Hyperrealism in Rotterdam

In 2016 robot Sophia[2] made her first public appearance. The uncanny humanoid robot can detect and mimic a large range of emotions and expressions. After her first appearance she made many others, making her a popular robot around the globe. A lot of people are happy about her creation, seeing her as a helpful addition to the human population and a good direction into the future. However, others aren’t entirely sure about her existence in the world. Her realistic resemblance to humans, yet her robotic movements can create an unsettling feeling. Will she be better than us humans? And to what extent should we integrate technology into our lives? These were some of the questions that I was pondering as I was watching, with skepticism, a video of Jimmy Kimmel interviewing Sophia the Robot[3] on my laptop. And then, in a very coincidental way, a couple of months later, my eye caught the attention of a poster while I was walking through the city. It announced an exhibition called Hyperrealism Sculpture in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. As I was already quite intrigued with robot Sophia and her creepy resemblance to humans, I made sure to visit this exhibition and delve deeper into the topic of human cloning/robotics.

Before I go on to talk about the things that I saw in this exhibition, let me tell you what the exhibition entails. Hyperrealism Sculpture is an exhibition that aims at presenting the realistic sculptures of various international artists to the public. Sculptors like George Segal, Duane Hanson, Juan Munoz and Ron Mueck, among others, had their work presented in this exhibition. As I prepared to visit the museum I thought of all of the things that I thought I would experience when “meeting” the sculptures; I was sure that I would experience uncanniness, a feeling that something is familiar but not completely so. I was also sure that I would, in one way or another, be in awe of the realistic sculptures. Already with certain expectations of this exhibition, I entered the museum to see what all of the fuss was really about.

The exhibition did, indeed, elicit a reaction from me. The realistic resemblance of the sculptures to real humans had a lot to do with this. Obviously, visual art always demands a reaction from the viewer: you can either look away and choose to ignore the artwork, or you can choose to look at the artwork and let your mind take in the many ways that the piece that you are looking at can make you feel. What I mean by this is that, unless you turn away from the piece, visual art (among some other types of art forms) makes you feel something immediately. This is an automatic process that we, as humans, cannot control. I once had an interesting conversation about this with a guy that I met in the library canteen: he told me that literary art takes time to read (obviously) but this means that your emotional reactions towards a text comes slower. A visual object, unless you turn away, automatically makes you feel something. This is the same type of experience that I had when visiting this exhibition. The first sculpture I saw upon entering the building was that of a girl in an unusual position. I felt a bit uncomfortable since I couldn’t see her face and wondered what the story was behind her creation. I had similar reactions to other sculptures at the exhibition; their almost flawless craftsmanship left me in awe. Looking at a statue of what looks like a convincing human being that is two meters tall is remarkable. The experience was uncanny because the statues look like real people but as a visitor you, simultaneously, know that what you are looking at is not human in any way. It made me question what makes us human in the first place—although I know that it is what is inside that counts, seeing these hyper realistic sculptures makes me realize that our physicality can also have a very imposing presence in the world. Now that were on the topic of body importance, as a small critique of the exhibition I should add that I did not see many people of colour represented. The majority of sculptures were white and of European descent, and even the “example flesh” at the beginning of the exhibition (to let visitors touch the material that most sculptures are made of) was white. That being said, the exhibition did showcase various human issues and experiences through their non-human sculptures that everyone could relate to. I personally felt one of those universal human emotions when I looked at a sculpture of an old woman holding a very tiny baby. Although I didn’t know anything about the artist’s background or what the sculpture represented, I immediately felt a soft spot in my heart when I saw this sculpture. I think I would describe the sculpture as “beautiful” not because of its physicality, but because of the emotions that the artist was able to convey with its work. Obviously, there is also an element here of the artist playing with the visitors’ personal memories; many of us have grandmas or have witnessed the tenderness of seeing somebody holding a baby.

The exhibition in the Kunsthal did a very good job in providing a variety of hyper realistic sculptures that tell different stories to its visitors. The sculptures made me think about humanity and how special the human body really is. It also made me very aware of the physicality of the body and its impact on the world. Now you might think: what about robot Sophia, did you learn anything about robots looking like humans? Well, yes. I learned that robots come in all different forms. Personally, I think that the creation of robot Sophia came out of a desire to showcase the perfect human being to the world—she is an exemplary model of humanity. Except that she is not—and this is where the uncanniness comes into play — because she is not human. But, despite this, I think that we will always have an obsession with seeing ourselves represented in a perfect form and with playing with this surrealness. Have a look at sci-fi movies, for example, and you will most probably see what I mean by this. Lastly, and most importantly, I think you should take a day off to visit this wonderful exhibition to see these sculptures for yourself![4]


[1] Sculpture by Patricia Piccinini

[2] 33178136_10215312291068059_4371997311115460608_n

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrCaxWsiJL0

[4] https://www.kunsthal.nl/en/home/plan-your-visit/exhibitions/hyperrealism-sculpture/

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