If you think of the average Internet meme—a rainbow nyan cat psychedelically soaring through the heavens, or a man in an inflatable dinosaur costume rolling down a flight of stairs on roller skates, then face-planting—as a piece of DNA, the nucleus that encloses it and through which it replicates is the animated GIF. But can GIFs encapsulate more than just the genetic structure of the Cinnamon Challenge? Portland, Oregon, artist Zack Dougherty believes so. He creates captivating surrealist GIFs with an equally surreal purpose: to explore the notion of permanence in classical art.
Although Dougherty's GIFs aren't really reducible to a rote formula—they're just as likely to involve a miniature Jupiter spinning in a garage as they are to feature a marble bust of Aristotle bobbing its head emphatically back and forth like an inflatable clown that has been punched in the nose—there is one major recurring theme: an interest in the classical. Sometimes this is obvious, as in Dougherty's GIF of an infinite line of noseless Grecian heads smashing each other into smithereens, but even his planetary GIFs show a certain roundabout interest in the ancient world. Jupiter, after all, was also the Roman name for Zeus.
According to Dougherty, this common thread is no accident. In fact, Dougherty sees the average Tumblr blog filled with an endless array of animated GIFs as the museum gallery of the digital age. "Although we think of classic Greek statues as these monoliths of infinity, they were likely viewed at the time with the same sense of impermanence that we view GIFs today," Dougherty tells me. "But GIFs are actually an eternal happening."
Eternal happening? It's an interesting way to view the humble GIF, but there's a degree of truth to Dougherty's argument. An infinite, autoplaying video loop, the animated GIF self-replicates itself across the Internet in a way that physical art can't. This is why it's such a perfect medium of transmission for a meme, which is—like a gene—the molecular unit of heredity ... not of an organism, but of an idea. Unlike a statue in a gallery, a GIF never degrades, but it can also never be physical in the same way that a statue can be.
To make his GIFs, Dougherty uses multiple photographs of his subject from many different perspectives and then processes them with special photogrammetric software that can turn a series of 2-D photographs into a 3-D computer model. Once he has a 3-D model of his subject, he carefully inserts it into a real-world setting, creating a surreal contrast between the real and the digital. He then records a short animated film of the 3-D model, and converts it into a seamlessly looping image.
Eventually, Dougherty wants to do more with his GIFs. His ultimate goal is to create a GIF that actually decays and crumbles over time, just like a statue. In the meantime, Dougherty contents himself with exploring the contrast between the modern Internet and the crumbling Ozymandiases of classic art. "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and ROFL," his GIFs seems to say.
You can see more of Dougherty's works on his blog here.