Collecting the signs and symbols of the 21st century, Mishka Henner is an expert appropriator who uses the tools of the digital age to reveal information and archive imagery concealed within a sea of online data. Renowned for his Google Earth visuals—particularly his Oil Fields and Feedlots series, which was shortlisted for the Prix Pictect in 2014—Henner’s oeuvre is much more diverse than your average contemporary artist.
As a “magpie” (a term Henner uses himself), the artist surveys and selects conceptual gems that are both playful and critical of today’s society. His satirical unearthing of extraordinary—yet commonplace—scenarios sees the Manchester-based artist query the fabric of industrial, cultural and political systems.
Not one to shy away from experimentation, Henner’s recently finished solo exhibition at AirSpace Gallery, Search History, saw him combine a diverse survey of works examining the various powers that “control” our way of living, with particular focus on one all-consuming influence: the internet.
After meeting Henner at his studio, we dive straight into the topic of the internet and why it is a prevalent force throughout his practice. “There came a point where working with photography meant that most of my time was spent on the computer. It struck me that the screen itself could almost be a canvas, and that the internet holds within it an abundance of material.” Henner comments that this, along with literature on artists working with appropriation (notably The Pictures Generation) drew him to realize that the success of every artistic generation lies in its ability to embrace its moment through the technology and optics of its time and place. In 2008, he looked to the prevalent technology of the aughts—the screen and the internet—and when he began appropriating this imagery, it was obvious to him that the web was going to drastically alter photography. He notes, “the aesthetics online were different from what I was trying to do as a camera-based photographer.”
In making a conscious decision to put down his camera, Henner opens up an innovative dialogue with new technologies, like the internet, as well as traditional creative expressions such as print-on-demand publications. “Print-on-demand allows you to work quickly. I only made a single copy of Winning Mentality, and with it, I entered the Tate Collection of Artists’ Books.”
It’s curious to note that, while Henner finds his inspiration on the screen, he transports the virtual back to reality through physical entities. He emphasizes that “as soon as you give an alternative form to something that already exists in the world, you change the way that it exists and the way that it is perceived.” Through this process, Henner has become a jack-of-all-trades, and he enjoys it: “I revel in the fact that people don’t know what to expect [from me]. In comparison with lens-based photographers, my eye is not fused with the mechanics of a camera.”
Indeed, his work spans a breadth of media, and Search History is a prime example of this. An amalgamation of new and existing pieces, there’s a vast mix of aesthetics present in the gallery space—a blend of text-based, print-on-demand, video, painterly and photographic pieces. Cleverly woven into the show’s fabric is a play on the term Search History: “there’s an interesting quality about people’s search history—it’s all over the place. You get a sense of how diverse both your interests and materials that you [consume] really are.” As with the internet, the audience is invited to dip in and out of projects spanning the last seven years.
Because Henner’s work is so closely associated with the internet, there is a tendency to insert his practice into the all-too popular classification of Post-Internet art. Henner aptly suggests that it is more of a descriptive than critical term. “People are trying to define a trend that is artists using the internet as a material. The problem with this is that it’s nothing new—Hans Haacke was making work about networked culture and systems in the 60s and 70s, as were Sol LeWitt, Manfred Mohr and Stephen Willats, and yet you wouldn’t describe them as ‘Post-Internet artists.’ The internet is an easy one—it’s an identifiable and definable thing in culture, but the label doesn’t really tell you a lot; I use the internet as a material just as a painter uses paint.”
As we consider the power of the internet, the concept of its accessibility comes to the fore. “What I like about the internet is how full of leaks it is,” Henner says. Numerous works undermine the power of institutions and corporations by revealing the facts. “It’s about the thrill of how a single online search can pierce through the facade of advertising.” Here, Henner reflects on a print of Coronado Feeders. Comprised of satellite images taken from Google Earth, it exposes the grim reality of cattle farming in Texas. A putrid pit of chemicals and excretion swells beneath pens containing over 60,000 animals. It’s an aesthetically striking piece that shatters the illusion of the industry. Another driving force for the artist is humour. Both Royal Subject and Worry Less Love More critique and subvert familiar 21st century signs through satire. Speaking about his creative motivations, Henner admits, “I feel that I’m onto something when I’m almost laughing—because I can’t believe that these things actually exist.”
Countering the light-hearted humor of poking fun at sovereignty is a dark undertone that at times pushes the limit on irony, even within the gallery space. “Everything becomes supercharged the minute you have the white walls.” Search History is the first time that Artefacts, one part of a series made on the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, has been on view to the public. Henner places the tiny, low-resolution image within a wooden frame on a sparse wall to supercharge a critique on abuses of power. The rough aesthetic of Google’s first virtual tour project peering into a museum combined with a shot of Lynndie England dragging a naked detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison makes way for a provoking piece: “I took a crude image and inserted it into a crude representation of one of the biggest museums in the world. The finished image is a fiction, but at the same time it sheds some light on blatant assertions of power.”
Search History marks a mid-point in Henner’s career. It takes stock of the concepts and aesthetics extracted by the artist from the world in which he inhabits through the internet. It’s a representation of his findings over the last seven years, yet it is bold enough not to include a few entire series such as Feedlots or No Man’s Land. It draws new parallels between disparate content, mimicking existence behind the screen—the internet is a mishmash of data, and it takes a creative mind to navigate, mine and extract its landscape. Search History itself is layered and complex, but it also very much embraces its moment and alerts us to the stories that go unnoticed within today’s online ocean. While a sense of foreboding at the state of the world could overwhelm the viewer, the contained aspect of each work suggests that every issue is surmountable.
Editors’ Note: The exhibition at Airspace Gallery closed on April 22, but if you’re interested in reading more about the exhibition, you can check out Airspace’s summary of the exhibition.