Benedict Drew: Gliss (Cell Projects, London) Art Monthly #357, June 2012

After the death of God, there was no return to earth or radical re-imagining: our secrets and fears stayed skybound. Now data is ‘served’ to us magnanimously, ‘pushed’ down to we leaden receptacles, we mute receivers. ‘On earth’ – whatever that may mean now – we search for meaning in barren soil under the beneficent æther of the ‘data cloud’ that nourishes us with information.

Benedict Drew’s intelligent, effervescent exhibition orbits the cloud, unmasking the binaries of the immaterial and physical it has crystallised, yet simultaneously refuting their ability to co-exist discretely. Via three linked installations or ‘Phrases’, he journeys from the celestial Utopia of the thinking-place, the thought repository, through the osmotic confusion of data and of thought – real and virtual – to the heart of the machine and the depths of the earth, the essence of each conjoined in a black hole of meaning, a voracious singularity.

Phrase I (all works 2011), a discordant conversation played out over two monitors, summons historical witnesses to the threshold of the aether: Zeno of Elea, William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, William Tell. In text that modulates chromatically, vanishing and reappearing, so as to frustrate any desire to read it, the viewer is served observations, obfuscations, aphorisms: ‘Suspended now between the physical mass of the clouds and the earth … A fall such as this allows for infinite subdivisions of time … Perhaps fifteen feet till the earth stops your descent.’

As the dizzying interchange of images, symbols, text and voice of Phrase II suggests, the forms of the material and immaterial are gradually converging: it is no longer clear what is content and what is form. On plywood screens, the rough grain of the board both cancels and is cancelled by the gloss of the digital video; symbols cycle at a fearsome rate, yielding to a recurrent dream of server racks rotating and diodic synapses firing: the  heart of the cloud. And behind, a machined polyphony soars then stutters — a re-versioned Kate Bush track about, bizarrely, the inventor of the ‘cloud-busting’ machine Wilhelm Reich, who vowed he could conjure rain by channelling the sub-physic substance ‘orgone’. Truth is stranger than fiction, and now all we have is fiction; perfect simulacra.

The digital is hard, binary, metallic and blunt, but also fluid, amorphous and stealthy; the physical is sentient and tangible, but at once stony and mute. Gliss suggests that we can perceive that the two manifestations are possible but that they both exist simultaneously, indivisibly. This is embodied in a geologic motif which surfaces throughout the exhibition (and indeed elsewhere in Drew’s practice), positing the dichotomy of the ‘natural’: chaotic and chthonic yet, like the crystals, orderly and hard — anything but sentient. Cruel and indifferent, the lumpen head-like forms in Phrase I, themselves reprised from the artist’s earlier work The Persuaders, 2011, are beautifully dumb; eyes become crystal in a Ballardian turn.

In the screen-space, all is virtual, but the physicality of the installations in Gliss – with their Hantarex cube monitors, mini-monitors, plywood screens and glass-fibre rocks – forces a confrontation between this materiality and the inverted Cartesian logic of the exhibition’s premise in a playful, mocking, bathetically nostalgic way. In this way, the exhibition becomes a reflexive gesture, a comment on its own form as an installation in space, a dreadfully old-fashioned idea…

In Phrase III, Drew offers a conclusion: the total synthesis of matter and antimatter, and the implosion of meaning. In an abyssal, blood-red space, a flat digital colour field modulates around vaguely organic forms and then gives way, abruptly, to a manufactured, material presence: a clay-like lump. A monstrous bass-box speaker-rock chimera hunches in the centre of the space, blank eyes emitting fathomless frequencies. The virtual and the tangible collide, organic digital forms invading inorganic matter and vice versa until all difference is lost. In the depths of this space, there is no meaning: a (non) choice between dumb rock (inanimate but material) or sentient aether (animate but immaterial). ‘Look around’, the screen instructs us, ‘It is bad’.

Zeno’s Paradox, invoked in Phrase I, is a fitting metaphor for the subject of Gliss itself: we are stuck between cloud and earth, belonging neither to one nor the other. Indeed, even the question of whether we are stuck has become an irrelevance: there is no ‘we’, no common ground, as we have become but nodes in the network of the machine, droplets in the aether, in perfect suspension, falling but never to reach earth. We wander lonely as a cloud.