Embodied in a virtual world

Tue, 29/08/2017 - 01:28 -- eyeline

In one city, three views of the predicament of the body in a virtual world: an art-historical show on the Nude, an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art loosely organised around a trope of embodiment, and a roundup of design in the new technologies fabricating augmentations of ‘flesh’.

Curating anything on the body in art is up against the off-camera presence of images of the body everywhere, in photography, commercial art, medical science and pornography. The different aims of marketing images, medical imaging and porn rival the thinking of embodiment in our virtual world. In the exhibitions, these ubiquitous genres of representation threatened to eclipse the aesthetic of the traditional art nude. Meanwhile, the imagining of other bodies using virtual techniques was more animated, while the whole distinction between embodiment and the virtual was transgressed in the energising show of new technologies.

It may speak to the spirit of the time that desire is more at home among the weightless avatars of the virtual. And yet, the paradox remains: despite the internet and so much of the world moving on-line, we remain embodied. We are shackled to the physical reality of being in a body and of needing that connection to live a life—even a virtual life.

‘In a virtual culture, the thingness of painting is what calls us back to galleries, and, when the “thing” in question portrays a body, it can call to us with special force’, so Justin Paton hopes, writing in the catalogue essay for the exhibition Nude: art from the Tate collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney. But is this right, ‘What is the place of the painted nude today? Does it have a place?’, Paton asks. The loss of confidence made for a curiously flat show. The question is made ever more anxious about the great divide that has opened up between the corporeal and the virtual. Part of this is the fault of the nude itself. It has been subject to all the reversals of recent art history, including the politics of the body which specifically intruded on the sacred space of the nude as formal, revealing its sexist and gendered prejudices.

All this challenged the art historical expectation against which pieces of the canon—Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois—strived to ‘call to us with special force’.

Perhaps it was an optical illusion, but there seemed to be more tranquillity to the art of the era before photography established the first beach-head of the virtual in art’s territory. The distinction between the naked and the nude—‘the nude remains the most complete example of the transmutation of matter into form’ to quote from Kenneth Clark—saw the ‘specificity of individual bodies becoming idealised form’.

The ivory glow of the nude in John Everett Millais’s The Knight Errant (1870) drew the eye to the luminous quality of paint. But ‘works in which the model displayed too much individuality or conveyed too overt a sexuality’ were defined by Clark as naked rather than nude. Thus Millais repainted his nude with face averted.

As John Berger noted, in the twentieth century this attitude was revised to value the individual in the naked: ‘to be naked is to be oneself’, finding authenticity and a kind of truth in the singular body (now in a world of photographic copies). This gave rise to the ‘naked portrait’. The naked portrait was a creature of the twentieth century, just as the academic nude was of the nineteenth. The naked portrait took the naked body ‘from the temple to the bedsit’, ‘from a world of classically perfected forms to one filled with what Walter Sickert called “gross material facts”’.

The rooms of works by Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon edged closer to the loss of desire for the nude and the abjection of flesh, dramatising the predicament of visual art in ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’. These images lie at the beating heart of the Tate. There are three bodies in the painted nude, Paton asserts: ‘the body in the painting, the body of the painting, and the implied body of the painter’. He goes on,

‘The paint skin becomes the skin of the subject, soft or glowing or scarred. And the energy present in the painter’s touch transfers itself to the body depicted … drawing out responses like those we have to real bodies: attraction, revulsion, sympathy, embarrassment, tenderness and awe.

This is still forcefully apparent in Freud’s Standing by the Rags (1988-89) and Two Men in the Studio (1987) and especially in the great frankness of Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait (1937). The oracular obscurity of Bacon remains potent—of all the modern British artists, Bacon deserves attention in a show called Nude for what he was trying to do with painting and the body. But there was the sneaking suspicion that what was now visible in these works was the defeated ardour of a few miserable Englishmen.

In Walter Benjamin’s terms, the ‘aura’ of the art work is ingrained in its very material, made one of a kind. The intensity of the sacred regard for it comes from the fact that most objects in the material world are without this originality: the quality of representing something else.

The nude has always been too literal a vehicle for reflecting on the auratic quality of art. It has struggled more than other painting subject for exalted status. The history of the nude, as illustrated in this standard ‘art-historical walk-through’, seems to have got less interesting in direct proportion to the march of the virtual into art’s space. The last rooms in the exhibition were aimless, the body adrift in photographs of Cindy Sherman and agitprop against the sexism of art history. All true, but the damage to the prestige of fine art had already been done (the lay-out seemed to say) way back in room two where we encountered Pierre Bonnard’s wife in a bath.

In the end, it seems the anxiety of this imagining has passed into the photograph, as seen by Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of mothers and newborns, in which an aura returns as sure as if gold leaf halos sat on the heads of its subjects. These were the strongest heirs to the vivacity of the nude to be found in this exhibition.

And the sculptures—the Henry Moore of Falling Warrior (1956-57), the Louise Bourgeois of the body on the bed—held the mystery of the human form poignantly, suggesting statuary as an unsung form of the body. The frail mobility of flesh captured in the permanence of bronze is a heightened representation of the existential risk to the body in the world.

The show did not address the question of whether the artistic body has been overshadowed by the overwhelming imaging of the body elsewhere in the virtual, in poses of disease, pleasure and obscenity. It could not do so, because of the set-up premise that these works are masterpieces whose value is unquestioned.

But now that we see the naked body casually everywhere, and now we hear talk of masterpieces in every show, the display of ‘famous paintings’ inadvertently tells us something about what the nude has lost to the encroachment of other forms of imaging.

And to encroachments of the more insidious nature—fetishising of image and reproduction for marketing purposes. The internal contradictions of the marketing of masterpieces weighed heavily on the viewer’s credulity. Nude found it hard to rise above the resin reproductions of Rodin’s Kiss, offered in the associated gift shop for $750. Merchandising was rarely more clichéd. Such is the eclipse of the original in these ‘blockbusters’ that what is available for sale is somehow more approachable than the paintings hanging in the galleries just seen, where the original appears somehow smaller, untidier and less impressive in the flesh.

The virtual has not just brought us the photographic, it has inaugurated the whole vaporous ether of unconstrained imaging from Facebook to post-truth. Against this backdrop, the ‘look’ of fine art can find itself in question.

The Vile Bodies of a contrasting show of contemporary Chinese art at The White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, were other bodies, not merely human bodies but bodies that are not our own—those of animals, insects, robots and monstrosities. Of course, this compares apples with oranges, because contemporary art, especially Asian art, is precisely not the art-historical adventure of the nude. The virtual world now reveals that there are no more verities of ‘modern art’, but passing episodes in one culture’s art history.

The artists in Vile Bodies were not interested in the symbolic plight of the human body as painting, represented as the nude. Their insects and beasts from a mythological pantheon emerge from the 3D printer and Photoshop.

Cheng Dapeng’s Wonderful City (2011–2012) expressed dismay at the toll taken on China by its modernising, realised in a dramatically ironic aesthetic: on a large lightbox resembling the developers’ idealisations of a planned city, 3D-printed elements glowed pure white. But closer inspection revealed mythical monsters, deformed animals and dismembered body parts. In Recombinant (2002-2006), Li Shan photoshopped parts of his own body onto images of insects and frogs, creating a wall of lightboxes depicting vivid but repellent hybrids. These bodies conjure dystopic anxieties of trans-species DNA transplants.

Representations of human bodies were otherwise than intimate; bodies in hardship, dismembered, disowned. In Zhang Dali’s Chinese Offspring (2003), resin models of actual bodies hung carcass-like—trussed, bruised and upside down—from the gallery’s void. They were the casualties of predatory economic progress that has drawn Chinese workers to the cities, there to lose their community and (the work implies) their humanity.

Very different works engaged the medical body. Xia Xiaowan, drawing on glass sheets, after the manner of CT imaging or pathology slides, produced the disturbing composite image of Man and Woman (2007). Meanwhile, in Initial Psalm (2013), Huang Siying produced a lyrical computer-generated video and 3D prints from the formulae for hormones found in newborn babies. And the tremors of patients with Parkinson’s Disease were used to animate a music score that accompanied a video work of the patients unable to control their condition, in the remarkable Krafttremor (2011) by Lu Yang.

The virtual is an extension of the faculty of imagination. Culture, always a big idea, has been held in common through the physical objects of books, theatres, libraries and galleries. Now the virtual is this big idea on steroids—culture is instantiated, not as object, but as image, proving that the object may not have been essential. Doing away with the material support that was previously essential for a cultural collective is a radical leap back to its origin in mental representation.

The originality of art, perhaps a victim of its self-regarding complacency, was radically up-ended by the technology that could take its representational essence and repeat it endlessly. And yet, that collective itself is still materially located in time and space. At the White Rabbit Gallery, the robotic dragon Wandering (2016), by the collective Luxury Logico, propelled itself through space, fashioned from cogs and blades of stainless steel. It serves to remind us that machines are bodies too.

As an endnote, new technologies make out of the virtual a new kind of material. Out of Hand, at the Powerhouse Museum, explored the virtual used to augment not supercede the material world. A titanium heel, a plastic dress; all 3D-printed to take their place alongside the natural objects we take for granted. Making real things from virtual intentions engenders more wonder for the virtual.

3D printing and other techniques allow body transformations from literal therapeutic and surgical use to art historical reflections on the moving figure. In Out of Hand, textiles and fashion get an intense makeover; so does the medical prosthetic. Now it flows back the other way; not the corporeal transferred to the virtual but the virtual returned to a new materiality. Technology is the underlying challenge of the virtual, challenging the natural world to give up its jealous hold on the material of the real.

Along with a plastic cup was displayed the six thousand pages of code it takes to make it. This is salutary somehow. It shows that it still takes a lot of imagining to get into the virtual and to get out of it with something artful.

Pierre Bonnard, The bath, 1925. Oil paint on canvas, 86 x 120.6cm. Tate: Presented by Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill through the Contemporary Art Society 1930. © Estate of Pierre Bonnard. Image © Tate, London 2016.

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989. From Portfolio ‘Compleat’ 1985-2012. Poster, 27.9 x 71.1cm sheet. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 2014. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy of guerrillagirls.com.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1982. Chromogenic colour print, 114.3 x 76.2cm. Tate: Purchased 1983. © Courtesy Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures.

Luxury Logico, Wandering, 2016. Steel, plastic, motor. Courtesy the artists and White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.

notes: 

Nude: art from the Tate collection was exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, from 5 November 2016 to 5 February 2017; Vile Bodies, curated by David Williams, was at White Rabbit Gallery from 9 September 2016 to 5 February 2017; Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital was at the Powerhouse Museum 3 September 2016 to 18 June 2017.

Robyn Ferrell is a Sydney-based writer.