Feature

Life and Death

Paul O’Kane on art and being

In Patrick Keiller’s recent Tate Britain installation, The Robinson Institute, 2012, the filmmaker isolated a short clip from his 2010 film Robinson In Ruins. As usual, Keiller’s lens meditates on a banal scene, in this case framing an agricultural field undergoing cultivation. The clip was accompanied by the words: ‘Robinson rarely saw anyone working in the fields, even during harvest.’

As is often the case with Keiller, a small observation hints at a major historical issue latent within the everyday. Here, it is progressive dehumanisation and the increasing mediation of our relationship with both nature and subsistence that spills out, bringing with it lost spirits of people driven off their lands by greedy profiteers and inexorably progressing technology, a history of enclosures, protests, unemployment and homelessness, of ‘public’ and ‘common’ land abused and expropriated by sinister, exploitative forces, as well as dark forebodings of GM crops and increasingly processed food.

As Walter Benjamin suggested in the 1930s, mechanical reproduction alters human values, including the value of art. In search of some affirmative, contemporary response, art turns itself inside out. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Jean Baudrillard, Peter Halley and Hal Foster all extended Benjamin’s thesis. And Hito Steyerl is an artist and writer perpetuating this legacy today. The influence of mechanical reproduction on human values is also the context for Kazuo Ishiguro’s award-winning novel Never Let Me Go, 2005, that was subsequently made into a much less effective film. In eerily flat-footed prose, Ishiguro’s adolescent protagonists report their awakening to the reality of their peculiar relation to life and death. They are in fact clones, outcomes of a certain modern, utilitarian logic produced through advances in science. They are bred purely to ‘donate’ organs to people more real than themselves. Being, for them, is not something one owns and lives but something one dutifully hones for the benefit of others, thus the essential inhumanity of class and caste hierarchy is implied.

There is no piety in the self-image of the clones, perhaps they are too young for that, but as a result of their strange origin and hopeless destiny it seems their emotions are repressed, etiolated, limited. Significantly, the clones are encouraged – almost bribed – to make art and are trained in a home-counties institution that might seem uncanny to anyone involved in English arts education in the Cold War period. Thus, art turns out to serve the purpose of either salving the conscience of their masters and/or providing evidence that clones have ‘souls’, traces of real humanity that endure, despite their artificial origins and ultimately hopeless mode of being.

Never Let Me Go is a convincing metaphor, helping us speculate on both our current human condition and the place of art within it. Postwar and post-9/11 society has grown-up, lived through and gone beyond the nightmarish imagery of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and now Ishiguro’s metaphor allows us to see how the vitality, future and hope of our society is itself consumed by rampant, unregulated consumerism. We have reached a point where we reproduce only to consume and vice versa, becoming locked in a deathly matrix where merchandise masters meaning. But amid this bewildering transformation Ishiguro provides an image with some critical traction.

As modernity emerged, any ‘darkness’ and ‘superstition’ supposedly separating enlightened, Christian civilisation from the guiding beliefs of supposedly primitive heathens was not, it seems, eradicated but merely displaced as newly appropriate representations of being, life and death appeared. The early 19th-century Romantics’ response to changes in the technologised relationship between humanity, art, life, death and being is most clearly evident in Mary Shelley’s tale of Frankenstein’s monster. Later, Freud’s psychoanalysis, far from simply celebrating modernity, exposed fears and secrets in the dark corners and closets of the western bourgeois paradise and achieved its ends with the aid of terribly unmodern fetishes and classical myths which freely mixed elements of humanity with forces and attributes drawn from non-human realms. In retrospect it seems viable to claim that, in the 20th century, psychoanalysis supplanted philosophy as an alternative, more appropriate means of investigating modern existence and experience. It displaced collective ontological concerns about life and death and placed individuated, traumatic and uncertain narratives at the heart of identity and experience.

At the start of the 1960s, on hearing the rumour that painting was finally dead, the artist On Kawara responded by affirming his own continued existence, painting every day’s date and sending postcards stating that, whatever the plight of art, the artist at least was alive and well. Kawara seems to promote the notion that, in an increasingly fickle and ephemeral culture filled with fabulation, to simply endure, to continue to be, becomes an aspiration.

Today a nexus of technology and consumerism has made us increasingly dependent upon and complicit with its demands so that we pander subserviently and anonymously to its needs. Exhausted, alienated shoppers queue patiently to pay rapidly rising prices for poor-quality, possibly contaminated food while forcefully directed to use ‘self-check-out’ machines. As these devices make further demands – in their faux-polite android voices – they draw upon the freely donated labour of the consumer to increase profitability. The few remaining human staff, entrapped in repetitious duties, witness this inhumanity with growing awareness of their own imminent redundancy, signposted by diminishing workers’ rights, the collapse of high-street chains and decreasing job security. Meanwhile, a chirpy managerial class, released by neoliberalism from hard-won modern moralities, enjoys a freedom to mistreat employees unheard of since the pre-unionised early industrial age, a fact that should remind us that recently diminished and denigrated unions were originally formed to counter the inhuman excesses and tendencies of industrialised capitalism.

Advertising keeps the consumerist carousel turning. Not even the most sceptical critic is unswayed by its 30-second nirvanas where moisturiser or chocolate reign, and big-as-a-bus billboards flaunt the seductive planes of a new coupé captured in dashing perspective. Today, the morbid ubiquity of images (from imago – death mask) has grown to overwhelm and outnumber us. There are now more mobile phones than there are people on the planet. Millions of images per minute are uploaded to websites, and some ‘go viral’ or become ‘memes’, thereby approximating the genetic building blocks of life. Once again clear separation between art, technology, life, death and being becomes blurred.

When, occasionally, the shameful excesses, inadequacies and inequalities underpinning consumerism are glimpsed in news media, these ‘shocking facts’ become yet more fleeting images, commodified emotions of momentary indignation and injustice, sold and sent ready-wrapped to a mobile app. Thus, we might be rewarded with a momentary shiver of schadenfreude, or perhaps its antithesis, as some fleeting charitable piety provides a pressure-valve for the conscience of a blinkered bourgeois, well illustrated by Alfredo Jaar’s investigation of The Politics of Images, Renzo Martens’ film Enjoy Poverty, 2008, and the paintings of Johannes Phokela.

But as a great football manager once said, there are things more important than life and death, and despite a high-modernist tendency to endgame, phenomenologise, essentialise and existentialise being, 20th-century European philosophy stuttered into linguistics and fragmented into cultural theory. Roland Barthes dispersed ‘life’ into an array of mythological conventions discovered and deciphered amid the everyday by means of a radical anthropology. Baudrillard monogamously married death to ‘symbolic exchange’ as if scotomising life from his world view. And Gilles Deleuze reanimated a selection of long-dead philosophical forebears to recast the concept ‘a life’ as an event within which death is enfolded according to a neobaroque paradigm. Today the poststructuralist generation has succumbed one by one to their own mortality leaving us to decipher traces of their adventures in ideas. But given their legacy we are a little less afraid to claim that life, death and being are deterritorialised, contradictory, liminal, irrational and ambiguous. Images of spectres, nomads, clones and figures drawn from game technologies in the work of Pierre Huyghe, John Gerrard and Jon Rafman, for instance, all compete for our empathy, claiming a place within a new pantheon of post-human models inspired by technology, relativism, diversity and speculation.

To be modern once meant to part company with the spirit world, to enter a more realist, material and secular immanence. So-called developing nations, in a rush to modernise and globalise, still strive for this, abandoning local traditions, religions and philosophies. In Asian societies the question of being was long ago accommodated and diffused by religious philosophies like Buddhism, along whose ways and paths Europe’s most probing modern minds – Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger among them – travelled respectfully in pursuit of wisdom.

But in parts of rapidly modernising Asia today homegrown Buddhism is voraciously supplanted by US-style, Protestant Christianity. Capitalism and Christianity thus continue a co-dependence coined on conquests of Africa and the Americas in centuries past and, as capitalist Christian consumerism grips the Asian continent, ‘being’ becomes ‘Well-Being’ – a hugely profitable health industry that supplants not only local religion and philosophy but also traditional medicines, cures and therapeutic practices such as yoga. Now, to supplement this burgeoning industry, comes ‘Well-Dying’, a lifestyle product offering clients a near-death experience of dying ‘well’. The fee for ‘Well-Dying’ includes the price of being placed into a lidded pine box for a short period (those familiar with the endgames of Existentialism and Conceptual Art may here invoke the memory of John Cage seeking total silence in an anechoic chamber only to discover the sound of his own blood circulating).

If much of East Asia is ‘dying’ to become modern, western, Christian and consumer-capitalist, then Nick Broomfield’s 2006 documentary film Ghosts offers a compelling, nerve-racking and moving allegory of the ways in which Asians, both aspirant and desperate, are drawn into what cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj has described as capitalism’s treacherous ‘tides and currents’ (‘Exhibitions and the World at Large’ public symposium, Tate Britain 3 April 2009). Chinese workers, pursuing a promise of western wealth and freedom, are subjected to the least regulated and most exploitative nether regions of capitalism where gangmasters proliferate within the world’s supposedly ‘leading nations’ and richest democracies. Rural Chinese villagers, indebted to local loan sharks, are coerced into taking on even greater debt to escape their nightmare and pursue a dream of working profitably in Europe. But first there is the nightmarish journey as smuggled migrants. Many die en route in hideous forms of transportation (Feature AM364). Then working conditions are a living hell, exploitation and abuse severe, and tiny wages are mostly redirected to gangmasters in the form of rent for overcrowded, squalid accommodation – and all this despite the fact that the migrants are working (indirectly, through agencies) for leading consumer brands.

The 23 Chinese ‘cockle pickers’ who died so miserably in Morecambe Bay in February 2004 revealed the ultimately fatal folly of the Chinese workers. These ‘ghosts’ of the film’s title are kindred spirits of all who suffer and who thereby delegitimise capitalism and consumerism, haunting it with their injuries, injustices, pitiful narratives and early deaths, as they strive in vain to answer its riddle and meet its demands.

Any suggestion that representatives of a diaspora might undergo particularly spectral experiences is partially confirmed by John Akomfrah’s semi-retrospective ‘Hauntology’ exhibition at Carroll / Fletcher gallery in London late last year. The Derridean title provides a liminal context within which African faces, discovered in Dürer’s sketchbooks, are revived and reunited by the artist in a British landscape in Peripetaia, 2012. This film also features flashes of heterotopic paintings by Hieronymus Bosch where black, brown and white men and women coexist harmoniously a century before the start of the industrial-scale slave trade. Akromfrah is found abroad on the Isle of Skye in The Call of Mist – Redux, 2012, after a family bereavement. With the help of an SUV and some dramatic visual effects, Akomfrah carries an urn containing his mother’s ashes around a stark, sublime landscape in an unabashed demonstration of romantic mourning.

In Atis-Rezistans: the Sculptors of Grand Rue, 2012, a film by Leah Gordon recently shown in ‘Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou’ at Nottingham Contemporary, the interviewed sculptors (Frantz Jacques aka Guyodo, André Eugène, Jean Hérard Celeur and Claude Sentius) talk confidently and reassuringly about the way voodoo beliefs allow them to live comfortably with and between life and death. They ask the audience, what is death if not part of life? And who are the dead if not people we mention in everyday speech, who we think and dream of by day and by night, and in whose shoes and paths we walk and on whose achievements we live and grow?

The viewer who patiently engages with ‘Kafou’ might become enamoured by Haitian art’s lack of prejudice as it consistently overcomes distinctions between self and other, art and non-art, inside and outside, high and low, life and death. Paintings like those by Prosper Pierre-Louis provide graphic depictions of the internal spirit that resides within, for example, a bird and makes a bird what it ‘is’. Small history paintings show images of Haiti’s slave revolution overcoming the oppression of equally ‘revolutionary’ French masters. In a topsy-turvy turmoil of cultural exchange, the successful slaves-become-masters adopt military uniforms similar to those of their oppressors. Carnival, famed for its inversions and exceptional exchanges, appears repeatedly, as do zombies – the living dead.

‘Kafou’ reminds us that we are not necessarily inside or outside our life and our death and that our being does not necessarily belong to us. Films made by surrealist Maya Deren utilise dreamy slow motion to try to show in greater detail the experience of people possessed and who appear willing to surrender identity, inviting other forces to enter and deterritorialise the self. Though at first these images disturb they also invoke the relative banality of the weekend provincial dance-floor, where costume, music, posture and inspired movement – as a form of ‘possession’ – maintain traces and traditions of ritual within modern, secular society. Interestingly, Nietzsche’s last days of sanity in Turin are said to have been partly spent investigating the potential of Dionysian dance to shape the future of western thought.

Rather than sequestrating death from life or searching for knowledge in the world, spiritual societies demonstrate a willingness to accommodate the unknowable, making open invitations to the ultimate mystery to play a part in everyday decisions. Haitian voodoo culture, with its repeated references to crossroads – Kafou in Creole – and to the old African ‘trickster’ figure (encountered at crossed roads), is itself syncretic, fusing and confusing elements of Yoruba and other African belief systems with Catholicism. Thus, you can find echoes of voodoo in the streets of Rome where many crossroads are blessed and overseen by a religious icon.

If spiritual societies embrace and accommodate unknowable complexities, then secular artists share in a tradition of communicating nuances, exceptions and anomalies that might be called mysterious. The affirmation and embrace of troubling thoughts are also implicit in post-structuralism’s anti-philosophical production of uncertainty as it disrupts consolations and assurances that philosophy might have sought to provide regarding matters of life, death and being.

While art may be capable of championing humanity, of justifying a life and exploring the limits of what it is to be human, that humanity, that life and that being are continuously and increasingly challenged and changed, displaced, replaced and decentred by technology, by progressive thought and by the influences of diversity. So that today, in our globalised, technologised and relativised supermodernity, all systems of belief are continually forced to develop speculations on, and representations of, what it is to live, to die, to be.

Paul O’Kane is an artist, writer and lecturer.

First published in Art Monthly 365: April 2013.

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