Critics’ Picks

  • Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Bontanical Studies, Specimen 55r Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver print, 19 3/4 x 15 1/4".

    Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Bontanical Studies, Specimen 55r Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver print, 19 3/4 x 15 1/4".

    Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft: “Voynich Botanical Studies”

    Friends Indeed Gallery
    716 Sacramento Street
    January 10–February 14, 2020

    Since 2013, Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft have collaborated on “Voynich Botanical Studies,” a series of imaginary plant specimens created with 3-D modeling software that blends found images and textures into uncanny amalgamations. The resulting digital files are transferred onto negatives and printed as silver gelatin prints in a darkroom; this combination of electronic and analog processes results in strikingly mysterious plant forms that appear to levitate against their deep black backgrounds. In this tiny gallery, the prints loom almost threateningly in their alien strangeness, particularly the more anthropomorphic creations like Specimen 55r Podzim, 2014, with its large cartoon flower heads resembling featureless faces and its handlike leaves. Ruperto and Heltoft designed these floras to approximate the many fantastical, almost certainly fictitious plant species illustrated in the cryptic Voynich Manuscript, a codex written on fifteenth-century paper in a writing system that has never been successfully deciphered—likely a hoax itself.

    The work on view here spans 2014 through 2017. Images from the series were first shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2014, the year “post-photography” came into its own as an aesthetic category. Seeing the “Voynich Botanical Studies” six years later, in the age of deepfakes and ever-improving computer vision, brings a new, dark dimension to these manipulated pictures. At a time when synthetically created photographs are associated with public distrust of journalism rather than formal explorations by artists, the indeterminate status of these hybrids feels epistemically heavier, less tied to the possibility of the imaginary flowers becoming real living things than to the truth status of photographs against a backdrop of ever more cleverly manipulated images in everyday visual culture.