The phenomenological experience of art is one of embodied awareness. Now more than ever, as contemporary art becomes more interactive and immersive, our perceptions of embodiment are useful tools to gauge the efficacy of visual art as a stimulus for knowledge, new experience and expression. Art has a mimetic and interactive relationship with the world. As Schopenhauer said, “The world is my representation” (3). So which takes effect first: the lungful of excited breath or the synapses, is it the miasmic smell of dust on whirring video projectors or the emotion? When we see great art (in this instance, new media work), do we shudder, then see and understand it? Or do we see, tremble and, only then, know? “Art unleashes and intensifies...Art is of the animal” (Grosz, Chaos 62-3). Are our bodies reacting in response to the physical information at hand in the world?
“Why do you like Amy?” I asked my six year old son, who was in love at the time. “I like her face,” he said. Was this a crude description of infantile love or an intuitive understanding of how all kinds of passion begin with the surface of the face? Peter Sloterdijk writes about the immersion and mimicry, the life and death mutualism of faces, of gazing on another’s face. He says, “Both of these, self-knowledge as well as self-completion, are operations in a sphere of illusory bipolarity that, like an ellipse, only formally possess two focal points” (205). It seems to me that this desire for the love, beauty and knowledge of another is mutual; a reciprocal narrative thrust, the same existential motivation. Elizabeth Grosz writes about the first emotions of the newborn child and the immediate expressiveness of the face, with those of the parents. She refers to Alphonso Lingis to develop this connection between emotion and bodily expression as: “the pleasure and pains the body comes to articulate: human infants laugh and weep before they can speak.” (Grosz, Chaos 51) To be acknowledged, to see a reflection of one’s own face in that of another’s face as an expression of love, is a craving common to all humans.
Art, like new love, has the ability to set our hearts aflutter, lips aquiver, our palms turned upwards in awe, our eyes widened in surprise. “The reverie of love defies all attempts to record it” (Stendhal 63). We are physically drawn to great works, to their immediacy, to their sudden emerging determination and tangibility (Menke). Our perceptions are entangled, our attitudes are affected, our imaginations are piqued and our knowledge and memory are probed.
So what happens next? Once our hearts are pounding and our legs are wobbling, then what? As our unconscious experience becomes conscious (as the result of our brain letting our body know and then identifying and analysing the data), we start to draw associations and allow the mind and the body to engage with the world. The significance of what we see, an art object worthy of love for instance, is interpreted or distinguished by our memory and our personal accumulation of information over our lives. When we are away from the object, we perceive the art work to be dispassionate, inanimate and impassive. Yet standing before the object, our perception shifts and we consider the art work to be alive and dynamic. I believe the ability to ‘fall’ for an art work reflects the viewer’s heart-breaking longing to ensnare the beauty (or ugliness) that has so captured his or her soul. Like the doppelganger who doesn’t recognise its own double, its own shadow, the viewer falls in love (Poe 1365). This perverse perception of love (perverse because we usually associate love as existing between humans) is real.
Philosopher Paul Crowther writes about the phenomenology of visual art. Where I am talking about a romantic longing, a love of the love itself, the face falling for the face, the body falling for the body, bodily, Crowther breaks down the physical patterns of perceiving art. Though he does not deny the corporeal reality of the experience, he talks of the body operations discriminating at the level of perception, drawing on memories and future expectations and desire (Crowther, Phenomenology 62). Crowther says, “Through the painting, the virtual and the physical, the world and the body, are shown to inhabit one another simultaneously and inseparably” (Phenomenology 75). I am not sure that these experiences occur simultaneously or even in tandem. While we perceive the experience as full and complex and potentially revelatory, one element more likely informs the next and so on, but in a nanosecond of time. The bodily senses warn the heart which warns the mind. The mind activates the memories and experiences before alerting us to the world and the context and finally, the aesthetic judgement.
Crowther’s perception of transcendence operates when reality is suspended in the mode of possibility. This informs my view that love of art functions as an impossibility of desire’s end, gratification must be pushed back every time. What of Crowther’s corporeal imagination? This is curious: how can we imagine with our bodies (as opposed to our mind and spirit)? This idea is virtual, in time and space outside those we are used to. This is an imagination that engages instantly, in a self-conscious way. Crowther refers to the virtually immobilised subject matter and the stationary observer and calls it a “suspension of tense” (Phenomenology 69). However I am interested in the movement of the spectator around the art work or in synchronicity with the artwork too. This continues the face to face, body to body, encounter of art.
Crowther also writes of phenomenological depth as a condition of embodiment which is of significance to judgement; phenomenological depth is “shown through ways in which the creation of visual artworks embodies complex relations between the human subject and its objects of perception, knowledge, and action” (Phenomenology 9). Although Crowther is leaning on the making of the artwork more heavily than the viewers’ perception of it in this account, it relates well to the Australian artists and twins Silvana and Gabriella Mangano, whose action performances, presented in three-screened, large-scale video were represented in the 2012 Sydney Biennale. The Mangano twins collaborate on video performance works which focus on their embodied interpretations of the act of drawing.
In the Mangano sisters’ 2001 Drawing 1, the twins stand beside a wall of paper, facing each other. While maintaining eye contact, they draw the same image on the wall, without seeing what mark they are making or what mark the other is making. This intuitive, physical, corporeal manifestation of their close connection becomes articulated on paper. Its uncanny nature, the shared creativity and the performative act of collaborative drawing is riveting. The spectator is both excluded and incorporated in this work. Such intimacy between siblings is exclusive and yet the participation of the spectator is necessary, as witnesses to this inexplicable ability to know where the other’s drawing will move next. The sisters are face to face but the spectator and the artwork also function in a face to face encounter; the rhythmic fluidity of movement on the video screen surface is the face of the artwork.
When experiencing the Mangano works, we become aware of our own subjective physical experiences. Also, we are aware of the artists’ consciousness of their heightened physical relations with each other, while making the work. I am writing in an era of digital video and performance art, where sound, movement, space and shifts of temporality must be added to more traditional formalist criteria such as form, surface, line and colour. As such, our criteria for judgement of this new surge of highly technical (though often intuitively derived) work and the immersive, sometimes interactive, experiences of the audience have to change at the same pace.
One of the best methods of aesthetic critique to use is the concept of embodiment, the perceptual forces at work when we are conscious of the experience of art. As I sit at my desk, I am vaguely aware of my fingers rattling across the keyboard and of my legs crossed beneath me. I am conscious of their function, as an occupied space within which my consciousness resides. “I know where each of my limbs is through a body image in which all are included. But the notion of body image is ambiguous,” (102) says Merleau-Ponty, and this is a “Continual translation into visual language of the kinaesthetic and articular impressions of the moment” (102). Mark Johnson reiterates this dilemma: “We are aware of what we see, but not of our seeing.” (5)
This doesn’t only relate to the movement of the Mangano twins’ muscles, postures and joint positions in their videos. It also relates to the spectator’s posture and straining, our recoiling and absorption. If I lurch forward (Lingis 174) to see the video image of the twins as they walk across a plain in El Bruc, Spain, using Thonet wooden chairs as stilts in their 2009 work The Surround, and if my eyes widen, if my hands unclench and open, and if I touch my cheek in wonder, then, is this embodied reaction a legitimate normative response? Is this perception of the work, as a beautiful and desirable experience, an admissible form of judgement? If I feel moved, if my heart races, my skin prickles, does that mean the effect is as important as other technical, conceptual or formalist categories of success? Does this feeling refer to the possibility of new intelligence?
An active body in a bodily space (Merleau-Ponty 104) as opposed to external space can be perceived because of darkness needed for the ‘theatre’ of the performance. Darkness is often the cue for audiences that there is performative information at work. In the Manganos’ videos in Spain (they completed several videos during a residency in El Bruc Spain), the darkness was the isolated and alienating landscape of a remote plain. In their 2010 work Neon, which was inspired by Atsuko Tanaka’s 1957 Electric Dress, the movement and flourish of coloured neon paper was filmed against a darkened background, which is the kind of theatre space Merleau-Ponty describes: the performative cue.
In Neon the checkered and brightly coloured paper appeared waxy as the sisters moved it around their half-hidden bodies, as though blown by an imaginary wind. This is an example of how the black or darkened setting works as a stimulant for understanding the importance of the body at work within the dramatic space. This also escalates the performative nature of the experience, which in turn informs the spectator’s active reaction. Merleau-Ponty says, “the laying down of the first co-ordinates, the anchoring of the active body in an object, the situation of the body in the face of its tasks. Bodily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out” (115)
The viewer, however, is not disembodied, despite the occasional sensation of hallucination in the face of an artwork. The body is present, it is in, near, around and sometimes below the stimulus. Many art experiences are immersive, such as Mexican, Rafael Lorenzo Hemmer, and Dane, Olafur Eliasson, whose installations explore time, light and sound and require audience participation. The participant’s interaction causes an effect upon the artwork. We are more conscious of ourselves in these museum environments: we move slowly, we revolve and pause, with hands on hip, head cocked to the side. We smile, frown, sense, squint, laugh, listen and touch. Traditional art (such as painting) may not invite such extremes of sensory multiplicity, such extremes of mimicking movement and intimate immersion.
“The fact that the self exists in such an horizon of past and possible experiences means that it can never know itself sufficiently as just this immediately given physical body. It inhabits that body in the sense of being able, as it were, to wander introspectively through memory and imagination to places, times and situations other than those of its present embodiment” (Crowther, Phenomenology 178). Crowther’s point is important in application to the discussion of embodiment as a normative criteria of aesthetic judgement. It is not just our embodied experience that we bring to the magistrate’s court room, for judgement, but our memory and knowledge and the context or environment of both our experience and the experience that is enacted in relation to the art work. So an argument for embodiment as a criteria for normative judgements would not function alone, but as an adjunct, an add-on, an addition to the list of already applied criteria.
This approach of open honesty and sincerity to art is similar to the hopefulness of new love. This is not the sexualised perception, the tensions of eroticism, which Alphonso Lingis speaks of in his Beauty and Lust essay. I am not talking about how “the pattern of holes and orifices we sense in the other pulls at the layout of lips, fingers, breasts, thighs and genitals” nor “the violent emotions that sense the obscenity in anguish” (175-76), I am instead referring to a G-rated sense of attachment, a more romantic attitude of compassion, desire, empathy and affection.
Those movements made by the Mangano twins in their videos, in slow motion, sometimes in reverse, in black and white, the actions and postures that flow and dance, peak and drop, swirl and fall: the play of beauty within space, remind me of other languorous mimetic accents taken from nature. I recall the rhythms of poetry I have read, the repetitions of rituals and patterns of behaviour in nature I have witnessed. This knowledge, experience, memory and awareness all contribute to the map of love which is directing me to different points in the performance. These contributors to my embodied experience are creating a new whole and also a new format for judgement. Elizabeth Grosz talks about body maps when she says, “the body is thus also a site of resistance...for it is capable of being self-marked, self-represented in alternative ways” (Inscriptions and Body Maps 64). I’m interested less in the marking and more in the idea of the power of bodily participation. This is power in terms of the personal and the social as transformative qualities.
“Art reminds us of states of animal vigour,” Nietsche says (Grosz, Chaos 63). Elizabeth Grosz continues this idea by saying that sensations are composites (75) and that art is connected to sexual energies and impulses, to a common impulse for more (63). However I think there is a mistake in attributing sexuality, as prescribed by Lingis and Grosz, despite my awe and admiration for them both, to the impulses of art. They might seem or appear to be erotic or sexual urges but are they not something a little more fleeting, more abstract, more insouciant? These are the desires at close hand but it is what those desires really represent that count. Philosopher John Armstrong refers to a Vuillard painting in the Courtauld Institute: “This beautiful image reminds us that sexuality isn’t just about sex; it conveys a sense of trust and comfort which are connected to tender touch” (Armstrong 135). In other words, if we assume there is a transference of Freudian sexual intensity or libido to the art work, perhaps it is not the act of sex we crave but a more elaborate desire, a desire for old-fashioned love, respect and honour.
Sue Best refers to the word communion to describe the rapturous transport of being close to the artwork but always kept at a certain distance (512). This relates to the condition of love, of desiring an object but never attaining it. This is arrested pleasure, otherwise known as torture. But the word communion also gives rise, for me, to an idea of religious communion, of drinking the wine and bread as metaphor for Christ’s blood and body. This concept of embodied virtue or pious love, of becoming one with the Lord has repetitions or parallels with the experience of art. The urge to consume, intermingle or become physically entangled with the object of our desire is more than a philosophical urge but a spiritual urge.
It seems to me that embodiment is not just the physical realities and percepts of experience but that they stand, mnemonically and mimetically, for more abstract urges and desires, hopes and ambitions, outside the realm of the gallery space, the video space or the bodily space. Crowther says, “Art answers this psychological/ontological need. ...through the complex and ubiquitous ways in which it engages the imagination” (Defining Art 238). While our embodied or perceptual experiences might seem slight or of less importance at first, they gather weight when added to knowledge and desire. Bergson said, “But there is, in this necessary poverty of our conscious perception, something that is positive, that foretells spirit: it is in the etymological sense of the word, discernment” (31).
This art love is an aspiration for more, for hopes and expectation that the art work I fall for will enlighten me, will enrich my experience. This art work reminds me of all the qualities and principles I crave, but know in my heart are just beyond my fingertips. Perhaps we can consider the acknowledgement of art love as, not only a means of discernment but also as a legitimate purpose, that is, to be bodily, emotionally and intellectually changed and to gain further knowledge.
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