From human to cyborgs. Marina Núñez in search of identity
“Marina Núñez en la red”, catálogo, Instituto Cervantes, París 2006, pp. 7-15.
Art is but a manner of discoveríng the worid and submitting knowledge to experíence.
Leonardo da Vinci
The curator of the Louvres’s entirely naked corpse, arms and legs spread open, and surrounded by strange pictograms, which we discover in the opening scene of Dan Brown’s now famous Da Vlnci Code, indisputably evokes Vitruvio’s Man which the Italian master drew around 1490. The investigation soon reveals that the performance was built up by the victim, not the murderer. He attempted the impossible to transmit one last message, that is to say the universal semiotic force of Leonardo’s picture. In fact, framed in both a circle and in a square, the man represented by the artist is supposed to be the most faithful image ever of the human body, in the way Marcus Vitruvio Pollo described it in his work De Architectura (Ist century BC). Vitruvio describes the ideal proportions of the human figure with an expert’s precision, according to the norms of the model dictated by nature: “The face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and to the roots of the hair is equivalent to one tenth of his height, and so is the hand when it is open, from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger. The head, from the chin to the top of the skull, is equivalent to one eighth of his height; from the bottom of the neck where the chest ends to the roots of the hair, there is one sixth of the body; from the middle of the chest to the top of the skull, there is one fourth…”
After many digressions, Vitruvio ends on a most scientific description of the central position of the navel, thus defining the human figure in relation to his original tie: “…The centre of the human body is the navel by nature; therefore, if a man lies down on his back, hands and legs spread open, and if one points compasses at his navel and draws a circle, one will tangentially brush the tip of the fingers of both hands and of his toes. More than that: just as the figure of the circumference realizes itself in the body, so does the square, for if a man is measured from the sole of his feet to the top of his head and this measure if reported to the line defined by the hands, the width will be equivalent to the height, as in square areas”. The celebrity of Leonardo da Vinci’s work ¡s not only due to the high quality of his drawing. It is also due to the artist’s brilliantly thought out idea of proposing a synthesis of it around one central body, by illustrating the two schemes with the upper and lower limbs. The artist thus created a perfectly futuristic image which men have reveled in and still do because it questions the modeled figure of the human body that they long to produce themselves. Because it is “one of the first types of reality that are available to us”, as Jean Baudrillard says, the body imposes itself before and after any kind of meditation, whether scientific, sociological or philosophical. Everything originates in the body and returns to it. From the human point of view, it can only be the axis of a being-in-the-world, the pivot that gives meaning to reality.
Sciences have continually expanded across the ages, integrating a reflection on the nature of the body and on its evolution as they go along – and man has never ceased to invent all sorts of representations of it. In this day and age, human knowledge has gone as far as scrutinizing our planet in its nanometric depths, propelling a great many soundings millions of kilometers away ¡n search of the universe, genetically duplicating the living world to create a world of clones, therefore the human figure remains as ever at the core of all interrogations.
If there was a time when Rembrandt painted Professor Tulp’s lesson in order to reveal the anatomical depths of the arm, of another artist like Alexandre Evariste Fragonard applied himself to bare the nervous mechanics of flayed bodies, one can understand why contemporary scientific progress leads to the representations of a whole world of completely original figures. Born of a family of scientists, Marina Núñez has always showed a particular interest in sciences, and that influenced her decision to engage in plastic art. If fields such as hysteria, psychoanalysis and feminism – the three terms constitute the title of one of the reference critical works dedicated to the artist – are choice areas in her work, they are also mingled with fundamental preoccupations about the definition of the body, its expressive potentialities and its symbolic representations. Fortified by a humanistic culture and an encyclopedic spirit, Marina Núñez is interested in the creations and artificial manipulations allowed by new technologies, and her work inquires about the extraordinary mutations that the latter allow man to operate. Not only does she ponder over the way in which man builds them, shapes them and masters them, but also over how they transform themselves, because she observes the new environment ¡n which man evolves, questions the established aesthetic conventions and accepts the new modernity that is deduced from it. Without being blind to the determining role of the new systems ruling out trades and the models of the communicating society.
Every era experiences its own transformations. Fifty years ago, Richard Hamilton created a collage representing an incredible premonitory vision to illustrate the poster of the exhibition “This is tomorrow”. It showed a scantily clad couple formed by a curvaceous girl and a body-builder with swollen muscles in a model interior displaying a great many state-of-the-art devices. Hamilton’s work, in praise of the consumer’s society and of a certain way of life, gave a glimpse of the physical transformations the human figure was doomed to. A new bodily aesthetics was to be born and Vitruvio’s model was over.
Other times and other customs. Robotics and punch cards have given way to computer science, software and memory chips. The human being is on the way to becoming a “cyborg”, in other words a cybernetic organism, that is to say a human being whose body has been replaced entirely or partially by artificial organs. Robots were entirely created by men whereas cyborgs merely possess the human skeletal structure, and every individual equipped with it belongs to this species. Coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960, the term cyborg defines the man of the future as an exploratory of space. He is an improved, customized human being, which allows him to survive in an artificial environment. Thus he is the metaphorical figure of a new world. A world with no depth, no gravity, no denseness, a ghostly world made of ectoplasms, a biotronic world whose technologies – computer science, electronics, nanotechnics… – are used jointly to mend the human body. A world that is no longer real but more and more virtual.
“We can no longer assimilate what is at our disposal to a definitive truth, that is to say a type of reality”, Jean Baudrillard irrevocably concludes. However, as if he wanted to qualify what could be considered as frightening, the philosopher adds: “The world, in its material form, is an illusión, in the good sense: something that we produce mentally, something whose existence cannot be proved.”
Focusing on a new image of the body, the cyborg body, Marina Núñez’s work is partly based on the concepts of reality and illusion in their development as sciences move on. All the pieces that the artist created especially for her exhibition at the Cervantes Institute revolve around this idea. Presented with the general label ‘In the Net’, these pieces are either part of an installation, or part of a projection, placed on a route that leads the spectator through those two complementary experiences. First of all, he is plunged in a totally dark space, obstructed with an intricate network of wires that are tied from the floor to the ceiling, and a series of plaster figures of heads, scattered here and there, with five different faces all around each of them, like a five-faced Janus both unexpected and disturbing. Not only does the darkness enhance the atmosphere of mystery around the installation, but the heads seemingly floating in the air add something of an enigma to it, especially thanks to their size and the wide range of expressions that can be seen on their faces. They can express fear, astonishment and pain as much as laughter, surprise and wonder. As if the artist had tried to represent the whole range of human expressions. There is something strange and excessive about it, not very far from the work of Charles Le Brun on physiognomony, or the so-called ‘character’ heads – extremely expressive ones – that were made by the German sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt in the late 18th century. If the former tried to represent the movements of the soul, inspired as he was by the research work of his friend Dr Mesmer on magnetism and hypnosis, the latter aimed at reproducing the expression of feelings and passions in order to establish a graphic code of them. The five-nosed and five-mouthed heads created by Marina Núñez are all the stranger as they not only are the result of a disturbing anatomical hybridation, but they also simultaneously present the most extreme expressions on their different facets. In this regard, seeing them facing each other is more or less like being in a ream, or more to the point, in a nightmare – an experience close to hallucination, reminding us of this ‘eye like a weird ball heading for the infinite’ that Odilon Redon represents in one of his best lithographs. The image is dear to Núnez, and can be found in one of her first paintings in 1993. The network of wires and tubes that holds the heads at different heights organizes a space tangled in rhizomes, conjuring up the extreme complexity of a complicated system of connections, at the same time technological and organic, material and sensitive, that seems to enable them to feel. What ¡s indeed at stake here is the making of an imaginary ‘topos’, midway between the idea of circuits, like those contained in a technical closet, and that of a system of nerves, visible for instance on an écorché. In both cases, it is a place where an essential flow can be seen in its bareness and the spectator can witness the metaphor of the world in its evolution as Marina Núñez pictures it.
Shown in a row, as if to underline the inevitability of the foretold mutation, the two videos that she made invite us to witness a double phenomenon: on the one hand, that of the transformation of eyes, whose pupils multiply and occupy the whole eyeball; on the other hand, that of the slow apparition of a network of veins above the skin, which trace a new geography of the face. As if the artist wanted us to picture the illusion of a reality that will soon be. As if she wanted to underline the advent of a new identity in which the unified and fixed self would replace the saturated self, multiple and protean. The images of her model – as it happens to be, her sister – are somewhere in between the cyborg and the posthuman, both disturbing and fascinating. They attract us just as much as we repress them. You picture yourself as being one as much as you are frightened. You give them no credit, but think them plausible. Because the machines of the end of last century made the difference between what is natural and what is artificial, the mind and the body and other distinctions usually associated with machines and bodies, Núñez’s video images seem disturbingly vivid.
Maybe in the early 21st century, we are all imaginary beings, hybrids of machines and bodies that have been thought out and made. Just look at us with our ears stuck to our mobile phones, and our eyes fixed to the screens of our digital devices or our computers. In a word, we are all cyborgs. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the cyborg is our ontology and we will soon be stuffed with technologies under our skins, inside our very bodies. With the capacity of digital machines growing so quickly, virtual memory and the power of chips, we will soon ask to have them implanted to improve our knowledge and our intelligence. In this world in mutation but already so present, the work of Marina Núñez simply pictures what it will be like. She doesn’t approve or disapprove of it. The cyborg is a condensed image of imagination and material reality, the two centres, bound together, that structure the possibility of any transformation in our history.