Ugh! Last week I visited New York. What really spoke to my senses and touched my emotions in a provocative and morbid way was a toe-curling exhibition of works by the American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. To be honest the works on display managed to freak me out a bit and that’s always a good indication of the effectiveness of an exhibition.
Even though I was quite disappointed about the architectural arrangement and the setting, which in general seemed a bit unfinished, I really enjoyed the display of works made by Thek. Especially the untitled pieces of meat from the series Technological Reliquaries made out of wax, hair, metal, wood, plaster, cord and paint presented in acrylic glass vitrines!
My first reaction: Ugh, dramatic and vulgar!
Secondly: Wow, it looks so real, although it’s not real at all!
And after that: What a delightful twisting of concepts! What a brave way of approaching the reversibility of meaning and expectation. This is real! This is more than real! Surely it’s the seduction of the hyperreal!
I think my personal fascination derives from experiencing the many different statements each item gives expression to. Each block of exposed meat, each cut of limb, hand, finger, foot, leg confused me and distracted my sense of order. Each and every one of the artworks seemed to present many conflicting layers of meaning. They have a charm that resembles Baudrillard’s conception of la seduction, and therefore they allow themselves to be grasped and described in his terms.
Baudrillard’s concept of seduction takes place on the reverse side of the logical linked terms of meaning. Through seduction mystery is raised by the blurring of every expectation and by combinations of opposite terms and relations. In the seduction, everything becomes obscure, and like a trompe l’oeil you become deluded.
Thek’s pieces of meat and his torn off limbs do not make a symbolic reading possible. There is no meaning and therefore nothing can be read. The neat surface of conceptual order is broken and we are faced with courageous juxtapositions of all kind. In some way – I would claim – the spectator is confronted with bodyparts more real than real. They are hyperreal, showing more of the fleshy matter than normally seen by the eye. This is the vulgar side of the exhibition, no doubt: blood, arteries, fatty lumps and the like are exposed right in ones face. Baudrillard would call this effect a growth of reality or a greediness of sight, which is in itself not seducing at all – very much the reverse! Yet we know that these pieces of meat are not the real thing. They are constructed. They are artefacts. They deprives reality of a dimension. They become ‘das Schein’: This is the mechanism of seduction. So, at the same time as one could say reality is exposed it is simultaneously obscured, veiled and covered up by the artificiality of the items exposed.
This seductive trick is executed on more than one level.
Continuing the theme the confusion of concepts of real and unreal is the question: Do the Plexiglas vitrines prevent the bad smell of rottening flesh? Well of course they do, at least my imagination tells me so. One of the pieces of meat has already been attacked by several of big fat flies. Yuk! My mind, my imagination of smell and my eyes tells me one thing: “it stinks!” on the other hand I’m aware that my senses could be playing tricks on me: These aren’t real flies and it isn’t real meat. Again I’m left in confusion, it doesn’t really make sense!
At many of Thek’s works a playful approach to several of our senses can be detected. Is it intended? Well, we will never find out for sure. Unfortunately Thek is long gone, but given his close friendship with and intellectual mentorship in Susan Sontag we might have a clue – at least we are allowed to make a guess. Sontag dedicated her famous collection of essays Against Interpretation to Peter Thek. I would like to round off with a quote from one of the essays titled the same:
”Like the fume of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intelllect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world […]. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” (Sontag 1966).
This exhibition of works by Thek seduces in a sophisticated way! It truly did mess up my concepts of reality in a fabulous way. It’s grotesque, rough, beautiful, adorable, painful and miserable. It’s unreal and highly artificial, but precisely because of the artificiality it manages to be so realistic and in touch with your feelings – mine at least!
Through the last six months I’ve been a regular visitor to the Medical Museion in Copenhagen. This house keeps collections of real flesh, skeletons, bodyparts with skin and all! Studying these objects of course has a strong impression on me as a spectator. Here I’m exposed to the real bodies, which once had a life. Yet I cannot imagine the smell of the real living flesh. It’s hard to get a grip on the realness of the real. It feels like there’s a big distance between me and the items observed. I ask myself why? Why is it easier to imagine the smell and the material consistency of the artificial flesh than the real flesh and bones? Maybe it’s because all the items on the Museion have to be understood in a different way. It’s like they almost require my empathy – or else I would be a bad and uninterested human being who didn’t care at all about lives once lived. I have to make use of my thoughts in a whole different way when confronted with the real flesh! It’s not that I don’t get seduced by exhibits of dead real bodyparts. I do, but in an entirely different way. It’s interesting how art compared to a more matter-of-fact science communication works. How might art and science communication work together? How might their synergism affect the museum visitor? These are questions which open a debate about the various forms of seduction we could expect at the museum – questions I will take up in the time to come…