Potential of Recombinant Bodies

John Coplans Untitled Study for Self-Portrait (Upside Down no. 5) 1992

“For a quarter-century, Coplans—former painter, Artforum editor, curator, and writer turned self-taught photographer—has made his nude, aging body the subject of heroically scaled single and multiple images. The work’s impact is double-barreled, fueled by his disarming honesty and humanism and by his picture-making bravura. Working with an assistant, sometimes adjusting his postures before the shutter opens by watching himself on a video camera, Coplans strikes and holds poses that explore, question, and sometimes mock conventions of both representation and masculinity. The resulting photographs of body parts, torsos and full figures are crammed with detail (hair, calluses, varicose veins, scabs, and flesh—muscular or slack) and ricochet with historical, cultural, and psychological meaning. Coplans shrewdly harnesses our lingering belief that black-and-white photographs are documentary to his own formal interests in abstraction, frontality, tension and scale.” [Marvin Heiferman on John Coplans]

“The potential of recombinant bodies is emphasized in a text written by Siegfried Kracauer in 1927 called “The Mass Ornament.” He analyzes a group of showgirls named the Tiller Girls. At the beginning of the century they became extremely popular because of their invention of what was called “precision dance”—a formation dance in which female bodies, or rather body parts, as Kracauer emphasized, moved synchronously and in unison. Kracauer analyzes precision dance as a symptom of a Fordist regime of production, comparing the articulation of the Tiller Girls on stage to the composition of a conveyor belt. Of course, they first had to be disarticulated in order to be rearticulated, and this was done by cutting time and activity into fragments and assigning them to separate elements of the body
The industrial body of the Tiller Girls is abstract, artificial, alienated. Precisely because of this, it breaks with the traditional and, at that time, racially imbued ideologies of origin, belonging, as well as with the idea of a natural, collective body created by genetics, race, or common culture. In the artificial bodies and the artificially articulated body parts of the Tiller Girls, Kracauer saw an anticipation of another body, which would be freed from the burden of race, genealogy, and origin—and we can add, free of memory, guilt, and debt—precisely by being artificial and composite. The recombination of the cut-off parts produces a body without subject or subjection. In fact, this is what has been cut: the individual, as well as its identity and its unalienable rights to guilt and debt bondage. This body fully affirms its artificial composition while opening itself up to inorganic flows of matter and energy.” [Hito Steyerl Cut! Reproduction and Recombination]

Carroll Dunham Untitled (6), 2011

“What became very irritating to me was this… There’s a so-called “biomorphic abstraction” that is very rich in associations. You can look at what is nominally an abstract picture and be reminded of a lot of things in nature. Anyway, I started to get really annoyed by that idea, the sort of evocative ambiguity of all of it… I was still very convinced that I was making abstract art, and I was drawing these ellipses with lines in them, and saying, “Oh, it looks like a mouth,” and it occurred to me: well, what if an abstract painting actually had a mouth? What if you really couldn’t look at it and not have the word “mouth” in your head? That was a huge breakthrough for me personally. I’m not making any big claims. It’s simply that that was my experience… It was quite an eye-opener to make what is basically the same painting again but with this snarling mouth. It was the beginning of a kind of slippery slope that led me to much more nameable kinds of subjects and eventually to people.” [The Great Glenn O’Brien in conversation with Carroll Dunham]

Like abstractness, the mass ornament is ambivalent. On the one hand its rationality reduces the natural in a manner that does not allow man to wither away, but that, on the contrary, were it only carried through to the end, would reveal man’s most essential element in all its purity. Precisely because the bearer of the ornament does not appear as a total personality—that is, as a harmonious union of nature and “spirit” in which the former is emphasized too much and the latter too little—he becomes transparent to the man determined by reason. The human figure enlisted in the mass ornament has begun the exodus from lush organic splendor and the constitution of individuality toward the realm of anonymity to which it relinquishes itself when it stands in truth and when the knowledge radiating from the basis of man dissolves the contours of visible natural form. In the mass ornament nature is deprived of its substance, and it is just this that points to a condition in which the only elements of nature capable of surviving are those that do not resist illumination through reason.” [Siegfried Kracauer The Mass Ornament

Matthew Barney Still from Cremaster 3 2002

The real person, who has not capitulated to being a tool of mechanized industry, resists being dissolved into space and time. He certainly exists in this space here, yet is not utterly dispersed in it or overwhelmed by it. Instead he extends himself across latitudinal and longitudinal parallels into a supra-spatial infinity that should not in any way be confused with the endlessness of astronomic space. Nor is he circumscribed by time experienced as expiration or as measured by the clock. Rather he is committed to eternity, which is different from an endless extension of time. Even though he lives in this life here, which appears to him and in which he appears, he does not live only in this life here; for, as anyone who has encountered death knows, it is both contingent and incomplete. How else is that which is passing away in space and time supposed to participate in reality, other than through the relationship of man to the indeterminate that lies beyond space and outside time? [Siegfried Kracauer Travel and Dance]

Barney continues to inject his narrative into architecture though with Cremaster 3 he seemingly welcomes a kind of sculptural release. This three-hour tour through Barney’s Art Deco cock begins inside the lobby of New York City’s Chrysler building, where technology (here, a demolition derby with a 1930s Chrysler Imperial as the target) has begun to implode. Inside the erect Chrysler building, the Entered Apprentice (Barney) slinks his way down elevator shafts, deferring the building’s release by filling a shaft with cement. This is the body as architecture, anatomy as sculpture. Barney’s aesthetic seemingly engages everyone from Argento (architecture as terror mechanism) and Cronenberg (body consciousness) to Kubrick (the unnerving décor) and Lynch (cinema as wet dream), yet no artist has ever moved so far inside the body as Barney does with Cremaster 3. From the shaft of the Chrysler building to the many tiers of the Guggenheim Museum, Barney’s Celtic, operatic allegory is that of the testes ascending and descending in response to premature ejaculation (a barman’s failed attempt to serve ale), sexual asphyxiation (the nooses, the final “little death”) and, most significantly, fear of penetration. What with Barney’s obsession with the phallus, gender-bending motifs and modes of camp, Cremaster 3 is curiously unhomoerotc (a testament, perhaps, to his fabulously comfortable heterosexuality). 

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