Rachel Rose
Digital Alchemy

View PDF

Rachel Rose, Wil-o-Wisp (2018) (still). Single-channel video. 10 min 6 sec. Exhibition view: Wil-o-Wisp, Pilar Corrias, London. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

For Rachel Rose, doubt is a generative force. “I always have profound doubts about making art. I wish I didn’t, and I envy friends that don’t,” she tells me. Since threatening to abandon art completely during her MFA in 2012, Rose says that doubt emboldened her to turn from abstract painting to the plurality of digital mediums. This sustained uncertainty has also created a practice that, a decade later, is still driven by the pursuit of discovery instead of mastery: “The crisis never really ended, for me. [Now] rather than think of my doubt as an unruly shadow self that I carry on my back, I use it to try new things with greater confidence. If I’m going to be here doing this, I might as well accept the humility of making art in the larger world context and do the best I can.”

Doubt is also an inescapable part of contemplating the expansive subject matter of Rose’s work: being, consciousness, infinity, time and death. Through immersive installations of sound, video, installation, painting and sculpture, the artist investigates potentially sentimental themes to achieve an emotional register that eschews portentousness. The soundtrack of her 2015 breakout work Everything and More, for example, includes the wordless vocals of Aretha Franklin, electronic dance music and the astronaut David Wolf recounting his 1997 visit to space. In his interview with Rose, Wolf describes memories of the infinite darkness of space and the perceptual reality of returning to earth: the immense weight of a wristwatch, the obscenity of smells he had become accustomed to living without. This audio is sutured with footage of a neutral-buoyancy lab where astronauts learn to walk and a shimmering swirl of liquid. The resulting 11-minute video mines the sublimity of nothingness, inviting viewers to oscillate between the hyperreal and the heady lull that happens between wakefulness and sleep.

Debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015, Everything and More set the tone of Rose’s career with a ripple of critical praise from the Times, Artforum and New Yorker, as well as the preeminent curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. In its execution and installation, the exhibition revealed Rose’s talent for affecting embodied reactions in her audience.

So too did the Palisades, staged that same year for Rose’s inaugural London solo in the Sackler Gallery at the Serpentine. The exhibition comprised two works: Palisades in Palisades and A Minute Ago (both 2014). The latter emerged from a moment in which a sudden gust of wind entered the threshold of a coffee shop, bringing the outside forces of nature inside, alarming the patrons. It begins with a sudden hailstorm on a quiet beach in which half-naked swimmers run for cover to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Echoes. The scene cuts to a tour of Philip Johnson’s iconic Modernist Glass House guided by the late architect himself, eerily rotoscoped from an old VHS. The iconic building is suddenly bombarded with hailstones; cheers from the live audience of Echoes roar; ‘It was a [sic] perfect weather a minute ago,’ a subtitle reads; the house explodes into pixels. 

Equally disorientating, Palisades in Palisades shares its namesake with the work’s setting of Palisades Park, New York. Erected in the 19th Century, the park represents a thin veil of social history set on an ancient rock formation. Rose collapses time using a remote-control camera rig to swoop from panoramic landscapes to extreme close-ups of park-goers’ clothing. A Trompe-l’œil form of digital editing fuses video footage and historical illustration. A painting of a deer, for example, zooms in to reveal a bullet lurching into a body, a view inside the animal’s stomach becomes a strewn plastic bag. Temporal disorientation is amplified by a soundtrack of tonal whirring and the lilt of Nancy Sinatra. Despite the mélange of source material, Rose’s technical prowess renders the found and created footage indistinguishable.

Above all, the artist embraces the pleasure of the process for its own sake. New production and postproduction technologies, including different cameras, lenses, and software are adopted to resonate with the conceptual and formal elements of whatever subject she is engaging with. At times, however, her solutions are surprisingly low-tech. The swirl of liquid in Everything and More comprises olive oil, baby oil, milk and food dyes filmed close up. More recently, a painterly gesture of Vaseline on a camera lens blurred the imagery and colour of an otherwise pared-back set for a SS22 Prada campaign.

Though her development process remains extensive, Rose can no longer sustain her earlier production time of one year for each work. The demands of a full exhibition schedule and a young family have changed the pace at which she produces. “I used to be entirely focused on one thing and one thing only, in this very concentrated and minimal kind of way. Everything went into a single container. That’s certainly changed as I’ve gotten older and have different kinds of limits on my reality”. Still, her works involve interviews with specialists as well as site visits across the US, ranging from robotics facilities to zoos and museums.

Even with less time available for making, recent works have extended into longer-form, more narrative films such as Enclosure (2019). Set in fictionalised rural 17th Century England, the work is centred on the enclosure movement, a precursor to today’s capitalism which saw the mass privatization of land, necessitated wage labour and deepened class-divide. In the 30-minute narrative film, the protagonist is both a villainous agent of privatisation and an alchemist. In addition to a book about the making process of Enclosure, the artist is currently developing a sci-fi feature film.

Motherhood has further elevated the frequency at which Rose operates day-to-day: “I never expected that it would open up this kind of sensual feedback loop within daily life,” she tells me. When we speak, she is working on a suite of paintings that draw from the Madonna and Child paintings of Flemish Renaissance painter Joachim Patinir (c. 1480 – 5 October 1524). “I have been thinking about the borderless, psychedelic and emotionally complex landscape between me and my two children.” Forthcoming works reflect on “the ambivalence and depression and ecstasy that happens” as one body becomes two.

In conversation and in art, Rose toggles between history, everyday moments, existential questions and the state of the world. She draws parallels between her making process and her new preoccupation with cooking, describing how the addition of a single “surreal” spice can transform the chemistry of basic ingredients. Acutely attuned to the sensitivities of her audience, “Rachel is about mixed realities,” Obrist says. “She thinks AI, she thinks augmented reality, she thinks VR; she’s analog, she’s digital.” A digital alchemist, Rose melts together disparate ideas, imagery and sound to create filmic tapestries that are sensual, disturbing and poetic in equal measure.