Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Closeness, at the outset was to be an experiential exercise in design with a focus on eroticism which quickly revealed a deeper inner life. The first and most apparent correlation with the series can be seen in the historical work of the Vanitas still life painters of the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance and beyond. The second correlation is with the work of philosopher & novelist George Bataille with his writings on the link between the erotic experience and death. Finally, there is a resonance with the approach of image maker Joel-Peter Witkin; whose work consists of highly charged images which walk the evanescent line between the desirable and the repugnant. As this body of work progresses its message is coming more clearly into focus, thus the images demand the viewer to look beyond the initial visual reaction into a philosophical or spiritual understanding for their full meaning.

‘Omnia morte cadunt/mors ultima linia rerum’

(‘Everything decays with death/ death is the final boundary of all things’)
Lucretius (c.96-55BC)

This painting executed in 1524 by Bartel Bruyns the Elder is one of the earliest examples of the Vanitas genre, and as was common with early works of this type is painted on the back of a commissioned portrait. Axiomatic verse such as the one featured in the composition were traditional as well, this one giving a quote by the materialist Roman philosopher Lucretius.

Within the context of the powerful and influential Christian church, works of this type were a reminder to the increasingly powerful merchant classes that all beauty, power, youth & riches were finite. These apparent morality tales served as dogmatic tools of control. But, at the same time I believe their most important contribution is a constant reminder to the viewer, via the power of symbol, of the afterlife. In Christian terms, they inspired the viewer to contemplate ‘Heaven’. In a similar way, although approaching from a seemingly diametrically opposed inspiration, the sutures which brought the compositions in ‘Closeness’ together also became symbols of that which is unseen. In this case the energy, that bonds humans together, the fervor of love in its myriad representations. As the fruit in my still life compositions decayed, the aspect of ‘omnia morte cadunt’ made me realize how subtle, yet important, the energetic aspects of the human experience, here represented by thread, are. The eroticised still life decays, and hints, through its bondage, at the spiritual continuation of its nature.
French writer George Bataille in his book ‘Death and Sensuality: a Study of Eroticism and the Taboo’(1957), explored the tie which binds eroticism & death. Bataille believed that sensuality and eroticism prepared human beings for death. In his introduction he explains his point of view most succinctly:

“We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is.”

The ‘continuity’ of Bataille has an echo in the belief of the afterlife of the Christian church as well as most other modes of spirituality. Also in common with ecstatic modes of spirituality is the belief that erotic feeling, or other powerful experiences that create a window of silence in the mind, can yield insight as to the ‘ true nature’ of the individual. Transgressive activity can shock the mind into quietude, but also meditation can slowly bring the mind to a stand still. Bataille mentions the moment of orgasm of course, and shock as in a violent mental or physical confrontation; not mentioned but yielding the same result is meditation. The moment of shock or meditative ‘seeing’, whichever might be inspired in the viewer is the aim of the ‘Closeness’ series. This aim is a provocation intended to illicit deeper examination of erotic, taboo, philosophical & spiritual questions.

The involvement of eroticism and confusion or revulsion are tools Joel-Peter Witkin utilized in his work during the 80's and 90's. Some of these very elements are involved in the ‘Closeness’ series.”In the words of Van Deren Coke, (Director of Photography of SFMOMA. 1979-1987) “Witkin’s artistic stance involves an act of brinkmanship....the evocation of the fluctuation of space and time in nightmare.” And I would also add, in ritualized activity, whatever its nature may be. The still life compositions in ‘Closeness’ have eroticised themselves into bodies through our human tendency to anthromorphize. Bodies are bounded together, or bound to themselves with a thread that lovingly hugs, but at times tears savagely. The sutures in my mind are symbolic of connection. Yet if morality, or transgression of morality are brought into question; it is at the time of this fear, or outrage that the question serves its true purpose. That purpose points beyond the erotic feeling; beyond the horror; beyond the body; to the spirit, or to engender, as Witkin puts forth, ‘New forms of the indescribable,’ and to place emphasis on the, ‘need he sees for revitalized spiritual content in art.’ A return to the ‘Inner Experience’ that might leave the‘discontinuous human being,’as Bataille would call us, with an inkling of our ‘true nature’; brought forth by trials and tribulations or by ecstasy. Whatever might come first.

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