Image culture researcher Lee Nara’s column “Anthropology of Images and Contemporary Art: Image and Death” introduces Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille, Hans Belting, Georges Didi-Huberman, and other image theorists and their ideas to examine the history and present status of image and its intimate relationship with the anthropological subject “death” in light of selective contemporary artworks that incorporate anthropological and art-historical images and videos. In doing so, Lee attempts to map out the migration of image—its perenniality and universality transcending of time or territory. ※ This article was selected and printed as part of the “Visual Arts Critic-Media Matching Support Project” by the Korea Arts Management Service.
In 1478, Francesco Sassetti (1421–1490), a wealthy banker in Florence, pays the Church of Santa Trinità and buys himself rights to a chapel. Now Sassetti and his wife can forever rest within the walls of this chapel when they die. But before that, Sassetti commissions Domenico Ghirlandaio to paint murals to adorn the chapel. Two coffins, one for Sassetti and one for his wife, are enshrined on left and right sides of the chapel walls, and on the altar wall, a three-story triptych is painted. The very top fresco depicts Franciscan friars receiving confirmation of the encyclical from the pope, below that is a miracle scene depicting a child’s revival, and at the bottom center is the not-so-uncommon religious portrayal of shepherds adoring baby Jesus. The bottom piece is hedged by paintings of the Sassetti couple, kneeled in what’s unmistakably an earnest praying position. After a thorough examination of the literary and visual materials from that time, Aby Warburg managed to prove that the figures in the top fresco portrayed as Franciscan friars are in fact modeled after the Sassettis and members of the autocrat family of Florence (Lorenzo Medici, his children, and Poliziano, a poet and friend of the Medicis). It wasn’t rare for religious paintings at the time to portray figures modeled after the patron’s family members, but beyond the influence of the extremely observant Flemish paintings and the social atmosphere at the time reflected in Ghirlandaio’s realistic rendition of the figures, Warburg observed hints of the “primitive” pagan custom popular in Florence at the time, finding resemblance between the Sassettis’ portraits in the frescos and the wax effigies people left inside religious sanctuaries in hopes to gain “mystical powers.” (Basilica della Santissima Annunziata was filled with life-size wax figures, modeled after powerful people in Florence and consecrated to the church or left by outside visitors.)
With that said, it’s not a reach to deduce that, even during the Renaissance period when major cornerstones for pictorial art were laid, the main impetus for visual imagery was something equivalent to present-day fetishism. Though in the top piece of Ghirlandaio’s frescoes, the friars seeking confirmation of the Franciscan Rule are the main subjects of the painting, the architectural structure and the figures in the foreground have a larger presence, instantly skewing the suggestive space in the painting. What the viewers are drawn to in reality is the giant hole in the ground, allusive of a staircase bridging the underworld and the upper-world—an allusion owed to the group of heads peeping out from under (Warburg claims that these are the Medici children). The hand gestures of the figures, presumed to be Lorenzo Medici and Sassetti on the right-side corner greeting the stair-climbers, can be interpreted in many different ways, but since the middle fresco depicts a reviving miracle performed on a child, it’s easy to see the ascending children as the former child’s resurrected selves, climbing up the stairs to the world above. Was Sassetti, a finite being destined to be buried in this chapel, more anxious to defeat death than to prove his faith? Warburg points out that the staircase section of the painting connecting the underworld to the upper-world is practically the artistic and spiritual center of the mural. From the hole gushes up the hope of salvaging so many voiceless lives and giving them voices.
The human race generally accepts the historical hypothesis that mankind has progressed from mystically interpreting the world to rationally conceptualizing it. Such historical hypothesis certainly takes place when discussing the history of images as well. If archaic images were practiced in hopes to replace or hold onto an absent subject, in the age of reason, images are expected to serve as an artistic language, deployed through symbols and metaphors. While studying the early Renaissance paintings and influences of Flemish art, Warburg, instead of validating the spirit of liberal arts and the concept of fine art in their founding, recognized internal hypocrisy and schism prevalent in Florence. Jun Tanaka points out that whilst Warburg had discovered tendencies of fetishism and self-replication from the frescoes in the Sassetti chapel that imply mortal anxiety and division of faith, it was the very anxiety that deterred him from delving deeper into this matter. The portraits of Sassetti in the frescoes—reminiscent of self-modeled wax effigies—aren’t the only things in the chapel that point to image fetishism. Behind the baby Jesus surrounded by the shepherds, where there should be a manger, is instead, a sarcophagus. The child in the middle piece, miraculously revived, also sits on top of a coffin-like altar. In Death of St. Francis painted to the side of the chapel, the saint lays forever-asleep on top of a bed-like coffin. Images of self-replication as well as images of a coffin appear in every scene from birth, death, to resurrection, resonating mortal anxiety. Coffins, sarcophaguses, and tombstones are objects that have long been in an intimate relationship with images representing alter ego or materiality.
One may be curious: in what images do tombs, graves, or coffins come? In Korea, for example, a grave is usually a rounded mound of soil and grass marked with a gravestone, whether small or large, that states the identity of the buried, often accompanied by a miniature table on which food and liquor are dedicated to the deceased. The mound, the stone, and the table are worldly belongings, things that exist in the world of the living. Put differently, things exist in the outer world, as opposed to the inside of the grave, where the corpse encased by the coffin probably exists no longer. The body of the dead has most likely disintegrated and returned to dust in tandem with time and the laws of nature. A grave is therefore, a place of non-existence.
Hans Belting, an art historian who studies the anthropology of images within the triadic constellation of image, media, and body (also construable as historical or contemporary image, visual artifice, and the beholder’s living body) argues that a tomb is a place symbolic of the “absence” caused by death rather than a place preserving of the bodily “remains” of the dead. A tomb is undoubtedly a place of burial, which is but only secondary. A tomb is a fictional place, an “image of a permanent place” devised for the dead who have lost their intrinsic place—the body. And the desire for permanence is inevitably due to human evanescence. Nevertheless, the living distance themselves from the dead, expressly for which they mourn and hold rituals that “pictorially reenact death.” Thus funeral rites are processes through which biological and personal deaths become symbolic and public.
“The grave, however, is not only a place of rest, but a place of activity as well: a place at which the hour of death is, via the burial, pictorially reenacted. This takes place some time after death has occurred—in some cultures months or even years - and it effects an exchange between the catastrophe of death and death as a phenomenon under social control, whereby a community restores order through ritual. In archaic societies, this replaying of death is a classic rite of initiation, a “rite of passage,” similar to the ceremonial reenactment of birth that takes place when a new member is received into a male society. In both cases, a social event substitutes for the biological event. Christian baptism, which insists upon the death of the “old man” who must be “reborn,” carries an echo of these rites of initiation.” - Hans Belting, 『An Anthropology of Images』
In The Iliad, there is an episode about ancient Greek tombstones. Ranged in vertical columns, the tombstones served a role of imbuing the tomb—a place of uncertainty where bodies are disintegrated and dissipated—with notions of settlement and permanence. If the stone endows permanence through its solid materiality and verticality, the sarcophagus imbues permanence through containment, and again, its materiality. The sarcophagus and the tombstone, collectively “the tomb,” replace the “body” of the dead with an “image” of a place where the dead lies. In that sense, this “image of a place” is arguably an “image of a second body” that substitutes for the dead. And at the same time, the tomb also acts as an “image of memory” for the visitors to remember the dead by. The riddling images of death, evanescence, or absence all originate from these desires. Philosopher Maurice Blanchot also focused on the ironic relationship between images of death and images of absence, and from there, developed a metaphysical philosophy on images in general. Burial rites, funeral props (such as masks and flags), elements of a tomb (such as the coffin and the tombstone), and portraits of the dead are all images of death. These images exist to show something that no longer exists. They represent something that does not inhabit the images but “appears to.” The image is something that the living requires to mend the absence. Thus the sarcophagus and the tombstone serve as second bodies, symbolic ones that stand in to appease the anxiety and agitation of loss.
Let’s come back to a present-day museum. There’s an installation: nine figures of a kind, outlined in white—the same white of the wall—fixed onto the walls just three centimeters from the surface . There’s a constant flapping noise playing in the gallery, amid which a moving light rotates to spotlight the three walls in turn. The artist, who had once decisively placed a caster—which in itself embodies the potential to roll but in this case, could never—at the end of a steel structure extended down from the ceiling frame of the gallery (〈Rooftoe〉, 2011), decided this time, to dress the walls of the Atelier Hermès—a tad quieter than the rest of the Dosan Park vicinity commercial area—with contours of birds that neither potentially could or ever will fly (〈Girogi〉, 2018). Kim Minae says that she’s emptied the rest of the space, leaving only the simple outlines of the birds—unremarkable and prosaic birds such as a hen, a duck, and a pigeon—to serve as “false protagonists” posing as girogi (wild geese), questioning, “at what point does the gallery space begin to regulate art instead of accommodating it?” Kim has consistently been producing site-specific works that not only serve as artistic objects but also address their placement by interacting with the exhibition space. But as she admits herself, this particular exhibition was more intuitive and emotional than the past ones. Maybe it was because the reference—the sense, the emotion, the memory evoked by the outlined birds—was too specific, but the “false protagonists” seemed like they were trapped in a hapless position where they had no choice but to keep pretending to be the protagonist.
False protagonists succeed in deceiving the viewers when and only when they’re taken seriously. Let’s think a little more about the mallard, the pigeon, and especially the wild goose, which only appears in the title of the piece. These birds are commonplace, and they’re standing inside the gallery space in a fixed position. Though the birds are allegedly “unremarkable,” this is not because they lack anything in particular, but rather because they are generalized, contoured, stripped of color. Birds tend to stay relatively distant from the reach of human perception. Aside from their general shape, birds don’t provide many sensory hints for us to distinguish them from afar, which is why hunters identify birds by their contours. In this respect, birds are more abstract to humans compared to other wild animals leaving indicative marks such as footprints. In other words, a contour is an element more essential in relation to birds than other species, which is why Kim’s birds fail to deceive if only in their silhouettes. Looking at Kim’s birds and listening to the bird sound, it’s more convenient to imagine lifelessness or death than to experience a false sensation. With the birds stuck in an underground atelier instead of roaming above in the sky, it’s easier to envision the gallery as a tomb or a sarcophagus. Then, could 〈Girogi〉 —the burial of the birds, or the outlining of their tombstones—be a contemplation on the museum system, the gallery space, and especially the walls that “bury” artworks within?
The gallery space, the walls of which are lined with reliefs of the birds, or “meaningless false protagonists” as Kim describes, is in many ways similar to Minimalist cubes, referred to as “specific objects.” The birds’ failure to fulfill their role as a false protagonist also falls in line with the idea. As opposed to the Minimalists who saw cubes as “specific objects,” Georges Didi-Huberman saw cubes as sinister and paradoxical objects. With that, Didi-Huberman denied Abstract Expressionism and its predomination of 1950s American art, overturned the whole of 1960s Minimalism for trying to establish the absolute meaning of objects, while also refuting the notions of materiality and objectivity in Minimalist objects and exhibition methods and rejecting Michael Fried’s claim that these works ultimately offer an experience of “theatricality” or “presence.” Minimalists sought to prove that there exist self-evident objects that don’t represent anything as an image, isolated objects that do not relate to anything, and objects that are unscathed by anything. They also tried to free objects of “all human forms of reason,” and Fried also ostracized anthropomorphism despite his regard of Minimalism as something vulgar. On the other hand, Didi-Huberman discovered in written and visual works by Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, objects that ultimately act as interdependent or imitating variables, and objects affected by time. He focused on the state of “évidement,” the recess or the hollow cavity of three-dimensional Minimalist objects that testify to the absence, hence the presence of the material volume itself, describing it as unique and strange rather than objective and specific. (Didi-Huberman used the terms unique et étrange, and sonderbar, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s explanation of the concept of aura.) When forming a subjective relationship with these Minimalist objects described by Didi-Huberman, we are able to speculate the act of “seeing” as a uniquely physical activity instead of a mechanical process, to contemplate “seeing” as an act associated with loss, division, and symptom. Didi-Huberman’s interpretation was quite ground-breaking in that it parlayed Minimalism into a matter of dialectic perception, and as long as Minimalist objects were dialectic images, objects (or their recess) inevitably lead to the experience of loss or death, which is directly contradictory to the Minimalist intention of freeing objects of potential association. Prior to his aggressive mention of Minimalism, Didi-Huberman had also dealt with the sarcophagus (an image discussed earlier in this article in light of Hans Belting’s anthropological image theory) in relation to the image of a dying mother portrayed in James Joyce’s Ulysses. These two images force recognition of loss, the division or split between the spectator and the subject, in two different ways: There’s the experience of seeing a subject (a mother in this case) running out of life, and then there’s the experience of seeing an empty sarcophagus that remains after the body of the dead has dissipated. In the first scenario, the spectator is colligated with a subject who’s not only dying and disappearing before him, but also staring back at him, whereas in the second scenario, the spectator, someone still living hence possessing a body as a proof of life, is colligated with the void inside the grave. Didi-Huberman presents these experiences of colligation as experiences equivalent to what happens to us when we’re looking at a work of art, though it could also very well be that he ultimately wanted to discuss Minimalist objects in line with sarcophaguses.
Didi-Huberman sees Minimalist objects (Robert Morris’ works for example) as objects with potential to be distorted, collapsed, or disappeared. In his opinion, they serve, rather than as specific objects, as simulacra or something surpassing of imitation theories. Objects that disappear yet leave an “évidement” create images of anxiety and go so far as to liberate images. These objects aren’t merely Minimalist—objects contrived by psychoanalysts, poets, and artists for us to look at often signify absence through presence: the string reel used by Sigmund Freud’s child subject in the “fort/da (gone/there)” game; the bedsheets children play with after losing a maternal figure; the children’s toy mentioned in Charles Baudelaire’s 〈Morale du joujou〉, and the volume and hollows of Tony Smith’s geometric sculptures. And in this sense, artistic objects attest to and experiment with the same symptom as non-artistic objects, hence anthropological objects. In another written work dialectically explicating the indirect similarities between geometric objects and human forms, Didi-Huberman presents a detailed analysis on Smith’s works and their impetuses in particular.
Tony Smith, a late-bloomed artist known for works such as 〈Black Box〉 and 〈Die〉, wrote about an experience that affected the structure of his objects:
“It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railing, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there that had not had any expression in art. The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art.”
Smith experiences the night as an “aura.” (Kim Minae produced 〈Sand Castle〉 in 2011 based on a misperception she had experienced while “walking in pitch darkness of the night, relying on a flashlight,” which could also be seen as an experience of an aura.) Just like Smith was there, confronted or consumed by the black hollow which was the night itself, when we are temporarily situated in front of Smith’s work, the sculpture, as inherently dark and internally boundless as the night, presents an experience of a distance we can’t mend. Because we are “guided,” as if we were lost in the woods, by the simple volume that is his sculpture, we are unable to compendiously identify the playful tricks of the flat surfaces and cross-sections.
“The volume exists, underneath our feet, near and around us, almost palpable. Yet its unique ‘darkness’ introduces the notion of double distance, withdrawal, and immeasurable elements of isolation. Moreover, just as the night had placed Tony Smith within itself, the work places us inside our archeological, aesthetical memory of ‘a symbolic forest.’ The symbolic forest, through its own sculptural form, not only creates a space symbolic of its deprivation, but also a monument for its memory. Therefore, ‘double distance,’ in many levels, takes place within the virtually emptied volume, within the now visually dense void.” –Georges Didi-Huberman, 『Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde』
Michael Fried realized that spectators form a relationship with motionless Minimalist objects presented on the wall or on the floor and criticized the theatrical element in the presentation. Regardless of such criticism, however, Fried managed to detect the phenomenon of Minimalist sculptures simultaneously distancing themselves from the audience and intruding on the audience. Robert Morris’ erect or collapsed geometric objects or Tony Smith’s sculptures, despite their external simplicity, remind us of ourselves—a phenomenon described by Didi-Huberman as “ulterior-resemblance (arrière-ressemblance).” Smith’s solid blocks, dead-silent like a coffin and even as large as a coffin (six feet) conjure an “uncanny” (unheimliche) feeling in the beholder (Didi-Huberman pointed out that human measurements were frequently found in the works of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt). Then, isn’t the anthropomorphic resemblance in Minimalist objects rooted in the anthropological resemblance that causes mortal anxiety?
Beyond Smith’s experience of the night, Didi-Huberman delineates the elements in Smith’s sculptures that evoke the experience of death to explain the anthropomorphic anxiety imbued in the objects. His sculptures resemble sarcophaguses, the most common example of an empty space or an empty structure encountered by humans. A sarcophagus, as a familiar cuboid and a giant stone structure achieved through human labor, forces us to imagine our own death, evoking fear by reminding us of the physical dissipation to ensue death. And thus the anthropological experience of death corroborates the universality and reality of the experience of the sarcophagus. The void inside the sarcophagus do not relate in any way with the world of artificial objects or the world of simulacra. Some may argue that coffins are coffins, and those immersed in the ecstasy of faith would yearn for the world beyond the coffin, eager to erase the decomposing flesh inside it and to fill it with sacred and refined images of a body. Kim Minae sees the defecating hence conflict-inciting birds (she makes several mentions of an incident in which she and her neighbor quarreled about pigeon droppings), and sees them being fetishized or feared. She erases these connotations by removing the birds of physicality, and calls them “false protagonists.” The artist also brings in the moving light, originally installed at a church to highlight the pastor, to illuminate the gallery walls and the birds. This church-light ironically emphasizes the physicality of the three-centimeter reliefs, the remaining flesh waiting either for dissipation or salvation, and despite Kim’s denial, the birds (or the walls) are as absent as they are present. Could any other place possibly be as interesting as the walls, the tomb, or the sarcophagus?
Image Culture Researcher