Recently I saw the LIFE LIKE show at the Met Breuer, which is closing on July 22nd, 2018. This was just about the coolest show ever. It questions the medium of sculpture as a series of forms and ideals. This exhibition, because of its forays into abstractions of ideals, in so many ways, led me to think there is a coming break in sculpture (pardon the pun), that new technologies will enable new representations and new ideals.
Aristotle famously compared a statue to four causes, and here, instead of a philosophical essay about causation, maybe we can use the metaphors instructively as some of the reasons why sculpture in the present day is so intriguing and beguiling. Aristotle starts with a big block of marble for his sculptor, and the philosopher calls this the material cause. The sculptor has an efficient cause, which is the physical chiseling action that a sculptor does. The sculptor works from a goal or a sketch of the project, which Aristotle calls the teleological or ideal. And every artist knows there is a final cause – how the statue ends up regardless of what was intended. Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Locke wanted only the efficient cause in the way that gravity just drops an apple, only action, but Germans like Kant thought the ideal was the most real, because human reality can’t exist without humans, that without conceptual reality, there is no reality. So, in this exhibit how does matter, matter?
Take, for example, “Self” from 1991, by Marc Quinn -- a sculpture made out of blood. I don’t mean that metaphorically. The artist made a plaster cast of his face and head, and filled that mold with his living blood. The sculpture is kept for an indefinite time in a viewing refrigerator. This is weird because the curators of this exhibit positioned this sculpture early on in the rooms. This sculpture is an immediate contrast to the exhibition’s opening statues, which are sculptures from ancient Greece. These white sculptures were embodiments of Greek Gods and Goddesses also serve as a concession that human bodies cannot be preserved. This blood sculpture points to the advent of cloning, because if civilization can replicate and preserve blood as a living organ, there might be a time when the need for a stone statue – an ideal conceptual form held in place by its material, stone marble – is negated because technology will simply preserve a physical, biological copy. I think a critical reading also reveals a more cynical take, that even though we have technology to preserve blood indefinitely, it won’t stop a man from dying, and so technology on the cynical view hasn’t brought mankind closer to immortality any more than carved rocks.
This refrigerated blood sculpture has special significance in the Art World, as the Museum of Modern Art’s summer sculpture garden’s summer 2018 summer exhibition curated by Peter Fischli, “Why Make Sculpture if Everything is Sculpture?” Link to Exhibition features a sculpture by Fischli and his partner David Weiss snow man in a refrigerator. Its title? “Snow Man”. The snow man in that piece has special significance for the meaning of sculpture, that the answer to the question is that the artists know it’s easy to make a snow man, and yet nevertheless it’s difficult to preserve a snow man because the seasons change. This emotional commitment – holding the ideal even though the material environment changes – has political significance in terms of political idealism (Can women and minorities have rights in a changing world after a long time?).
Thus, a more pressing conflict is in the ideal of the original ancient sculptures. Like Aristotle and Kant, ancient sculptors thought by holding fast to life-like simulation, they were revealing something like a person’s ideal, or most real possibility, that the effigy has to do with the soul. That’s part of the reason Michelangelo’s perfect sculptures are so heady. In terms of the blood sculpture, the artist is hacking into an ancient sculptor’s goals (pardon the pun again), and interrogating those goals.
Likewise, an android on the 5th floor talks and moves. It’s absolutely lifelike, and the robot’s speech has to do with time and the ancients. The question behind this sculpture is if the ancient statues could talk, would people listen? Tombs and mausoleums have had inscriptions for thousands of years. The tombs of the pharaohs have lines and lines of hieroglyphics, and from time to time ancients even have philosophical essays (!) written on their stone mausoleum walls. Could we learn from these ancient texts? And what could we hope to learn from these texts? And, considering this lifelike android, in 1000 years, could our descendants hope to do the same? They might just roll their eyes at the androids.
In a different way, on the exhibition’s 4th floor, “Anatomical Venus” is a corpse of a beautiful woman that has been exhumed and preserved. In this scientific sculpture, the body is a beautiful woman with her organs dissected and laid flush open, like a frog in a High School biology class. This is a bit of a contradiction between death, in the corpse’s physical stasis, and the organs that kept her alive. The organs are the focus of the sculpture because they kept the woman alive, and the organs are the focus now because she’s dead. Said another way, this Venus is beautiful for the same reason she is ugly. In this way, the curators pose the physical opposition between sculptures at the start of the show, the ancient marble statues, versus this piece at the end of the show. This sculpture is more realistic than the ancient statues, but the fact of her death – the organs – is what makes her life seem that much more possible than that of the marble statues.
Regardless of my objective standpoints as an art critic, I was squeamish at a statue “Virgin (Exposed)” by Damien Hirst, wearing her muscles without skin. The blood color of the flesh made my stomach lurch every time I looked at it. The simple joke here is flesh dies, so the sculpture is like a science fiction time travel movie (example: Back to the Future), where the movie characters loop back and the reason for the start of the sculpture is the reason for its end. This part of the exhibit, “Figuring Flesh,” also had several statues of Christ, and these mutilated Saviors have to do with a sort of Christian irony. That irony, espoused by Christian Philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, is that Christ died violently and painfully, and that he died for the sake of God’s Plan. The ironic conflict is people aren’t crucified in the present day, and most people are not in severe pain.
In contemporary times, people use digital avatars like bitmoji and Facebook. In line with technological progress, there might be a time when Facebook can project a hologram video of a person. Concerts are already doing this with the rapper 2Pac or the band the Gorillaz. After light-based projections, it very well may be that technology will enable physical preservations in terms of cloning-technology, or robots, as in the case of androids. These statues do not eliminate the idea of the soul, so much as bring it back to earth. For this reason, the sculptures in this exhibition are not cynical. Rather, they are faithful that with new technologies, there will be new embodiments of ideals and spirits.