• Erika Argiolas

Post-Human: Transforming Bodies

Contemporary art encourages the mixing between what is really different from us, what is completely different from our culture and what goes beyond our moral limit, such as inorganic elements, monstrous animals, inanimate and so on and in fact, all the theorizations on hybridizations in the artistic, literary and cinematographic fields largely characterize the 21st century.

Peter Joel Witkin- woman on a table, 1987

Today, the theme of hybridization is still perceived with fear and lack of confidence by both critics and the public, in fact otherness is still difficult to accept, as it is perceived as something that differs from our everyday life, and consequently marginalized. The concept of monstrosity is still alive and present in our century, and we continue to perceive it as described by Zakiya Hanafi in her book Monster in the machine.

Marce lì Antunez Roca, Joan -  L'home de carn, 1992
Marce lì Antunez Roca - Joan, L'home de carn, 1992

It is therefore essential to mention, with regard to culture and "alien" intrusions within our sphere, Jurij Lotman who expresses an always very current concept:

"The development of culture like that of conscience is an act of exchange and requires another partner in its realization. This leads to two opposite processes. In need of a partner, culture creates with its own efforts this stranger bearer of another consciousness that codes the world and the texts in a different way".

Lotman argues that the introduction of cultural structures extraneous to the internal world of a culture involves the creation of a common language and that in turn requires the internalization of these structures.

Basically, culture arises from the internalization of "another culture" that is configured as external to the limited area of ​​"its world": at the base of the whole discourse Lotman wants to tell us that, in order to fully learn another culture and make it our own, it is essential to open oneself totally to it in order to acquire the tools for knowledge and understanding of that "language".

And it is here that another element comes in - the importance of which should not be underestimated - strongly linked to the previous issues, namely: fear.

Concept joined in an incorruptible way to otherness, to the different, to the other from us, to the alien and to all those who are considered external to the "system"; naturally within this discourse we must not forget that the cultural function of what is "other" from us is fundamental, since each culture creates its own "system of marginals" and in a certain sense "the other from us" would represent also a method of self-affirmation and the possibility of confirming what we are, establishing boundaries, differences and characteristics.

The irruption of what is outside the system, according to Lotman, is also a great external stimulus fundamental for culture, which must always identify itself as a dynamic and not static model.

If there were not this "extra-systematic" element, one would live in total homeostasis, in a state of permanent linearism. The idea therefore persists that culture also exists thanks to what is outside of it, and that its dynamism is achieved thanks to the coexistence of different types of languages ​​(by language we mean every type of expression, therefore more space culture is crowded with these languages, the more the culture is dynamic).

Lotman also contributes to the discussion of an important topic that runs through all contemporary art and, in particular, hybridization in terms of "modeling system" as an artistic medium through which it is possible to get to know the world.

By 'modeling system' the author means everything that reproduces the basic object for the purposes of the cognitive process, and therefore art intrigues because by reproducing the world it allows us to improve our knowledge.

"After all, the world of reality - Lotman writes - constitutes the content of art, and art must establish a relationship of analogy with the object it intends to represent: the work of art in fact is always conventional but at the same time it must be perceived as the analogue of a certain object; it is at the same time similar and dissimilar with respect to its own object”. This is why Lotman constantly opposes culture and reality, dwelling a lot on the mechanisms of cultural appropriation of the latter49: he thinks about the way in which art, in its textual forms, "models reality by promoting knowledge.

Charles Ray- Mannequin Fall 91', 1991

Representing this theme we find the Post-Human exhibition, held in Lausanne in 1992 by the eclectic figure of Jeffrey Deitch: the selected works are emblematic of the post-human condition, which for him corresponds to the overcoming of the traditional conception of man and individual.

Therefore, retracing the methods of self-representation of man over the centuries by means of art, Deitch emphasizes that great social and historical changes are always reflected in the works of artists and that, therefore, these changes become catalysts for new models, also favoring transformations in the technological, political and social fields; moreover, in the essay he illustrates the attitudes of modernity and post-modernity, towards the new identification of the self.

Some of the new and profound transformations that had to be faced in the 1990s were related to biotechnology, genetic engineering and plastic surgery, but above all to the advances in information technology, which he claimed were revolutionizing social interactions.

We are in fact at a new and different historical moment, in which the artist no longer produces a work of art to be included in a museum, but the birth of a new way of celebrating the body which, as an interpreter, it becomes a container for new experiments and in which the work of art is constituted through a reconstruction of one's own body.

It is the moment of connections to the world through technological interfaces in which one has the possibility of assuming all possible identities or, again, a body that will find itself welcoming all otherness within itself.

Among the artists who most embody the theme of the body in this regard, we find Patricia Piccinini, famous for her impressive works on the edge of science. Among her works, a study on human-pig hybrids stands out: these creations of her, apparently considered disturbing, appear to be real examples of humanity, thus throwing into disarray all the discourse concerning the attitude of exclusion of the creature considered monstrous that had characterized the previous century. Piccinini's masterpieces, just remember “The carrer”, in addition to being futuristic and hyperrealistic, are the result of in-depth research on the most current sciences, reflections that touch on complex debates suspended between bioethics, biotechnology and the environment.

But the step is short between the concepts of normalization of the monster figure and those of a real attempt at identity reconstruction such as those created by the performance artist Orlan. His 9 surgical performances entitled "La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan" or "image (s) - nuvelle (s) images" accompanied by his manifesto L’Art charnel are famous.

Her work is inscribed directly in her flesh, thus transforming the body into a "modified ready made": Orlan hybridizes art with surgical practices not out of necessity, nor to regain youth, much less to adapt to the aesthetic standards in force.

The same issue had already been addressed in 1972 by Annette Messager who pointed the finger at the imposed stereotypes of beauty, calling her project "Les tortures volontiers", but the novelty that diverges Messager from Orlan is that the latter uses the scalpel as a means to redesign oneself outside any medical legitimacy.

The operating room is transformed into a theatrical setting and place of artistic production, the interventions are transformed into performances during which he remains conscious under local anesthesia, aware he observes his changing body, accompanying these moments with the reading of philosophical or linguistic texts by Julia Kristeva.

However, Orlan was not the only artist who dedicated himself to transforming his own body into something conceptually artistic, there were, in fact, other prominent personalities such as Paul McCarthy who, through his apparently hilarious videos, hides anxieties inherent in childhood acts fraught with sexual innuendo, symptom of a very deep unease.

Or Matthew Barney who, transforming himself into a faun destined for castration in Free-climber, pushes his naked body to a frenetic Scottish dance; the presence of a plastic mat should symbolize human skin and a gymnasium for gymnastic exercises, where a woman wearing heels gets caught on bumps and white growths that would interpret nostrils, testicles, mucus, sperm, and so on in various ways: representing the theme of the body as the only object of worship, and a possible form of expiation from the sin of living. Or again, Damien Hirst makes the horror of the body his own by exposing quartered cows, sharks preserved in formalin tanks, whose sole purpose is to represent an extreme form of realism, communicating feelings of danger.

Yasumasa Morimura, Self-Portraits through Art History (Van Gogh / Blue), 2016. © Yasumasa Morimura. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

The retouched photos of the Japanese Yasumasa Morimura also show the strong impact that the Western image of the body has had in Japan, contradictorily exalting and demonizing it at the same time. In Italy we also find characters such as Maurizio Cattelan with his stuffed animals or the repeated gestures of Stefano Arienti, but perhaps characterized by a strong attachment to good form, to which after centuries of Italian art history it seems difficult to get away.

Each artist has therefore, in his own way, variously interpreted the theme of the body: who making it an object, who desecrating it, who modifying it experimentally, who transforming himself into the "other" through the use of technology. All in different ways have tried to communicate a state of restlessness and non-belonging, of the will to change for the better, in the exit from the substratum of appearance by transforming into something else and in the expression of their freedom, even voluntarily depriving themselves of this that nature has given.


Post Human

By Jeffrey Deitch

ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks

Patricia Piccinini

by Patricia Piccinini


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