Salcman, Michael, "Postmodernism and the Art of Gabriele Leidloff", Lecture for: scans. X-ray film-strip; Columbia University, New York 4.16.1997
POSTMODERNISM AND THE ART OF GABRIELE LEIDLOFF
MICHAEL SALCMAN, M.D.
POSTMODERNISM & THE ART OF GABRIELE LEIDLOFF
I begin with the commonplace assertion that Art to be important must be of its time and yet transcend it. The critical question for the contemporary viewer is whether timeliness and transcendance are still possible in the postmodernist era when, as Arthur Danto says, art can look like anything at all and, as Joseph Beuys would have it, anyone can be an artist? The work in this exhibition by Gabriele Leidloff is quintessentially postmodernist in its use of nontraditional materials, its interest in the body and its conflation of media, particularly video, installation and photography. Furthermore, it explores several themes that permeate almost the entire history of art prior to modernism, namely the complimentary and occasionally antagonistic relationship between art and science, the acknowledgement of mortality and how we represent death (i.e. the memento mori), and our self-involvement with representations of the human form both grotesque and ideal. In these brief remarks, I wish to explore what the persistence of these themes might mean to the postmodernist enterprise and the nature of their resonance within the work of Gabriele Leidloff.
ART & SCIENCE
For more than a century, art and science have been posited as oppositional activities, the supposedly intuitive and speculative set against the deductive and truth-seaking. This confrontation was made explicit in the series of Rede lectures delivered by CP Snow in 1959 on the subject of "The Two Cultures" (1). In this influential book, Snow argued that the languages used by artists and scientists were becoming mutually incomprehensible and that this situtation could only grow worse within the context of the east-west confrontation of the cold war. Naturally, Snow viewed the west as wedded to humanistic activity and the east as the harbinger of the perfectable technological society of the future. Of course, none of us could then foresee the collapse of the west`s adversary, largely brought about through the diffusion of the very same informational systems and technology at which the east was supposedly superior. As I have previously discussed elsewhere, differences in the methodology of the arts and sciences are more apparent than real, the personality characteristics of artists and scientists are frequiently quite similar, and it is only the products or artifacts of the scientific and artistic enterprise that appear to be different in kind (2). Since we tend to associate science with discovery and art with invention, there have always been a few individuals who have managed to carry out both activities at a deep philosophical level, including Leonardo, Thomas Eakins and Albert Einstein. Artists and scientists often share the same cultural zeitgeist: it is impossible to not notice that Maxwell`s electromagnetic discoveries and Michaelson`s measurements of the speed of light are contemporaneous with Cezanne`s uniform method of illumination, that the images of modern astronomy and the birth of abstraction share an historical stage (Kupka even named a critical painting of 1912 "Disks of Newton" ), that interest in Freudianism and the metaphysical style of DiChirico emerge together, that even Duchamp`s iconoclasm mirrors the fusion of the new psychology with the industrial age and that Pollock`s skeins of paint and Rothko`s depiction of the infinite sublime reflect the glory of modern particle physics and universal cosmology. Of course, artists and scientists often have shared a deep mutual distrust, one side viewed as impractical and purposeless, the other as destructive and power-seeking. For example, the artists that rose to prominence in the post second world war period, especially the abstract expressionists, clearly saw science as antithetical to their most fundamental beliefs and even their survival. Science and technology rather than politics and human frailty were blamed for the persistent threat of modern warfare and technological annihilation. Nevertheless, much of the art of this period either anticipated or replicated the fundamental shape and visual language of the scientific discoveries that shared the same stage. Indeed, as science and technology became more focused on the invisible world of atomic particles and the genetic code, art became more conceptual, investigating its own "primary structures". For several hundred years, in fact, art and science have shared a paradigm of visual evolution in which accelerating change is the only constant feature.
Much of this change occured under the pressure of the dominant philosophical paradigm of the 20th century, the Einsteinian universe, a paradigm invented by a scientist whose primary methodology, including thought experiments and deductive reasoning, are inherent features of the artistic personality. Einstein sought out particular mathematical and analytical methods so as to be able to prove what he already knew to be true. Time as a coordinate of our lives, as a dimension of the universe, became a preoccupation of our culture and entered artistic practice in the form of happenings, performance art, earthworks, and other objects that either spoke to the subject directly or moved and suffered decay.
Of course, it is one thing for the multiplicity of views in a Picasso to share the same era as the Einsteinian universe with its multiple frames of reference or for the art of Giorgio di Chirico to be congruent with the theories of Freud; it is quite another matter for art to lift the tools of science and its experimental methodology, to displace them from the laboratory into the gallery or the museum. In the art of Gabriele Leidloff, the conflation of art and science is made explicit. A (typical) installation by Leidloff consists of a series of x-rays or radiographs taken from death masks or mannequins and displayed on light boxes. X-rays were discovered by a German physicist named Roentgen who used a photographic plate to display the bones of his hand. The technique was immediately put to use in clinical medicine and initiated a great century of medical imagery that has recently culminated in computerized tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography. Leidloff`s light boxes are usually the very ones employed by radiologists in a hospital setting to view clinical radiographs taken from patients. The x-ray technique used by Leidloff is similar to that used for soft tissues rather than for bone, its most frequent application being the investigation of the female breast in mammography. These "soft" x-rays eminate from a single point, much like classical perspective in a Renaissance painting, and create a halo around the "bones" of the object such that the soft tissues are displayed surrounding the internal armature of the body. It is as if one were able to view the skeleton of a sculpture and its surrounding skin at the same time. Indeed, contemporary medicine utilizes computerized 3-dimensional reconstructions of tomograms to visualize head and facial surfaces through which slices or "cuts" can be made and the internal structure of the brain or eyeball made visible. Such reconstructions were displayed as art at the last Venice Biennale and were contrasted with the photographic tableau of Helen Chadwick.
When Leidloff uses blue film to print her radiographs, her pictures share the tonality of blueprints, a scientific conceit used by Rauschenberg in taking x-rays of his own body.
Photography itself has often been viewed as a "scientific" or truth-telling medium; the striking feature of x-ray photography is that it functions essentually like a pinhole camera- all features at all depths are in focus. In Leidloff`s pictures, we get to see "the skin and bones" with equal clarity. We also get a sensation of movement through the serial investigation of her subjects` poses. One of the first scientific uses of photography was the investigation of human and animal locomotion by Edward Muybridge, an interest shared by Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins. In both Muybridge and Leidloff we observe the repetitive presentation of identical images with slight variations; this type of serial investigation links their art not only to that of the Minimalists of the 1960s (i.e. Judd, LeWitt and Stella) but also to such progenitors as Monet and Joseph Albers. Of course, there is another link between Leidloff`s art and that of the 1960s, namely the use of the viewbox as a framing device to produce objects that straddle the boundary between painting and sculpture in much the same way that the primary structures and paintings of classic minimalism do. The lightbox simultaneouly frames the flat radiograph and displaces it from the wall in the same way that the thick frame of a Stella black painting invades the space of the viewer. Indeed, it was this invasion and control of space surrounding both the object and the viewer that Michael Fried termed "theatrical" and for which he castigated minimal art as a retreat from the modernist purity of abstract expressionism and color field painting (3). Consider the humor and the menace involved in an interaction with a typical Tony Smith such as the aptly named "Smug" of 1973. In this regard, it is important to note Leidloff`s career in experimental film and theater as a performer and director prior to her more recent activities as an object maker. The framing function and theatricality of Leidloff`s light boxes, therefore, stand on the cusp between minimalism and postmodernism. In a recent book, Hal Foster has gone so far as to locate the origin of postmodernism in the minimal art of the 1960s (4).
Leidloff knowingly appropriates the authority of medicine and science in using a photographic medium and displaying it on an apparently cool and objective mechanical device, a clinical tool that is easly recognized by everyone who has ever stepped into a physician`s office or watched a medical show on television. Leidloff has drawn attention to the cool nature of the light that eminates from the viewbox. This appropriation of authority has an interesting consequence, it is a necessary strategy in creating empathy with the body parts displayed in her radiographs, parts apparently belonging to beautiful and long-limbed people (dancers perhaps, who are the subjects of her investigations). At first glance it is not clear whether these individuals are undergoing a diagnostic procedure for a medical ailment, whether they are normal persons unethically exposed to ionizing radiation for the sake of art or whether the photographs are post-mortem studies. The authority of the x-ray, the supposed fidelity of photography to reality and the radiologistís viewbox create a timed delay during which we pause to consider possibilities other than the truth that Leidloff`s transparent humans are really sex toys and mannequins. In her art, scientific authority is a mechanism for inserting a temporal aspect that is essential to its magic. In Muybridge, art arises from the apparently objective study of living forms; in Leidloff, living forms arise from inanimate objects throught the intercession of art.
Art and science not only share a commonality of purpose, not only do their practitioners share personal characteristics and the same heuristic methodology, but art and science share a common antagonist, namely mortality. In idealistic terms, the artist and the scientist seak to defeat death through the elaboration of truths that ameliorate the uniquely human self-awareness of finitude, that provide reassurance through the elaboration of meaning in what otherwise appears to be an infinite void, a universe of apparent meaninglessness. At the most simplistic and personal level, the artist and the scientist seek to achieve their own immortality through the creation of works that will out live them. Art and science are activities that recognize the paradox of the immortal mind trapped within the finitude of the body. Corporeal limitations do not apply to the imagination or the mind. Science extends the control of the mind over the universe and projects the life of the scientist into the future. Art explores the creation of alternative worlds, scripts that are not necessarily implied by the physical order. Irrespective of their specific content, art and science are essentially optimistic programs that seek to extend the life of the individual and the vitality of the civilization that surrounds him. This is true even when the subject of science or art is death itself. And death as a subject is one of the most pervasive themes in all of art; it makes its appearance in the earliest cave paintings and has continued to appear throughout the modernist canon, especially in the guise of the memento mori. This tradition, made explicit in the art of Francisco Zurbaran, reappears in the modern era in both the early and late work of Paul Cezanne, in every decade of Picasso`s career, in art as dissimilar as that of Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The theme has appeared in the contemporary sculpture of Christopher Wilmarth and Jan van Oost. Warhol, that icon of the postmodernist canon, was obsessed with death- disaster paintings, electric chair paintings, paintings of skulls, paintings of celebrities that had been touched by death. And, as Carter Ratcliff points out, much of the painting of the 1980s was "dead painting", Kiefer, and Salle, and Schnabel, and Baselitz, their works filled with intimations of the mortal, their surfaces dead with the used detritus of a tradition that had seemed used up in the aftermath of abstract expressionism and minimalist sculpture.
Leidloff`s implicit rendering of mortality in the radiographs of body parts presented on viewboxes is made explicit in her radiographs of death masks. These are displayed as flat objects on tables. We look down upon the death masks in the same way that we view the body in the coffin at a funeral. We are above, the departed are below. Somehow their features are softened, "humanized", reenveloped in skin by the soft x-rays that have surrounded the plaster of paris molds taken from the faces of the famous dead and from anonymous murderers. Whether her subjects are associated with the greatest achievements of German history, men such as Goethe and Beethoven, or whether they are common criminals, it is difficult to avoid some of the obvious associations of these objects with the work of other contemporary German artists. We are again made aware of the disjunction between the imperishable nature of the deeds that outlive us and the evidence of our corporeal mortality. And this lesson is equally true whether we are responsible for great accomplishments or terrible crimes, whether we are speaking of Goethe or the most problematic aspects of German history. Whether in reaction or declamation, I do not believe that the work of a German artist of Leidloff`s generation can escape the influence of the Holocaust. Death viewed through the medium of scientific and medical technology recalls the mechanization of death and the depersonalization of our most intimate experiences in the modern era, hence the anonymity of the figures in the mannequin radiographs and the unknowability of the individuals commemorated in the death masks.
The picture of the Goethe mask is, of course, a notable exception. In Goethe, the spirit of art and science are joined as in no other figure of the German enlightenment; he was just as interested in optics as in poetry. The seductive softness of Goethe`s features invite us to touch the surface of the picture, but the absolute flatness of the medium distances us and recalls the finality of life. We can read Goethe`s words, be affected by his thoughts, gaze upon his face, but we can no longer speak to him as he still speaks to us. The flat, unemotional presentation of death by photgraphic means has its own tradition. Since the time of the American Civil War, dead children in the arms of their mothers and adults in their coffins have been propped up in formal portraits, a tradition that has been extensively discussed in the exhibition "Picturing Death" (5). Photography so strongly inscribes the presentness of the object that its pastness becomes all too apparent. There is hardly a photograph that does not play upon our sense of nostalgia. And nostalgia is always associated with loss. Is this doll by Leidloff screaming and what is the nature of the orifice posed in the mouth of death?
DEATH & DESIRE; THE BODY IN THE MACHINE
There is a perverse sense in which all postmodernist art is premodern, not only in the degree to which it conflates the technological with the aesthetic but also in its negation of the concept of progress. Modernism was concerned with the method of its own making. It believed that persistent attention to form, color, shape, and materials would result in continued refinement of the object until the very essence of art would be discovered. This was a utopian program. The primary subject of modernist art was art itself; all other content was largely the incidental byproduct of pictorial or structural rightness or correctness. The human body, as the erotic focus of our speculations on the ideal of beauty, was banished from modernism. This was necessary because Beauty as an eternal verity is the very antipode of newness. In contrast, postmodernism always has a subject external to its own materiality, be it political, anthropological, historical or ironic. Hence, in the postmodernist era, when newness per se is no longer valued or perhaps not even possible, beauty unexpectedly can reappear like an oasis on the horizon.
Beauty is an attribute that is socially contextualized, eternal in its fascination and almost impossible to define outside of specific examples. Death and desire, eroticism and mortality, are frequently linked in the imagination. When the aesthetic properties of what is depicted and its manner of depiction are seamless in their integration, their perfection of surface acquires the properties of skin. At such a moment, one may confuse the object with the effect that it produces. As an exmple, I readily admit that the creamy flesh of the Rokeby Venus of Velasquez has produced stirrings within me that are quite beyond the boundaries of conventional art criticism. I am also willing to admit that I have sometimes felt similar stirrings in front of the objects that Gabriele Leidloff creates, as if in the midst of death an intense sexualization has occurred. Again this points to the premodern origin of postmodernism; although the brain is a sexual organ, it is usually not possible to feel a sexual charge in the presence of an analytical cubist picture, a Mondrian, an Ellsworth Kelly or a Kenneth Noland.
An art that revisits eroticism and mortality, reality and artifice, is not necessarily ahistorical or out of history if its visual embodiment is contemporary. That this is emphatically true of Leidloff`s objects I have no doubt. Death and desire, the body in the machine, this goes to the essence of the postmodernist enterprise. Danto dates the beginnings of the postmodernist era to the advent of the Brillo box, when it was no longer possible on purely visual evidence to determine what was a work of art and what was a commercial container in a grocery store. Of course, Warhol managed to conflate beauty with celebrity as well as reality and inauthenticity. Since his most famous subjects were Marilyn and Jackie, suicides and widows, he also managed to conflate beauty with death, and since the rest of his images, Campbell soup cans and Troy Donohue were metaphorically dead, the superficial attraction of his surfaces, their bright colors and clean industrial design, were linked to a cultural iconography that in itself was no longer alive. Even when Warhol`s art is visually dead, it is conceptually seductive because the twentieth century is one long riff on necrophilia. Like the madman Kurtz in Conrad`s jungle, we are perversely attracted to the forbidden beauty that lays claim to the heart of darkness. All works of art are simultaneously alive and dead, beckon to our senses but fail to reciprocate our longing.
Although the non-representational picture on a flat nonrelational surface is the emblematic art of the twentieth century, we have already moved on into another era, one that is hot rather than cool, allusive and full of content, relational rather than abstract, progenerative rather than philosophical. The assaultive nature of this retreat into the past is a cardinal feature of postmodernism and may represent a cyclical process in the common culture of western civilization. The return of content, especially in the context of objects that invade the space of the viewer, is a potentially disturbing development after a century of experimentation that seemingly excluded the visible world from the surface of the canvas. Perhaps this is why photography is so central to the postmodernist enterprise; as Susan Sontag observed, "photography is a promiscuous form of seeing", and, as such is the very antithesis of the purity that preceded it.
In its purity, abstract painting was replete with philosophical implications and empty of all references to the everyday world, a disjunction that Matisse, that most conceptual of artists, was always afraid to embrace. Although I have loved abstract painting all my life, I, like most of you I suspect, have regretted the ellipsis it created, the vacancy once filled by Goya and Rembrandt, by Turner and Matisse. Somewhere in that gap between art and life, in that discordance between the ideal and the everyday, beauty exists as a psychological disturbance, as the epitome of what we instinctively know and crave and that which we cannot attain or know too closely. As an example of this disturbance, I offer a poem inspired by the work of Gabriele Leidloff entitled "Mannequins".
Columbia University, New York, April 1997
(1) Snow, C.P.: The Two Cultures and a Second Look, Cambridge University Press, 1969, 107 pp.
(2) Salcman, M: The education of a neurosurgeon: The Two Cultures revisited, Neurosurgery 31:686-696, 1992; Cavell, S: Observations on art and science, Daedalus 115:171-177, 1986
(3) Foster, H: The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996, 299 pp.
(4) Fried, M: Art and objecthood, in: Battcock, G: Minimal Art, A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, pp.116-147
(5) Norfleet, B.P.: Looking at Death,
David R. Godine, Boston, 1993