Using technology to construct highly personal interpretations of natural phenomena, contemporary British artist Dominic Harris' reverence of nature coupled with his fascination for code offers a surreal and whimsical take on reality. Much of Harris' work relies fundamentally on participation and the exchange between the artist and viewer; interactivity is often key to both the form and meaning of the artwork.
‘There’s less permanence in anything around us at the moment and it just feels to me natural, if not incredibly appropriate, that my pieces, while permanent in the traditional ‘static’ sense, also capture the blurred lines of the digital world.’
As these technologies, unstoppable and fascinating, have ignited a new wave of interactivity in ever more intimate ways, Harris captures the sometimes menacing march of the information age, turning it to our advantage in an insightful and seamless blending of nature with code. He is part of a small yet important coterie of artists who are pushing the envelope of feasibility and redefining what is acceptable within the art world.
Portals of Life
‘All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.’
In the fall of 2020, Halcyon Gallery presented two new bodies of work by British digital artist Dominic Harris titled World Stage and Metamorphosis. Harris’ new animated screen-based works return to his celebrated butterfly motif with restored fervour. Yet, this return is no replica: these butterflies, that look eerily real, are animated as they perform light looping flights, carrying the same fresh unpredictability as when they pass, through ceaseless whirls and twirls, from one flower to the next during a summer day.
With an unlimited, ever surprising, always fresh, sense of kinetic possibilities, Harris’ butterflies shift, rotate, swirl, dive, in seemingly infinite permutations before settling back into perfect, serene, and mesmerising equilibria. Most impressively, and indescribably, Harris’ butterflies appear to move together with their viewers: they literally follow our gazes, our moves, our sounds. For example, the slight brush of the viewer past one butterfly on the screen will result in a slight flutter, whereas a vigorous clap could cause the delicate creatures to scatter around, as though they were scared off. To engage with one of Harris’ works is much like encountering a portal into the natural world. His butterflies extend beyond the wall – outwards, inwards, all-around – shaping not only what art can be, but most important, how we experience art. Indeed, this particular art experience bridges, to an unprecedented extent, the gap between art and life.
Metamorphosis is a captivating, rich exploration of colour, whereby one kaleidoscope of monochrome wings meets another, transforming an abyss of black into a space of interchanging colour swatches. Beating one’s imagination, each butterfly was hand-painted on a tablet with the most delicate, finest, hand-produced brushstrokes – such prowess is barely comprehensible, not to mention the technological logarithms invented by the artist himself in order to activate so seamlessly this aerial choreography of colours. Metamorphosis: The Solos (2020), frames each butterfly individually – undoubtedly a direct reference to the artist’s earlier work Baby Flutter (2012). Each enclosure offers viewers a unique microscopic perspective of the unseen splendour of a butterfly mid-flight. Seemingly suspended, and yet in motion, Harris’ butterfly recalls Alexander Calder’s magnificent mobile, Mariposa, titled after the Spanish word for butterfly. Ascending eleven feet in length and over seven feet in wingspan, the sheer scale of Calder’s Mariposa is belied by its magical grace – two terms that aptly apply to Harris’ digitally (and prodigiously) executed creatures. The sculpture’s mid-air suspension oscillates much like the balletic open and close of Harris’ solo butterflies. Of course, other canonical artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Odilon Redon, Salvador Dalí, or, closer to us, Damien Hirst, could not resist the visual delights of these elegant insects; however, Calder’s work is an apt touchstone for Harris’ redefinition of surrounding space by way of continuous fluid motion. Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote of Calder’s mobiles:
‘they are nevertheless at once lyrical inventions, technical combinations of an almost mathematical quality, and sensitive symbols of Nature, of that profligate Nature which squanders pollen while unloosing a flight of a thousand butterflies; of that inscrutable Nature which refuses to reveal to us whether it is a blind succession of causes and effects, or the timid, hesitant, groping development of an idea.’
These words by Sartre eerily resonate with us today again, as we contemplate Dominic Harris’ Metamorphosis. They could have been composed precisely with his work in mind.
In World Stage, Harris has waged his butterflies to construct flags: British, Chinese, and American (World Stage: United States). For the latter version, a flag is shaped from red, white, and blue butterflies. The creatures are in continuous motion, fluttering ever so softly, even while in flag formation. The motif is deeply significant, immediately positioning Harris in the company of historical and contemporary artists who have turned to flags in their art, among them Jasper Johns, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, and David Hammons. Johns, for example, created over forty works featuring the American flag across a range of mediums, from wax encaustic paint on newspaper collage and oil on canvas to pencil and lithography, including bronze. In Johns’ words, 'One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did.' Johns transmuted the flag from the apex of public symbols to a new context, the realm of art. The act was certainly controversial for its time, and even more in the decades following Johns' first flag (now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York) in the then polarised context of McCarthyism and the controversial US military involvement in Vietnam. Today, flags continue to carry countless, though different, interpretations and implications. Harris’ World Stage reckons with the flag’s symbolic power by pulling apart the symbol into pieces and putting it back together. Each of these “pieces” is a butterfly: the flag is composed of butterflies, both fragile and ever resilient. This dynamic also conjures up a sense of our culpability, and even fear, in front of this cycle of creation and destruction, all the more so, as we, viewers, are the ones who come to disrupt the flag from its pristine perfection. Indeed, as the butterflies that compose the flag, lyrically respond to our presence, by flying off, the flag’s composition begins to disintegrate. Harris’ underlying message is one of overwhelming awareness of our bodies and identities in the spaces we inhabit, and how they affect the very things we perceive. No work of art could communicate better this inherent, live link, between us, living ‘under’ a flag, and living within a flag: we are the flag that we are seeing. Our actions, ever so slight, count, have an impact.
Harris’ works forge an unlikely bridge between the real and the digital. Harris is, admittedly, a traditionalist. His embrace of the digital is not one of subversion, rather, of a love for the marvels of the screen format, and above all, technology. Harris’ “computer art” forbearers include the Swiss artist, Jean Tinguely, one of the first artists to employ robotic machines to create drawings with his Métamatic series (1955–59). Harris’s work bears an analogy to Tinguely’s œuvre, not only because of their common use and love of technology, but also for the ethos inherent in their work. In 1968, Tinguely’s painting machines were exhibited in the landmark exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
The infamous ‘Father of Video Art’ Nam June Paik also had work on view in the show. Given the limited use of computers at the time, the exhibition presented the possibilities of technology, rather than its achievements – a spirit that resonates with Harris’ work. Even more so, Tinguely’s work played with interactivity: it often required viewers to push a button or pull a lever to cause his sculptures to start moving. Today Harris’s work speaks to Tinguely’s by similarly engendering social engagement.
Harris’ mode of social engagement has developed over the course of his entire career. In his most iconic work, Mickey & Minnie: An Interactive Diptych (2018), he was given free reign by The Walt Disney Company to access their material and archives as a source to play with their iconic characters. It is worth mentioning that Disney has had long-standing relationships with artists that resulted from collaborations between Walt Disney himself (who very much regarded himself as an artist) and other artists, such as Salvador Dalí. Claes Oldenburg too, had a short-lived collaboration with Disney Enterprises, though they ultimately rejected his proposed sculpture: a monumental ice bag. In 2012, Damien Hirst was invited by Disney to remake Mickey as one of his iconic series of spot paintings. Hirst went on to create more images of Mickey, including a spin painting in 2013 and a bronze statue in 2017. Yet, there also exists a larger lineage of artists who have lifted Disney’s material without the company’s consent – the most famous being Roy Lichtenstein. The artist’s Look Mickey (1961), in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., is often considered one of the pioneering Pop Art paintings. Other artists who have counterfeited Disney’s material include Andy Warhol and Philip Guston, as well as Paul McCarthy, who has gone as far as to reimagine himself as Walt Disney.
Of this remarkable succession of artists, Harris is currently one of the only artists ever awarded the privilege of working directly with Disney’s extensive back catalogue. In Harris’ words:
'I have become the only digital artist exhibiting in museums and exhibitions who is allowed to use Disney’s classic characters. And it’s something I take very seriously; I’m actually delighted with it. I feel it is very important to treat the characters with the utmost fidelity and I believe that my role as the artist is to respect where the characters come from but then to redefine them in a new story, a new narrative: something that pays homage to the incredible talent of Walt Disney who created these characters almost a century ago, but which also portrays a new storyline.'
The resulting works include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2015) and the aforementioned Mickey & Minnie. Of the former, Harris uncovered original, hand-drawn designs of the characters and digitally represented them with a Koons-like, reflective metallic aesthetic. The characters were also programmed to mime the gestures of viewers with actions including waving and jumping. In Mickey & Minnie, Harris’ interpretation of the nostalgic pair transported their 90-year romance into an interactive diptych, where viewers could interact with the beloved characters by way of a touchscreen: Mickey and Minnie were thus officially, and triumphantly, welcomed into the new age of digital art.
The orbit of Harris’ work uniquely encompasses a range of art historical touchstones: from Calder and Tinguely, to the tradition of kinetic art; from Johns to Lichtenstein, Warhol and Pop Art; from early collaborators of Disney himself, such as Dalí, to contemporary artists such as Hirst. This is to say that Harris has already established his home within the pantheon of modern art history. Philosophically, however, the most instrumental artist for Harris might, in fact, be Marcel Duchamp himself: a radical artist and pioneering figure in the Dada movement, Duchamp argued that both the artist and the viewer are necessary forces in order to ensure the ultimate realization of a work of art. In other words, Duchamp posited that a work of art may indeed begin with an impulse from the artist, but the work itself is not fully executed until it gets out in the world and becomes experienced by others: that second component in the Duchampian definition of a work of art is quintessential to Harris’s practice as well.
By the late 1950s and 1960s, artists had begun to digest Duchamp’s revolutionary message to the art world, and this relationship between artist and spectator was not only becoming accepted, but constantly being investigated and reinvented in new directions. A precursor to performance art, the so-called “happenings” gathered people together for performances and events, often with instructions and required an active participation on the part of the viewer/spectator. In these instances, artists gave up a measure of control over their work. The work of art, in turn, became a two-way exchange been artist and viewer – something like the site of a discrete contract between viewer and artist that simply required an act of mutual trust between one and the other.
Harris takes this exchange to the next level: his work become the site of a trio – artist, viewer, and nature. Harris’ work not only acknowledges and requires the viewer’s participation but fundamentally relies on it and plays with that dependence by adjusting the dials for viewer participation. As a result, a viewer has a significant amount of control in the ultimate work that they perceive. In fact, one person’s experience of Harris’ work may be significantly different from the next: the viewing/participation actually shapes the form of what is being viewed in a fascinating and endlessly complex full circle! The conceptual strength of Harris’ work lies in this very, infinitely variable, interactivity. In seeing the results of our actions reflected back at us in the work, viewers are encouraged and empowered as participants: 'And, now, if I do this, what will happen?'
Moreover, Harris’ new bodies of work – a homecoming to his celebrated butterfly motif – deliver unequivocal messages of life cycles of creation and destruction by way of subject, material, and spirit. Transplanting nature into the gallery space, his works guide viewers toward a complex intimacy with the expressive force of empirical awareness. In this intimate exchange between artist, nature, and viewer, Harris’s works have carved out a realm of the digital into a portal, connecting us, deeply, to life. By linking our actions to the world that we perceive, Harris brings us closer to ourselves. His works not only shape the possibilities of art’s manifestation or form but fundamentally change the mode in which viewers experience art.
Duchamp, Marcel. “The Creative Act,” in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 140.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "The Mobiles of Calder", in Alexander Calder. New York: Buchholz Gallery, 1947, n.p.
Jasper Johns, quoted in K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996, p. 124.
Interview with the artist (December 7, 2020).
Following their initial meeting in 1944, Dalí and Disney came up with the idea of collaborating on a short titled Destino. Dalí began working on the film in 1946, creating 22 paintings and more than 135 storyboards, drawings, and sketches. Disney’s studio then generated about 20 seconds of original animation based on these ideas. Due to financial pressures caused by World War II, the project was shelved. In 1999, Walt Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney unearthed the dormant project and decided to bring it back to life. The 7-minute film aired in 2003.
Rose, Barbara. Claes Oldenburg. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 205
Dominic Harris quoted in Dominic Harris: Imagine. London: Halcyon Gallery, 2019, p. 17.
Duchamp, Marcel. “The Creative Act,” in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), p. 140.