Art

Yucef Merhi's Solo Show Puts Digital Art Front and Center at Bonnier Gallery

Yucef Merhi's Atari Poetry VI
Yucef Merhi's Atari Poetry VI Photo courtesy of Bonnier Gallery
As you enter the Bonnier Gallery in Allapattah, four large monitors occupy an all-white wall in the center of the space. Each screen consists of a letter constantly flashing in different colors that spell the word “open” — which happens to be the title of the solo exhibition by Venezuelan artist Yucef Merhi.

“The very first piece you see, Open, summarizes very well the feeling that we want to communicate about this exhibition,” Merhi tells New Times. “We want people to feel open about themselves and to sit and contemplate and reflect.”

"Open," which opens Thursday, September 2, is a collaboration between Merhi and gallerist Grant Bonnier, who've been working on the show, which was initially slated to open in 2020, for more than a year.

“We’ve been caged because of the pandemic,” the artist explains. “I spent a year in my apartment going nowhere and seeing no one, and I think that affects you in various ways. So that’s why we’re using this [universal] title for the show.”

Merhi left Venezuela in the late ‘90s and settled in New York City for 15 years before traveling around the world doing artist residencies in Europe and Latin America. He settled in Miami three years ago and hasn’t left.

Growing up in Caracas, Merhi’s enjoyed spending time at a local arcade. There, the neighborhood kids would gather and escape from the real world for a few hours. Mehri would save up money in order to pay the shop owner and rent an Atari gaming console and monitor for half an hour.

“I would spend hours in that place,” he says, his face lighting up at the memory.

On his seventh birthday, Merhi received his own Atari 2600 console, and it was as if something awakened inside him. He enjoyed the video games, but he was obsessed with the science behind it all. He took apart the console and taught himself how to reprogram the machine. By the time he was 8, Merhi was writing code and managed to reverse-engineer the gaming console.
click to enlarge Yucef Merhi's Compassion - PHOTO COURTESY OF BONNIER GALLERY
Yucef Merhi's Compassion
Photo courtesy of Bonnier Gallery
As he tells the story, Merhi uses his hands and makes the shape of a box in the air. It’s almost as if his hands are remembering the motions of unscrewing and dismantling the console all those years ago.

“Atari changed my life,” he says with a smile. “When I started communicating with the Atari console, my perception of technology and machines changed; it shifted. And then I got more into electronics and computers. Computer code has always been a part of my language, a part of my way of thinking and doing things.”

A collection of Merhi’s works from his three-decade career line the white walls of the gallery. The exhibition includes pieces from five different bodies of work, many of which are being displayed for the first time. “Open” is a retrospective, but it contains a few new works as well.

Perhaps the most striking — and enticing — piece is a large TV screen mounted on a wall. A bench placed a few feet away allows spectators to sit and stare. This is encouraged.

Titled The Poetic Clock 2.0, the screen displays three lines of a poem, and a clock at the very bottom. As the seconds on the clock change, the third line of the poem changes. As the minutes pass, the second line of the poem is different. And if you sit long enough, the first line of the poem changes every hour. In total, there are 86,400 variations — the same as the number of seconds there are in a day.

In the blink of an eye, you’re reading a different poem on the screen and essentially experiencing an entirely new work of art.

“When I came up with the concept of this clock, I just wanted to make a point that reflected the change of time," Merhi explains. "I didn't want to make a work of art, but then the whole process of making the clock ended up as a work of art.”

He conceptualized the piece in 1995 and displayed the first iteration of The Poetic Clock in 2000.

Other eye-catching pieces around the space include Artificial Stupidity (2019), which features moving images of the Venezuelan flag alongside poop emojis and the floating head of President Nicolás Maduro; and Atari Poetry VI (2006), which displays short poems from an Atari 2600 connected to a vintage TV.
click to enlarge Yucef Merhi's The Poetic Clock 2.0 - PHOTO COURTESY OF BONNIER GALLERY
Yucef Merhi's The Poetic Clock 2.0
Photo courtesy of Bonnier Gallery
“One of the things about this show that I think is so spectacular is that it allows people to see that digital art has been around for a very long time,” gallery owner Grant Bonnier says. “There’s been a lot of noise around digital art in the last year, with the rise of NFTs, but artists like Yucef [Merhi] have been exploring the boundaries of digital art for decades. We want people to come and experience the difference.”

For those unable to visit the gallery, a virtual walkthrough of the show will be available online.

“The whole point of the work that Yucef is doing is centered around this idea of retro-cycling,” Bonnier says. “Our pursuit of innovation creates so much waste in technology, [and] because we continue to pursue new technologies, we continue to create this waste.”

Motioning to Merhi’s 2020 piece titled Compassion, Bonnier notes how artists are able to imbue ordinary objects with new meaning and new life. Merhi's vintage TV sets once belonged to inmates in the U.S. criminal justice system.

As the title of the show implies, the exhibition and Merhi’s works are meant to inspire visitors to open their minds to experience things differently.

“Open” will be Bonnier Gallery’s first exhibition in 2021. Bonnier reflects on having to close the gallery in March 2020, a mere few days after opening a show featuring works by Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. Although the gallery was open by appointment, Bonnier himself would often find himself visiting and sitting with the artwork.

“I felt somebody had to enjoy it,” he says.

Sitting in the same gallery nearly 17 months later, Bonnier looks around at the art on display. He sighs. “I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to be sitting in the middle of this show — it was a journey to get here.”

"Yucef Merhi: Open." Thursday, September 2, through November 20, at the Bonnier Gallery, 3408 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; 305-960-7850; thebonniergallery.com.
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.