From Transamerica to Pollock and back
The problematics of the body certainly cannot be referred to as an exclusive theme of contemporary visual arts, since they are as old as the idea of sacrificing the body as a physical material in the name of
compensation of spiritual values, or as a pledge of divine protection. The iconographic figure of crucified Christ is but the most spectacular image-sign of the Christian strategy of bodily-spiritual exchange which, because of its almost pictographic character, is emptied of a real content of physical pain in order to
symbolize transcendent values of spirit i.e. to represent its true, trans-iconic meaning. Along with this thesis, it seems as if excessive naturalism in representing Christ’s physical pain in Mel Gibson’s movie Passion is a result of a director’s conviction that the image of a wounded body in Western culture has lost its primary physical dimension which, for two thousand years already, has been enabling the symbolical exchange of a corporeal component of Christ’s suffering for our redemption. In other words, a return to the realism of physical pain in Gibson’s movie was meant to renew faith in all those reasons Christian doctrine lists to justify Christ’s suffering.
Altogether in tune with a basic idea of a legitimate loss of body integrity that is compensated by an insight into higher and superior spiritual values, an entire pleiad of Christian martyrs followed Jesus’ example and apparently registered their iconography as a historical-artistic vanguard of the body mutilations done by contemporary artists. However, in our time, consideration of bodily issues moves away from the original religious impetus, sliding off its linear course, especially so if “a genealogy of pain” i.e. causes of bodily violence in today’s art are established as a basic criterion. The motivations of contemporary “martyrs”, even when clad in common public goals and advocating the needs of gender, social and political interest groups, always became auto-referential in their physical rendering, directed towards the voluntary destruction of the body of the very author/artist/ performer. To that extent, art practices of the 20th and the 21st century primarily problematize the issue of the identity of an individual and his interest group vs. totality of social power. Essentially, however, they mostly deal with legitimizing the self-recognition of an individual’s fight for his own, personal identity. One of the theses which I intend to advocate here is contained in a belief that emancipation of the political body is supported by emancipation of the body in contemporary visual arts. It is not supported, as one could presume, by excessive presence of the body or its transgression and self-destruction, but by paradoxical relinquishing of the image representation of the body. On one hand, this is the aniconic upheaval of the New York School painters Marko Rothko and Jackson Pollock. On the other hand, it is a dialectic of investing in and giving up the power of the spectacular body in the most recent non-events by Vanessa Beecroft.
In Duncan Tucker’s movie Transamerica I actually recognize a contemporary paradigm of a body’s role as an individual’s physical support in his identification with himself, outside of any intentional higher social goal which, nonetheless, is not less socially relevant. The body rhetoric in Transamerica evolves on two levels, both of which are equally produced by cultural assimilation of transgressive sexual behaviors and the growing expansion of individual life strategies. Namely, a fact that Bree, a leading character in the movie, is a transsexual whose sex reassignment is about to transform her psychologically untenable status, is presented in a farm of a road movie that is most often used as a genre pattern of an individual’s failure to fit into a dominant cultural model. Therefore, a typical iconography of landscapes and road “infrastructure”, vast horizons, lonely gas stations, and ruined motels with “vacancy” inscriptions contribute to a formative and adaptational live phase of the leading character, before she resumed immersion into a mainstream structure of a large city on an ocean shore. However, a journey that will take Bree from the American East to the West coast is not at all connected with her personal identity issue. She (i.e. he), totally and clearly wishes to reject her male nature, however, the movie’s narration is dedicated to praising a newly established social situation in which transsexuality and change of sexual embodiment are regarded with compassion. Therefore, Bree does not fight with her split self that is, anyway, deeply rooted in her original subjectivity from the very beginning of the movie, but with quite a down-to-earth case of her recently discovered fatherhood, i.e. the traditional problem of family relations, rather than with potentially objectionable sexual extravagancy. The movie relocates its center of gravity from a sexual transgression to a family comedy, presenting Tucker’s thesis that individual freedoms are always preferred against the wishes of the collective, regardless of the degree to which a freethinking individual separates from a prescribed social matrix.
Despite the director’s placating softening of a potential social conflict, through the presentation of “gender dysphoria” as a principally uninteresting disorder with an easy surgical solution, one cannot escape the impression that bodily agony is present, all the same. Each change is necessarily preceded by at least insignificantly expressed ambivalence, an unterminated state “before” that is fighting with an “after” state, that has not arisen yet. Becoming the (female) body as opposed to relinquishing the (male) body and an individual’s balance is disturbed by its unacceptable object. A predecessor to the ambivalent body state in Transamerica can be recognized already in a period of “the ambivalent image” from a heroic era of abstraction and theoretical-practical attempt to epistemologically ground a subject of non-objective art During the 1940s and the 1950s, the issues of the object and nothingness in abstraction were considered by the artists who were establishing a new painting cannon. Correspondingly and equally, the abstract subject increasingly referred the critics from hermeneutics of “what does the picture present” to the semiotic analysis of the image-sign in a post-industrial society, while the audience experienced ambivalence of abstraction, of one painting becoming the other, same as Bree before the operation, with a sort of inner tension but with total awareness of unstoppable forming of a new world picture. In order to find out what happened with the body in this new painting universe, it is crucial to understand the painting of highly modernist abstraction of the New York School – Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. At the beginning of the 1980s, Rosalind Krauss attempted to explain the position of abstract art in relation to the perception of an average observer, by referring to a latter’s unease when failing to experience abstract form with no remnants, whether as figurative or non-objective: “The reason why most people think that the work of art is a picture and its subject is what it is a picture of. What’s in the work is what the work pictures. The dog, or landscape, or black square, is the work’s referent. It is what the work is about. Thus a work in which nothing is pictured cannot be a work that is about something. Nor, by the same token, can there be a serious work that is about nothing.”‘ Rosalind Krauss also claims that stated dilemmas, before the audience was capable of articulating them, presented a basic philosophical problem of early abstraction by Mondrian and Malevich, who were able to master the ambivalent nature of non-objective art only by new “painting dialectics” and “dynamic balance”, which came to equate Being with Nothingness. Here, the dynamic balance should be understood as the dialectics between the artist’s subject and the abstract subject of the painting as a moment in which the becoming of a new painting concept concurs with a traumatic moment of the birth of the new world picture. On the other hand, post-war abstraction, primarily members of the New York School, have instinctively recognized this Nothingness to be “dialectically signified”.2 As Meyer Schapiro put it, ‘The artist came to believe that what was essential… (was) that every work of art has an individual order or coherence, a quality of unity and necessity in its structure regardless of the kind of forms used” since “in painting the random or accidental is the beginning of an order. It is that which the artist wishes to build up into an order, but a kind of order that in the end retains the aspect of the original disorder as a manifestation of freedom.”‘
The thesis on equating Nothingness with Being by Malevich and Mondrian is easily acceptable, already for a revolutionary historical moment and “revaluating all the values” articulated in the art of the October Revolution, Bauhaus, Futurism, Dadaism, etc. To the same extent, it is much harder to clarify the ambivalence of post-war abstraction and its dialectic style of “disorder” and “order”, utilizing usual political norming. Probably, much closer to the truth is a thesis that the history of this “other” abstraction was written once again, this time in relation to itself and its own contradictions that were consequences of post-political and post-revolutionary exploration of a two-dimensional painting’s plan, rather than a recurrence of the painting as the artistic arms of the vanguard. The New York School was rendered an ultimate modem project by its members’ awareness that the painted painting is simply a medium, an exchange of one reality with another, where the touching points of different realities were rarely totally clear, but on contrary, and most often, totally indefinable. The issue of body representation in the painting was then reopened, this time accompanied by a suppressed doubt on part of the subject/artist who, by sacrificing a painting’s object, has redeemed his relinquishing the participation in a world’s drama.
Lets get back to Bree from Transamerica and let us expand a question she never uttered, “What are the consequences of giving up (one’s own) body and becoming the (other) body?” by yet another dilemma: could her case imply the social consequences of a switch between the representation of masculinity and the representation of femininity? At the first level, we shall react by rejecting the very possibility of such a question since Bree cannot “represent herself”, she simply is. But, being the movie character, she becomes a medium of transfer of one reality into another – becoming the painting herself, as well. Her features as the painting or the sign can now be described by terms such as ambivalence (not-yet-a-woman, not-a
male-anymore), indefiniteness (her movements appear learned and not innate), indistinctness (do we
hear a voice of a man or a woman?), etc. Earlier on we have mentioned that the leading character, within the frames of the movie’s narration, is very clearly decisive in changing the sex. However, at the level of
representation, i.e. what we recognize in her actions, it is all about a state of unease, about every fragile moment of transition that a movie observer experiences entirely different than Bree – the movie character herself. What confuses us here is identical to an observation by Rosalind Krauss on misunderstanding concerning abstract art: the painting’s subject or, in our case, a narrative mediated via movie, is not identical with what the painting or the movie represents. An unbearable bodily state split and cathartic transformation into The Other in Transamerica can be compared, accordingly, to a moment when post-war American painting transited from the original painting into the painting-representation which, now already as the independent painting-sign, abandoned references from nature and the world of material objects yet, as we shall see, retaining lasting dialectical connection with the latter. The issue of the interpretative model in cases of “ambivalent abstraction” gets imposed as a decisive epistemological call, especially when iconography, as a preferred method of interpreting figurative art, reveals itself as an insufficient tool within even a little bit more ambitious analysis of non-objective art. The same is presumed by Hubert Damisch who claims that iconography, as a method, is theoretically founded upon a postulate that the artistic painting can articulate meaning only from the inside, through textual references which register themselves inside the very artwork, which then opposes an abstractly coded art language that communicates at an entirely different level. At this point, the iconography should cede its place to semiotics, since a semiotic treatment of a signifying process results in a more fortunate joining of the painting as the object of analysis and a painting as an art object.
Anna C. Chave, a Harvard professor and an outstanding connoisseur of Mark Rothko’s opus, elaborated on Damisch’s expansion of the hermeneutics of painting and outlined a very interesting claim on the genesis of Rothko’s style, suggesting a very clear iconic morphology of his characteristic monochrome fields, whose combination gave rise to the artist’s very recognizable visual language. Well, Chave claims that, although a developed phase of Rothko’s style from the 1950s and 1960s suggests uncompromising non-objectivity, one should in no way dismiss the possibility that his paintings and recognizable elements from nature possess a very clear link leading to polysemy, multiple meanings, overlapping and contradicting references between the world of painting and the world of natural objects.’ As one can presume, the reference we discuss here is the human body: during the 1940s Rothko painted a series of entirely abstract canvases (e.g. Number 10 and Number 15) whose connection to a genre of full-size portrait figure can be neither dismissed nor unreservedly accepted. Thus we could be split into opposed halves: a Damisch-inclined half would strive to reduce parts of the human body down to square monochrome surfaces of Rothko-like “blurred” edges and to proclaim those to be “a portrait”, while the other half, consisting of semiotically predisposed brain cells, would probably recognize independent formal elements inside a new visual order or something of a sort. It is for this reason that Ana C. Chave calls Rothko’s canvases of the era – “hypoicons”, the paintings which simultaneously accept and reject the body, in merely apparent certainty of ultimate abstraction, increasingly surrendering to the uncertain dialectics of becoming the sign and relinquishing the body. Certainly, the most intriguing part of a comprehensive analysis of this American author is a review of two of Rothko’s, as she calls them, “transition” paintings (Number 17 and Number 18). Characteristic horizontal monochrome rectangles on these paintings are not yet formed, but the observer’s gaze will particularly single out (especially in Number 17) anthropomorphous farms of a rationally deliberated composition, which seem like the sign inspired by some, only subconsciously recognizable, iconographic model. Using a diagram presentation of the painting and analysis of compositional relation between colored fields the author, quite dependably, leads us into believing that the iconographic model of Rothko’s radical abstraction
is actually a Biblical scene of Madonna with a child that has specifically originated at Giovanni Bellini’s workshop, while Number 18 is a remote “blurred” offspring of The Adoration of the Magi by Quentin Massys dating from 1526.7 Consequently, the unquestionably abstract rectangular forms from a Rothko’s later phase (the 1950s and the 1960s) are actually the relapses of the survived body (“bodies without organs”), an iconographic surplus of a world and art spectacle, irreducible to a specific language of non-objective art and hence inexplicably present in the painting where they do not belong to. An art procedure of transposing the world of objects into the language of signs doesn’t seem to be entirely finalized. In Number 17 and Number 18, the body remained hibernated inside paradoxical presence/absence, within the pure sign’s existence. So far, we have seen that the unstable position of the body in contemporary visual arts actually does not depend on expressive means or, in more modern terms, on a medium through which the body gets represented: it is no less present if, as in Rothko’s case, it has been transformed into a seemingly arbitrary order of non-mimetic forms, same as it is not unambiguously present in a totally mimetic movie such as Transamerica if its leading character bases the crucial moment of her psychological formation upon the uncertain and replaceable bodily identity. This is followed by a paradoxical conclusion that the body, as a physical fact par excellence, independently “incarnates” in a form of a human figure, there where it cannot be seen at all. Also, with no problems whatsoever, it can be absent where we completely certainly see it. Are we now ready to ascertain that, using oppositional pairs of abstraction/figuration, mimetic/non-mimetic, etc. one cannot at all recognize different body reality in the world of the new cultural-political spectacle of the painting, that followed the Modernism period?
Speaking of Jackson Pollock’s painting, with a special reference to his “insufficiently abstract” painting titled Wooden Horse, an American Marxist theoretician, Timothy J. Clark, came to understand that
the post-war American abstraction cannot take on a role of liberation art (neither the European, for that matter), since it is fatally dependent on a capitalist system of goods and money – not only because of its own market-economy role but also due to its inability to become non-objective without remnants and in this manner to totally detach from the repressive world of capital and goods. Clark claims that Pollock’s painting abounds with contradictions that are simultaneously also the contradictions of the entire abstract art in a bourgeois society, which simply cannot understand “the social reality of the sign”. On one hand, abstract painting is aware it has to complete processes of separation from the world of object and devote all of its faith to the sign and the medium; on the other hand, the painting reveals it possesses no means to accomplish this task. The world of nature simply does not want to abandon the world of painting and hence the painting always returns to the body – this most important of all things, this most important of all the forms – and for this reason, only the actual body never transforms into the sign.8T.J. Clark correctly perceives that the true emancipation of the painting (not only abstract artworks) happens when the painting is not connoted exclusively by its commodity-status within a culture of media consummation and momentary oblivion, and only under a condition, it becomes the auto-referential, fluctuating sign within a new, hyper-individualized order. However, Clark’s excellent diagnosis of the reason for the disintegration of the painting universe is completely unusable today, when the original ideal of creators of the first and second abstraction are nowhere to be found and when omnipresence and power of media digest, with equal speed, image, and word, movement and sound, concept, and sign. Hence, recognition and legitimizing of the new logic of body functioning in the painting at the beginning of the 21st century, demands a strategy of reverse gaze. Perhaps the thing T.J. Clark wasn’t able to see in Pollock’s painting The Wooden Horse, i.e. total abstraction of the world of material objects, human and animal bodies (wherefrom art can finally leave behind shackles of capitalistic merchandise-aesthetics) now gets paradoxically announced as a solution, in a sort of negative reflection of a Modernist dream of the painting, that is liberated from its representational function. Perhaps the disappearance of the body happens where it unbearably abounds and where it loses the features of a physical incarnate of humaneness and becomes an explosive medium of otherwise the most harmless of all the human activities – art. I recognize performances by Vanessa Beecroft as our own paradigmatic reflections, within a media mirroring of the world we have created. In her performances, dozens of naked and half-naked girls stand, for hours, in staged formations, totally still or changing spatial disposition through light movements, exposed to the uncertain gazes of specially selected artistic voyeurs with high social profiles. Her performances, denoted by simple letter-digit denotations such as VB 21, and VB 25 are impersonal almost to the same extent as their titles: gazes of female figures never meet, same as they never meet gazes of few observers as it would provide an intolerable concession to humaneness. Inside her poetical license, Vanessa Beecroft has legitimized all of the actions that the contemporary Western political correctness or, simply, common-sense experience as obnoxious, intolerable, and actionable. Her minimalist theatricalization renders women as body objects. Their radical depersonalization seems to be a result of some cruel psychiatric conspiracy, while a scene’s sexual charge disables any thought of the narrative foundation of the scene. Do these bodies, following principles of artistic inversion of some perverse ironical reversal, become subversive bodies of a feminist counter-strike and hence redeem their pornographic availability? Jan Avgikos claims that the post-feminist “renewed conquering of the body lost early on ” by Vanessa Beecroft is not at all part of the agenda. As opposed to the 1960s and 1970s performances and their utopian tactical renderings that were meant to change the world or, at least, to revitalize marginalized female topics, the stagings of this Italian-American author are almost unpleasantly emptied of all the higher art goals.9 Differing from all of her feminist predecessors, she speaks in a lower tone register, reducing a person to the body, and offering an image as a provocative visual spectacle instead of a new vanguard hard-core happening of the political body.
No matter how much the sole thought of such a thing seems blasphemous, I deem that Beecroft’s performances hide subversive potential that can symbolize the completion of a previously initiated vanguard’s ironical turn-about, this time however rendered through exchange of the painting’s subject and object, i.e. an author’s inversion of the observer and the observed, with a little help from a movie camera and damnation of our world where every event is momentarily media-appropriated for a fear it could burst open into eternal oblivion. This is about a fact that the audience witnessing the performance is not allowed to approach women objects, and can instead “view” them only from a decent distance. But, what is forbidden to a man is allowed to a camera’s electronic eye, this media monster which penetrates down, close to the body and is the only one sensing its quiet pulsating and unnoticeable shivers. This electronic prosthesis of contemporary image-civilization is the only one having access to the immediate proximity of the body, to its smell it cannot sense, and to its taste, it cannot know. A camera that softly floats between human sculptures, touching them without feelings and offering them, in return, entirely superfluous planetary glory they have not sought, is a way in which Vanessa Beecroft exerts her gentle revenge on a new status of today’s media hyper-appropriation of the body. The camera senses the nearness of the body, and the audience senses unease due to encountering the body and due to the coercive relinquishing of the body, due to a contact that will never come about. The audience feels the unbearable coldness of the art act, that has revealed the destiny of the gaze – one not penetrating the individual but reflecting from him like from a TV screen. And actually, in this clear articulation of unequal relation between indifferent bodies-objects, between the passive gaze of the audience and a superior role of the camera, which sees and experiences instead of us, I recognize a liberating aspect of this work: Vanessa Beecroft presents a one-dimensional gaze at the body as a zero degree of communication in contemporary visual arts, in order to show how the emancipation of the body and art does not happen in their detachment from the world of things. On contrary, it is possible only in an unbroken dialectic tension of becoming the body and relinquishing the body, when we see it and when we merely feel it. Therefore, in this process of the individual fight for one’s own integrity (did we already forget Bree from Transamerica?) she confirms the meaning of body freedom and the relevance of its artistic transformation.
Krešimir Purgar is Associate Professor at the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek, Croatia. He is the author of Pictorial Appearing – Image Theory After Representation, 2019, and Iconologia e cultura visuale – W.J.T. Mitchell, storia e metodo dei visual studies, 2020. He has edited W.J.T. Mitchell’s Image Theory – Living Pictures, 2017, and The Iconology of Abstraction – Non-figurative Images and the Modern World, 2020, The Palgrave Handbook of Image Studies, 2021.