Erasmus the past: Love your neighbour as your selfie 9 (2017) Oil on canvas, 400 x 500 mm
Erasmus the past: Love your neighbour as your selfie 9 (2017) Oil on canvas, 400 x 500 mm

Brendon Erasmus does not have an Instagram account. Curiously, there is one belonging to someone with the same name boasting a profile picture of a toothy cartoon grin, a motif that haunts his exhibitionViral, which opened at No End Contemporary gallery last week. Given he has just opened a solo, possibly one of his first, it is unexpected that this account, though bereft of any postings, doesn’t belong to Erasmus, preventing his art from becoming ‘viral’ as per the title of his exhibition. These days artists (in fact everybody) uses social media tools to promote their work, themselves. Our, their, status and value is now measured according to their popularity in these realms. For Erasmus self-promotion is a form of capitulation to an insidious system that artists are complicit in.

“I struggle to find joy in promoting my art. It often feels like a cruel joke,” he observes in his artist statement.

The medium he adopts, painting allows him to generate one-off non-photographic images. However, this won’t necessarily prevent his paintings from finding their way into online environments — No End Contemporary gallery has a website and all the visitors to the gallery (including this writer) will photograph and disseminate images from it, for we live in a time where every event and interaction with art is mediated via photographs of it.  We view the world through images, a digital filter.

Erasmus 3: Shame (2017) Oil on cardboard 520 x 670mm
Erasmus 3: Shame (2017) Oil on cardboard 520 x 670mm

So what is Erasmus to do if he wishes to exist outside of this culture? Does he simply have to grin and bear it? Certainly that would seem the case, given most of the works on Viral are dominated by these anonymous figures defined by wide toothy grins, faking complicity with the situation — being photographed. In this way it is as if Erasmus hopes we will photograph these fake selfie subjects, ever ready to perform for their audience, forever conscious of their watchful gaze. Eramus views this dynamic as a form of slavery; it appears that once you are hooked into or buy into social media culture you can’t walk away from it. As such his anonymous grinning subjects do not embody the artist, grinning and bearing the situation, but us — the performers, who are no longer simply the viewers or consumers of art or imagery but makers too.

What is the difference between us, the viewers, and artists given we are both now engaged in generating images? Erasmus holds onto a traditional idea about artists or art, viewing them “as a vehicle for an alternative mode of thinking, living, and interacting.”

Can he achieve this by resisting to participate in the online environment, which he suggests has turned us into veritable cyber slaves serving the interests of a neo-colonial authority, which is collecting information about us? Not having a presence in these realms is often equated with social death, anonymity. His subjects have no discernible features — they are all silhouetted busts with big teeth rendered in thick blobs of paint that look like nails, as if their smiles are weapons, sharp dangerous hooks that could cause injury. In this way their existence literally hinges on their smiles — their performances, public face of exaggerated happiness. In the painting 'Love your neighbour as your Selfie 7',  the subject looms as a skeleton, implying both the transparency of these fake acts on social media expressing happiness, achievement and success but also how this advances a kind of death of the self. In Viral Erasmus suggests that social media selfie culture has altered how the self is constituted publicly and privately and that constant digital mediation of it has made it difficult for individuals to make a separation between the real and public selfie-self. In this way we are constantly performing for an unseen audience.

Erasmus reminds us that we can opt out, But there is a price. Non-conformity results in social isolation and an inability to participate in the world of work. This idea is best expressed via a cardboard signboard on which the phrases “no money, no jobs, no MacBook” appear. Erasmus appears conscious how his decision or the choice to challenge the cultural and social dominance of social media is a privilege not afforded to everyone in this country.

Ever the artist rebel he also opts to rub against the art system too; working with cardboard and other (low tech) disused materials such as an inflatable mattress, which are not built to last and therefore might not be viewed as asset class objects. Ultimately, Erasmus doesn’t want to be like an artist of his time. Ironically, this is what affirms his position as an artist.

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