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Maryland Today

Maryland Today: Hitting ‘Play’ at Home

UMD Art Gallery’s Online Exhibit Explores Our Tech Reliance

Illustration of a turtle with a camera for a head
A turtle with a camera for a head wanders in a desert in “The Turtle King,” one of three animated videos by Jonathan Monaghan MFA ’11 featured in the online art exhibit, “Pause, Play.” “Out of the Abyss,” below, is a reworking of the Book of Revelation.
(Images courtesy of the artist and bitforms gallery)

Spoofing our reliance on shopping and technology while omitting any human presence, the enigmatic and boldly animated videos by Jonathan Monaghan MFA ’11 star in a new—and timely—online exhibit at the Art Gallery.

When Taras Matla, associate director of the UMD Art Gallery, heard in March that the university would be largely halting all in-person activities to prevent the coronavirus’ spread, he turned to Monaghan and asked if he’d like to put together an online exhibit that people could attend without leaving their homes. The result is “Pause, Play,” featuring three of Monaghan’s animated videos, now through June 26.

Out of the Abyss

Monaghan’s animations, which he describes as “somewhere between a video game and a film,” made perfect sense for the current times, said Matla. In “Out of the Abyss,” a reworking of the Book of Revelation, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse totes fruits and vegetables in a brown “Organic Garden Market” bag, the logo a recognizable spin on the Whole Foods Market logo. There are also clear riffs on Amazon and Bed Bath and Beyond. Monaghan’s “interest in the fetishization of consumer culture” seems especially prescient at a moment when normal routines and buying habits have evaporated.

Reliance on technology—particularly resonant in the era of omnipresent Zoom meetings—is a major theme of Monaghan’s work. In “Disco Beast,” a unicorn is drained of its life force by a charging station, and in “The Turtle King,” a turtle with a camera for a head wanders in a desert, which turns out to be a surreal film set that recurs endlessly. 

The largely desolate settings depicted in Monaghan’s videos include no human figures. “My work deals with the dehumanizing aspects of technology,” said Monaghan. “Technology can allow us to exist and work without human contact, as we see nowadays, but what’s the long-term consequence of that? It’s a little scary as we become more and more disconnected from each other through technology.”

Watching Monaghan’s work on a 12-inch laptop from your couch is a radical change from how they’re typically displayed—as immersive projections as big as 10 feet wide on a gallery wall. Small details in the video are magnified in a gallery setting, and you can’t pause the video to rummage through your fridge. Despite the differences, “a lot of the themes and story and narrative are still conveyed” in a home setting, said Monaghan.

The extraordinary circumstances also provide an opportunity to assess how the traditional art exhibit can morph in unexpected ways, said Matla. “We’re expanding the vocabulary of the potential of art,” he said. “What is an art object? How are people to interact with objects? This is a very exciting time for art, and I think this will be a great test run for how people interact.”