Phantom exhibition brings ghosts of mental illness to life

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A combination of virtual reality and augmented reality creates a new kind of gallery exhibition with Aluta Null's, Phantom. Photo: Supplied
A combination of virtual reality and augmented reality creates a new kind of gallery exhibition with Aluta Null's, Phantom. Photo: Supplied


We’ve come a long way from what feels like prehistoric times, when computers and video games were only accessible to large companies and universities. From the days of the ubiquitous Nokia game Snake to the early PlayStation console days, we’ve seen video games and how people interact with them change in miraculous – almost otherworldly – ways.

Digital artist and video game designer Aluta Null (23) is taking the next step in the evolution of video game design with her contribution to the media hub Bubblegum Club residency.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, she soon became inspired by the beauty of the city landscape.

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With an upbringing filled with wondrous and childlike exploration, she was able to bring that innocent wonder into her adult years, which, she emphasises, primarily exists in her creative ventures today.

Null says: 

I’m obsessed with art, because I’m awkward and introverted. Art and game design are my ways of expressing myself. Aluta Null is a character I created, and she’s super fiery, she’s brave and loud

Bubblegum Club is known for giving its audiences interesting and unique art. The hub runs a residency programme in which it selects artists to produce month-long instalments in a studio space. As the fifth resident, Null’s exhibition was selected for September, but due to the brilliant reception it has had, its run has been extended to the end of this month.

Her piece, Phantom, uses virtual and augmented reality to communicate her perspective on the reality of mental illness.

As the mental health crisis grows in advocacy and recognition among young people, the piece is a brilliant exploration of life through the eyes of those who suffer from mental illness.

As the mental health crisis grows in advocacy and recognition. Phantom is a brilliant exploration of life through the eyes of those who suffer from mental illnesses. Photo: Supplied
The Phantom installation shows real life scenarios through the innovative use of technology. Photo: Supplied

This, coupled with the idea of ghosts, shows the true horrors of isolation that those with mental illness endure.

“I used the idea of ghosts to communicate the same idea of passively floating through life. I’ve created a physical room that is reminiscent of a dark comedy sitcom and, once one engages with the room digitally by scanning objects and images with their phone, a very sinister alternative is shown that communicates my view, which is that often not much is seen until you interrogate it further.”

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By using virtual reality headsets, Null breaks the fourth wall between audience and art, showing us the harrowing nature of mental illness, but also allowing the isolation – one that we experience together – to unify us in a peculiar way. Glitches and static are used to drive forward ideas around trauma, mental processing errors and disintegration.

“A lot of mental health aspects are hard to grasp. The virtual reality headsets transform the room into a dark, broken room. I’m hoping that people interpret the energy of error and disintegration through this and know that they aren’t alone.”

I just want people to know that the scariness isn’t felt by them alone, and that perspective can be really wild. I wanted to create an interesting way of thinking of mental health struggles by showing a different layer of meaning when something is engaged with differently

The timing of the exhibition is perfect – October is Mental Health Awareness month in South Africa.

The contrasting ideas between mind and reality are furthered through her vibrant and transcendent use of colour.

“There is a huge contrast between the physical room and the virtual reality room. The physical room is bright with reds and yellows and greens, but the virtual reality one is dark, with many blues, purples and black. This was really just for contrast and to create different moods. My mind works in weird ways that I don’t know how to explain,” Null says.

Her ability to find the link between body and machine becomes critical when we think about technological advancements, and how these advancements continue to reshape the human form. But a deeper understanding of the human mind is necessary first.

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Her innovative use of augmented reality, as opposed to 2D objects, is an extremely evolved idea. When we consider the technological advancements of South Africa as a whole, this shows us the possibilities in digital media, when we change our perspectives and consider the realities of life and health.

With her eye on the prize, and a mind full of innovative ideas, Null is eager to explore the outer extremities of her art, provided she gets funding.

The exhibition can be viewed at the Bubblegum Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, by appointment only, until the end of October.

She says: “I’m currently working on a project called Barbie Must Die. It’s a project about beauty ideals and beauty standards, but we can catch up on that one soon.”


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