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Permanent Distraction | Rafaël Rozendaal

Site Gallery, Sheffield.  23 Sep – 23 Dec 2021

A review by Robert Good

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The main exhibition space at Site Gallery Sheffield is large and functional and, apart from a few benches, has been emptied for Permanent Distraction, the current show by the Dutch-Brazilian visual artist Rafaël Rozendaal. Into this void twelve giant, colourful, abstract, slow, geometric, uncomplicated projections play out around the walls. Each projection is identical to every other, and they are uniformly set out, portrait orientation, floor to ceiling. The tall, thin gap between each projection is black. There is no sound and the ambient lighting is low.

Turning the corner into the space, the scale, emptiness and silence complement the staging of the shapes as they glide peacefully and enormously around the walls: the work has impact. Burnt red squares repeat and fold into themselves. Soon electric blue horizontals glow like strip lights, only to be replaced by an endless sequence of collapsing pastel-coloured arrows. Thirty seconds later shocking pink semicircles follow washed out quadrilaterals. Further low-tech visual set pieces are beamed into the void. After perhaps five minutes the sequence repeats. And then repeats again. And again.

Rafaël Rozendaal Permanent Distraction.

So here's the problem: what does Permanent Distraction amount to? Is it simply pleasing, immersive and distracting - and is that enough?

Rewind 20 years. Since 2001 Rozendaal has been creating websites-as-artworks, a handful each year. Each one offers a single, simple, animated encounter, complete in itself with no links, texts, or any of the attendant digital furniture that we have come to expect from a website. Some, such as it will never be the same .com - which, incidentally, is surely a mash-up of Julian Opie's Imagine you are driving 1 and the classic arcade videogame Asteroids - allow a modicum of interaction. Others, such as the more recent not never no .com, do not.

Either way, these websites work: they work precisely because they are located within the complex, cluttered, fast-moving realm of the internet. They are framed by the busy paraphernalia of the desktop or the smartphone - icons, toolbars, notifications, alerts, windows - and so their slow, insistent and frequently humorous banality both critiques the mindless shallowness of much online experience whilst also providing a place of refuge and release. They are works of proto-ASMR.

Rafaël Rozendaal  it will never be the, 2004, screenshot.

Rafaël Rozendaal  not never no .com, 2018, screenshot.

By contrast, Permanent Distraction does not compute. According to Site,

Permanent Distraction forces us to confront the slippage between our physical and digital realities, bringing bodies physically into the space of the internet. Rozendaal pushes us to think about physical interaction with the internet, confronting what we think of as real, and what IRL (in real life) means when we now spend so much of our lives online.1

But this is specifically what it does not do. The relocation of Rozendaal's aesthetic from embedded website to white cube precisely leaves behind any connection with the internet and the associated contrast between busy and quiet, online and offline, analogue and digital that Rozendaal's websites feed off.

Instead, the staging falls somewhere between church and fairground. On the one hand, encountering Permanent Distraction feels like entering a place of worship, with hushed whispers in a large silent space, the tall black spacers between each projection acting as pillars, and the scale, colour and placement of the visuals suggesting the saturation of stained glass. Extend further in this direction and you could end up with the stage-managed sublime of James Turrell's enveloping pastel hues at Gagosian.

James Turrell Dhãtu, 2010.

On the other hand, the projections themselves with their abrupt transitions, meaningless content and incoherent individuality push back against any claims to grandeur and seem to offer little more than the entertainment and curiosity of a sideshow or a hall of mirrors. Roll up, roll up to see the giant projections. Extend further in this direction and they would not look out of place in clubland.

The inherent banality of Rozendaal's shallow, playful, candy-coloured aesthetic is such that it throws a mirror up to whatever it is placed alongside. The frame becomes the object of contemplation. And so, in this particular instantiation of Rozendaal's work, Permanent Distraction works not as a commentary on the internet, but on the white cube as church/fairground. We go in, we enjoy, we have an art moment, we leave. We are distracted but no more.

I want more.