the Elder, fake memories of a souk. It’s at once frantic and meditative.

Jon Rafman: A Man Digging runs until 27 July at Seventeen, 17 Kingsland Road, London E2 8AA