Not Why but How, or the Spirituality of Faecal Stains

September 2, 2018

Mary Kelly, Detail of Post Partum Document (1973 - 1979)


 Despite the recurrent criticism of conceptual art as a rational endeavour, it is tautology and literality that is often used by conceptual artists, at times humorously, at others spiritually, often self-reflexively. This culminates in the use of data. Be it abstractly through diagrams or through the medium of mechanic reproduction from photographs to Xeroxes, documentation is one of the main “materials” of conceptual artists. In 1972, Ursula Meyer wrote:


The aspect of documentation has become increasingly important for Conceptual Art. The camera, as well as the Xerox machine can be used as dumb recording devices (Meyer, 1972:XVI-XVII).


The word “dumb” is accurate. Meyer had just exposed Joseph Kosuth’s notion of art as philosophy before or “art as idea as idea”, culminating in his 1970 work Information Room (Special Investigation) whereby he placed on two long wooden tables philosophy, linguistic, psychoanalytical and anthropology books from his library and newspaper stacks. This is the exact opposite of Douglas Huebler’s use of diagrams and pictures, mere graphic and photographic documentations – that is, “dumb” recordings - of what he expected to convey: later in Meyer’s book, Location Piece # 14 urges the owner of the piece to take 24 photographs in 24 hours of an “imagined” point above 24 locations “that exist as a series of points 15 longitudinal degrees apart along the 45 Parallel North of the Equator”. Surprisingly Stieglitzian, this project is a collection of 24 knowingly “dumb” photographs of the sky. 


Self-reflection is a method that seems to be averted by the American conceptual artist Mary Kelly through the plethoric use of data emanating from one source. She focused this recording practice on her son in the 6 year-long project Post-Partum Document, started in 1973. It is more difficult to apply the word “dumb” to this project – nevertheless, “dumb” here points to the absence of precise information provided by the recording apparatus, be it a photographic camera or a Xerox machine. They are literal processes that replicate whatever is put in front of them such as the faecal stains Kelly analysed and that appalled the ICA visitors in 1976. This generalization however is harder to sustain when applied to Kelly’s work as she mixes real items of her baby’s clothing, for instance, with diagrams she drew on them expressing inter-relational states, or includes charts of medical statements or observed behaviour related to speech and other activities. Indeed, tautological and literal strategies are employed, along with dislocated analysis of data such as the utterance of the word “dere” (“there”) by the child, whose function is analysed as “existence”. In a way, Kelly’s is an exercise in freedom of analysis by releasing data from its usual medical, psychoanalytical, linguistic territories (even if she resorts to them as she pleases): “existence” is an unhelpful category in any applied science. 


The exhibition of such compelling data expressing the development of a human being in his first achievements, the dated tools to record it as well as the real items themselves, and the realisation of the profound meaning of seemingly innocuous steps into that progression, are what make the work exceptional. Data does not objectify the child. Rather, it disperses his being. It registers the intangible, fractured, multi-faceted singularity of any human being. Self-reflection is the overall consequence of the endeavour after all. Nevertheless, for the excluded spectator, it is data – the vector of self-reflection and literality - that inflicts the existential sting of mortality. Suggested by a mere inversion of the process, beginnings are also ends, speech acquisition is also its potential loss, mortality is thus crudely presented, inversely recorded without even the consideration of a single metaphor. There are no reasons why (one dies; one lives; one exists) but a plethora of ways how it unfolds. The abundant data creates a new form of ritual, and rituals are paths to spirituality.    


To my knowledge, Kelly never shows a portrait of her son. Is this the disposal of representation, firmly announced by the first avant-gardes? Is collection of data replacing artificial representation? Despite the generally accepted idea that the beginnings of Modernism were obsessively keen on representing the world (or nature, as the Renaissance theory of the time problematically defined it for what is nature and how to represent it stimulated varied responses), it may be argued that those were times where the first attempts at CGI, virtual reality and conceptual concerns were addressed. One has a tendency to abstract Renaissance paintings and sculptures from their contexts. Hence, we remain unclear as to their function. Perhaps the post-conceptual period we live in as per Peter Osborne’s view (2013, 2018), has had a pre-conceptual period immersed in iconic representation. 


By “representation” I mean a mimetic, realistic imaging of nature through the use of perspective and a set of rules based upon careful consideration of how perception works. In his writings, Leonardo da Vinci is adamant in establishing that light travels through pyramidal shapes, carrying the image of things, or that objects in the retreating background are blurry and undefined. There is a remarkable passage about perspective where he suggests placing a glass intercepting the pyramidal light thus creating a surface where the image rests and can be replicated. Leonardo complexifies Humanism inasmuch as, on one hand, his Vitruvian man is an idealised form, the proportions of the human body very seldom attaining such a harmonious degree of mathematical balance; and, on the other, his concern with anatomy, mechanics and geometry brings to the visual arts a scientific ground confirming a definite turn spectacularly culminating in heliocentrism, or the Copernican revolution. The point here is that there is a definite contrast between the embellishments – or simplifications - of Vasarian history and artist’s writings and drawings manifesting their far more complex concerns. Moreover, there is a disconcerting tendency to oversee the context of many masterpieces as well as the technique used to produce them.


By CGI and virtual reality, I mean a mental and physical displacement operated by a disruption of the subject’s point of view. I specifically refer to an article by scientist and artist Margaret Wertheim published in 2007 in the Cabinet magazine issue dedicated to “Magic” where she envisions the use of perspective as a proto-gaming physical and spatial relation. The Renaissance treatment of images in general aims at “not so much revealing the way things are as in manipulating the way things appear to be”. Suffice to think of such a paradigmatic painting as La Gioconda, painted in the sfumato technique, which renders Mona Lisa almost physically present, and changes her expression according to the point of view of the spectator. Her enigmatic smile appears from a 45 angle whereas in a frontal view her lips present a mysterious expression, her notorious “je ne sais quoi”. Take, in a more spectacular way, Raphael’s School of Athens at the Vatican. This is a fertile example because not only does it create an ideal psycho-projective space, it also distributes the figures relevant to the location it was painted into: Pope Julius II, while instigating Michelangelo to paint the Sixtine Chapel, hired Raphael to produce four frescoes for a space used as library in the Vatican. One of the frescoes is the aforementioned School of Athens, with all the philosophers and scientists whose treatises and books would be in the library. The scene is a completely artificial and anachronic situation: the architecture is roman, and the philosophers lived in completely different times. Embedded in the architecture, one feels as if one could step into this ideal space with an architecture whose depth is produced by the vanishing point up in the sky and the interspersed vaults that recede into the background. If the first cinema spectators contemplated the possibility of an image jumping out at them, it was equally “electrifying” (Wertheim) to experience the first paintings with a psychological projective technique such as The School of Athens, that carefully weaved an out-of-body perspective. This was anticipated two centuries prior, according to the thought-provoking article by Wertheim, by the Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon (c. 1219/20 - 1292) who dreamt of the use of geometry by artists to bring grace upon us. 


As [Samuel] Edgerton puts it”, Wertheim explains, “Bacon understood that the ‘three-dimensional likenesses’ of geometric figuring ‘could prepare the mind for the true analogical meanings described in Scripture’.


In this case, the out-of-body experience provokes an intellectual mirage. The fresco is separated in two parts: on the left Plato, pointing up, holding the Timaeus, is surrounded by idealist philosophers and mathematicians. On his left (our right), walks Aristotle, pointing forward, holding the Ethics. He is surrounded by realist philosophers and scientists such as Euclides and Ptolomy. In the middle, a solitary figure that does not seem to belong anywhere intrigues: it is Heraclitus. There is movement in the painting itself, albeit arrested, but there is also a spatial projection through the ideal vanishing point into the sky though an opening in the architecture as if the body was being pulled onto the (platonic) realm of knowledge while enjoying the idealised scene. Moreover, each philosopher or scientist is embodied by an artist of the times: Heraclitus is the rough, introspective Michelangelo; the architect Bramante posed for the figure or Euclides; Leonardo da Vinci was Plato, and so on. 


Raphael, The School of Athens, Height: 500 cm (16.4 ft); Width: 7.7 m (25.2 ft), 1511


This evokes Jean-Luc Godard’s film Passion (1982). But before analysing this correspondence, let us remember the recent turn to “data collection”, or, as I have been denominating it, the indexical turn of the avant-gardes up to contemporary art. The “index” is a simple sign coined by the father of semiotics, Charles S. Peirce: it is created by what it denotes (like a photograph, a shadow or a footprint) and has the status of a trace. The aforementioned faecal stains in Kelly’s work are indexical, and the serendipitous “dere” / "there" is also an index considered as “deictic”, that is, a sign that points somewhere. Indexicality denotes a close relation more than a thing pointed at; it is a form of contiguity, a notion that can be visually expressed by the pointing finger – such as Aristotle and Plato’s, or, more intriguingly but also more specifically depicting a relation, Adam and god’s indexes pointing at each other in Michelangelo’s Sixtine Chapel. In Godard’s Passion, there is a very clear deconstruction of what makes cinema the new psycho-projective space found in Renaissance painting. The sound is at times desynchronised, the narrative is made difficult by a character’s chronic cough, another’s stuttering (that had been supposedly cured) and the refusal of another character, the film director, to have a story in his film (Passion is a film within a film). The latter is only concerned with re-enacting famous paintings by Delacroix and others, ignoring the Italian producer’s urging for “una storia” - a story. Everything in the film is indexically marked, from the names of the characters, Isabelle Huppert’s is “Isabel”, Hanna Schygulla’s is “Hana”, Michel Piccoli’s is “Michel” and so on, to the denouncement of the act of recording through its glitches. 


Moreover, the “tableaux vivants” themselves are a sort of comparative study between cinema and classical painting. In a strikingly analytical and satisfying scene, knights ride their horses through the background décor, smaller for perspective purposes, thus showing both the artifice of painting and of cinema. However, the renouncement of narrative is a manifest for a different kind of cinema (“not the Americans!” shouts the film director when his producer suggests asking an American investor for money), one that is closer to the frieze-like muteness of painting (there is also a mute character). The realism of classical painting is the same as cinema’s in the sense that it replicates reality as we see it. Nevertheless, it is not devoid of self-reflexive and indexical twists. However, it is through technology that the index understood as an abstraction of a mode of appearance of the thing it denotes – a bit of its life, as it were – appears. In a moving scene, Hanna is shown in the camera and sound device (with its graphs - its indexical lines)  trying to catch an aria with her voice, trying to reproduce the singing, sometimes failing, sometimes almost there. She asks the director if he likes it, oblivious to the indexical game that is at play, worried about her performance, her ability of reproduction of the perfect, almost divine singing. In another scene, Hanna complains, like a prophet of unrequited love, that she doesn’t understand her lover, the film-director. He retorts that “il ne faut pas comprendre, il faut prendre” – “one shouldn’t understand, one should take”. This is one of the tasteless and yet efficient word plays by Godard whereby he cuts a word, keeping “prendre” and letting go of the prefix “com”. Is this a manifesto for indexicality? Taking from life instead of continuously failing to understand it, as lovers fail to understand each other, but take each other in each other’s arms (what Hanna asks the film-director to do right after the "prendre"/"comprendre" pun)? 


 Scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Passion (1982)


Indexicality is at stake in Renaissance painting and theory through perspective: invisible lines that point to a spiritual plane for instance and through the deictic quality of the pointing finger that often points at immaterial concepts such as realism and idealism. There is, nevertheless, a point where indexicality is conducive to symbolism (the sky as the siege of idealism for instance). That is where the theory of disegno comes in: the line, the point and the surface are the tools of drawing, which are both speculative (in geometry, for instance) and technical. If one considers, with Federico Zuccaro, that disegno is the spark of god in us, and the dynamic substance of god, then disegno is both the trace of god in men’s intellect and hand, but also the fabricator of traces of concepts through their full expression in art. This spiritual notion of the trace is arguably a very intriguing continuum between the highly idealised theory of disegno and the physical existence of images – their diaphanous quality or unyielding materiality. It is by no means the collection of data to which we have invariably turned, from auto-fiction to reality shows. Abstracting a fragment of reality that euphemistically denotes a whole entity is found elsewhere before the twentieth century: death masks and the Shroud of Turin.    

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