Kupfer Projects, London
Written on the occation of Being Here, a group exhibition curated by Jeanette Gunnarsson and including works by Saelia Aparicio, Evangelia Dimitrakopoulou, Roxman Gatt, Jack Jubb, and Davinia-Ann Robinson, presented by Kupfer Projects, London (24 July — 14 August 2021).
Set against our current climate of ecological crisis, accelerating social inequality, the biogenetic revolution and struggles over resources, the text focused on how Being Here was an expression of the creatureliness of contemporary life.
Creaturely, in so far as it is a provocation to the great anthropological machine of modernity, that which suggests there is only one way of ‘being here’. The works of each artist, in contrast to the crude form of a single human subject elevated from the world around them, demonstrate the pluralities of perception, memory and identity that define our age.
“Never far from conversations of embodiment are those of humanity’s relationship to the animal. Since the cradle of our existence this question has plagued the borderlines of our self-conception — recall the crude stick men chasing bison found scrawled in the Lascaux caves, or the horned chimeric figures of those at Les Trois-Frères. Understanding this distinction has set us apart from the ostensible brutality and wildness of life caught at the vanishing point of consciousness. It has also produced a contradictory and vexed distinction that has contributed to what Giorgio Agamben calls “the anthropological machine of humanism” — a discursive system used to manufacture and propagate the eternal and monolithic silhouette of a universal rational subject — one that is self- reflexive, intentional and sovereign; free to be Lord of its very own skull-shaped kingdom. It is a distinction that continues to be used to subjugate those perceived as lacking some irreducible human essence; a language used to silence those seen as deviant, irredeemable or other.
Speaking of animality in the context of Being Here may seem counterintuitive. Taken at first glance, a visual preoccupation with animals remains elusive, albeit not wholly divorced from the artists’ work: there remains the eidetic faux naïf portraits of aquatic lifeforms by Jack Jubb, the wraith-like whispers of Evangelia Dimitrakopoulou’s live chemical syntheses, and the silky, allegorical butterfly that adorns Roxman Gatt’s transformative school uniform. In spite of these works, it is clear this not an exhibition about animals, nor animality per se. Rather, for me what brings these works together is their shared fascination with precisely that which problematises the discourse of animal and human — “the anthropological machine” and that which it must continually deny as “other” in order to survive. Contained with the works of Being Here is an emergent and generative power, one that splinters throughout history in moments of crisis or profound change — a disruptive and indeterminate force that Eric Santer would call, the creaturely.
“What I am calling creaturely life,” Santer writes in his eponymous 2006 book, “is a dimension of human existence called into being at ... historical fissures or caesuras in the space of meaning.” Baring its teeth in moments of catastrophe or ruin — the aftermath of war, plague and revolution, periods in which assumptions of humanism and the limits of human politics are called into question — the creaturely is a symptom, a manifestation of trauma to the symbolic order of society. Take for instance, the emaciated yet passionate figures of Schiele or Munch that emerged after the brutality of the first World War, the rhapsodic doom of Wojnarowicz’s photography at the height of the AIDs epidemic, or the seminal work by Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry, that was created using paint, graphite and elephant dung in the aftermath of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In every case, the creaturely emerges less as a set of figurative rules, rather as a juxtaposition of terms: that which documents a damaged past at the very moment it announces a transformed future to come.
Despite their lack of an explicit animality, the works of Aparicio and Robinson are similarly imbued with the creaturely. For Santer, the creature “is not so much the name of a determinate state of being as the signifier of an ongoing exposure, of being caught up in the process of becoming creature through the dictates of divine alterity.” In Aparicio’s work, this exposure to difference takes the form of a disrupted male gaze. Seen through the eyes of a catwalk — a being-seen par excellence — a series of hybrid bodies are revealed to us, subverting their gender and exalting a delightful absence of normative constrains on the human body. Robinson’s, in contrast, sublimates the body into an earthly register of vegetation and soil. Using materials gathered from spaces where the artist has endured colonial violence, these are environments that speak to an organic desire for commune, rebirth and renewal at the same moment as highlighting the brutality of policing and regulation that black lives remain subject to.”