Berlin

Simon Fujiwara, Empathy I, 2018, 5-D simulation with motion, water, wind, and video (color, sound, 3 minutes 49 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Simon Fujiwara, Empathy I, 2018,
5-D simulation with motion, water, wind, and video (color, sound, 3 minutes 49 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Simon Fujiwara

Esther Schipper

Simon Fujiwara, Empathy I, 2018, 5-D simulation with motion, water, wind, and video (color, sound, 3 minutes 49 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Rules are made to be broken, they say, but sometimes obeying is just as good a way to cop a thrill. Entering Simon Fujiwara’s installation Empathy I, 2018, you had to draw a number, then sit down on an airport-style chair and wait your turn. The room was totally non-descript, furnished only with the chairs, a table, a water cooler, and some reading material: two dozen copies of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), all bookmarked at the page listing the rules of engagement between the novel’s submissive protagonist and the dominant Mr. Grey.

What visitors were waiting to enter, two at a time, was a black box, housing a so-called 5-D video simulation, just under four minutes long, for which you had to be strapped into a seat that shook as wind blew through your hair and water splashed on your face. On the massive screen ran a collage of found footage of which I can barely remember a thing. Each clip—of, variously, a wedding ceremony, a street fight, a drone over a city, all shot from a first-person point of view—was just long enough for you to recognize the scene, but too brief to really stick with you. Though the footage evoked a wide emotional spectrum, it all blended into one unquestionably intense, yet oddly flat, rush of affect. And before you knew it, it was over.

Was it worth the wait? As the rather handsome attendant led me out of the room through a different door from the one I’d entered, I realized he’d been watching my ride on a screen installed by the exit—a strangely titillating invasion of a private moment. All in the service of safety, of course. To recall one of the axioms of s/m culture detailed in Fifty Shades, among the primary tasks of the dom is to ensure the ultimate well-being of the sub: Relax, Big Brother is watching you! And just as sex generally, and s/m in particular, is not about reaching climax but about how you get there, Fujiwara’s brief ride was exactly sufficient to tinge the elaborate buildup with an unexpected excitement. For what the artist had designed was above all an arc of the anticipation and satisfaction of submitting to a role defined only by adherence to rules. Like a herd inside a paddock, exhibition-goers were joined together in being restricted, for once unable to move on, but lingering in the gallery with nothing to do while waiting except perhaps revel in their own disempowerment.

Empathy I is an elegant comment on the mechanics of mass amusement and the pervasive desire for the passivity of spectatorship—a desire so intense it verges on fetishism. But, notwithstanding its title, the work makes a bleak pronouncement: Far from fostering empathy, it’s all about me me me. Even as visitors were guided through what was a decidedly conveyor-belt experience, the very blandness of the work’s stock-image world made it about individuality; it allowed you to be you, in all your specificity. This microdose of life’s ups and downs, experienced within the safe confines of a contrived framework, points to the kind of Disneyland existentialism that is ubiquitous in consumer culture: a collective craze for the circumscribed thrill. In Fujiwara’s exacerbated version of this familiar fantasy of Dasein without any of the responsibility that comes with it, the illusion cracks, and self-consciousness creeps in. On your way out, all you could take with you was the emptiness.