Meeting With the Chaotic
- Reflections of Art History
Hannah Haansbæk Rasmussen
Art and Symbol
As Jens Galschiot chose to send his sculpture the Pillar of Shame to Hong Kong for the anniversary of the massacre on the students in the Tiananmen Square 4th June 1989, the sculpture became a symbol of the struggle of the student and democratic movements for human rights in China. The sculpture was meant to support the Union of Democratic Parties, and the Pillar of Shame is still - through its undeniable presence - a conspicuous representation of repressive acts of the government.
The aesthetic entity of the artwork was, of course, less in focus of the media during the immediate press covering of the celebration of 4th June. However, the endeavour to visualize the sculpture bereft of its symbolism provides an opportunity to understand the Pillar of Shame as a genuine work of art with a specific expressiveness and communicative strength. This does not, on the other hand, release us from the recurrent issue of political art, namely whether it really is art at all.
Idea or Artwork
Political art is haunted by the difficulty of not being taken seriously as genuine art. Less in the general public than among the professionals, a fact that essentially cannot surprise, as the political artist often chooses to focus more on political issues than on aesthetics. The Danish author Ulrikka S. Gernes who was present at the celebrations in Hong Kong realises this inherent problem of political art and pronounces the Pillar of Shame an object. She believes it is problematic to separate sculpture and metaphor.
“The Pillar of Shame is a curious sculpture - more idea than artwork - an object that for good or bad has assumed an existence of its own. After a dramatic night this strange sculpture, produced at Odense, has been defined by circumstances on the other side of the Earth and has met with its meaning as a metaphor for the struggle of the democratic movement and the student organisations for free speech and human rights - in Hong Kong and China as well. To see the artwork free of this metaphor is to separate symbol and art, and when the symbol is removed the question is, how much remains of art. But that issue appears not to come up till the goal of the democratic movement is achieved.”
Art as a means, a process or artwork as something final are some of the questions that have been up in the art debate since the realistic period in the second half of the 18th century. Our century has witnessed numerous attempts to break down the barriers and to create a connection between art and reality. The surrealists took on the unconscious, the cobra painters moved beyond the canvas, at first they painted on the frame, later on walls and ceilings or they made use of already manufactured materials made for everyday life. The political art is related to these endeavours, but often to an extent where the aesthetical is announced to be secondary.
Galschiot was represented at the World Exhibition in Seville 1992 with an enormous installation of 22 steel shields all with human faces breaking through them. This installation offers a new key to Galschiot's work, if the breaking through shields can be regarded as a central metaphor. If Galschiot's total oeuvre and his latest lead the Pillar of Shame in particular is considered from a global view, there is a firm will to reach into something essential behind the mere appearance. This way Galschiot breaks our shields while passing through them such experiences that we are disinclined to deal with. The Pillar of Shame expresses such painful experiences as the naked existence and exposure of man.
The Pillar of Shame is not experimentation held together with much contemporary art. It appears like a traditional sculpture on a plinth without the fractionated identity of an installation artwork. It towers high above the beholder and so it does not directly meet the world of experience. Moreover, the Pillar of Shame through its imperishable material refers to earlier sculpture, far from the exploration of the aesthetics of decay that is the issue of parts of contemporary art.
Chaos of our time caused by the breakdown of the ideologies and the great epics is often met by the visual art with irony and disapproval. Galschiot, however, unblushingly plunges right into an uncompromising attempt to describe the human pain in its generality.
The Pillar of Shame is composed of writhing human bodies, leaning on each other, stretching towards each other and towards the beholder. The bodies grow out from the same substance from which they never part. All the bodies are joined together by a common root, stretching from the bottom, through the tense bodies towards the top where it swells into the head of one single figure.
Chaos as Possibility
The figures exhibit elements of classical artwork with the ideal of the clearly defined body which, however, is immediately broken down by the vexed faces with their gaping mouths, which convert them into grotesque shapes. Arms and legs slowly fade into abstraction which again melt into other figures, and it appears that the material holds powers which are not to be broken, but will build up to a movement and a possibility.
The movement, the melting links into a theme of growth, which can be seen, among others, in the architecture of the Catalan artist Antoni Gaudí. The movement inherent in the theme of growth embraces the chaotic - grandly perceived. The expressive human figure in itself establishes a dialogue with the beholder, and thereby brings about the chaotic that the existential conditions of mankind are comprised of. So says Kierkegaard while expressing "The Pain Necessary".
Much more than aesthetics is at stake. The Pillar of Shame represents a Pain Necessary, which is otherwise so often sought eliminated from daily life. This way art can heal or purify. Aristotles connected this living through of tragedy with purification, in Greek "Katharsis". That is what the Pillar of Shame could be said to open up for by means of its plastic expressiveness. Galschiot wants us to react, not so much on the sculpture as on the absurdity wherever it is met with in everyday life and in life itself.
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