View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2012–13. Foreground: Approximation I, 2012. Background: Win Win, 2012.

View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2012–13. Foreground: Approximation I, 2012. Background: Win Win, 2012.

Katja Novitskova

View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2012–13. Foreground: Approximation I, 2012. Background: Win Win, 2012.

The two most eye-catching objects in Katja Novitskova’s recent show were images of animals mounted on aluminum cutouts: a stately pair of emperor penguins standing across from each other (Approximation I; all works 2012) and the head of a young giraffe nuzzling its mother (Approximation II). Although the former is adapted from an entry to a National Geographic photo competition, this backstory is hardly relevant: Both images have long since dispersed and multiplied online on sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest. Removed from their original context, they boast an attractiveness—as images, which is to say, as sites for affective identification—that is part of the sustained and radical argument of Novitskova’s exhibition.

Like others exploring the “post-Internet” condition, Novitskova, an Estonian artist based in Amsterdam, sees that the lines between image and referent, between virtual and real, have been rendered unstable by an insistent reappropriation of all forms of representation. But she pushes beyond the easy relocations of digital into physical that make up one dominant strand of such work to make the case that the distinctions between the man-made and the natural, and between art and the evolutionary process, have also come undone.

In The Cambrian Explosion 001, one of four faux-textbook illustrations on papyrus shown here, a photo of a dolphin equipped by the US military with a digital camera—itself revealing an erosion of the boundary between biological and technological—is overlaid with images of digital cameras, like so many variations of a species. In a statement on her website, Novitskova is explicit about the scientific premise of such works: “Human-made artifacts such as texts, products, images, and the expanding digital environments [are all] forms that co-exist in complex ecologies of matter and value.”

This exhibition’s heady mix of evolutionary thinking with images and objects constituting what the artist calls “info-matter” thus offered another means of channeling the old avant-garde project of undoing the division between art and life, folding the former not into the social but the natural world, by considering art as a “real result of human evolution.” Hence, too, the role of animals in her work: Humans have an “immediate emotional reaction” to them—and, it’s implied, to images of them—that is itself an evolutionary bias. Our attraction to cat videos has the same biological basis as our attraction to art.

A vitrine containing mushroom-shaped pillars topped by panels of silicon wafers, 99.9999999% pure harvest, advanced Novitskova’s case still further. The hardware underpinning our digital environment is not metaphorically but literally part of the natural world: Even silicon is “grown.” Conversely, the reach of the evolutionary framework proposed in the exhibition was extended to the beginning of time in Unfolding Inflation, from 0 to infinity, a rolled-up fabric mesh bearing a rendering of the aftermath of the big bang, with a crude plastic tree—a marker for the beginning of life, as well as for mass-produced kitsch—set into the top of it.

Win Win, a bright-green laurel wreath visible high on the wall behind the penguins, could be interpreted as a possibly tongue-in-cheek reflection on the audacity of Novitskova’s philosophy. Whether in the form of an image or, as here, a technically immaculate imitation, no variant of the wreath that once crowned ancient Greek athletes can today be understood without the viewer taking into account the symbolism that has developed through its repeated cultural use. The framing implied by Novitskova’s exhibition suggested that the meaning thus accrued is no different, in evolutionary terms, from the success of an Internet meme, a commercial product—or an artwork.

Alexander Scrimgeour