Hands Off: Tackling Digital Disembodiment – Francesca Gavin

Benedict Drew, Heads May Roll (Detail), 2014, courtesy the artist and Matts Gallery, London

“While we sleep, computers are evolving into a collective being. When they finally become self-aware, they will inevitably take endless screenshots of themselves to make up for the fact that they have no face.” These lines from artist Lawrence Lek’s fictional essay “Intel’s Dreaming”, published in independent magazine Art Licks in 2013, capture a new idea of the computer and the physical form. A figure is evolving in contemporary art, but its digital body is fragmented, made of body parts growing like cloned ears in a Petri dish.

Post-internet floating body parts have art historical precedent. The fragment has been desirable ever since aesthetes began to fetishise Greco-Roman sculptural fragments in the 18th century. The fragmentary body has been interpreted by post-psychoanalytic feminist theory as representation of the objectification and violent dismantling of the (largely female) body. The pornographic gaze is one that enforces a form of visual fragmentation, reducing the Whole into broken digestible, absorbable parts – like the viewpoint of a character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

Although each of the artists included in this portfolio have individual artistic intentions and approaches, seen together they raise some very interesting questions – notably how the body in art is a reflection of a post-human concept of the body, and how these objects and images reflect a prescient computer or digital avatar in search of a body that is near the human. 

Aleksandra Domanovic, Alan's Apple, 2013, Laser-sintered PA plastic, polyurethane, Soft-Touch and brass finish, 9 x 11 x 19.5 cm, Unique, courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

Furthermore, these artworks together feel like a manifestation of the digital ‘uncanny’. This Freudian definition of discomfort was inspired by masks, clowns, dolls or reflections, and is reflected in the work of surrealist artists like Hans Bellmer or the writing of George Bataille. A digital version of the uncanny feels like an extension of these ideas in the same way that science fiction is a 20th century version of the 19th century Gothic. A recent example of this was British video artist Ed Atkins’ film “Dave”, shown as part of his “Ribbons” solo show at London’s Serpentine Gallery in summer 2014. Featuring images of a disembodied head bouncing down stairs on loop, viewed in unison with the other videos from the show depicting various other disembodied parts, it’s evocative of Frankenstein’s murderous monster, itself stitched together from borrowed flesh.  

Nonetheless, many of these works do not engender fear; the heads and hands feel removed, detached, robotic, lacking in emotion or presenting a performance of the emotional. These eyes, hands, heads, noses, teeth and lips appear to exist in a different realm, stuck in digital limbo – half human, half tech – as if to illustrate the failure of technology to authentically replicate humanity, and the failure of art to represent this disjunction.

Elsewhere, other artists such as the UK’s Benedict Drew, Denmark’s Nina Beier and Simon Dybbroe Møller, and Slovenia’s Aleksandra Domanovic also use disembodied hands but to different ends. In Drew’s gothic, psychedelic video work they become futuristic quivering limbs reminiscent of Thing from the Addam’s Family. Conversely, Beier’s hands – scuffed reproductions of sculptures by Rodin painted to look Caucasian and thrown haphazardly on the ground – possess a critique of art history itself. “What is to be remembered, when all history is destined to be discarded and forgotten?” They seem to imply. However, it is Domanovic’s hands that feel the most powerful – robotic prosthetics referencing Serbian scientist Rajko Tomovic’s pioneeering artificial limbs. Here the digits and position of the hand touch on technological history and feminism as much as the spiritual and art historical positions of this limb in visual history. 

Cécile B.Evans, The Brightness, 2013, HD video, 4:48 min, commissioned by Orange and the Palais de Tokyo, courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Yet it isn’t just the hand that’s becoming an obsession in contemporary art. German-born artist Luice Stahl’s scanner assemblage images tear away the veil of technology revealing their inner workings, much like an MRI scan of a brain. Antoine Catala from the US focuses on the buttocks and the UK’s Neil Rumming’s nose can be interpreted as a reimagining of John Baldessari’s famous paintings featuring nasal cavities. For other creatives such as Cécile B. Evans and Laura Buckley, computer rendered limbs become pathways to other thoughts, each highlighting how we project meaning onto digital images. 

In his 2012 essay “A Thing Like You and Me”, the German filmmaker Hito Steyerl argued: “Identification is always with an image. But ask anybody whether they’d actually like to be a JPEG file. And this is precisely my point: if identification is to go anywhere, it has to be with this material aspect of the image, with the image as thing, not as representation.… Traditionally, emancipatory practice has been tied to a desire to become a subject. Emancipation was conceived as becoming a subject of history, of representation, or of politics. To become a subject carried with it the promise of autonomy, sovereignty, agency. To be a subject was good; to be an object was bad.”

Indeed, what the body parts in these diverse range of works all have in common is that they too could be described as ‘good-bad objects’ – things that we can identify on an anthropocentric level (good) yet still seem unreal or inauthentic (bad). Ultimately, what these objects and images – failures and ghostly representations – remind us of is that the parts are just as fascinating and filled with meaning as the whole.”


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