"Untitled" (Constants Are Changing) –
On the Body Metaphor and the Painterly in the Works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Softcover | Images (full colour) | 66 Pages | Format: 13 x 20 cm | €14,99
Publisher: Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk
Text: Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk
Editors: Rob van der Mei, Sanne Goudriaan
Year: 2010 (first and second edition), 2011 (third edition)
Design: Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk
Cover: Filip Gilissen, The Winner Takes It All (installation still), Liverpool Biennial 2010 commission, counting unit set at 1000 pax, 3 Arena Co2 Shooters, 100.000 golden slow fall glitters,18.000 watts of sunstrips, 6 cilinders of liquid Co2, sensors, 30 KvA and 150 KvA power generator, CPU
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Let me begin by giving some context to the origination of this research paper. The paper derived from research conducted in a research group which focused on modern and contemporary painting, and specifically by what means the body, as a subject, is being evoked metaphorically by the artwork. On the one hand the body could be represented by the act of painting, on the other hand the painting or the artwork as a whole could also be metaphorically thought of as a body. The difference is certainly not insignificant: the ﬁrst relates to the depiction of the body (the icon and the iconographic), while the second takes place on a more conceptual and symbolic level (the metaphorical). The latter, then, often consists of artistic comments regarding painting as a discipline and the medium (not necessarily paint) that it uses.
The outline of the research group departs from the philosophy of the renowned British art historian Richard Wollheim (1923-2003), who in 1987 characterized a painting by Willem de Kooning as a body, a notion which could also apply to various other artworks and artistic positions from the 20th and 21st century. In his book Painting as an Art (1987), Wollheim wrote:
I believe that the fundamental cases of pictorial metaphor are those where a corporeal thing is metaphorized: the painting becomes a metaphor for the body, or (at any rate) for some part of the body, or for something assimilated to the body. In some cases the painting metaphorizes both the body and something other than the body, and in other cases the painting doesnʼt metaphorize the body at all. But to my mind it is only in so far as the painting metaphorizes the body, … , that it uses the resources of the pictorial metaphor to the full.
In contemporary art, the body is an extremely opaque and capacious subject, one that includes as many bodies as there are artists and audiences. In addition, the bodies that are represented and evoked by the artworks should also be taken into account. In fact, it seems improbable that there is any art that does not involve or include the body, since making art and relating to it are rooted in the physical world of encounter. Consequently, if we consider the mind to be the seat of intelligence, the body is our interface with the world, and our senses its line of communication, so that even the most dematerialized, conceptual works of art must in some way take the body into account.
The body as a subject in contemporary art practice has, to some extent, been reevaluated over the last two decades, emerging once again as a credible subject and medium after a period of association with earnest ideologies or didactic methods. Following the important body-oriented work of the feminists in the 1970s, a retreat to post-modern irony, cerebral neo-conceptualism or masculine formalism rendered the vulnerable body irrelevant. Over time, however, the re-admittance of the human subject into art has validated the bodyʼs appearance once more: after the cool detachment that persisted throughout the Modernist period and beyond, the visceral and vulnerable body is now a potent signiﬁer of lived experience as well as a medium of formal and aesthetic inquiry. The body has become recognized, once again, as the principal arena for the politics of identity, as well as a facilitator and marker of belonging.
Before the body will be further specified I will ﬁrst deﬁne the body for the purposes of this paper. The boundaries between the human body and society as a whole are indistinct, ever- shifting and changing by time. The body cannot simply be limited to the physical barrier of the skin, since this simpliﬁcation does not take into consideration either the physiological sphere that exists along with our basic corporeal entity or the mutual relationship between the self and context. The position of the individual (a mind-body construction) should be determined with reference to socio-historical processes and ʻnon-humanʼ factors. For example, one should consider nature, with its ongoing processes that remain beyond human control, as well as the inﬂuence of technology on human society, affecting how we conduct ourselves and perceive others.
In light of the aforementioned, I would like to brieﬂy introduce the notion of the “Cartesian dualism”. Within the notion of dualism, or the distinction between the mind and the body, the self is perceived as a synthesis of mind and body rather than one being a container for the other. In classical dualism, the clean, rational, masculine sphere of the mind is contrasted with the visceral, intuitive, female characteristics of the body. In contemporary art practice the body is more likely to be considered the place where rationalism, psychological disarray, natural functionality and cultural desires converge. It is therefore possible to view the body along cultural, social, emotional and intellectual lines simultaneously, to regard it as a formal entity that is continuously in ratio to its many contexts. However, if the work of art is seen an event by itself, situated in a dense network of other events, in history, its visual characteristics might no longer seem to belong to a domain of form as opposed to content. These characteristics might appear not as the attributes of a transhistorical substance but rather as themselves a mode of historical action within the complex of contexts which structure the making and reception of art.
Nevertheless, the body metaphor in contemporary art, as will later be detailed described in relation to the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is constructed similarly to the Cartesian dualism. Regarding the Cartesian dualism, the body is perceptible as a physical entity. If the body is evoked metaphorically by an artwork, the construction of the physical form, as along with its iconographic features, take place in the mind of the beholder. In other words: the body is not represented literally (iconographically) in the artwork, but instead is suggested by the presence of a narrative, a pictorial gesture or a multiple thereof, or by the construction of a causal connection between the beholder and the artwork. In this case, two factors have to be taken into account: on the one hand, to recognize that there is a body present in a metaphorical sense, followed by the establishment of the actual (body) metaphor, and ﬁnally that to perceive this mentally evoked body largely depends on the competence and participation of the audience. On the other hand, the intentions of the artist and to what degree the artist wants to shape or guide the participant towards the mental appearance he or she has in mind - in other words, what the artist wants to communicate with us - is a primary need for such a construction. In the end, “guiding towards” is possibly the most adequate description for this process, for the participant is ﬁrst of all an individual, whether or not strongly affected, he or she constructs the desired image, and subsequently what meaning is rendered from that image, on an individually-based level.
In this part of the paper - The Body and the Body Metaphor - I will examine various studies regarding the body in contemporary art, including: The Body in Contemporary Art by Sally OʼReilly, The Artistʼs Body by Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones and Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel. These overviews serve to generate a general context and outline for the paper. Subsequently, there will be a more speciﬁc focus on the body metaphor in the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Here, the books Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Julie Ault and Right About Now: Art & Theory since the 1990s by Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier will be considered, as well as several magazine articles (Parkett, Artforum, Frieze). I would like to conclude this chapter by further examining the participatory role of the public and the possibilities of interactivity and participation that the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres offer. In order to do this, I will juxtapose Nicolas Bourriaudʼs thoughts in his text Relational Aesthetics with those of Claire Bishop in The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents.
In which various guises is the body being evoked metaphorically in the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and by what means do the tangible and formal structures lead towards this type of metaphor? To what extent do the possible different metaphors construct different bodily or corporeal conceptions and narratives? What could be said about the participatory role of the audience and what role does their body play in the concept and formation of the artwork? In the course of this chapter I will answer these questions.
The second part in the outline of this research paper is dedicated to the painterly and the painterly gesture. One often hears it said these days that contemporary painting is essentially conceptual. But what does this mean exactly? As mentioned before, Richard Wollheim suggested painting to be not art, but an art. The implicit distinction between painting as art and painting as an art refers to a possible distinction between “art” in general on the one hand and the various other forms of art, of which painting would be one, on the other hand. It is fascinating to see that distinctions remain, where it is in human nature to experience an urge to stay in control of internal as well as external factors by categorizing and marking these ﬂoating signiﬁers.
In order to understand the position of painting in the context of Felix Gonzalez-Torresʼs artistic career, but most of all how the painterly derived from painting, it is important to examine the late 1950s and 1960s, when art was redeﬁned at an overall level. During the 1950s the focus in painting shifted from the formal object to the action or process involved in creating it. Artists developed a more direct contact with the materiality of both the canvas and the paint. As the physical body became increasingly visible in the painting, some artists used the body itself as a brush. The body became increasingly present in the work of artists such as Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Carolee Schneemann, who relocated the “site” of painting from the surface of the canvas to a three-dimensional environment, in which painting and events “happened”.
In the chapter The Painterly, I would like to further examine whether or not a painting tradition or the painterly (gesture) is present in the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and to what extent his works differ from the Minimalist predecessors.
In short: The Body and the Body Metaphor focuses on the content of the work, albeit with a speciﬁc regard given to the evocation of the body and the corporeal in terms of the metaphor. In Juxtapose your Body, one speciﬁc element of some of the workʼs properties, namely the possibility for visitors to interact with the work and thus to participate as a “co-producer”, will be closely looked at. The Painterly considers the formal vocabulary used by Gonzalez-Torres, how these formal elements relate to its content, as well as the possibilities for the presence of a painting tradition or the painterly. In the concluding section, I assembled the obtained answers and results to subsequently examine the workʼs position in the current state of affairs, in todayʼs society, and in what way the work could remain its (critical) position and possibilities in the future. The main question would then be: What does his art mean now, and by what means? Whose memories, whose (inter)actions, inﬂect his work now and will in the years to come?
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