“Macbeth” contains one the most famous soliloquies in the Shakespearean canon. In it the eponymous hero laments and celebrates life’s brevity with the following bleak exultation:
All our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!/Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.
Macbeth’s nihilistic roar seemed to crackle in the background of Harm van den Dorpel’s exhibition “IOU” at London’s Narrative Projects Gallery. The show consists of works van den Dorpel made by staining thermo-sensitive paper using an open flame. The works themselves are not intrinsically nihilistic, though there is, both literally and figuratively, a darkness in the undefined shapes that haunt their surfaces.
The wounded quality at the heart of the works is in part a function of their inspiration. In his artist’s statement, van den Dorpel cites the life and work of the programmer, businessman and hacktivist, Aaron Swartz, as one from the network of individuals and themes that occupied his thoughts in the creation of “IOU”. Swartz is perhaps most famous for having created the protocol known as RSS, a means for net users to organise data from the websites to which they subscribe into a manageable, uninterrupted stream. Swartz’s brief candle burned out in 2013; he committed suicide facing prosecution for downloading a suspicious volume of files from JSTOR, the digital library of academic journals.
In “IOU”, van den Dorpel draws parallels between Swartz’s story and other areas of life where digital and analogue culture contend for legal and cultural space. One place where van den Dorpel argues tension is most noticeable is in the ways different countries treat physical manifestations of money. The decision to use thermo-sensitive paper was rooted in van den Dorpel’s experience of filing away heat-printed receipts from transactions in Germany only to find that the information had disappeared by the time he needed the receipts to file his taxes.
If this level of conceptual interplay is making your head spin, it’s all part of van den Dorpel’s strategy: “high” culture and “low” culture meld as easily as high and low tech in his work. For example, the dangers of solemnity or limpidity in a show of works made without the artist’s hand ever touching a canvas are undercut by the quotidian nature of the materials on show; the humble paper of a supermarket receipt becomes the support in an eloquent coalescence of the art and commerce. The process itself, as banal as your nearest burning cigarette, is lent a poetic quality in a number of the works on show. Works like “Fastener” evoke the heroic period of Abstract Expressionism, but substitute the resolutely painterly spray of Franz Kline for a more nebulous play of shapes and shadows.
Not every work is quite as potent. I can’t say the smoke emoji of “bottle cork” had me reaching for the “Like” button, but when van den Dorpel works with a darker palette, as in “Sonogram”, where the smoke creates a frame within the frame and only small, uneven swatches of white peep through, a real majesty emerges. “IOU” may be part homage to Swartz and to other netizens in van den Dorpel’s personal pantheon, and the works may neatly materialise the intellectual angst of the eternal battle between art as spiritual transcendence and art as commercial object, but these are only a few of the myriad theses and antitheses floating in the shadows. Van den Dorpel’s ghost-like formations may be somewhat sombre, but like Banquo’s spectre at the feast in “Macbeth”, they demand attention.
Text by William Kherbek
Harm van den Dorpel, “IOU” is at Narratives Project Gallery, London, until 19 December 2015