2013 has been the year when the contemporary art establishment finally decided to step back and address the issue of the animist power of art. A couple of years ago, Marina Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is Present’ had brought visibility to a debate that is directly concern with, on one hand, the aura of the work of art, and, on the other, the work of art as vehicle of aura or presence. This year, Massimo Gionni as curator in chief of the central exhibition at the Venice Biennale, addressed the issue of animism but, as I suggest in this article, he did it the wrong way. There is, however, a contemporary artist that, in my view, has deconstructed not only the topic but also Gionni’s dilemma from within the boundaries of the Biennale. His name is Mark Leckey. In spite of this, Leckey raised more questions than answers, when the question whether installations are the best medium for approaching the issue of objects as conveying presence, tries to be tackled.
The problem with Marina Abramovic is that her medium is performance and her-movie/play/retrospective at Moma/Institute/cameo-appearances/etc are only concerned with creating the conditions for something (allegedly) ‘real’ to happen. The problem is that the moment those ‘events’ (performances) are recorded and broadcasted, they lose that aura and that sense of ‘the-here-and-now-being-in-the-world’. Needless to say that her celebrity-fashion-diva status did not help the cause because it transformed her into a caricature of herself and displaced the focus from the ‘real action’ generated during the performance to her ‘persona’. When that occurred ‘presence’ (as ‘presentation’) became ‘re-presentation’ and, all of a sudden, there were too many walls being lifted between the audience and her.
Earlier this year, I attended a interview with Massimo Gionni at the ICA in London. There, he lectured the audience on his curatorial criteria for the Venice Biennale which can be summarised as an attempt to gather in the form of ‘a cabinet of curiosities’ a series of artistic objects that, for different reasons, convey ‘animistic’ power. The curatorial decision to extract the objects from their original context in order to organise them as in a museum was a contradiction in terms due to the fact that that the animistic power of the work of art (a picture depicting a Madonna and child, originally hung in a Church, for example) is, by definition, destroyed and replaced by a new kind of aura, the artistic aura when placed in a museum or art gallery.
Having said this, a clip from ‘In My Language’ (done by an autistic ‘artist’ who describes her ‘being in a world of my own) appeared insert at the upper-right corner of Mark Leckey’s video Prop4Shw (2010-13), part of his installation for ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 55th Venice Biennale. In that video, Leckey discusses the animistic agency of artefacts and images that he encountered, by and large, online and in books. He does this by appropriating images and translating them into a different medium (digital, for example). Once objects, sounds and images are made into representations and archived online they become memories in the collective digital psyche, unmoored and susceptible to abuse, manipulation or, most commonly (and importantly, for my argument)…fetishization. It is by ‘banalising’ or ‘adulterating’ the images that the objects start having a different kind of animistic consciousness, clearly linked to that kind of desire for consumption and status that the market creates.
In his video ‘Pearl Vision’ (2012), the sexual aspects of this displacement from ‘banal object’ into ‘banal object which in its farther banalisation becomes the object of desire’ become evident. He sits beating out a rhythm on a chrome snare drum between his legs. Halfway through the video Leckey loses his clothes, the sampled voices on the soundtrack (‘off, on,off,on’) become more urgent and the camera begins intimately to glide over and around the surface of the drum. At various points -and it is nearly impossible to tell when exactly-the real drum is substituted by an immaculate CGI drum, at one point, allowing the virtual camera to penetrate a rivet and access the drum’s interior. Finally, the drum becomes fleshy and starts to stretch. It is in that autistic logic of, as he calls it, ‘voluptuous irrationalism’ where the artist manages to convey an ‘area of hyper-sensitised negation of the self’ achievable, according to him, through technology and I would add: also through connective art in traditional media such as painting. Just a thought.