Sunday, July 6, 2014

Essay: Concept of the Post-Human in Modern Art

Hey guys, I wanted to let you know that I wasn't dead, but I don't have quite enough time to write up a full post at the moment. Please know that I'm warming up to continue the saga of pursuing Full-Time Ministry.

In the meantime, have an essay I wrote last year on the concept of the post-human in modern art.

Hopefully it still makes sense. This was one I wrote on not much sleep, and in one go. Hmm. Enjoy.

AART 3105: Contemporary Issues in Art

What is the ‘post-human’ and how is it expressed in art? Discuss using the work of at least 3 contemporary artists, showing the social, political and philosophical implications of each artist’s work.

From the literal definition of post-human, it is understood that the subject refers to a state beyond that of the regular or presently-defined human. The manner in which this ‘post-‘may yet to be defined, but there is certainly the connotations of a modification or addendum to the understood human.
This essay will discuss the works of artists Lee Bul, Phillip Toledano and Eduardo Kac, and their comments through their art practise on the role of the human and the post-human. Centering on the inherent value of the human, this essay will discuss the ramifications of blending with technology, enhancing through science and the required response to these actions.

The concept of a cyborg is one familiar to the general populace, mostly through science-fiction and speculative fiction. It is a frequently recurring character, and for a variety of reasons. The seamless blend of machine and man grants the character a new set of abilities and life goals, albeit with a very different set of problems and rules in conjunction to those of a human character. The cyborg in fiction becomes a projection of the self with a different set of rules to live and behave by. Are they human? Are they something else? At which point does the presence or absence of human tissue in the cyborg pronounce them human or android?
Lee Bul, a mixed-media artist from South Korea, creates works that investigate this blending of organic and artificial with surgical precision. Working in industrial materials such as silicone or resin, the artworks tend to explore the polarised concepts of cyborg and monster, dwelling on the results of blending opposing ends of the spectrum between the perfect and the imperfect.
Immaculately finished, with exaggerated proportions reminiscent of typified Japanese anime characters, Bul’s forms hang in suspension. Bearing the appearance of the human form, and yet lacking heads and limbs, their incomplete appearance quietly comments on the role of the human in this technically-augmented realm, and whether there would be a place for the human in this new environment. Perhaps more important though, is the query offered by the artist on the right of mankind to engage in the act of augmenting what is already in existence.[1]

Figure 1. Lee Bul, Cyborg W6 (2001). Hand-cut polyurethane panels on fibreglass reinforced plastic, polyurethene coating. 232 x 67 x 67 cm
If the opportunity is made for the cyborg to exist in the real world, to the degree that is understood in the realms of fiction, then Bul has made it a point in her work to understand the relationship that current humans would have with this post-human. She says,

“I’m always concerned with ideas about the extension of the human body, substitution of the human body, transcending the flesh, and the desire for immortality,”[2]

Her works always appear as incomplete forms, hinting towards the inability of the human to create a whole and perfect replica of itself[3]. Her interest in the blurred line between the human and the mechanical is echoed in fiction, and is a keystone theme in many cyberpunk stories. An appropriate example would be the character of Motoko Kusanagi from the landmark manga series Ghost in the Shell (figure 2 below), and its adapted film released in 1995 under the same name.

Figure 2. Ghost in the Shell theatrical movie poster. Produced by Bandai, Directed by Oshii Mamoru. Original Story by Shirow Masamune.
Kusanagi’s role in the storyline is that of a Major in a top secret task force, but the personal demons driving her through the series relate directly to the definition of the human within the cyborg. Only possessing a small amount of brain tissue, with the rest of her body comprised of state-of-the-art technology, it is this character who is constantly wrestling with the questions, “Am I human? What proof exists that I am not a computer program designed to think it was human?”
Fiction reflects the thoughts of the day, and the relatory points between the cyberpunk anime story told by Shirow Masamune (The creator of aforementioned series) and Lee Bul’s deliberately incomplete cyborg bodies become clear upon observation. Both creators, Bul and Masamune use their work as vehicles to question the value of the human, especially when this living creature is able to be changed and edited so effortlessly.

Similar in thought but different in output is the photographic series A New Kind of Beauty, a series of photographs captured by Phillip Toledano. Taken between 2008 and 2010, A New Kind of Beauty is comprised of portraits of people who have undergone radical plastic surgery. For some of the subjects, the changes are hard to detect. Others wear features so different from the accepted norm that they cannot help but draw the eye; their alien countenances conveying this strangeness with a self-possessed and quiet dignity.

Figure 3. Phillip Toledano, Angel (2009)
This kind of alteration deviates from the idea presented by Bul in that the change is administered first and foremost for aesthetic reasons. Toledano’s series of portraits showcase a type of beauty that is able to be controlled and shaped by choice, resulting in subjects who appear vastly different from the general populace. This kind of human is one augmented and changed beyond a natural circumstance, and it is the artist’s interest in this reshaping that draws the concept and thought for the series.

“In 50 or 100 years’ time, I think humanity won’t look like it does today because of technology. …We will be able to redefine what it means to look human and I think these people are the vanguard of that type of evolution,”[4]

Toledano’s statement on the project stands as an interesting observation on the present and a curious look into the future. With the tools at humanity’s disposal, the question of augmentation for aesthetics becomes not an ‘if’ but ‘when’, and ‘to what extent?’
This pursuit of aesthetics in itself presents as a fascinating subject; the definition of what is aesthetically pleasing having changed many times over years. Is then the accepted aesthetic presently given subject to change? It would appear so, if the cyclic nature of trends and fashions are anything to go by. Concepts and aesthetics remain subject to time and the ability that plastic surgery bestows in changing the human face and body at will brings to mind another series of thoughts. Will the definition of beauty still be subject to change when the alteration of a surgeon can cause change in the subject instead? And how will the spectrum of beauty be changed by this artificial intervention? [5]
It would seem that the rising popularity of plastic surgery allows the individual to pursue their concept of beauty to the finest degree. One of the models of Toledano’s photographic series, Justin Jedlica, is part of the niche ‘living doll’ aesthetic.

Figure 4. Phillip Toledano, Justin, (2009)
Jedlica, along with the ‘human Barbie’ Valeria Lukyanova, are examples of humans who have taken to the optical illusions of makeup and the more extreme alterations offered by surgery in pursuit of their ideal of beauty – that of the impossibly proportioned and shaped dolls Barbie and Ken, childhood doll toys manufactured by Mattel.

Figure 5. Justin Jedlica and Valeria Lukyanova. Photo copyright of Inside Edition.
This aesthetic, offered by a doll company, is what inspired Jedlica and Lukyanova to alter their bodies to fit. According to Jedlica, ‘Children play with Barbie and Ken all the time so it’s fed to us from a very young age that that is the epitome of what is beautiful or what is handsome.’[6]
This thought is echoed in Toledano’s artist statement on A New Kind of Beauty – one of his many queries centering on the recent ability to completely reshape the aesthetic appearance of a human; ‘When we re-make ourselves, are we revealing our true character, or are we stripping away our very identity?’ [7]The artist does not bring about a conclusion to the rhetoric, but instead invites the public to interact with the photographic series, composed and laid out in a style deliberately referencing 16th century artist Hans Holbein the Younger[8], a landmark portraiture artist of his time.
This new and potentially unsettling method of pursuing perfection can have a variety of ramifications for the unsuspecting member of public. So different is the drive behind this thought pattern, it almost certainly warrants a different method of interaction between the altered and the unaltered. There is also much to be said for an individual’s identification to the rest of society when so much about them can be changed, permanently. How would the uninitiated relate to the individual capable of such an extreme morphing? They are clearly not the same as they were before, and yet it is only the physical appearance of the individual that has changed. This interaction of opposing concepts often leaves the general public with the difficult task of relation and navigation amid a maze of social conforms and expectations that is defined by the individual.
What then can be said of the post-human in this environment? It now appears that the human is granted the ability to determine their own shape, and set of physical aesthetics. These personal aesthetics in turn are influenced by the time in which the individual lives, and the amount of change possible is limited only by the current range of techniques and surgeries marked as ‘ideal’ or ‘safe’ by medical practitioners.
This ability to determine the countenance of the individual brings with it a new set of thoughts and arguments in turn – what can be said of the face that people were born with? Society is given the ability to obtain more than what was given at birth, and there are those who would grasp it in pursuit of their own aesthetic. It brings into question the inherent value of the appearance of an unaltered human. In a society where so much of the value of an individual is determined simply at face value, the post-human has the potential to change much of what is valued in the current and future generations.

The advent of this change affects clearly the environment of not only those who partake in it, but those who inhabit the same sphere. This outfall of change, like everything that happens in the known world, has to be governed by a certain power, and it is this governance that allows the change to cohesively blend with society. Simply put, there must be an entity or entities that are called to responsibility as a result of this introduced set of ideas.
Enter Eduardo Kac. Kac’s art focuses on the puzzle of genetics and deliberate mutation, of working on a basal level with the building blocks that determine the physical and physiological makeup of living things. Particularly brought to attention is his genetic work from 2000, the GFP Bunny (also known as Alba).

Figure 6. Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny (Alba) 2000

Of the creature, Kac has stated, 

‘transgenic art is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgement of the complex issues raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture and love the life thus created.’[9]

The year before, Eduardo Kac had proposed the concept of a dog with the GFP gene to the symposium ‘Life Science’ presented by Ars Electronica.[10] It was met with a variety of responses, ranging from outright refusal to complete support, but was limited by technology available at the time[11]. Kac’s desire had been to investigate new methods of breeding in dogs, the well-associated closest animals to humans. This initial plan was adapted to the GFP Bunny, known to the general public as ‘Alba’.
After the birth of Alba, Kac had requested to take the laboratory-born animal home, and was met with refusal. Subsequently, he began to raise awareness of the situation, sensationalising his request and bringing it into the public eye.[12] This compounded the unique creature’s situation, as her creation just months prior had created a stir all over the world in various forms of media.[13] Whether the motive for the artist to personally obtain the rabbit in order to possess the fame that came with the animal or to properly care for the creature is not sure, but Kac’s statement pertaining directly to the creature seems to indicate that he had a deep-seated desire to take personal responsibility for the animal he had manufactured.
This sense of obligation towards the created was not limited exclusively to Alba the rabbit; as Kac’s other works indicate. Natural History of the Enigma was a work created by Kac between 2003 and 2008 and was focused on a ‘plantimal’ created by the artist. Named an ‘Edunia’, the creation was a genetically modified petunia, which had been modified to incorporate the artist’s genetic pattern for immunoglobin.[14] A component of blood commonly known as ‘antibodies’, the immunoglobin was encoded into the plant’s genetic makeup, and its presence in the finished product was made evident by the bright red veins lining the flowers of the ‘plantimal’[15]. Kac dubbed the creation as ‘plantimal’, citing it as a mix of plant and animal, something which would never grow in the wild. In naming the plant an ‘Edunia’, he gave it his own name, and as a result extended his ownership and subsequent onus of responsibility to it as well.

Figure 7. Eduardo Kac watering Edunia, 2009. Photo: Joy Lengyel
Somehow, Kac manages to inhabit two seemingly opposing trains of thought when explaining the concept of Natural History of the Enigma. On one side, the conceptual reach of the artwork was designed to show off the ability of genetic splicing in creating a relation between the classified kingdoms Plantae and Animalia. On the other, the artist states that ‘all life, no matter how similar, is fundamentally different. All life is singular.’[16] These two concepts find correlation in the artist’s desire to take responsibility for what is created; something that is made evident through the events surrounding both GFP Bunny (Alba) and Natural History of the Enigma. It is seen that in both cases, the artist tries to take as much responsibility as can be held for his genetic creations.
This overarching theme of responsibility is also addressed by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, although the application of said action is rather different. Piccinini’s works are nonliving, hyper-realistic creations, resembling genetic creatures altered to a much greater degree than that used by Kac.
An example in point would be the mixed-media sculpture Surrogate for the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat. The work is of a theoretical creature, designed for the purpose of breeding back from endangerment the rare wombat, whose declining numbers can be attributed in part to human error.[17] The artwork raises thoughts among its audience of what extent society could use biotechnology to undo damage done to flora and fauna of the environments we inhabit.[18]
Figure 8. Patricia Piccinini, Nature’s Little Helpers –Surrogate (for the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat) (2004) (rear view) Silicone, fibreglass, leather, plywood, hair. Dimensions variable
In this case, Piccinini is absolutely nodding to the question of responsibility. Would we hold ourselves responsible for errors or actions done in the past? And would we be willing to do something about the situation as a result? Her work contrasts to that of Kac in the degree of which this theme is employed. Kac for a large part seems to allow his statements and actions to speak quietly of the responsibility inherent in creating life. Piccinini’s works by contrast take the responsibility required and petition the viewer to take it up. This petitioning usually comes across in her artworks through their uncanny resemblance to humans, in spite of their often animalian features.

Figure 9. Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, (2002) Silicone, polyurethane, leather, human hair. Dimensions variable.
In The Young Family, one of Piccinini’s most well-known works, the resemblance of the creatures to human inspires both familiarity and revulsion. It is like us, and at the same time very much not like us. How should we react to it? It has an appearance completely different from any creature we know of, and therefore would be considered artificial; a result of genetic tinkering. Who then takes responsibility for the creature and its offspring? The clear mother of the scene has by extension of her motherhood taken responsibility of the creatures; of her offspring.  She challenges the viewer, and yet does not need to be taken to task for the same challenge; she already has something to care for.
Piccinini is less subtle in her thematic use of responsibility in creating life, but is no less interested in the concept than Kac.

What then can be said of these artists when relating to the post-human? Each has a different manner in which their art and conceptual work is expressed, but all boil down to one particular idea: the inherent value of the human.

For Bul, her fascination centres on the blurring of lines between the human and technology in pursuit of perfection. Her fragmented cyborgs ask quietly what it would mean to be human and why it is that the cyborg cannot holistically exist without the human (although by definition, a cyborg requires interface with a human to exist). Bul investigates the right of mankind to intervene and right ‘human imperfection’[19] through technology and its incorporation into the human body.

Toledano presents a different look at the inherent value of the human; similar to Bul is the incorporation of foreign materials into the body, but the focus lies in aesthetics and the pursuit of beauty, even boiling down to the individual definitions given for beauty among society. In this self-defined world, the natural body is subject to alteration and augmentation, to a point where it is no longer recognisable from its native state. The desire is not for the base human form, but for the capturing of ‘a particular part of beauty from our time’.[20]

Overarching and yet still very much related then, is the practise of Kac. Focused on the reactions to the post-human, Kac’s evidenced desire for responsibility taken for his creations reflect a different outlook on the augmentation of the human form or the forms seen in the environment of the human. The concept is understood as taking responsibility for the creation, no matter what is actually created.

This concept of responsibility relates strongly to the value of the human on two levels; firstly, it acknowledges that the post-human is something entirely different from the human, and thus cannot be given the same set of rules for interaction with society as given to its predecessor. Secondly, if the human is to be credited and held responsible for the creation of the new creature, the post-human cannot be credited as greater than the human. They co-exist, equal and yet different.

The concept of the post-human and its reoccurrence in modern art often raises questions. It’s a relatively new concept, and can be very confronting. This stems from a very simple source: by creating the post-human, we are changing something intensely personal to society and to the human race, calling into question something that is unequivocally shared by everyone. By changing the makeup of the human, we create a new set of rules required to correctly engage with the subject. This is not limited to the social circle, as this new set of rules overflows into how the post-human must be governed and cared for by society, and how the human and post-human would value each other.

The definition of the post-human, it would seem then, is the augmented human. The human that blurs the defining lines between themselves and their environment, creating change for the sake of change, but at the same time taking responsibility for their alterations, concurrently existing as human and post-human: progenor and progeny.


Art Gallery of South Australia. “Patricia Piccinini: education resource” Last accessed 06/06/13
Bul, Lee. Lee Bul. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004
Dixon, Joan Broadhurst & Cassidy, Eric J, editors, Virtual futures: cyberotics, technology and post-human pragmatism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998
Eduardo Kac. “Natural History of the Edunia” Last modified 06/06/13
Gautherot, Frank. ‘Supernova in Kareoke Land’ Flash Art International, no.217, March-April 2001, Kac, Eduardo, Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006
Masamune Shirow, Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell (motion picture), Bandai Entertainment, 1995
Mr. Toledano. “A New Kind of Beauty” Last modified 06/06/13.
The Slate. Rosenberg, David. “Classical Portraits of Extreme Plastic Surgery”. Last modified 06/06/13.

[1] Lee Bul, Lee Bul (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004). p8
[2] Lee Bul quoted in Frank Gautherot, ‘Supernova in Kareoke Land’ Flash Art International, no.217, March-April 2001, p82
[3] Lee Bul, Lee Bul (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004). p8
[4] “Classical Portraits of Extreme Plastic Surgery”. Last modified 06/06/13.
[5] “Artist’s statement, A New Kind of Beauty” Last modified 06/06/13.
[6] “Classical Portraits of Extreme Plastic Surgery”. Last modified 06/06/13.
[7] “Artist’s statement, A New Kind of Beauty” Last modified 06/06/13.
[8] “Classical Portraits of Extreme Plastic Surgery”
[9] Eduardo Kac, Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p165
[10] Kac, Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. P165
[11] ibid. p164-165
[12] ibid. p165, 170
[13] Ibid. p166-169
[14] “Natural History of the Edunia” Last modified 06/06/13
[15] “Natural History of the Edunia”
[16] “Natural History of the Edunia”
[17] “Patricia Piccinini: education resource” p13. Last accessed 06/06/13
[18] “Patricia Piccinini: education resource” p13
[19] Lee Bul, Lee Bul (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004). p8
[20] “Classical Portraits of Extreme Plastic Surgery”. Last modified 06/06/13.

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