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  • Lumi Tan

Othered bodies, other lives

by Lumi Tan


In a moment where self-imaging is mundanely pervasive and “being seen” is often understood as a primary locus of representation for artists of color, it feels both radical and necessary that the six artists being celebrated by this year’s Gold Art Prize—with its theme “Technology and the Body”— deny figuration and the depiction of bodies to their viewers. This denial leads to generously heterogenous answers to rigorous examinations: How have we as humans been used? And, with that historical grounding, how can we imagine uses that bring us toward more liberatory futures? They examine the body as apparatus, sharing a dedication to wresting control and untethering from power structures including colonialism, capitalism, museums, and biological systems, and providing viewers with possibilities as to what might happen to us outside of those forces. Given that technology has been inherent to these histories, the artists have applied canny and studied insight as to how to subvert its associations with the manifold forms we inhabit, and how it can assist in creating more porous borders between the living and the dead. By finding alternative ways of embodying these borders and utilizing more sensorial networks of knowledge that communicate beyond language, they establish demanding positions that do not promote relationality between subjects within the works themselves, but create indelible impressions on their audiences and the spaces that attempt to contain their work.


Gala Porras-Kim has been pursuing direct interventions to museums and their holdings since 2019. In letters to directors of museums in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Cambridge, and Gwangju, she singles out objects in these collections that have become completely severed from their original intent or function, and are now stored under museological standards of conservation that directly interfere with those functions. In some cases, these are ritual objects and offerings that have been extracted from their environmental conditions and spiritual relationships; in others, these objects are human beings who never had agency in their preservation or eventual display. Porras-Kim’s letters include proposals for their future care or replacement, which are then interpreted for their own exhibited works. In Precipitation for an Arid Landscape (2021), which responds to the 30,000 objects taken from the sacred Chichén Itzá cenote for the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the artist asks each exhibiting gallery or institution (and presumably, any future individual owner of the piece) to maintain rainwater collected over the duration of the exhibition in order to reinstate an affinity between a sculpture of copal and dust taken from the Peabody Museum’s storage with Chaac, the Maya god of rain. By circulating through temporary exhibitions, the material and its rituals are released from the sterility of the museum’s storage. 


A terminal escape from the place that binds us (2020), Porras-Kim’s contribution to the 2021 Gwangju Biennale, addressed the 2,000-year-old human bones in the collection of the Gwangju National Museum. In an effort to acknowledge the personhood of these remains, the artist used encromancy—a century-old divination technique in which the directions of ink stains communicate with the dead or predict the future—to seek insight into how these people (a word rarely used in describing museum-held remains) might have wanted to be buried or otherwise left to decompose. As the artist suggests in her letter to the museum’s director, Soomi Lee, no direct conclusions can be taken from the resulting large-scale, marbled-ink panels that  were displayed, which reiterates the fact that despite a field-wide struggle with questions of restitution and the intention of ownership toward a preservation of knowledge, there is no reversing the damage that museums have effected. Institutions and their audiences expect that the collection and storage of cultural objects will inform us about the people and context from which they have been uprooted. Porras-Kim’s use of divination here is a technology of communication, which infers a sense of accuracy, but the spiritual nature of these tools embraces these subject's’ potential for ambiguity and withholding; there is no responsibility to respond to their captors. 


These concepts of permanence and national loyalty to cultural patrimony informed the creation of waves move bile (2020) by Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien. As monuments in the United States and Europe were being dismantled in response to the 2020 uprisings against racism and colonialism, Camacho and Lien responded to the invitation to participate in Manifesta 13 in Marseille by looking to the statues by Louis Botinelly that flank the entrance to the grand staircase to the city’s main train station. Since 1927, these statues have celebrated the colonial project in Asia and Africa, personifying their exoticism through two voluptuous, reclining nude women surrounded by the bountiful natural resources traded in France’s largest port city. The artists reclaim the Khmer figure from Botinelly’s Colonies d’Asie to portray her as the fragmented, nocturnal female spirit known as the Ahp in Cambodia, the manananggal in the Philippines, and by other names throughout every country in Southeast Asia. Appearing as human during the day, at night she transforms to a disembodied head with rhizomatic entrails in order to voraciously feed off of viscous, fetid material, from sewage to human organs. 


The artists multiply and reimagine the head of Botinelly’s stone monument in fragile, organic materials collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, further animating them with warm, programmed light and guttural sounds arranged according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. During the height of the pandemic and the racist scapegoating of East Asians for the virus’s inception and international dissemination, the artists shifted the exploits of colonial trade toward healing. The soundtrack Camacho and Lien recorded from their own bodily functions feels particularly poignant; their stomach rumbles, punctuated kisses, and rough coughs conjure the vulnerabilities of lockdown, and the foreign nature of being alone with ourselves. By injecting their own biological systems into this anti-monument, they both offer themselves up to the Ahp’s violent appetite, as well as metaphorically “complete” her body. In Camacho and Lien’s work, the thin line between life and death is ever present in not only a colonial past but an equally ravenous capitalist present. Their work contrasts the colonizing perception of the land as a profitable resource for extraction with one in which indigenous technologies endlessly innovate and adapt to create more symbiotic interspecies relationships. 


If the industrial revolution recast the value of human labor in relation to machines, Mire Lee’s sculptures subvert the machines’ reliability and cleanliness. Her simple kinetic structures thrive on their roughness and entropy, and are decisively inefficient and unproductive. Within the exhibition context, they refute the institutional needs of repeatability and conservation. Lee often creates her own architecture within the white-wall gallery to house these machines, including walls made from unremarkable construction materials or scaffolding; there is a practicality to this containment but it additionally contributes to the dread of the sculptures possibly escaping or otherwise being uncontrollable. The ability of these leaking, churning, undulating, and regurgitating forms to provoke feelings of disgust have much to do with another point of refusal by Lee: to render them too overtly as human or animal, wresting the most base interpretations of limbs or organs from those morphologies. It is this indeterminacy that causes our discomfort—as Lee’s installations and exhibition reveal the blurred motivations of pleasure, humiliation, agency, innocence, and violence—and reminds us how much we share with these lurid machines. 


Lee’s 2022 exhibition at MMK Frankfurt, Look I’m a fountain of filth raving mad with love, was a massive installation of her material motifs—tubes, chains, wires, concrete, plastic, fluid networks of water, oil, and “grime”—that have no direct purpose. These were paired with distinctively human images and words: walls covered with the celebrated, transgressive poet Kim Eon Hee’s poems, which often describe explicitly sexual and grotesque scenes; a video featuring footage of deceased Austrian porn star Veronica Moser, who specialized in coprophilia; and a video of Lee’s own mother, whose sleeping figure provided a more virtuous and harmless counterpoint. These bodies represent a spectrum and intertwining of biological systems between labor, leisure, and restorative rest, in contrast to the synthetic technologies of Lee’s materially based machines. The sculptures that droop and sag under their own weight make the ephemerality of humans all that more obvious. Concrete, rubber, and plastics all have a permanence that drastically outlives us, a moral quagmire we created.


Lee’s works are often described as “pre-technological,” or referring to a time more primal than our current digital age, yet this term doesn’t account for technologies that are held and accumulated in our bodies over generations.  WangShui’s practice speculates on this conceit, particularly in how the body could work in tandem with artificial intelligence (AI), as opposed to seeing AI as a threat towards our humanity. Their interrelated works Scr…pe (2021), shown at the Hammer Museum, and the expanded installation Scr ∴pe II (2021), shown at the Whitney Biennial, were prompted by “scrape” as a shared term for extracting data and as a process used in biopsies. The artist envisioned what a biopsy of algorithmic flesh would entail and reveal, given that both AI and humans learn from being fed a profusion of images. For these works, digital collages of generative adversarial networks (GANs) were mounted from the ceiling so that visitors were invited to gaze upward toward screens that suggested the persistent and variable movement of the sky or the light penetrating the surface of the sea. At the Whitney, these GANs read and interpreted various information from within the piece, such as light levels, and beyond the piece, such as CO2 levels from the present audience, making the interconnectedness of the organic and mechanical abundantly clear and formally seductive. Surrounding the viewer on the walls at eye level were paintings featuring WangShui’s signature technique of scraping, or abrading, algorithmically determined images onto aluminum surfaces. The material is receptive to this physical transformation and our reading of them is dependent on shifts in perception and light; as the brightness of the screens fluctuates, so do the surfaces of the paintings. The dependencies created by the artist are adaptive rather than authoritative, creating models for structures that disavow a single mode of knowledge, investing instead in more complex and no less powerful networks such as fungi or cancer cells. WangShui asks us to consider a “personal, microscopic AI that can be mobilized towards healing,” in place of continuing to cleave a divide between human and machine. The screen is no longer a strict binary between exposure and camouflage. We can fluidly exist on both sides, if we allow ourselves. 


An artist whose prescience was long overlooked, Tishan Hsu began pursuing an artistic career in the mid-1980s, decades before the other recipients of the 2023 Gold Art Prize and well before digital technology became a socially acceptable prosthetic to our bodies. Anticipating the technologies that have consistently been the foundation of his practice, Hsu’s prophetic interest and identification as a cyborg are often positioned within his biography: his degree in architecture, an early day job as a word processor, and formative experiences with the medical industry. Yet Hsu’s work was never reliant on the portrayal of his body, but rather the body as a technological system that was responsive or complementary to the needs inflicted on it by other systems. If the screen is the protective surface that masks the guts of the machine, the surfaces of Hsu’s paintings are laboriously processed skins that hold tension and trauma. 


In recent years, impactful private and public losses have guided Hsu to depict specific histories. For delete, Hsu’s first solo exhibition in Asia at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, the artist used archival family photos—most from China’s Communist Revolutionary Period—collected after his mother’s death to explore how the technologies of documentation have troubled our access to memory, both personal and cultural. Boating Scene 1.2.1 (2019) is a diptych that uses the same photo at base. On the left, a group of figures is clearly depicted on a paddle boat; on the right, Hsu skewed the picture to the point where the figures are almost completely erased. Applying a favored technique, which simultaneously approximates the pixelation of the screen and the texture of dermis, Hsu rephotographed the original prints through stainless-steel mesh, then further obscured them with applications of silicone pigments. In 2021, Hsu focused on another set of individuals, this time in a far more explicit memorial. SPA—Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Ae Yue (2021), honored the victims of the Atlanta-area spa shootings that year—six of whom were Asian women—marking a excruciating coda to a period of intensified violence against Asian Americans. A pattern of holes with bulging protrusions of silicon are used to chilling effect. If we are fortunate enough to primarily experience the relentless mass shootings through screens, the physicality of this piece imparts an empathy unreachable through mere images. 


Tishan Hsu described his initial turn to explore technology as stemming from his drive to find an alternative to assimilation within an immigrant family: “I grew up in a culture where I was a racial other, and then I chose to explore the ‘otherness’ of technology, which itself was perceived as alien at the time.”  Hsu’s ability to find kinship between the otherness of technology and his own racial identity may have radically shifted in the four decades since his favorable association. Market-driven technologies have pushed us to accept and willingly provide our bodies as commodities, with our identities, images, and data sold and circulated; society often grants far more sympathy to capitalist technology than to marginalized people. 


Yet reading Hsu’s statement in the present is a reminder that technology remains a lens through which we can comprehend behavioral and physical transformation, rather than one solely of consumption or domination. These six artists provide elastic frameworks to reconceive the body as apparatus, and in their vastly divergent approaches prove that we have been, and will continue to be, our own potent tools of reclamation. Technology is positioned as a concept that pushes us relentlessly forward, making the act of immediately discarding what is assumed to be obsolete—with little distinction between the perceived ineffectiveness of people or machines—more palatable. This year’s Gold Art Prize recipients crucially insist on using technology to perpetually reshape versions of the past as we concurrently ideate expansive futures. Our apparatus may be fragmented, evolving, dynamic; yet it is carried within and amongst us time after time, place after place, life after life.


 

Lumi Tan

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