Víctor del Río
William Kemmler’s fear
“Marina Núñez. Antimateria”, catálogo, Pelayo Mutua de Seguros, Madrid 2001, pp. 37-40.
William Kemmler was executed using the first prototype of the electric choir on August 6, 1890, in the prison of Auburn, New York. His claim that it was an inhumane method was to no avail, perhaps because the goal was precisely to dehumanise the ever-sensitive subject of homicide as much as possible. In fact, Kemrnler’s worst fears were confirmed; he felt cursed that his execution should be the debut of such an untried method. The violence of the discharge and its unequal distribution did not go unnoticed among the technical personnel and journalists in the room: they saw smoke rising from the prisoner’s head and blood ooze from his face, and they watched as his flesh literally roasted around the two metal electrodes used in this first prototype. Following the event, a number of adjustments were made and the procedure has continued to be used to this day. The great Thomas Alva Edison acted as scientific expert in legitimating the method and overruling Kemmler’s appeal. However, Edison did not only contribute to the execution with his favourable report-he also popularised the use of electricity for this purpose. About fifty cats and dogs, a cow and a horse gave their lives to convince the Governor of New York, David Hill, of the method’s validity. Finally, the Governor signed the order legalising the method on June 4, 1888, moreover, in view of the popularity of public executions of animals, on January 4, 1903, Edison himself supervised the electrocution of a killer elephant at Coney Island before an audience of 1,500 people.
Discharging electricity through the convict’s body so as to kill him appeared to be an appropriate method for the new times. However, it has never been possible to ovoid the appearance of stigmata on the convict’s body. The deficiencies of the first prototype, inaugurated by Klemmer, are now a small contribution to the list of unexpected events in the history of electric chair.
The use of electricity appears to have been an attempt to preserve moral condemnation as a clean form of taking life without direct violence. All artefacts for execution, by the very fact that they aie artefacts, tend to replace the executioner s hand and render the violence indirect.
This institutional cowardice in applying the punishment confirms that what matters is mechanising the process so that it is only the force of low which puts an end to the convict’s life. The form is fundamental here, since it is necessary to convey the idea that the execution is, above ail, the consummation of what was written beforehand in the law and not of the current will of its agents.
In Kafka’s story entitled In the Penal colony, a machine kills the convict by writing the full text of his sentence on his body with needles. The machine is conceived so that it is the letter of the law which kills the convict by writing unceasingly on his body. The tale does no more than cynically emphasise the strategy of anonymity used to legitimate the application of all punishment. The punishment machine and the written law are the impersonal components which are executed as automata, with no human participation. Even if he only has to throw a switch, the executioner is the only flaw in this perfectly self-regulated system. A body, a will, is needed to somehow activate the process.
The punishment appears as an imposition on the conscience that must manifest itself as ill-treatment of the body. The victim only consents ‘o ‘he ritual through force or terror. Death row literally pens the convict in, face to face with his charges. It is ironic that the appeal in the Kemmler case was financed by Westinghouse laboratories, Edison’s direct rivals. Consequently the prisoner also became a prototype on which certain business interests were negotiated. Apparently, after deciding that he had heard enough about the electric chair (in general, a full range of alarming explanations), he basically said: “They can screw me, but I don’t want to know about it”. The pillars of this legal labyrinth of waits, delays and evasions in which he became involved before his death would have been shaken if, as his last wish, he had asked that his charges not be read to him. The word sullies the pure exercise of violence with last-minute self-justifications. Because the formalism of the word only serves those who must legitimate an indisputable fact, namely free elimination of a body. The masquerade would have fallen apart if he had opposed thoroughly planned resistance through the process that took him to his death.
It is difficult to imagine the pain of a 2200 volt discharge coursing through a human body. For this reason, the stigmata that reveal this suffering are particularly disturbing, as are those which arise from mystical experiences. The unease produced by these images is due to the fact that our gaze irremediably generates a feeling of solidarity. The other’s pain is inscribed in our awareness because the body is, in its full extent, the medium upon which stigmata are written.
In this respect, the electric chair is an essential image of our times, as Warhol observed when he included it in his personal catalogue of contemporary icons. Its iconic or allegorical virtues are due to two fundamental and closely interlinked factors.
On the one hand, the record of incidents surrounding the electric chair summarises the contradictions surrounding the death penalty through a series of aesthetic signs. Its stigmata are the writing of the sentence upon the body and they fascinate and disturb in equal measure because they are they are the graphic representation of the other’s pain. In this way, the moral problems with the death penalty and, more specifically, with the difficulties of pulling it into practice, are intimately bound up with its stigmata i.e. with the aesthetic secretions of the act.
The electric chair is also a paradigm of the body’s absolute availability lo the institutions which administer it, beyond the individual. The idea of a programmed rebellion by Kemmler against the ritual of execution, which might disturb the mise en scene and undermine its aim of exemplarity arouse considerable opposition in the conscience. Prisoners awaiting execution normally do not raise obstacles to an orderly arrangement for their death. However, this docility is merely the replication of a learned response. We accept that our body is always available to be administered, invaded by an instrument that is not only technical but also ideological. Interventions in the body are supported by a generalised delegation of responsibility for life in a radically invasive medicine. This delegation acts as a veritable anaesthesia for the conscience. Accordingly, the idea of the cyborg may be more rooted in surgery itself than in prosthetics. Western medicine applies a mechanical model to the treatment and correction of the human body. Since its origins, it has treated the body as a cyborg, and invasion of the body comes both from the need to understand the illness and a will to control and transcend the physical. The metaphor was made flesh when it was decided to kill deviant men with electric discharges, although it is true that electroshock is also applied, in impeccable coherence, to resuscitate more innocent bodies that are about to die. Electricity would appear to mark a threshold between the animate and the inanimate.
However, this location on the frontier, like the cells on death row, gives a mood or mental atmosphere that some artists have translated on the basis of very diverse references and attitudes. The tenor experienced when facing the departure from the body may be the cold of a metal operating table on the patient’s back, or the blinding light in his/her eyes, or the weakness in the knees that William Kemmler felt when he was taken towards that monstrous piece of furniture that would be used to fry him. The electric chair is presented as a symbol that is both hybrid and anachronical, half-way between the ingenuity of ancient machines and the worst nightmares of science fiction. At one time it is perceived as belonging to a distant past and to the future, as if it did not belong in the present.
The work of Marina Núñez in its various stages is a complete catalogue of beings subjected to that tension. In her work, the terror raised by the loss of control over one’s own body and its traumatic fate is also a reflection on the underpinnings of identity. Marina Nunez builds a series of figures subjected to the Fate of dissolution or change of their physical structure, thereby clouding the apparent security upon which our identification criteria are based (the criteria used for centuries to isolate all that is different).
She uses a diaphanous figuration to build her images. Her new work depicts female figures traversed by lightning from the sky or parts of the body that are generated or dissolved in energy. From an iconographic standpoint, she has replaced the references to a teratology of the feminine with a new range of cyborgs. However, what is really interesting in this evolution by Marina Núñez is that which has not changed. Between the female monsters and hystericals on canvas from her early days and the new beings which show us their insides, there is a coherence which runs through the various Forms of stigmata with which the bodies are thrown open to view. The change in references has maintained a continuing focus on the tension between events in awareness of the mind and their translation in the body. The decomposition and deviation of the female body and the self-awareness of that essential difference are factors that are revisited in the images which she treats with the descriptive patience of an anatomist.
In her hystericals, this evocation acquires a certain capacity for ironic reference to the atmosphere of medical treatises and the Gothic ambiences of 19th century psychiatry. Her more recent cyborgs contain the visual rhetoric of science fiction. However, in the cyborgs, Marina has found a mythical version of the stigmatists. As in the time dislocation produced by the image of an electric chair, the development of her work is the narrowing of an obscure present. Between the representations of the hystericals of yesteryear and the cyborgs from the future, her work delimits a time in which the body’s experience is approached under the pain of an incomplete transcendence. The beings presented in these works are not so much definitive deformations of the human as humans caught in the process of mutation. They are trapped on the threshold, in the middle of a corridor that must lead them to become something different. This hybridisation creates a pain that pertains only to the experience.
Marina Núñez revisits the descriptive procedures of drawing and painting. What she herself terms “pertinacious painting” is particularly appropriate for creating the pseudo-artisanal, lucid and obsessive style with which these images are produced. The work of Marina Nunez has developed as an imagery since its early stages. And, in the style of religious imageries, what is shown is a catalogue of the stigmatists. Also, like religious images, the motifs mutate in their different versions. They evolve so as ultimately to give priority to the stigmata as autonomous entities. The stigmatists are personalities who show the alterations in their mental life via bodily signs. The disorders of the soul and the moral impositions fluctuate between the symbolic and the physical with total ambiguity
The tenacious figuration of her work and the media she uses play a fundamental role. That experience of the body requires an attention to detail, an unavoidable visual presence of the signs of transformation. Consequently, Marina Nunez’s work has on aesthetic feel that can depict alienation from the human. An aesthetic that does not preclude irony about certain atmospheres with which beliefs about our nature have been coded in culture. Her characters appear under the ecstasy of an alienation experience.
The moment of alienation to which these characters are subjected, like the visions of new stigmatists in the more sordid reality of our present time, has a twin dimension. On the one hand, it defines an individual’s suffering coded in external signs. An experience to which we do not have access and from which we can obtain only clues. On the other hand, these visions create a receptive circle in which spectators are forced to locate the other’s experience. Through the solidarity of the gaze, we recreate an event from which we are excluded, we embark upon the exercise of imagining a fear like that which William Kemmler felt on seeing the electric chair, an unprecedented object. The impotence that others feel in extreme situations redefines our own stole of “normality”, reminding us that there are some experiences that we must encounter alone.