My encounter with Refik Anadol's “Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last December was brief – it captured my attention for a few seconds, before it quickly went tedious.
Which is why MoMA’s recent acquisition of the piece was much to my astonishment.
The installation’s fiery, lava-like visuals, featured on a towering seven-metre high screen, are the products of AI algorithms trained on MoMA’s vast visual archive.
In theory, the dynamic graphics should echo masterpieces from the MoMA collection such as van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”; Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory”; Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”; Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies”; and even Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans”. I, however, struggled to discern these references.
Each aforementioned masterpiece represents an artistic movement. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” marks the dawn of cubism; “The Starry Night” epitomises post-impressionism; the melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory” are emblematic of surrealism; and “Campbell’s Soup Cans” is a pop art icon.
And yet, here they are, digitised into a kaleidoscope of shifting hues, sparking dialogue, but seemingly devoid of substantial meaning. This prompts us to question: Does “Unsupervised” truly encapsulate the essence of these masterpieces? If not, why bother?
But let us press pause and look back – almost all art movements throughout history faced their fair share of criticism before they became a thing. Impressionism was sidelined by the French art establishment; Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism was dismissed as mere doodling; while cubism and surrealism were initially deemed too radical.
Today, MoMA, with the acquisition of “Unsupervised”, may be navigating similar waters. However, it continues to honour the vision of the museum’s first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr, and his mission to help the public “understand and enjoy the visual arts of our time”. In the 21st century, that means embracing the role of AI in art.
As Artnet aptly puts it, Anadol’s piece “is fun, just don’t think about it too hard”. In many ways, I agree.
Artists of the past honed their brush strokes, while today’s artists are mastering algorithm training. We can all question the value of digital art, but we can’t deny that the digitalisation of art is as inevitable as the law of nature.
Technology and art have always been closely linked. From the fresco techniques of the Middle Ages and the linear perspective in Renaissance architecture to the advent of the camera obscura and its influence on impressionism, technology has always been shaping art.
“Unsupervised”, as a pioneer of AI art, is more than just a digital piece – it signifies the revolutionary change of our artistic landscape. So, rather than “thinking about it too hard” and questioning the use of AI in it, perhaps we should simply revel in the shifting currents of the art world, and appreciate our front-row seats to this transformation.