New York

John Gerrard, Flare (Oceania), 2022, simulation, dimensions variable.

John Gerrard, Flare (Oceania), 2022, simulation, dimensions variable.

John Gerrard

The first time I encountered John Gerrard’s work was five years ago, when he showed his X. laevis (Spacelab), 2017, at New York’s Simon Preston Gallery. An example of the Irish artist’s so-called simulations—immaculately made, confoundingly credible digital animations built on the backs of programming-rich game-engine technologies—it featured the eponymous creature, an African clawed frog, floating before a pair of gloved hands in zero gravity. (From time to time, the animal would spasm as an imaginary camera hovered around it.) The initially inscrutable piece actually turned out to be a conceptual mash-up of an early 1990s United States space shuttle experiment on amphibian reproduction and the investigations of Luigi Galvani, an Italian biologist and physician who during the late eighteenth century sent currents into the legs of dead frogs to make the first studies of bioelectricity. But it was finally the medium rather than the message that was the star of the show—an enormously sophisticated orchestration of algorithmic complexity and rendering muscle that birthed into verisimilar existence an entirely fictitious event, one not captured and replayed but instead unfolding, sui generis and at the artist’s pleasure, in real time. In the end, despite its considerable technical glamour, the project had a decidedly airless vibe to it that, intentionally or not, left the viewer as aimlessly spellbound as the levitating frog.

In the years since that show, we’ve come to understand that effectively anything—object, character, place, or setting—can be called forth into a state of virtual life that appears essentially indistinguishable from IRL phenomena. As manifestations of artificial reality have become increasingly familiar, we’ve become less enthralled by the technologies that create them and more critical of the motives behind their conception. “Endling,” Gerrard’s show at Pace, was his first in New York since 2017 and marked his debut with the sprawling international megagallery. The exhibition represented a welcome return to the socioethical threads that have consistently run through his work—and this time the content lived up to the potent illusory tools the artist has developed.

The three pieces that comprised the show were concerned, respectively, with the effects of fossil-fuel consumption on sea levels, the suffocating ubiquity of the automobile in American culture, and animal extinction. The first of these, Flare (Oceania), 2022, was explicitly positioned as the exhibition’s centerpiece. Displayed on a colossal freestanding LED wall eighteen feet square, the work presented a simulation of a tall industrial flare stack set in a patch of open water. Concocted from photographs of the South Pacific Ocean by Tongan artist Uili Lousi, Flare—which was synced to Tongan time, ran twenty-four hours a day, and was made visible to the public through the gallery’s open Twenty-Fifth Street doors—showed the titular apparatus burning off waste gas, in the form of a flag composed of belching orange flames and black smoke. The piece was an ominous object lesson—a dark banner, hoisted over the rising Polynesian seascape like a piratical standard, proclaiming the no-quarter rapaciousness of extractive global energy policies.

While Flare suggested Gerrard’s skillfulness at wholesale invention,, 2022, demonstrated his capacity for exaggerative enhancement. It featured a smaller wall-mounted screen showing lanes of approaching and receding traffic on a stretch of highway based on Los Angeles’s infamous 405. The head- and taillights of the simulation’s thirty thousand automobiles, doomed to snake through a perpetual SoCal rush hour, produced mesmerizing alternating tracings of red and white, evoking the Möbius-like input/output loop of America’s love affair with its fuel-inefficient cars. But it was Endling (Martha), 2021, the smallest and most retiring of the three projects, that made the most lasting impact. Set in a darkened, low-ceilinged side room, the simulation brought to virtual life the last American passenger pigeon, a female (named after the first US first lady) who died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Based on historic photos of the bird and recent scans of its preserved body, the monochrome reimagining of the creature—the sole survivor of what was once a population in excess of three billion—was achingly slow and stately in its pace. And when the animal broke the work’s static spell by blinking her tiny round eye, she blossomed from object into subject: dead and yet alive, incontrovertibly gone and forever present.