In this part of the blog, I will outline artworks that have interested me that I will find relevent to my work. At first the works may be quite broad and seemingly random, but hopefully will become more specific as I refine my idea.
Seeing as this project will be exhibited at the end of this academic year, it is important to consider how these artworks exist within the gallery space.
IAN CHENG | Emissaries
Emissaries is a trilogy of live simulations set thousands of years apart.
Cheng was inspired by a book titled, On The Origin of the Conscious. The book hypothesised that humans didn't develop consciousness until fairly recently in human history. These humans didn't weigh up potential solutions when confronted by a problem, instead they were driven by an internal voice, often resembling figures of authority such as elders.
Cheng has a strong interest in Artificial Intelligence and strove to simulate the driving forces in a primal mind. These forces include biological needs like eating and sleeping, environmental threats, but also the more rational 'narative' side of human though- Cheng does not elaborate on what this is.
The first of the three simulations is titled Emissary In The Squat of Gods. It follows the story of an ancient community who have settled beside an active volcano. The Emissary is a child who was struck in the head by debris and now has the ability to take a step back and realise the danger to the village.
As a side note, I believe I have heard that the idea of insanity being an illness is a relatively recent one in western society. Schizophrenics were often regarded as being closer to God and blessed with the ability to see beyond the reality that most are bound by.
The next of the three simulations is titled Emissary Forks at Perfection. It takes place thousands of years after The Squat of Gods. The volcano has become a crater lake and is lush with wildlife.
The area is populated with dogs, and when these dogs find the body of a 21st century human, it is revived for 20 minutes. During this time, the dogs try to extract the memories of this human, but often sabotage this mission by falling in love with the human.
The final simulation is Emissary Sunsets The Self. This is set in the same environment but billions of year in the future where AI has become so normalised it is considered to be of the same nature of water.
The AI eventually possesses a plant and in inhabiting this body, discovers an awe for life. The AI is designed to destroy any mutations of itself that it deems to radical in order to preserve its own existence. The love of life battles with the seemingly immoral act of ending life that it deems a threat to their way of life.
The arwork exists in the form of projections in a gallery space. These projections appear to be at 15 fps although I'm not entirely sure why it is limited to this rate.
It appeas as though each simulation sits within its own room, or at least a sheltered space. By doing this, the artist wants the audience to see the simulations as three different pieces within the exhibition.
Emissaries strives to build emergence, a computer science term for complex results resulting from a small set of simple rules. Emergrence is often compared to evolution- results are often constrained by the environment they are in.
The art style is by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is known for his depictions of nature in his films. From a technical point of view, it makes sense to have cell-shaded cartoon like character. This allows the artist to create a visually pleasing result without commiting the hundreds of hours needed to create photo-realistic results that often look uncanny anyway.
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international community of artists in the sixties and secenties. Fluxus emphasised the use of many media and held the belief that art could be reached through many different modes of being.
Fluxus was very similar to Dada due its involvment with all forms of creative work like music, poetry and theatre. Like Dada, Fluxus often sought to depict a sort of sensory overload.
Fluxus's foundations lie in the work of composer John Cage. Cage hosted a series of classes in experimental composition between 1957 and 1959. Many of the students that attended these classes would be prominent members of the movement.
I have written about Fluxus in theory section of this blog. To see it click here.
Joseph Beuys
The most well-known of the Fluxus artists is German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys grew up in Nazi Germany, and in 1941 volunteered for the Luftwaffe.
In 1944 Beuys crashed his plane on the Crimean Front, he claims that he was pulled from the wreckage and nursed back to health by Tatar tribesmen who wrapped his body fat and felt. Fat and felt can be seen in many of his works, often used as a symbol for healing.
"Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man's land between the Russian and German fronts, and favoured neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with them. 'Du nix njemcky' they would say, 'du Tartar,' and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet, it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness. The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in – I always preferred free movement to safety belts… My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact – there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That's how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying 'Voda' (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in."
Although ficticious it highlights Beuys and other Fluxus interest in mythology. Beuys was particularly interested in celtic mythology and would regularly visit Scotland. On a visit to Rannoch Moore, Beuys paid his respects by carving a beating heart from gelatine
How to Explain a Picture to a Dead Hare
How to Explain a Picture to a Dead Hare, is performative art piece in which Joseph Beuys coats his head in honey and gold leaf, wears a felt sole on his left foot and an iron one on his right. He whispers inaudibly to a dead hare, cradling it in his arms or using the hare's own limbs to explain.
Each item is some kind of processed nature. The iron is extracted from ore and is cut into the shape of a sole, the honey is extracted from bees, the hare is killed by man. As seen in the video above, he holds the hare intimately - a closeness that suggests a bond between the two, like a father and a child.
However, once reminded of the fact that the hare is dead the piece takes on a tragic tone. As we see, man is capable of coexisting with nature, perhaps as a father figure to nature, not a diety but a steadying hand. But alas, the hare is dead and this relationship is now impossible.
In an interview where Beuys discusses this piece, he mentions the relationship between theory and the work of art. He states "if the theory behind the work of art were the actual work of art, then I wouldn't have to make something which was to be perceived through the sense organs". He stresses the fact that art has to go further than the theory on which it rests. Empirical experience is often far more profound than a rational explanation. I find quite often that moments of human experience often carry meaning that can never fit into the written or spoken word. Buys stresses that his work isn't there to serve the intellect. A work is to be understood instead by placing the viewer into the art-object.
The performance has taken place after the ecological harm has been done. He aims to emphasise the dependency humans have on nature. As humans depend on nature for life, almost like an organ, Beuys considers the hare to be an external organ for the human being.
Mankind has killed this hare, there is no loving relationship.
Rachel Maclean
Rachel Maclean is a Glasgow-based artist and film-maker known for her exagerated candy-like style. I went to see her I'm Terribly Sorry VR piece at ISO last year and recall it being dense with British signs. While I was looking for footage of this piece, I found this interview:
I was struck (almost dismayed) by how similar a goal her work shares with my proposal. Her work makes characatures from national signifiers, and exagerates them. She even discusses the degradation of a mystical Scottish signifier, The Monarch of the Glen, and how it has been commodified.
I'm Terribly Sorry
I'm Terribly Sorry is a VR piece in which the audience is placed within a street full of tacky British gift shop items the size of buildings with the characteristic rain. I haven't been able to find any footage of this piece so I will just have to rely on memory.
The audience is approached by several different characters , each with a smartphone for a head. The audience can only interact with these characters by taking their photo. I can't remember if the characters beg to have their photo taken or if they just beg for money.
Eventually a character demands you take his photo, doing so fires a bulet at the character, and then you begin shooting hordes of these characters. Almost like a its parodying video games.
It is quite difficult to interpret the piece when I can't revisit it. We know Maclean is critical of British nationalism, and she expresses Britishness through signifiers that are so many levels of abstraction away from representing any reality. These signifiers are also commodities, implying that the contemporary British identity is based on a myth used to sell tacky gifts.
I struggle to understand the symbol of the smartphone + camera however. Each character wants their photo taken, but why? The smartphone implies it is to feature in social media, and the gun suggests using it as some kind of weapon. But I can't work out what its getting at.
The important thing is, I have found a contemporary exploration of the sign in art. I am a little unnerved by how similar it is to what I imagined I would create- perhaps it is so similar due to our similar positioning in culture, or perhaps I just subconsciously referenced it. Either way, it will lead me to reconsider my approach whilst having good reference.
The lion and the unicorn
The Lion and the Unicorn is a short film inspired by the Scottish independence referendum. It follows three characters, the Queen, the lion (symbol for England) and the unicorn (symbol for Scotland), all of which appear on the royal coat of arms. In the interview above, Maclean states:
“The characters are based on the heraldic symbol for the United Kingdom with the Lion signifying England and the unicorn signifying Scotland. I was interested in taking these -kind of- quite absurd symbols. The lions are a non-native animal to England and the unicorn is a fantastical, fairytale creature.”
We see an array of exagerated British symbolism. The lion and the unicorn sit by the fire and have a nonsensical argument about the logistics of an independent Scotland whilst sipping on North Sea oil. The lion is voiced by Jeremy Paxman and the unicorn Alex Salmond.
The piece grapples with themes of a British identity being undermined by rivalling identities within it. It is interesting to see how Maclean tackled this subject, but I'm not sure it was effective.
Other Works
Rachel Maclean captures the overwhelming nature of a hyperreal society. Signs dominate all areas of life, often peddling an inauthentic narrative. Her work often uses excerpts from the media, whether it is pop music, interviews, or adverts. She often overlays this sound with absurd visuals, recontextualising the original source into a strange and unnerving world. Her work is an excellent depiction of Baudrillard's hyperreality.
René Magritte
Magritte was a Belgian surrealist. I think he was influenced by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams like most surrealists but Magritte's work is more semiotic in nature than most. That is why he is of particular interest to me.
The Treachery of Images
The Treachery of Images, was painted in 1929, is one of the most iconic Surrealist paintings. The painting consists of a pipe, with the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." ("This is not a pipe"). The meaning of the image was best put by Magritte himself when a journalist asked him about the piece, Magritte replied that of course it wasn't a pipe, try to fill it with tobacco.
What we see is not a pipe, but the signifier of the concept of a pipe. The sign is perfectly illustrated. The painting bears little relation to reality, it instead references our internal idea of a pipe. This is a comment on the nature of painting. When one looks at a painting, they do not see the nature of things, or even how the artist saw reality. The painting is instead a signifier to concepts that already exist within one's mind.
La Clef des Songes (The Interpretation of Dreams)
The Interpretation of Dreams is a series of painting made in reference to Freud's book, The Interpreations of Dreams. In this book, Freud discusses the nature of dreams, and how dream-objects have latent and manifest content. The manifest content is the actual image that one sees and remembers in their dream, the latent content is the meaning of these apparent images. If anyone is even remotely familiar with Freud, he believes the latent content is almost exclusively related to sex and/or genitalia. For example, the manifest-content may be the act of ascending a staircase but the latent-content reveals that this represents the act of sex.
Magritte explores this idea by juxtaposing an image with a word that represents a different idea. We usually take a word to be a concrete description of a real-world object, but here the text looks like a caption for the image, but it clearly is not (A horse does not equal a door).
Perhaps this highlights the arbitrariness of naming things, why do these images correspond to a different idea?
Or maybe Magritte is exploring how in a dream, contradictory images can actually mean the same thing. It is interest to try and imagine the system of signs within our minds, how seemingly different images can be closer related than we thought. How different images can signify the same concepts.
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