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    In the Post: or, the Work of Art in the Age of Digital Simulation

    Brian Baker
    North East Wales Institute of Higher Education

    © 2000 Brian Baker.
    All rights reserved.

    Review of:
    Heaven, an exhibition of postmodern art curated by Dorit Le Vitte Harten. The Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany, 30 July 1999-17 October 1999, and the Tate Gallery to the North, Liverpool, U.K., 9 December 1999-27 February 2000.

  1. Are we still living in the "post"? Post-war, postfeminist, postmodern: the discourses of the "post" are the issues of the "West" or "North," the colonizers, the "developed world." The "post" in post-war is used to refer to post-World War II, but this ignores the global ubiquity of armed conflict in the last fifty years of "peace." The "post" in postmodern (and postmodern culture) signals a negotiation with the Modern and its concerns, but also attests to a crisis in periodization. It is a crisis which has concerned North American, French, Australian, and British academe for the last thirty years. The "post" is a mark that implies failure, particularly in self-definition, and the collapse of the "New"; a collapse, as J.G. Ballard once suggested, of the future onto the present. The proliferation of "postmodernisms"--death of the master narratives, schizophrenia, simulation, problems with space and mapping--is an attempt to define a loss, a lack. The "post" is a presence signifying an absence, a foil stopper clapped over the abyss.
  2. This is why I ask, "Are we still living in the post?". How do we know that we have left the world of absence-in-presence/presence-in-absence and have rejoined the presence or absence? In other words, are we still in the Matrix, the Desert of the Real, the Well of Simulation?
  3. Jean Baudrillard's universe of simulation has itself been pronounced dead (a proclamation enunciated in Baudrillard's own cry, "The Gulf War did not exist"). Simulacra did not litter the road to Basra. 1991, however, did not signal the end of Baudrillard or of the era of simulation. It merely represented his translation from interesting, if esoteric, academic beloved of Francophile cultural theorists, to the presiding eminence of the new "global village," the world of information technology, or perhaps technologies of information. Even Hollywood now quotes Baudrillard. When Morpheus reveals the post-apocalyptic state of machine-ravaged America to Neo in The Matrix, he says: "Welcome to the Desert of the Real." Forget Baudrillard? That is the problem. In forgetting, his theory has become the way "postmodern culture" imagines itself.
  4. The concept of simulation has become part of the cultural matrix. It has become part of the "'representation' of the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 153). Althusser's formulation of Ideology was made before the universe of simulation, of course, and so he could make the distinction between "real" and "imaginary." It is the first of Baudrillard's "orders of simulation," wherein representation masks reality. Such a distinction has been problematized in the age of the "post," but here I want to insist on the economic processes of production and consumption which still negotiate our involvement with "postmodern culture."
  5. Heaven, an exhibition first shown at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, curated by Dorit Le Vitte Harten, and then relocated to the Tate Gallery in the North in Liverpool, UK, promoted itself by suggesting that the exhibited artworks show "how the religious impulse towards perfection... has become a secular impulse." The artworks therefore offer icons for the contemporary world, examinations of the processes of iconicity, and representations of where "our" (read Western/Postmodern) "faith" has gone. These works respond to the crisis in representation of the last twenty years, a crisis which seems particularly bound up with the 1980s: Baudrillard's Simulations was published by Semiotext(e) in 1983; Jameson's key essay "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" in 1984.
  6. Both texts seem particularly appropriate to Heaven, perhaps because of the cultural belatedness which afflicts many of the works. Both theoretical models use a spatial metaphor to suggest a collapse of distance: Baudrillard's fourth order of simulation famously proposes a copy for which there is no known original (sign-system without referent); Jameson suggests that parody has been supplanted by "blank parody," pastiche, a reproduction without critical distance.
  7. Heaven is dominated by two modes: kitsch and virtuality, analogous to the theoretical positions of Jameson and Baudrillard. The prominence of kitsch in Heaven is instructive, and exposes the critical aporia at the heart of the exhibition. Kitsch was identified by Clement Greenberg as "vicarious experience and faked sensations" as long ago as 1939. Kitsch is, in a sense, a style of art in the age of mechanical reproduction: it is inextricably bound up with popular culture and consumption. Kitsch is "bad taste," art objects which are manifestations of "aesthetic inadequacy" (Calinescu 236). While we need not adhere to a Frankfurt School analysis of kitsch as the product of the "culture industries," and juxtapose it with a sentimentalized or nostalgia-imbued "folk culture," it is clear that kitsch is a modern (industrial) cultural phenomenon. Heaven illustrates the centrality of kitsch to contemporary popular culture, but, ironically, then turns kitsch objects back into art objects.
  8. Truly kitsch objects are, paradoxically, original and inauthentic, product and reproduction. Matei Calinescu suggests that kitsch objects "are intended to look both genuine and skillfully fake" (252). He suggests that kitsch has a deliberate semiotic ambiguity: the signs of reproduction signify availability for consumption, while the signs of authenticity signify pleasurable qualities of imitative skill and technical proficiency. Calinescu suggests that the consumption of kitsch relies on "ironic connoisseurship," a cultivation of "bad taste" in the name of refinement. The enjoyment of kitsch is a celebration of ostentation, vulgarity, and redundant ornamentation: the correlatives of conspicuous consumption. To "get" kitsch, one must be a self-conscious consumer, ready to enter the play of consumption, willing to participate in its conspicuousness. However, this consumption also maintains a distance between production and ironic reception, and reimposes the boundaries of "taste" while ostensibly transgressing them.
  9. The artworks in Heaven signify a different relationship to popular forms and popular culture. They are works of art, in a gallery space, not mass-produced reproductions. They are not aesthetically inadequate, but refer to objects that are. Art objects which refer to kitsch cannot themselves be kitsch. Kitsch cannot be pastiched because it is already pastiche. Jeff Koons's Michael and Bubbles is not, as Heaven's catalogue suggests, somewhere between kitsch and art. It is in fact simulated kitsch, but it is still an art object, because its mode of reception is determined by its context, the gallery. The Koons work, in white ceramic with gilded flowers, does imply a critique of kitsch. While suggesting Madonna and child, the ostentation of the work comments upon the processes of conspicuous consumption itself. Possessing a chimpanzee is a sure sign of conspicuous consumption. Bubbles the chimp is kitsch: his ceramic image is not, but is presented in the style of kitsch. Michael and Bubbles is also a commodity, bought in an art market, and so is implicated in the same processes of consumption. Perversely, the work is too self-conscious to be consumed as kitsch, but requires the same sense of "ironic connoisseurship" to be viewed with pleasure.
  10. Elvis Presley has ascended to the pantheon of kitsch icons, largely through the pop-cult recycling of the 1970s, and the tragic/ludicrous status of his Las Vegas period. Koons's Michael Jackson sports a white ensemble not unlike Elvis's stage-suit of those years. Three works use the figure of Elvis to suggest some kind of secular icon: Olga Tobreluts's Elvis Presley (from Sacred Figures, 1999) reworks a youthful King as a renaissance knight, encased in armor; Jeffrey Vallance's fake Elvis sweatcloths simulate religious relics. Ralph Burns's How Great Thou Art, a series of 16 photographs of visitors to Graceland from 1978 to 1998, takes the emphasis from Elvis as kitsch icon to his ongoing impact on fans worldwide.
  11. Why Elvis, and particularly why Vegas-era Elvis? If Calinescu is right in suggesting that "kitsch is a response to the widespread modern sense of spiritual vacuum" (251), worship of kitsch-Elvis does indeed elevate him to the status of a religious icon. Conspiracy theories suggesting that Elvis lives (parodied even on The X-Files) imply a profane, burger-fixated Christ, an innocent sacrificed to American excess. Elvis, however, was an integral, even an essential, part of that excess. The Vegas he inhabited and embodied no longer exists. Like fins on automobiles, it has itself become a glamorized, nostalgia-imbued image of wealth, power, and unreconstructed pleasure. That earlier Vegas was undermined by the crisis in American business and American economic confidence brought on by Vietnam-inflation and the oil-shocks of the early 1970s; Elvis only outlived it by a handful of years.
  12. The other dominating icon, the one to which glamour truly accrues (and the word "GLAMOUR" is painted ceiling-high behind Thierry Mugler's couture creations), is Diana Spencer. The death of Diana, as a media event, even had a special edition of the British film journal Screen dedicated to it. In British popular culture, only Diana assumed (and largely, through the legacy of her sons, still does assume) the position of a "secular saint," a sign of all that Heaven attempts to represent and dissect. Like Elvis, she is regarded as a sacrifice to the ideological-cultural dominant; like Elvis, she has become the locus of conspiracy theories surrounding her death; and like Elvis, she signifies (in the popular imagination) an innocence, in this case one oppressed and destroyed by the twin agencies of Royal household intrigue and tabloid press intrusion. Most importantly, she was also a willing and skilled participant in both "games," her "innocence" a staging of innocence, a simulation. Diana Spencer is now only accessible as a media representation, but "Diana" was virtual from the beginning, a fairy-tale princess conjured by a British Royal house in trouble. It is now received wisdom that Diana Spencer became "trapped" by her own image, which preserves the imaginary/real distinction intact; in truth, a media representation is all she ever was to the millions who bought her images in their daily newspapers.
  13. Media representations are "virtual" in the sense that they have become a free-floating sign-system, Baudrillard's fourth order of simulation. This condition becomes a noun and an expression of self-identity in the phrase "I am a virtual," which is proclaimed by the digitized mask of Kirsten Geisler's Dream of Beauty 2.0. The face looks like Persis Khambatta from Star Trek: the Motion Picture, who was, ironically enough, an irresistible "Deltan" assimilated by one of humanity's own machines made go(o)d, the prodigal V-Ger. Is this a coincidence? A microphone dangles from the ceiling, and spectators are invited to speak into it to elicit a response: "ask me a short question and I will respond with a gesture." This gesture may be a pout, a wink, a smile. In this case, what does "virtual" signify? There is simulated interaction, but the participant must play the game, decode one of a finite set of pre-programmed facial movements as "communication."
  14. Virtual women also appear in Eddo Stern's RUNNERS. The trace of iconicity is found in its triptych structure. In each panel, three "avatars" ("computer controlled automatons") run or jog through the computer-generated landscapes of Sony's EverQuest internet game. Again, the artwork simulates interaction, because the spectator (rather than gamer) can only witness the progress of each avatar through the virtual world, and cannot control it. It is illuminating that the virtual scenario is itself produced by Sony, one of the most recognized brand names in the world, and a player in the global communications game. The installation stages spectatorial frustration (particularly acute if the spectator has a history of gaming): points of interest in the virtual world--other figures, buildings, zombies--are reduced to the margins. The avatars themselves do not interact with their surroundings, repeating the isolation of the spectator: they run past, and force the gaze of the viewer to the periphery. RUNNERS is an art-work which challenges the boundaries of the frame, the boundaries of the work, because of this displacement of the gaze. Ironically, it is that which is not bounded by the frame which is of most interest.
  15. Heaven seems to stage the disappearance of the human into the realm of the virtual or the mechanical. In Gilbert and George's video installation Bend It, the pair caper stiffly to the 1960s hit like escapees from Woody's Round-Up. Images of the human body transformed into the mannequin, robot, or marionette have a science-fiction provenance which precedes the (virtual)(simulated) time of Woody's heyday, but which had a particular urgency in the 1950s. Mechanization was a common metaphor for conformity and control, linked with the processes of Fordist industrial production, the dominance of corporate capitalism, and consumerism. Thierry Mugler's Robot Couture refers to this tradition. Mugler's stainless suit reveals the mannequin beneath through perspex holes: face, breasts, buttocks. Where Robot Maria in Lang's Metropolis (1929) becomes indistinguishable from the original, Robot Couture preserves the distinction between flesh and metal by a visual depth-metaphor: the human is revealed beneath the steel. Does Mugler's work comment on the processes of spectacle, and the fragmentation of the female body under the spectator's gaze, or is it part of the spectacle itself? Ironically, Robot Couture reifies and commodifies the image of the cyborg in the service of "couture," "glamour," or "fashion."
  16. The discourse of the cyborg was particularly insistent in the 1980s, and Donna Haraway's much-cited "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" (1985) contributed to what was called, in the pages of Science Fiction Studies, "the SF of theory." For Haraway, the cyborg was a "postmodern collective self," an inhabitant of the boundaries between self and other, human and animal, human and machine; a rhetorical device to begin thinking about the constructions of subjectivity and those "violent hierarchies." Mugler's robot is a suit of armor which reinstates the boundaries between metal and flesh, culture and nature, spectator and tits 'n' ass. It is also a prophylactic, or a chastity suit: you can look but you cannot touch. This indicates another discourse of the cyborg in the 1980s, that of the Terminator. The suit signifies the panic discourses of penetration in the 1980s: invasion of the body (virus), invasion of the body-politic (Evil Empire).
  17. The 1980s was also the time of cyberpunk science fiction. The traces of William Gibson can be found in many of the works in Heaven, particularly the conflation of transcendence with an escape of the world of the flesh into the world of the virtual. Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), the last of Gibson's original cyberpunk trilogy, ends with some of its protagonists "lighting out" into a virtual Elysium. Should we accept this desire to escape the "prison of [our] own flesh"? Are these fantasies, of downloaded personalities and virtual immortality, those of a "postmodern culture" which has lost sight of the insistence of the daily anxieties of life, the anxieties that trouble the majority of the Earth's population?
  18. Heaven acknowledges non-Western experience. Majida Khattari's hanging textiles refer to Islamic sacral robes (though one looks like a giant Harlem Globetrotters uniform); Shirin Neshat's video installation, Turbulent, projects a male singer and a female singer on opposite walls. The male, dressed in the same white shirt as his audience, sings; the female, who gives a more expressive and physical performance, forces the singer and his audience to spectate across the room to her screen. The viewer switches between her performance and the reaction of the men, staging the processes of othering (the woman is largely swathed in black cloth). Of course, the Islamic world is the Other to the Western Self, and in the Other the postmodern world finds a presence of the faith that is absent in "our" own. The othering of Islam means that "faith" equates to "excess of faith"; the Islamic world is totalized and demonized, all Moslems being represented as fundamentalists, and what is more, fundamentalists who are determined to launch a holy war on "our" way of life. While the inclusion of Islamic artists in Heaven is laudable (Turbulent is one of the most fascinating works in the exhibition), their presence is surely problematic in relation to the other artworks. If Heaven is supposed to illustrate how the sacred has become the secular in the postmodern world, the Islamic artists indicate where "faith" has "gone": it has become part of the non-Western Other.
  19. The overall thesis of the exhibition is flawed: the iconicity of media representations, or simulations of media representations, or simulations of simulations, does not equate with the iconicity of religious images. There is no investment of faith in these postmodern spectacles. In fact, they represent not the transformation of religious faith into secular "transcendence," but another postmodern lack: the inability to render transcendence without recourse to the iconography of religion. They neither signify the possibility of a celebratory vulgarity which is always present in kitsch, nor do they critique the processes which (re)produce it; they simulate kitsch, with the collapse of critical distance that implies.
  20. The Disasters of War (1993), Jake and Dinos Chapman's dioramas of atrocity, were, in Liverpool, exhibited on the ground floor, as a free "taster" to the main exhibition. On my second visit to the exhibition, during a school vacation, this introductory room was visited by families with children of 10 years old or under. The Chapmans' notorious mannequins of children of this age, with anuses for mouths and penis-like appendages for noses, were represented by a series of etchings on the wall. Neither exhibit seemed to cause either the children or their parents any concern. The Disasters of War, versions of Goya's images of the violence and atrocity of the Napoleonic wars, reduce the images to a table-top size. Clearly, the impact of images which would, if broadcast on television, cause the chattering classes to write letters of complaint, is lessened almost to zero by the reduction in scale. The work plays with this sense of shock, or revulsion, staging atrocity in miniature to suggest that it is not the imagery but the context, not the representation but the staging which regulates the spectator's reaction. These are the inverse of the mannequins of children: here, atrocity is staged to demonstrate that shock can only be produced by context. Conversely, the mannequins are not shocking in their bodily substitutions (though they do suggest a disruption of somatic order); rather, they stage the ability to be shocked by placing these transgressive mannequins in an art-space. It is not shock, but simulated shock, which is perhaps all, in the "Post," we can achieve.
  21. The visitor comes away from Heaven with a curious sense of belatedness. Any science fiction reader would have come across these themes fifteen, thirty, even fifty years ago. Cyborgism, or virtuality, as metaphors of transcendence or manifestations of a utopian desire for a "more perfect" life, have lost the sense of radicalism they had in the 1980s. They have become part of the "Matrix." Toy Story 2, with Woody and Buzz Lightyear achieving similar cinematic iconicity to "human" stars, depicts "virtual" protagonists operating in a wonderfully rendered "virtual" world, one in which they themselves play computer games. The ranks of Buzz Lightyears that the (original)(mass product) Buzz encounters in the toy store are the true icons of virtuality: the nexus of massive economic forces, computing power, and consumerism.
  22. So, what is the status of the work of art in the age of digital simulation? A world without originals and a world without originality? Heaven's postmodern concerns are anticipated by Andy Warhol's screenprints and boxes of Brillo, which implicate the art object both in the processes of production and reproduction, and in the system of consumption (art=money). Before Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, in signing a urinal and placing it in an art space, deliberately and scandalously compromised the "aura" of the art object. The urinal was shocking because it compromised and reaffirmed the boundaries between art space and quotidian space, between art-object and mass-produced commodity, between the imaginary and the real. Dada is Modern in this sense, and so is its avant-gardist desire to confront, to shock. The discourse of the "post," however, has slackened the strings of these barriers, and made them permeable. High culture/mass culture, human/machine, object/model, territory/map, original/copy: these violent hierarchies have been identified and the distinctions blurred. The work of the Chapmans suggests a way for the postmodern work of art to connect with, even to shock, its viewers: by staging "shock" and allowing spectators to reproduce or simulate the feelings that this creates. Matei Calinescu argues that "kitsch suggests (sometimes with more accuracy than we would like to believe) the way toward the originals" (262). In staging the possibility of sensation, perhaps we may be resensitized.
  23. School of Education and the Humanities
    North East Wales Institute of Higher Education

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    Works Cited

    Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1971. 123-73.

    Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

    Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, 1992. 211-44.

    Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

    Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive. 1988. London: Grafton, 1989.

    Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. Ed. Elizabeth Weed. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. 173-204.

    Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

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