Dossier | Naked eternity

  • Andrei Molodkin, Das Kapital, 2008. Photo: courtesy Galerie Orel Art, Paris

Naked eternity
By Victor Tupitsyn

1. When someone dies, it’s a field day for those who want to learn how to celebrate the most fundamental difference: the difference between life and death. The latter can be as glamorous as the former. Sad in content, funerals are celebratory in form—kitschy and “educational” as far as the semiology of mass spectacles is concerned. They are distinguished from other events by the way in which they relate to surplus symbolization. The reality principle loses its dominance while the pleasure principle conversely gains more weight as we mournfully celebrate our ability to find refuge in melancholia, much like Marcel Proust and Walter Benjamin. While looking at Marcel Broodthaers’s Neuf pots (1966) alternative titles come to mind—such as “dental nudity,” “tooth striptease,” etc. In the United States (and in many countries), the smile is a social code, an essential attribute of buying and selling: a smile is expected from sellers of corporate stocks, from sellers of politics and sellers of love. But what is a smile if not an exposure of our bone structure, or, more particularly, of our skull, of which teeth are a part? I am referring to the partial display of the skeleton—partial because a complete exhibition is postponed until we die. Despite being a manifestation of the dead in the living, a smile is nonetheless considered to be a sign of good manners and a cheerful mood. Yet the sight of human bones dug up from grave delights no one. The same is true of open bone fractures, which cannot be viewed without a shudder. Apparently, the joy we feel at the sight of an open (smiling) mouth as well as our readiness to smile are nothing less than a celebration of death. Death, “exemplified” by two glamorous skeletons which one could dub “naked eternity,” is featured in Damien Hirst’s End Game (2004).

While Sherrie Levine’s Skull (2001) is rife with similar interpretations, it also yields to an analogy with King Midas, doomed to turn everything he touched (including his skull) into gold. But is it not the same touch—the touch of Goldfinger—that turns “autonomous” art into a product of the culture industry? And doesn’t this gilded skull metaphor bear traces of what psychoanalysts call “anal eroticism” or “the anal stage” (which is comparable to the primary accumulation stage in economics)? Detectable in early childhood, the infant’s passion to retain faeces in order to receive greater pleasure at the moment of defecation turns, in the adult whose anal eroticism is displaced into the unconscious, into the passion to retain and accumulate gold (money), which resembles faeces. (1) That is how some people become bankers and coin collectors. Intellectuals are knowledge collectors; instead of collecting precious metals, they collect precious thoughts. For them, anal pleasures are extended to names and titles printed on the cover of books. This twist of the Symbolic function partially explains why we constantly make references to “paradigmatic individuals,” thereby eroticizing and fetishizing them.

The fascination with the skull and other parts of the “eschatologically stripped” body reveals itself in Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Portrait as a Vanité, New Mexico (1994); in Tony Oursler’s 1988 videotapes (Still Life); and in Francesco Clemente’s painting Self-Portrait with Skull (2002). In connection with this, one recalls Herbert Bayer’s photomontage Self-portrait (1932) in which the artist is depicted with his arm chopped off. He stands in front of a mirror while holding a thick slice of the amputated limb in his other hand. In retrospect, Bayer’s montage may well be read as an allegory: a naked young man staring at himself in anticipation of yet another rupture—the one which, six years later, will split the body of his work in two parts, German and American.

2. Today’s political spectacle is fuelled by the imperial ambitions of power brokers whose dream is to monitor the whole world from atop of an oil rig. The latter is the twenty-first century’s Mount Olympus—the theatrical lodge from which politicians and corporate executives enjoy watching battle scenes, executions and other horrors they inflict upon people’s lives. Bordering on this theme, Sadam Hussein’s execution (the murder of the murderer) has exposed not only the shocking theatricality of score settling, but also the ways in which our “innocent” addiction to oil plays into it. Irrespective of time span, death converts organic life into hydrocarbons. Death’s “exhibitability” (Golgotha, mass funerals, laying in state, public executions, etc.) is a well-known phenomenon; its oil-related nature does not discriminate between predators and prey, thereby turning all of us into connected vessels linked by oil hosepipes—whether symbolic or real. Death by hanging evokes Lenin’s portrayal of a “typical” capitalist who, in order to make a profit, supplies his executioners with a rope while knowing it will be used to hang him. Ironically, this low-tech execution is no longer compatible with the American Dream: the United States has long since entered the new age—the era of -high-tech death. “No one has a right to deprive a man of his death,” said Sartre. Perhaps we have taken this statement too literally.

3. Any text—regardless of its nature—describes the indescribable inasmuch as it refers to some elusive textual entity, a “deferred object” that escapes description. For example, in Oriental Despotism (1957) Karl Wittfogel argues that the development of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and pre-Columbian societies was stunted because of the need to irrigate vast territories, a need that ultimately paved the way to “hydraulic economies” managed by despotic regimes and bureaucracies deeply hostile to change. In Imperial China, which is known for its dependence upon rice cultivation, the hierarchy of irrigation officials included important poets and artists who—regardless of their brilliance—bore the (at least partial) responsibility for their country’s socio-cultural and economic stagnation. Engrossed in the metaphysics of time-freeze and inertia, they aestheticized their resistance to change and, in this capacity, can be referred to as the precursors of the Moscow Conceptualists. According to them, the isolation they experienced during Brezhnev’s reign (the so-called “stagnation epoch”) was a “fertile environment for creative meditation.” Given that “total irrigation” was a conceptual project, the notions of a “hydraulic economy” and a “hydraulic order of life” should have been adopted by Andrei Monastyrsky in his Glossary of Terms. (2) Even though the Moscow Conceptualists have been repeatedly criticized for their contemptuous reaction to politically engaged art, I am fully aware that to reproach them for equating today-ish-ness with newspaper headlines and media junk is nearly as hopeless as to pass judgment on the Chinese terracotta army or on Egyptian mummies for safeguarding their culture’s “hydraulic” way of thinking.

Although in today’s Russia the “hydraulic” order of life is not water-related, an oil-irrigated economy (3) (closely linked to the state-controlled production and sales of hydrocarbons) is the main source of money for the whole country. In this sense, post-Soviet Russia aptly fits Wittfogel’s definition of a “hydraulic society.” As for the rest of the world, an enormous appetite for oil has turned the United States and other Western democracies into liquid (read: hydraulic) democracies. Thus, Russia is not the only country that bases its domestic and foreign policies on an imperial model. In the United States, where the power of corporate capital has reached an imperial state, “democracy” is an empty canister set to be filled with oil. It (i.e., democracy) was once a utopian word; now it is a souvenir, a celebratory item. To restore it to the status of a political utopia, which it has lost, one needs to understand that autonomous discursive fields and aesthetic activities no longer exist. Everything, including art, has to be embedded into some system much larger than itself. The autonomy of art does not in any way preclude its openness to such expansion. Yet there ought to be negative gestures as well—selective bracketing, so to speak. What is remarkable about such negative gestures is that (unlike affirmative, signature-style gestures) they are capable of self-negation—but they negate themselves in the name of utopia, as it were.

4. Today artists as well as politicians who darken their palette with oil should extend the notion of a “constitutive outside” to everything that once gave off fragrance, roared, twittered and sang before being converted to hydrocarbons—for instance, animals and birds slaughtered by other animals and birds. For some such a state of affairs is a blessing; for others it is a curse handed down to us as temps perdu—as time lost millions of years ago. Such messages are sent not by mail but through oil-pipes, and no one feels like going to the police when the curse starts to take effect. Curses composted into the energy of humus provide us with agricultural products. Curses extracted from the bowels of the earth create conditions for comfort, warming our homes and allowing us to move in space. One could add to this list those curses obtained from the sale of curses and used to procure new curses, minus those curses spent on conquering new markets for trade and territories rich in oil reserves.

5. To make use of an example, I will comment on Andrei Molodkin’s installation Guts à la Russe shown in Paris at the Orel Art gallery (2008). “Guts” refers both to willpower as well as to the internal organs—specifically, the bowels. In this case it denotes “oil bowels,” since the works included in the installation were mostly comprised of texts enveloped in transparent minimalist boxes and connected with hoses that channelled oil to letters and words. At the gallery entrance visitors were greeted by an oil-filled “Fuck you,” while in the next room oil pumps rhythmically pumped “black gold” from text to text—from Das Kapital to the Putin-Medvedev “horizontal” of power. On the floor between them lay the word “Oligarch,” an oil demon that has crashed, like the demon in Mikhail Vrubel’s painting. The fallen demon is Patroclus, and the fact that he appears under the name of Oligarch in oil discourse is a result of recontextualization. Homer is transformed into Marx, the Trojan War into the control over resources, and Priam and Agamemnon (“Names-of-the-Father” in Lacan) into the heroes of newspaper chronicles. The battle over the body of Patroclus is something that is always already happening—under any condition—on every spiral of symbolization.

An empty form is a prop for mimesis. Vacant forms are easily filled with equally vacant content, including any ideology and any discourse. They are all “free agents.” In the case of the objects (boxes) I am discussing here, the minimalist props are related to the aesthetics of the funeral. Every one of these objects is a glass coffin in which the sleeping princess awaits her prince—that is, in effect, the viewer. The “princess” stands for the content packed into the coffin. There is some kind of hidden expression resting within it, and in order to make it apparent the viewer must smash the glass coffin with his gaze, free the content imprisoned inside it, and start interacting with it.

6. Whenever we watch acts of violence on TV screens in London, Paris or New York and witness human suffering caused by genocide, poverty and disease in Third World countries, our craving for the visual consumption of such “entertainment items” is shamefully reminiscent of the Olympic gods’ fascination with ancient “reality shows” such as the Trojan War, the blinding of the cyclops or the beheading of Medusa. This audience (i.e., Zeus and other immortals) is the prime source from which most Europeans draw their voyeurism. If St. John (the Evangelist) had been Greek or Roman, he would probably have been more inclined to admit that in the beginning was Sight, not the Word.

7. Tiresias lost his sight as payback for staring at Athena while she was swimming naked. The lesson he learned was that eternity could not be experienced in one shot. Is globalization broad enough to compensate? Can the “culture of the spectacle” and the “condition of the spectacle” make it look all-inclusive? Today art and politics are completely “stuck” on glamour. If it were possible to mount a glamour-free exhibition, it would still be glamorous by virtue of contradiction. I know a woman who refused to attend the opening of her friend’s exhibition to avoid the fate that befell the Holy Virgin Mary when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and the immaculate conception came to pass. Apparently it could have happened differently than in the Botticelli painting—not “orally” but visually. Should we all put on condoms to avoid immaculate conceptions: artists on their eyes, we on our tongues? Ultimately, celebration is a vehicle that spreads “insteads”—idiocy instead of idiosyncrasy, glamour instead of amour (where “gl” is short for glossy). For glossy love is the name of the promised land.

1. In this context, Lenin’s promise of a golden toilet on which everyone was going to sit in the future confirms the anal nature of a number of social utopias.
2. See: Glossary of the Terms of the Moscow Conceptualist School, edited by Andrei Monastyrsky (Moscow: Ad Marginem,1999).
3. In times of war the term “hydraulic” can refer to bloodshed, and in times of -financial crisis, to the loss of liquidity.

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