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<nettime> Post human clay
David Garcia on 3 Aug 2000 19:12:10 -0000


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<nettime> Post human clay


Post-human Clay

'The active locus of science, portrayed in the past by stressing the two
extremities, the mind and the world, has shifted to the middle, to the
humble instruments, tools, visualization skills, writing practices,
focussing techniques and what has been called "representation." Through all
these efforts, the mediation has eaten up the two extremities: the
representing mind and the represented world. The shift has had the enormous
advantage of multiplying the connecting points between art history and the
history of science......'

Bruno Latour; How to Be Iconophilic in Art, Science and Religion. 1998

 'I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between
them, like a snail, leaving a trail of human presence and memory trace of
past events, as the snail leaves its slime.'

Francis Bacon; catalogue notes, 1955

 ' Modern art aspires to the condition of photography'

Susan Sontag (quoted from memory, I think from "Against Interpretation")

 In most reflections on the post-human, the work of Francis Bacon is seldom
mentioned. This would be particularly true of postings on this list where
insights provided by the visual arts into technological culture are often
(as in the case of net-art) seen as necessarily embedded in the
technologies themselves. The idea that a practice as archaic as painting
might illuminate aspects of human transformation in and through
technological media, might be regarded with suspicion.

 This is even more likely to be the case with an artist like Francis Bacon,
a white, male, figurative painter whose important work was made  in the
40s', 50s' (trailing off into the formulaic during the 60s', 70s' and 80s).
He is all to easily mistaken for that familiar figure the 'brilliant
English eccentric'. At best a hysterical version of continental European
existentialism, which from the perspective of the visual arts, someone like
Giacometti embodies with so much more "authenticity".

 To begin with there is just so much to dislike about Bacon. The stagy
backdrops, in which his figures are trapped, appear contrived and in the
worst sense theatrical. The writhing figures can seem histrionic, cheap
bohemian thrills, to decorate the walls of the super rich with endless
screaming popes.  

So why is it that his images continue to reach out beyond little England?
 Why is it that when most English artists who are rooted in the 40s' and
50s' now seem hopelessly dated, part of a literary age, does  Bacons's
work, with all its apparent weaknesses still feel urgent, contemporary,
necessary?

My proposition is that the answer can be found in the way he straddles the
technological divide.. His real achievement lies not his explicit
expressionism, but in the way his work reconnects us to the way photography
has changed us. It reminds us, that the nature of photographic perception
(hence our perception) is violent. Literally a violation.

"...one's sense of appearance is assaulted all the time by photography and
by film. So that when one looks at something, one is not looking at it
directly but one is also looking at it through the assault that has already
been made on one by photography and film........I think its the slight
remove from fact which returns me onto fact more violently."
 (Bacon interview: 75)

 We no longer have any direct recollection of the merging of the camera's
way of seeing with our own. It requires an act of historical imagination to
reconnect us to a time when the brute facts of the photographic process
were still fresh, not yet blurred by the processes of image manipulation.

So we look back to moments when the photographic image was present but not
ubiquitous, and if we are lucky we might have access to an imagination like
Bacon's, when he began to paint seriously it was a moment when mass
communication was redefining reality as itself. But the process was in its
early stages and therefor more visible. Numbness in the face of mass,
industrial scale mediation was still a generation away. The anaesthetised
aesthetic must wait for Warhol.  Although Bacon was in no way a pop artist
he was fascinated, in a suspicious way, by Warhol, his mirror (mirror as in
inverted reflection).

 Bacon's first and most enduring influence was Picasso, the violence of
Picasso. The dismembering cruelty of Picasso.  Unlike his fellow cubists
Picasso exploited the discoveries of cubism to open up new ways of
expressing the extremes of human sensation including tenderness. But only
Duchamp's interpretation of Cubism matches Picasso's violence. It was the
violence of Picasso that Bacon wanted to make his own, but he had none of
Picasso's facility as a draughtsman.

 The salvation of Bacon, a self taught artist, lay in the fact that he
couldn't draw. A late starter, although again like Warhol he was already
successful in a more commercial field of art. Armed with his priceless
arrogance he didn't have the patience to learn to draw from life (extreme
impatience is one of the many unsung mothers of invention). So he took a
short cut. From the outset his figures are drawn directly and shamelessly
from photographs. But rather than simply using photographs as a reference
or a substitute he made photography itself the subject.  Photography's
peculiarities, distortions and revelations; but above all the structural
violence of the photographic was Bacon's discovery.  He succeeded in
transposing and amplifying the violence that drew him to Picasso,
reinterpreting it from the perspective of photography; that aspect of
photography that wrenches a moment out of the flow of time.
  
 But he did not transpose Picasso's warmth, he was wedded to the cold
rhetoric of medical science (Bacon used medical photography as a continuous
reference) it was a particularly contemporary objectifying violence he
sought. J.G.Ballard's novels have a similar quality of medicalised pain.
But in Ballard the connection of these sensations to the blurring of the
boundaries between ourselves and our technologies is more conscious, more
explicit.

 Although Bacon's subject was the rooted in the photographic he could never
be mistaken for a photorealist but the comparison between his achievement
and theirs is instructive. Unlike the photorealists he emphasised the
materiality of his means, reminding us that photography's power lies not so
much in optical verity but in the fact that it is based the physical. it is
a material trace, a memory trace. It is as much a material record as a foot
print (or a death mask) a photograph is a physical imprint of our shapes on
light sensitive surfaces. It may not be our soul but it is indeed part of
us snatched from the flow of time. The use of chance that is a key aspect
of gestural painting amplifies this characteristic of photography and
Bacons quest is somehow to use painting to replicate the photographic
process.
 'I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between
them, like a snail, leaving a trail of human presence and memory trace of
past events, as the snail leaves its slime.'

 Bacon's carefully prepared stage settings suggest a painterly equivalent
of the photographic plate, a trap or snare for the fleeting aspect of
photographs. In the end it is this functional, questing, essaying aspect of
Bacon's repetoir of mannerisms that make them bearable.   

 "...the difference from direct recording through a camera is that as an
artist you have to, in a sense, set a trap by which you hope to trap this
living fact alive. How well can you  set this trap? Where and what moment
will it click?" (Interviews with Francis Bacon: David Sylvester 1975)

 I am aware of how much a short text like this leaves out about an artist
as complex as Bacon. But that is the value of a list, that hybrid of
private and public discourse. So perhaps our statements can be more
extreme, less measured than in other more public contexts.
 I confess it was written out of frustration with a new biography of Bacon
by David Sylvester. Sylvester's reputation as an art critic in England is
considerable. It is partly based on his gift for befriending important
artists, most notably Bacon and Giacometti. The aquisition of the Tate's
important collection of Giacometti was greatly facilitated by this
friendship. But most of all his reputation as the wise old owl of English
art criticism rests on a justly famous series of extended interviews with
Bacon and published in the 70s'. But once out of the company of lucid minds
Sylvester's own prose invariably slides into pedantic descriptions,
anecdotes and commonplaces occasionally lifted by quotations by the artists
themselves.  

 I hoped that his latest "Looking Back at Francis Bacon" would prove the
exception but it continues to represent him (and it is true that Bacon
himself sought this) as that cliché the painter of the human condition. On
the contrary it is in Bacon's highly charged articulations of our
transformation through a specific technology, that embody, most vividly,
the post-human condition.

 David Garcia




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