Simon Denny

Simon Denny

With major exhibitions this year in New York, Venice, Los Angeles, and Lyon, multimedia wunderkind Simon Denny seems to be taking over the planet. It only makes sense for an artist hell-bent on turning modern society's global connectivity and material messaging completely inside out.

With major exhibitions this year in New York, Venice, Los Angeles, and Lyon, multimedia wunderkind Simon Denny seems to be taking over the planet. It only makes sense for an artist hell-bent on turning modern society's global connectivity and material messaging completely inside out.

Photography: PIERPAOLO FERRARI

Text: KEVIN MCGARRY

There was a time when business people, paper pushers, and bureaucrats dreamt of the life of the artist, when artistry was considered something akin to possessing a higher power mutually exclusive from a vocation. That higher power is certainly the calling of Simon Denny, one of the most exciting contemporary visual artists to emerge from New Zealand…ever? But judging by the obsessions that typically lead him to make his research-heavy installations, one quickly gets the picture that Denny’s reveries take him to the deepest reaches of Silicon Valley and the like. Nowadays, when more and more Millennials are coming of age with healthy levels of suspicion and even disgust for the art world, Denny is doing the good work of substantively engaging with the parallel creative universes orbiting around the technology that is shaping society as we know it, and in doing so, is redeeming the function of the artist in society as a proper critic of the times.

While the promise of his future is unflagging, it’s fair to say that 2015 has, to date, been Denny’s year. Things kicked off in the spring with his first significant museum solo show in the United States, The Innovator’s Dilemma at MoMA PS1. A mini-retrospective of sorts, the exhibition reprised a suite of projects Denny has made over recent years that tunnel into the lives of human and corporate juggernauts alike, such as the disgraced German-born sharing kingpin Kim Dotcom and the übernational South Korean brand Samsung. “I’m used to bringing other voices and authors into what I do,” he says “I use a lot of appropriation in my work and I also use the work of other people with positions and poses from different angles, and that’s part of what I do in any project.” In a perverse sense Denny could be read as a fanboy, or a revered one, a scholar. Inside the Venn diagram of these competing sentiments is a mix of expertise and an earnest zealousness about mastering arcane subject matters and liberating them as edifying images and experiences for the rest of the world.

The second stamp Denny put on 2015 was this spring at the Venice Biennale, the outsize constellation of exhibitions put on by just about every country on earth in the medieval city that is slowly slipping into water. Ingeniously, one of the two venues he scored for the New Zealand national pavilion is none other than the Venice Marco Polo Airport. Everyone flying into Venice for the show, from museum directors to camera-toting tourists, arrives at baggage carousels and arrival hall advertisements emblazoned with photographic reproductions of classical portraiture lifted from the second location used for his show, the Marciana Library in Piazza San Marco. Riffing on cultural currency and how cities actually do market themselves in spaces like airports, the Berlin-based artist effectively created a trippy overlay of eras and types of public spaces and cleverly lassoed an arm of the nothing-if-not-circumspect air traffic security apparatus into the show as a collaborator. (In fact, in order to gain clearance to work behind the TSA checkpoint at odd hours and as a non-ticketed entity, Denny says one of the most time-consuming elements of the project was an obligatory course in airport security.)

Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, Denny stocked the gilded library with a dozen or so vitrines devoted to recently disclosed information of biblical proportions: the Edward Snowden slides. Ensconced by the holdings of the library, which notably include a world-class collection of ancient maps, Denny’s works here stand as a meditation on data visualization and how far this discipline has come since the charting of the Atlantic. The project could be viewed as a curatorial one, because the vast majority of the images arranged within the glowing, modern shelving—largely anthropomorphized animals and computer accessories drawn as jaunty, colorful cartoon explanations of national security protocols—are the work of a man named David Darchicourt, a fairly anonymous Maryland-based illustrator.

“David Darchicourt is actually even more interesting to me than Snowden somehow,” Denny excitedly admits. “The whole thing about the Snowden slides is that they’re unattributable, and this is their big problem—anyone can say anything about them, and you can’t really say yes or no because the United States and the other governments involved won’t say anything on it. What I think is so compelling about Darchicourt is not only the story of what it’s like to be a human cog in that machine and the contexts that he can draw from, but also that his admission that he designed a logo featured in one of the Snowden slides is the first confession of authorship that we’ve gotten from anyone.”

As a cog in the unwieldy geopolitical instrument that is the Venice Biennale, Denny’s exhibition has been a huge hit and a critical favorite, and the stage could not have been better chosen for a body of work that ponders the state of how global security is pictured in this day and age, accentuated with wacky, wavy fonts and random consumer-targeted errata like a Whole Foods chalk drawing advertising buffalo meat. For exploring a topic that is all about restraint, the room sure looks like a party. “Essentially I think the job that Darchicourt had, to make things more accessible and more readable, was in part to make them more fun: posters for training sessions, posters for pay assessment processes—playful and entertaining reminders about info security and not telling your friends about what you were doing.” From this list Denny stumbles onto an ontological truth: “Bureaucracy is inherently boring, I guess, so you want to bring people’s attention to it and get them out of that boredom with color.”

Returning to a previous muse with no shortage of color, Kim Dotcom, the eccentric German millionaire founder of Megaupload, Denny speculates that he was able to move to New Zealand with a criminal background because it was an easy place for the United States to spy on him. “He’s kind of an entrepreneur and he did have a very disruptive business model, but at the same time he’s not totally Silicon Valley. He’s politically outside of that. And he cast himself as a kind of crazy bad guy, and then the U.S. sort of took over his story.”

The arc of Dotcom’s life in New Zealand has been an inspiration to Denny, but the story in turn reveals much about the peaceful island nation where Denny’s initial worldview was formed. While people first welcomed Dotcom, over time their approval of him dissipated, not due to his politics or business practices but rather how he expressed himself stylistically. “What really broke New Zealanders’ trust with Kim Dotcom—because now they sort of hate him—were in fact aesthetic choices, like his massive parties in Auckland. He funded an alternative Internet party for parliament and invited Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange to what went off in the style of a dubstep event, and they thought it was totally off.”

For one of his first large-scale projects, Denny contemplated the redesigned New Zealand passport with the support of a number of members of parliament as well as national journalists. “The human scale of what happens in New Zealand definitely gives one a different kind of insight, maybe faster than if coming from another context. But I also think that moving away from my home country and having a whole bunch of other references for understanding how things are chosen gives a perspective as well.”

With a show slated for London’s Serpentine Galleries in November, Denny plans to close out his banner year with a new project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in December. “I want to do something that really resonates with L.A. so I’m thinking of doing something about how Venice has changed over the years and is now some kind of hot spot for startups.” This is the other Venice of course, the beach community rife with speculative real estate, artisanal storefronts, and other signifiers of twenty-first-century capitalism. Grisly, you might say, looking at the gentrification up close, but to Denny, “It’s a nice story.” It’s not art, per se, but it’s even better: it’s an acute visual language that offers volumes on how life, inseparable from economy, is composed today.

Credits: Photo assistant Leonardo Scotti  Location Venice Marco Polo Airport

UP NEXT

The Video: Adam Lambert