Your Blood is Marbles: Jon Rafman at the Venice Biennale

 by Anna Kovler

At the 58th Venice Biennale the full force of Jon Rafman’s artistic skill for weirdness, animation and the absurd manifested in two works, one of them a feature-length epic film starring a girl in a Xanax cap. Dream Journal 2016-2019 follows a strange “dog-seal boy” who only has a head and legs, and Xanax Girl, who encounters an onslaught of outrageous situations while she tries to find her lost friend. In a bar scene recalling Star Wars’ infamous Cantina scene, the heroine opens a doorknob that is also a knife, slashing her hand while she is assaulted by sasquatch-like creatures covered in digital pink shag. There is an endless procession of dangerous hybrid creatures: giant frogs are followed by scary bugs sexually devouring a woman, a masturbating robot, an evil snail, and an arcade game that swallows people whole.

The protagonist never seems to get a break. A sea of milk appears and she happily starts to ride a merman before monsters in the milk-water attack them, forcing them to defend themselves. In another world she is harassed by muscular athletes with tails and animal faces. Despite her unending misfortunes, Xanax Girl doesn’t die, and when she bleeds, red marbles spring from her wounds, which always magically heal.

The film is viewed from cushiony chairs that vibrate subtly in a room carpeted entirely in a custom rug picturing a futuristic city. The softness of the seating and carpeted floor echoes the strange softness of the animation’s violence. At no point are the extreme scenes too disturbing to watch, despite their grotesque and gory nature. The characters seem to float rather than walk, and each stab wound or devouring is mitigated by its digital quality. Disaster borders on humor. Vomit gushes out in green marbles, blood in red marbles, and Xanax Girl prevails with eternal digital life. “Ultimately I’m interested in romance, tragedy, and pathos,” states Rafman, “but actually in order to achieve these … you need to balance it with humor. For me, humor creates a more honest and less sentimental way of expressing the human condition.”

Tragedy and humor come in equal parts in this absurd, captivating journey, which hints at the sedative potential of both pharmaceuticals and the virtual world Xanax Girl navigates with relative calm and resilience.

Jon Rafman’s video installations Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) and Disasters Under the Sun (2019) are on view at the Venice Biennale from May 11th until November 24, 2019. Recent exhibitions for Rafman at Arsenal Contemporary include solo shows in Montréal and Toronto in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Installation shot of Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) at the 58th Venice Biennale. Photo courtesy of Antoine Ertaskiran.

 

Installation shot of Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) at the 58th Venice Biennale. Photo courtesy of Antoine Ertaskiran.

 

Jon Rafman in his Montréal studio, 2018.