Hell and Glory
“Error”, individual catalog, Ed. Gobierno de Canarias 2009.
One of the most terrifying descriptions ever written about hell is expressed by James Joyce in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an early example of autobiographical fiction. Almost halfway through the book, young Stephen Dedalus attends a sermon where the Jesuit rector of his school irately spews forth an inferno of shredded flesh after centuries of roasting slowly over the flames. The priest describes the non time and non space that is hell, spelling out in great detail its effects on the human flesh of those Catholic Sisyphuses distilled by the flames—eye sockets hollowed, nails broken and ripped out, and trunks dismembered most violently. Perpetual punishments for those whose sins in life must be atoned in death.
Dedalus, the symbolic name chosen by Joyce for his alter ego, is a clear reference to Daedalus, a figure from Greek mythology who built the labyrinth for the Minotaur and constructed wings so that his son Icarus might fly. Daedulus warned the boy against swooping too low, as the waves might wet the feathers, nor too high, as the Sun might melt the wax that held the wings together. Ignoring his father’s advice, Icarus soared heavenwards and promptly plummeted to his death. Whoever ignores the rules and tries to imitate the gods must pay with their life.
History is dotted with myths, stories and characters who find a way to self-development in the air, a space heavily charged with symbolism. Representations of characters and objects suspended in mid-air, flying or falling provide a wealth of situations somewhere between up and down, sky and earth. Despite imaginative attempts at flying machines by Elmer the monk or Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century, human travel in the skies is a relatively recent phenomenon. Accordingly, this incommensurable and hitherto unknown sphere has provided the foundations for abundant metaphors, particularly of a religious nature. The heavens were a guarantee of mystery, dreams and desires, of the idyllic and of illusory landscapes where everything was possible, where the limits of matter and the weight of the corporeality of bones, sweat and flesh became volatile. The heavens represented the positive side of mystery, the opposite being hell supposedly located at the centre of the earth.
In this up-and-down world of heaven and hell, the will to fly or levitate was the legacy of the immortals, pure beings oblivious to the material world—virgins, mystics and angels. Yet it was also the domain of the most corrupt—sorceresses, evil creatures and demons. So that the one should not be confused with the other, the purest were graced with beauty.
Despite the conquest of air space, the skies still play a hugely symbolic role in the renewed mythology found in sci-fi literature or cinema, which has lent new meaning to the religious iconography of the air—an iconography bereft of followers. Timelessness, mystery and eternal life have gradually been replaced by the ideas of liberty and freewill advocated by the Enlightenment. Such ideas have adhered unreservedly to a heavenly imagery that urgently needed a new meaning. The heavens continue to be a place of desire and of mythical projection. In the process of semantic re-analysis, hell has lost symbolic strength. Few seem to believe in it now and, though the existence of evil is claimed from the very pinnacle of the Curia, Satan’s scorching inferno has been traded in for the beyond and for science-fiction. The place that was hell has been invaded by endless images of terrible twentieth-century events the veracity of which is underwritten by photography and the movies—massacres, wars and genocide.
The earth is also redefined, despite the persistence of its function as an area of suffering. An abrupt return to land, experiencing the vertigo Icarus must have felt instants before his death, while Daedalus, in mid-flight, looked on in horror. The individual and freewill no longer constrained by the gods but by the fortuitous. The liberty we were sold as the objective of the trinity of enlightened thought now becomes an expression of doubt.
Upward displacement is metaphorical—the image has lost its link to the divine and its construct as a language is more evident than ever. The desire for eternity is replaced by the desire for freedom and is satiated by provoking the perception of it. A perception of freedom devoid of content. The vertigo arising from having no body and no flesh is identified with boundless freedom; it becomes the perfect substitute. In this process, the body is construed as a boundary, like a prison, and the virtual space of the Net promises to dispose of the body and dispense with weight. The weightless frame is therefore constructed as a bodily fragment that has selectively tempered the image, while substance and matter remain below—a cyber rereading of the old dichotomy between body and soul that repeats casts without passing judgement on them. Hitherto, avoiding gravity meant girding oneself with bird’s wings, getting soaked in the morning dew or, for kiddies, clambering up a staircase. The option for cybernetic visionaries entails leaving behind the material nature of the body whilst surfing the Net or imagining a future abode where the Net becomes our home, and we are reduced to ones and zeroes.
When I saw the videos, pictures and lightboxes that Marina Núñez had created for the exhibition, Error, at El Tanque, in Tenerife, I immediately recalled James Joyce’s horrifying descriptions of hell and Stephen Dedalus’ striving to construct himself as an individual. Marina Núñez’ critical gaze certainly offers a truly apocalyptic vision of the cyborg future that awaits mankind—the promised fusion of human and machine. A glowing future glimpsed from the realm of technophilia, yet advanced by this exhibition as a dystopia.
Aside from the heated debates between technophiles and technophobes, lovers and critics of cyberspace and about cyber culture in general, the fact is that we increasingly relate to the impurity, and mixed and changing awareness of cyberbodies. Technical cyborgs fill cinema screens and are part and parcel of our everyday lives. Just think of the growing numbers of people who subject themselves to cosmetic surgery or who appear in operations in art, for example, as illustrated by ORLAN. Medical solutions also emerge for different ailments, including artificial organ implants, chips that enable a tetraplegic to communicate with a computer, or an artificial heart inserted into a living person who then survives the ordeal.
Marina Núñez has used this iconographic tradition of heaven and hell, of bodies and souls, in a series entitled Ciencia Ficción (Science Fiction), not directly, however, but through the appropriation and semantic re-analysis that cyber culture has made of those old symbols. As part of the iconography of weightlessness as liberation, submissiveness is revealed through hanging figures—Marina Núñez’ new angels. I remember the blue flyers in her exhibition Carne (Flesh) at the Sala de Verónicas, in Murcia (Spain), in 2003. Hieratic men and women, the limbs of whose naked bodies had turned into peduncles enabling them to fly, like collage figures devoid of physical integrity. Made only of light, they were transparent and the image of success. These new angels in Tenerife convey a more baroque corporeality, falling somewhere in between. Not fully stripped of flesh, they have been flayed like St. Bartholomew. Nailed to their saving wings as if in torment. The skin that covers their muscles and veins like make-up is gone. Their purulent wounds translate into the terrified features of a Grunewald Christ, but only of light. They represent an error of calculation. No longer in flight, they hang suspended from an invisible thread, the thread of the puppeteer. Swaying to and fro, they manifest dependence and vulnerability.
The hanging bodies of these angels dangle in time, indefinitely occupying the same space like a metaphoric image of immobility. Bodies devoid of autonomy, manipulated, controlled and treated like objects. Their complement, the skin, is shown in other works displayed in this catalogue like Michelangelo’s two images dedicated to St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel—a flayed body slipping lifelessly to the floor, only checked from total collapse by an external fastening. Mediation is devised like a metaphor for conflict between the internal and the external in which determination has lost ground to dependence. A secular Last Judgement.
The fall is depicted in a digitally recreated image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, transforming canonical man into monstrous man. Having lost his connection with the squaring in the circle that helped him float over the world, he falls. In the Murcia exhibition, this was expressed in the woebegone landing of broken, moribund and half-buried figures depicted in lightboxes, occupying the place of old church tombstones. If in Carne these obscene images had mislaid their human corporeality and become broken fragments of light, here they follow the anatomy of a flayed body that, in all likelihood, loses the virtuality of its digital make-up as it falls.
The floor of El Tanque has also been modified. In this case, it shows eye-deceiving projections depicting water wells. As the element least resistant to gravity, water has often been fabricated as a feminine space that can accommodate the most diverse myths. Women floating in water as if in their own natural fluid, dying peacefully, diluted in their own matter, like Millais’ Ophelia—a figure also recreated by Marina Núñez several years ago. In El Tanque, the grimacing faces of sirens slowly sinking emerge beneath the iron grids covering the wells. From foam-born Aphrodite to the half-woman, half-fish mermaids of the tenth-century Liber Monstruorum, these figures are neither one thing nor another. Their aquatic condition supports and sustains them everywhere and they have been fashioned as images of impurity and sin. Mostly they are connected with sex, not from a reproductive perspective, but as a source of pleasure, linked by symbolism to the lower abdomen. As Borges says in The Book of Imaginary Beings, gender is the least disputable aspect of mermaids. Woman is the fishbowl and the sea. She creates waves and tides, and she has 10% more water. Yet in these depictions, the mermaids are not swimming free—they are trapped in a closed tank. Today’s monster is genetic mutation created in a laboratory.
A new teratology for a new paradigm: post-human identity. An identity needed to support the construction of old iconographies, updated ancient myths in which to recognize ourselves. To avoid feeling alienated, we imagine ourselves as monsters. Death, judgement, hell and glory.