On the threshold of a new millennium, and the deadline of the old one, the meaning of the words "human being" is culturally and philosophically complex, almost similar to a labirinth in its developments. Thus, in the dense global communications’ net, it is quite an uncomfortable task to re-trace and outline the sense of our individual human figure, while keeping up with the fastest technological changes and having to face the postmodern flirt with the fragmented self.
However, this task is still felt as compelling. Now more than ever an exhibition like Only Human, especially dedicated to the rediscovery of the romantic double body and soul, seems to be crucial: it tackles the delicate subject of our identity in times when the advance of virtual reality together with the postmodern culture are managing to hide, behind their sparkling sensationalism and their abstract idealism, the differences amongst cultural and psychological identities. In this sort of schizophrenic chaos the actual and daily struggle of our self to live in an ever increasingly limited space is so easily and artificially passed over.
Only Human is, therefore, an uneasy but still lucid exhibition. Its grouping in three sections
(The Self and Culture, The Self and Others, The Inside Self) is less constrictive than the panels at the entrance would suggest. Following a traditional curatorial approach, this organisation allows the viewers to identify correspondence and interference between sections while the whole exhibition is kept coherent, with a strong core.
Within each section international artists, working in a wide range of disciplines (ceramics, glass, textiles, animation, etc.) put forward their enquiries on the human condition from different perspectives, variously interacting each other. Indeed, after the former experiences of No PicNic and (Un)limited, this is another example of the Crafts Council’s commitment to host the most challenging and diverse aspects of the applied arts.
The Self and Culture explores the relationship between the individual and religion, ethnicity, popular culture as they are reflected through the contemporary massmedia culture.
The icons here are both referred to our religious tradition (as in the two Pieta’, in the haitian artists’ sequined temple flags and in Michael Lucero’s Pre-Columbian inspiration) and to our present mass cultural mythologies (as in Tass Mavrogordato’s huge tapestries and in Irene Nordli’s porcelain installations). These icons consistently conflict with each other and display an unsolved collision of symbols which nevertheless have not yet lost the bond of their origins.
Thus, in Philip Eglin’s Pieta’ the archetypical and over-used iconology, taken from Catholic art (from Michelangelo onwards), is adopted in its primary form, daubed with colours and symbols of the human sins, and updated with Hugh Grant and Divine Brown’s photographs.
Erzsebet Baerveldt’s Pieta’, in video, sits next to the previous one and offers an interesting diversion from the traditional doctrinal interpretation. The biblical story of Adam’s creation is associated with the Hebrew legend of the Golem. In this third version the creator is a woman who, in an unsolved creation-failure circle try again and again to reproduce a creature of clay fated to a disfunctional frailty.
The colourful and flickering flags from haitian artists combine elements of voodoo and christian religion, the last as introduced by western missions, and these elements produce an effect of grotesque and naive carnival: in the conjuction of two rituals, a skull mixes its shape with a crucifix as to signify the importance of the sacrifice in both religions.
Michael Lucero comes from one of the first Mexican families to settle in New Mexico. His work is mainly concerned with the clashing relationship between western culture and other primitive, more ancestral cultures. The originality and authenticity of his earthenwares is interrupted by the presence of a barcode that makes them industrial reproductions, and by the writing "Made in New York" that moves the geographical origin and alienates the artwork from its roots. In his Self-portrait, Lucero represents himself as a long stylized figure made out of broken fragments of pottery, apart from the head which is an upside down intact pot: signal of his stubborn research for an unbroken cultural truth in the already reversed and emptied non-western traditions.
The actual postmodern explosion, however, occurs with Tass Mavrogordato and Irene Nordli, whose artworks act as a link to the following section The Self and Others.
Tass Mavrogordato’s tapestries and Irene Nordli’s ceramics are redundant in references to the mass culture.
In Tass Mavrogordato these references summarise and together mix up our concepts of family and journey. In Irene Nordli they define and together deform the icons of the children world. Mavrogordato’s Kill me on TV is a montage of images that mainly allude to the world of communications: satellites, helicopters, dinosaurs, the athomic bomb, digital television, texts in Japanese and English ( i.e. Anyone for Karahoki, or How to shop smart in recession) are artificially combined together around the resistant and central female figure, naivily hidden behind a Nikon camera.
Irene Nordli’s Musical chairs is a grotesque ring-a-rang whose ambiguous characters sit giving each others’ shoulders. Their asexual bodies of - supposedly - heroes and heroines partially reproduce but also distort bizarre TV and cinema characters (ET, Alien, the Incredible Hulk, Action Man, etc.) so that they seem to test the surreal developments of the traditionally pure childhood.
The following section The Self and Others is related to social relationships, including family, friends, partners etc.
Again traditional arts features meet more directly personal experiences. In various cases the artworks communicate the crushing of interpersonal relations and an attempt to recompose them following cultural models or a meticulous documentary research.
Thus, Gertraud Mohwald’s portraits are made with fragments of found materials (mostly porcelains and clay) put back together according to a pure cultural taste which floats between classique and baroque.
Natasha Kerr’s installation, Otto’s Surgery, is the clinical, yet passionate reconstruction, together told by speakers and through a collection of drawings and objects, of the artist’s grandfather’s life: as a human being and as a nationally recognised surgeon. However, it is also the indirect reconstruction of the artist’s identity. Numerous documentary traces, including a collection of books, a pair of shoes and newspaper cuttings, are assembled in a sort of surgery to simbolically go back over the stages of a semi-heroic life. However, it is also a journey back into the family past, which subtly and irresistibly dictate each of our lifes.
Jan Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue is a representation of the weakness of the human communication and understanding. Created in 1982 in the Czech Republic repressed by the communist regime, this animated film adopts in an oblique language our everyday life’s objects (and maybe the Arcimboldi’s fantastique), combined in unusual and carnevalesque associations. Dimensions of Dialogue is a subtle metaphor of the overwhelming power of society on the individual, of our disfunctional relationships and of their failure in a relentless destructive process.
The third section, The Inside Self is connected to the others by a silver walled corridor which somehow reflects our individual passage from the external to the intimate. It is concerned with thoughts and emotions which are complied with our individual egos. Although isolated, this section is clearly in dialogue with the others as well as our psyche is in perpertual dialogue with the cultures and the social context in which it lives. The ego here shows its multiple facets and the contemporary difficulty in grabbing its undefined and undefinable unity.
Emma Woffenden’s glass sculptures are like the abstract representation of interior tensions, as shown in Castings Table by the convex shapes of fists, wrapped arms and arched fingers, all locked in a block of glass. The sexual ambiguity in these fallic sculptures seem to suggest a return of the removed, almost the display of our desires and fears made aesthetically pure and representable through the clearness of the glass.
In the glass' spacial constructions of Dana Zamecnikova the complex feminine emotional identity faces its impossibly unique and culturally idealised images of women. An Eighteenth century’s lady-in-waiting, accompanied by the stylized symbol of a child with a crux, is reproduced on to the glass sheet but its purity is contaminated by the confused intrusion of other images, by the image of a mouse superimposed on that of a bird, by the duplication of the lady’s profile on other sheets showing now red traces of violation.
Access-able was a project created by fashion designer Alexander McQueen and published on ‘Dazed and Confused’ magazine. It was meant to be a challenge to the common idea of beauty and it offered beautifully arranged images of people with serious disabilities. Nick Knight’s photos for the project are on display in this exhibition as an attempt to discuss the relation between the individual and the body from the more critical point of view of an infirmity. It is also a clear exaltation of an impairment to which the artistic product gives an aesthetic function.
The ego in Masashi Honda is reduced to a pair of hectic legs able to move in opposite directions. It still represents a resistence (in a context of pop graffiti fragments) which relies on the ability to reach an uneven balance between human spirituality and the constantly changing techniques used to reproduce it.
Lucy Brown’s female identity has lost its body consistence and has been reduced to a second-hand "decorative skin" with no bones, substained by a weak structure. Lucy Brown’s clothes are another way to resist: they are the emaciated attempt to reinvent themselves starting from scratch, to put forward their skinny and exhausted existence in his red sensuality (Squeeze) and in its faked but still protective fur (Petti-Fur-Coat).
Again the relation with the body is enquired within the duality of the aggression-defence mechanism in Hazel White’s works. The artificial process adopted to represent it, and its psychedelic quality, dig a wide gap between the actual pain and the body itself, as in line with the feticistic culture.
Finally the daily objects of Mah Rana (kettles, brushes) have a secret: some of their imperceptible details are made of second-hand wedding rings. This minimal objects suggest in their bare solitude a domestic anxiety and an ancestral fear of loss and desertion to which one of the titles freudianly alludes.
Only Human’s journey is concluded. This exploration of forms of resistance and survival to the postmodern chaos, to the global cancellation of ethnic differences has a surprising modern taste. I ask myself how many artists are trying the same resistance with coherence and lucidity. The temptations offered by the postmodern labyrinth are endlessly seductive. Experiencing this without being swallowed up is the challenge of each and every artist.