Something terrible is happening in Jacky Connolly’s new CGI video, Descent into Hell (2022). A house burns down, people on the street drop to the ground en masse, and an airplane nosedives into a mountain, twirling in slow motion. The reason for this chaos is never named; doom permeates the sparse narrative.
The four-channel, thirty-minute work—which will premiere next week in the Whitney Biennial—is, the artist explained via Zoom, a reaction to the events of 2020: the isolation of lockdown, constant protests, and police violence against people of color, and the resulting mental health crises that claimed the lives of several of her friends.
When the pandemic hit, Connolly was living in a cabin in Woodstock, New York, near where she grew up. Like many people, she felt cut off from the outside world. So she lost herself in a digital realm—specifically, in the video game Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV). Instead of playing through the game, she downloaded a file from the internet that allowed her to bypass the game’s central narrative—criminals stealing cars and staging other heists—against the backdrop of present-day Los Angeles, dotted with 7-Elevens, freeways, and five-star hotels. The world of Descent into Hell, edited from in-game footage, focuses on pockets of the game environment that players usually zoom past, a depressing microcosm of American inequality. Unhoused people sit on moldy sofas in half-finished buildings or hop trains in deserted train yards as flashy sports cars roar past. In the final scenes, as the sky turns red—recalling the orange skies that hit real-world LA in September 2020—the doom seems to climax.
Interplay between the physical world and computer-generated environments is of deep concern for Connolly, who received an MFA in digital arts from the Pratt Institute in 2016. Several of her early works use the suburban life simulation game The Sims, including her fifty-minute video Ariadne, which premiered in a 2019 solo exhibition at Downs & Ross, New York. This work juxtaposes screen-captured scenes with footage of furniture IRL; uncannily similar objects, like a heart-shaped bathtub, appear in both realms. A series of stained-glass and steel lamps set on pedestals in the gallery also depict characters and motifs from the game.
Slippage between the real and the virtual gnawed at Connolly intensely these past two years, as the pandemic curtailed real-world experience. Descent into Hell was born of the alienation of this time, of “the loneliness that comes from being inside all day on the screen totally dissociated from other people for however many hours,” the artist said.
As the two worlds muddle, it can be hard to pinpoint authenticity within the artificial. In Descent into Hell, a modded character resembling actress Emma Watson is depicted watching a more photorealistic porn film that features a deep-fake version of herself. The porn film, which Connolly found online and digitally enhanced, superimposes an AI-generated version of Watson’s face on that of the porn actress. The scene-within-a-scene Watson appears more lifelike than the GTAV one, prompting the question, which is more “fake?” Even as virtual reality and 3D graphics become ever more sophisticated—as is evident in tracing Connolly’s use of video games over the past half decade—Connolly conjures the loneliness and dread that follow us as we traverse these boundaries. No matter how lifelike the simulations get, they remain hollow and unnerving.
ON THE CALENDAR: Work by Jacky Connolly in the Whitney Biennial 2022: “Quiet as It’s Kept,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Apr. 6–Sept. 5.
This article appears under the title “First Look: Jacky Connolly” in the April 2022 issue, p. 12.