in Features | 01 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Private Lives, Public Gestures 2

Exploring how art and politics have employed the medium of gesture, from The Last Supper through Albert Speer’s ‘Cathedral of Light’ to Frances Stark’s collages

in Features | 01 MAR 08

Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937)

Where do politics begin? How is a society formed? What role can art play in these defining moments? One prominent view is that institutional structures shape society. If this is true, there is not much art can do, because it is subject to the selfsame cruel logic of inclusion and exclusion that the institutional apparatus imposes on everyone. You may denounce this logic through art, but your voice only gets heard when your work is incorporated into the system. Consequently, so the reasoning goes, criticism only helps institutions boast a liberal attitude. Much of the thinking behind institutional critique seems to lead to this dire – and not a little paranoid – conclusion. It is this inbuilt tendency towards paranoia, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued, that proves there is something wrong with portraying social processes as exclusively determined by closed institutional structures.1 To eschew paranoid closure, she proposes a different view: to look at the performative dynamics of the practices that bind society together. Those forces are regulated, certainly. But, due to their multiplicity and theatricality, performative practices are also inherently chaotic. The overall picture of society that you arrive at from this angle then immediately seems less closed, making interventions appear possible.

By foregrounding the pragmatic and theatrical dimensions of social processes, this approach is much more favourable to the potential of artistic practice. Politicizing art is subsequently no longer about the effort of getting into (institutional) politics, since art is always already steeped in the politics of the performative. Art and politics belong to the same trade. They share the medium of gesture, which, in its expanded sense, encompasses all the physical manifestations through which people confront each other and seek to evoke desired responses, whether by speech and expressions of body language or by the display of signs and signals in images, texts, music or architecture.

To grasp the implications that the politics of the performative have for a critical art practice, it therefore is crucial to look at the rhetorical power that gestures have to move people. Since the gestures of art partake in this power, the most pressing question is: how does one position oneself vis-à-vis the forces of persuasion, seduction, authority and violence that powerful evocative gestures can generate? From this perspective the critique of institutions is superseded by the need for a radical political ethics of the form of gesture: in what manner do we want to perform through our gestures, socially as well as artistically?

This notion of the political ethos of gesture is already connected to a field of artistic investigation. There are, for instance, Georges Bataille’s reflections on the foundational power of mythic violence throughout his writing, echoed by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s filmic exploration of the excessive theatricality of the gestures through which power asserts itself as in Edipo re (1967) or Salò (1975). The birth of American independent cinema could actually be seen as motivated by this very fascination: the beauty and brilliance of Maya Deren’s films, for instance, lies in the way she expands the surrealist gaze through her particular sensitivity for the corporeal magic of self-contained ceremonial gestures (as in the 1948 Meditation on Violence). Her approach is then rearticulated in Kenneth Anger’s queer sense of the occult and Jack Smith’s cult of the queer: in films like Inauguration of the Pleasuredome (1954), Anger stages visually exuberant Satanist ceremonies with his bohemian associates while Smith, in Normal Love (1963) for instance, explodes the notion of the ceremonial in a flurry of carnivalesque rituals. Both tap into the ominous power of ceremonial gestures of communal invocation. Yet, in the process of performing them, they also free these gestures up for a different use: to inaugurate their own micro-societies and counter-churches.

The intimate link between the momentum of early Performance art and feminist criticism in art may also lie precisely in this sensitivity for the social function of gestures. There is the Utopian pragmatism in the early dance choreographies of Yvonne Rainer, in which she sought to invent a different primary language of gestures by appropriating, dismantling and reconfiguring simple movements from everyday life. Then there is Joan Jonas’ ambivalent take on the rituals of the mass media in her video performances that restage, mock and relish the magic of television as an eternal matinée sideshow. Yet the ambiguous implications of the power of gesture were realized most forcefully in the 1970s by central European women artists such as Sanja Ivekovic, Marina Abramovic or Zofia Kulik. In their performance and photographic works these artists expose both the violence inherent in the gestures of gender role play and the potential, through a transgressive mimicry of these roles, to free them up to an exuberant practice of posing. When you look back at these works you see a political ethos emerge that is dedicated both to the investigation of the social power of gesture and the transformation of gesture into the medium for the inauguration of different social practices.

To expand on the notion of gesture, it may be useful to go further back in art history. Arguably, one of the most paradigmatic examples of a gesture of inauguration is contained within Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of The Last Supper (1498). Visually, the vast image is organized around one gesture: the outstretched arms of Christ at the centre. The arms reach out to the viewers in a gesture of invitation. So this painting does not just represent the gesture of the inauguration; it performs it. The mural was designed for a refectory: each day the friars would convene before this image to eat their meals. So the work quite literally summons the faithful to commune every day, designating the site and spirit of this assembly. Like a loop, the mural endlessly repeats the gesture of inauguration. The power of this image, then, is deeply messianic; it prefigures the coming of the community that it summons. It is revealing to consider that this motif of the messianic moment of inception is traditionally called the Institution of the Eucharist, for this instantly makes it clear that the term institution does not just denote a structure but also the very act by which that structure is in-stituted, or, translated literally, put into place. In this sense, a political ethics of gesture can radicalize institutional critique when it focuses on the performative logic of the acts that effect the institution of institutions.

It seems that if we want to grasp the performative logic that shapes societies around the world today, we must look at the messianic gestures of the institution of the mythic heartland of modernity: ‘America’. In his study on the social history of modern dance, Social Choreographies (2005), Andrew Hewitt explains why: ‘America’ is the paradigmatic example of the modern nation that had neither a shared history nor one language to constitute itself.2 In the absence of a story to be told and a language to tell it in, it had to rely on the body as a medium to physically perform its own inception (examples ranging from cheerleader culture to presidential campaign marathons). ‘America’ is the paradigm of performative culture because it has no other foundations; its institution is a shared sense of intensity generated in a performance of communality. And because it is essentially a practical exercise, ‘America’ can be performed by anyone anywhere in the world. In her seminal work Triangle (1979), Sanja Ivekovic made this clear. While a political parade was held on the street outside her Zagreb flat during Tito’s regime, Ivekovic showed herself on the balcony wearing a T-shirt bearing a US seal, reading an American novel, having a sip of whisky and pretending to masturbate. She was performing ‘America’ as a gesture of defiance directed against the political choreography imposed on social life around her (the performance lasted for 18 minutes before police removed her from the balcony).

But when did the world start to learn how to perform ‘America’? Hewitt argues that its performative logic became globally available as early as the beginning of the 20th century when, for instance, American revue dance troupes drew thousands to theatres in Berlin, in a country that was lagging behind in the process of modernization and hungry to experience a performance evoking the promise of modern times. Militarist regimes have always promoted themselves through spectacular parades; nonetheless, it stands to reason that both the Nazis and the Soviets learned a lot from the American technique of how to perform the birth of a modern nation. One such grand performative gesture, captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), is the ‘cathedral of light’ that Albert Speer produced on the evening of a 1934 Nazi Party rally, illuminating the night sky over the Nuremburg stadium with the beams of 130 carbon arc searchlights.

The end result performed the birth of a nation in an apocalyptic fashion by calling forth the spirit of a future people to descend from the sky like a UFO. Yet, given that this promise to fast-forward a nation into modernity was perpetuated by heavy duty technology, it was essentially also a media event. One of my grandfathers went for it. He was a car mechanic with a need for speed. The army offered him work as a motorcycle messenger. It was a modern thing to do. So he joined the party, rode his fast bike, crashed it and died.

The messianic gesture of summons to the Soviet people was arguably epitomized by the statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, depicting a couple united in a forward stride with hammer and sickle raised, which Vera Mukhina designed for the roof of the Russian pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. There it directly faced the German pavilion, on the roof of which Speer placed a giant eagle spreading its wings, ready to block the Soviets’ onward march. In 1947, Mukhina’s statue became the logo of the Moscow film company Mosfilm. As a Soviet equivalent of the roaring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion, the design appeared at the start of every film, and later television programme, produced by the company. Thus, this heroic gesture, through which the birth of a modern nation was performed, was subsequently transformed into an emblem of modern media.

This lineage of works – from The Last Supper, to the ‘cathedral of light’, to the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman – raises the unsettling question: if the messianic gesture is intimately linked to an unholy tradition in which it has served to institute regimes, to what extent is it contaminated with the violence that it has provoked? What does it mean when you find the great prophets of dissent using the selfsame messianic gestures? A good example is William Blake’s illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels (1808). It shows Lucifer, the true idol of all nonconformism, summon the insurrection of his rebel angels with his arms raised in an apocalyptic gesture as beams of light tear through the leaden night sky. It seems that this stance presages the gestures of clandestine revolt that have since been celebrated on the stages of subculture. It inaugurates a church of intensity in a nocturnal ceremony that ‘sets the night on fire’ – like Speer’s ‘cathedral of light’ and the many party-organized torch processions and equinox bonfires did. Is it wrong to conflate two belief systems because the messianic gestures used to invoke them bear an uncanny resemblance? If there is a difference, how could the form of the gesture testify to it?

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Angels (1808)

Cerith Wyn Evans’ Cleave 03 (Transmission: Vision of the Sleeping Poet) (2003) addressed this very question. The piece consisted of a searchlight installed outside the Welsh pavilion on the island of Giudecca during the 2003 Venice Biennale. The light flickered on and off at intervals, commanded by a computer which was translating the 1703 novel Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc (The Visions of the Sleeping Bard) by Welsh author Ellis Wynne into Morse code. As the beam went up into the sky, appearing and disappearing, it coded, letter by letter, the ecstatic tale of a bard taken to heaven by angels after falling asleep on a hill. Although the work echoes Speer’s messianic gesture, its impulse is entirely different; for while the ‘cathedral of light’ convoked a people to assemble, Cleave 03 … has a dispersed mode of address: the light speaks to anyone who sees it, yet it also speaks to very few people, as you would have to be fluent in Morse code and Welsh to read it. But perhaps it speaks to someone very special: the ghost of a Welsh sailor who would know that the signal was addressed to him. So while the identity of the subject that Speer summons is brutally clear, Wyn Evans gestures towards a fractured subject of becoming that is anyone, no one and someone particular at the same time.

Cerith Wyn Evans, Cleave 03 (Transmission: Vision of the Sleeping Poet) (2003)

Such an inherently fractured subject or disaggregated community may also be seen to be evoked through the gestures of innuendo in Lukas Duwenhögger’s work. In the painting Gespräch (Conversation, 1992), for instance, you see two gentlemen sitting at the bedside of a third man, who reclines in bed with his eyes closed, clutching a Henry James novel. Through a window, a worker on the roof of the adjacent building inspects the group. Their bond, it would appear, is forged through the gesture of being together in silence. To share this bond means to read the signs and grasp the spirit of their wordless conversation. The form of their communion epitomizes what Jacques Derrida, citing Friedrich Nietzsche, describes as the fractured society of the ‘jealous lovers of solitude’, united by what divides them: their love of solitude.3 It’s a different society, a society dedicated to difference, evoked by a gesture with a particular spirit.

It may be that as artists and intellectuals we inevitably inherit the repertoire of modern messianic gestures, simply by virtue of the fact that when we speak, we do so in the hope of speaking for others and in the hope of creating a different form of communication and communality. How do we enact that gesture? Performing in the spirit of a different ‘America’ is a very viable possibility, as Frances Stark demonstrates in her recent works. Another Chorus Individual (On Aspiration) (2007), for instance, is a collage that shows a dancing performer wearing a dress cut out from a psychedelic dorm-room poster showering words from her exuberantly lifted arms. Queering the cult, as Smith did, also seems like a good gesture. Look at Enrico David’s Chicken Man Gong (2005): a huge gong framed by the outlines of a man with tiny stilted legs, a big round chicken body and a face with a questioning look. It epitomizes the awkwardness of the position you find yourself in when, while rejecting the inherent violence of authoritative acts of institution, you still feel the urge and responsibility as an artist or intellectual to begin the communication/communion through a messianic gesture. Fully recognizing the inherent presumption of the gesture, the Chicken Man Gong still says: Be bold. Get it on. Bang a Gong!

1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2003, pp. 123–53
2 Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2005, p. 117 ff.
3 Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, Verso, London and New York, 1997/2005, p. 35