Essay: How artists explore the past, present and future potential of the human condition

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published on: January 13, 2020
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  • How artists explore the past, present and future potential of the human condition
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Contemporary art by nature, encourages a necessity to challenge and confront cultural, social and political frameworks. Artists: Shlipa Gupta, ORLAN, and Marc Quinn discuss new ways of understanding what being ‘human’ is, in a very scientific and surreal manner. Gupta offers insight into the cruel foundations of humanity by breaking down complex biological systems into tradable sweets, in her installation, Your Kidney Supermarket, 2002. ORLAN challenges how we currently define ourselves through beauty and desire in her work, The Re-incarnation of Saint ORLAN (1990-), a series of 9 surgeries, in which she has morphed into the “ready-made” of aesthetic pleasure. Marc Quinn yearns to question and exploit the roles of humans (particularly celebrities) and their ability to become idealised, signaling at our possible future in his works, Alison Lapper (2000) and Sphinx (2005). This essay will discuss how these particular artists all explore the past, present and future potential of the human condition, and how the exterior of the body is often the impetus of definition.

Contemporary artist, Shilpa Gupta, exposes the mobilised world of bio-piracy whilst offering insight into the foundations of humanity in her successful installation, Your Kidney Supermarket, 2002. Gupta functions within a modern society that struggles with the definition and categorisation of what it means to be human. Gupta exposes the overriding existence of social and political prejudice by deconstructing our very existence into amendable lolly organs in a very scientific and methodical way.

“Shilpa Gupta’s artistic method is much more than narrowing the distance between consumer and product, (she exposes) the critical gaps between source and destination” (Axel Roch, 2006), allowing for the evaluation of our position as humans in todays hierarchically capitalistic world. Gupta’s installation eccentrically obscures the boundaries between the viewer and the work, by bestowing responsibility upon the participant to chose and customise their own kidney made of sugar and gelatine in her street shop. Her use of the simple ingredients of sugar and gelatine to craft the kidneys, hides the complexity and atrocity of the human condition allowing for a firmer grasp on the fact that humans are simply organisms and exist as a complex species, that should be understood as a universal population rather than separable individuals. She has decorated the store with vibrant pink stickers that label it, “Your Kidney Supermarket”, similar to those of a boutique. She contrasts this with gloomy green interior flood lighting, instilling a sense of uncertainty that feeds into the very discipline of this illegal trade. The patron participates in the experience of customizing their own kidney to suit their needs. There is a choice of size, colour and even trade route, which are demonstrated by superficial and exciting infographics. This customisation, elucidates the growing ease and spread of bio-piracy, but also illuminates the idea that being human can be deconstructed and broken down into trivial parts, thereby destroying any ideals of gender, race, sexuality through science. These false kidneys are displayed in acrylic cases suspended by red jelly-like renal arteries. The store also offers a take-away service whereby the participant can create their own modifiable kidneys at home. Behind the show case of edible renal systems, she has positioned a sofa opposite a small retro television that replays an instructional video. The participant is bewitched by the visualisation and process of commercially exploiting a naturally occurring feature of the human body. This exploration of the human condition raises the idea that any classifications placed upon an individual are fluid, and can be changed or constructed at the will of the individual, and that such titles are superfluous amid the realisation that a human being is a facet of nature, a species among itself.

ORLAN is a French performance artist known for her extreme surgeries. She similarly offers insight into humanity and its definitions by challenging stereotypical beauty, allowing for a deeper understanding of self-definition and self-love. ORLAN operates within our society that prides itself on aesthetics and visual satisfaction represented by the commercial world. Her concept is to be able to appreciate the body in a, “new mirror stage” (ORLAN). A way she reveals her current disposition to societies stadardised norm is through her manifesto of “CARNAL ART”, which can be defined as a “self-portrait in the classical sense, yet realized in the technologies of it’s time” (ORLAN). ORLAN intends on defying the current pressure placed on the body by society, and the corpus of art. ORLAN’s post modern practice makes use of plastic surgery to transform herself into a new being, not to improve herself aesthetically but to transcend societies current labels and definitions, and to delve into her absolute pleasure for the body – beauty that lies within. She poetically expresses her passion and infatuation with the body when she stated, “Darling I love your liver, I lover your spleen, I adore your pancreas, and the line of your femur excites me”. ORLAN challenges the concept of the “idealised”, by physically altering her body, in a series of operations; The Re-incarnation of Saint ORLAN (1990-). Their main contention is to reject societies continual search for perfection and challenge the standards of accepted beauty. These operations can be described as her ‘Renaissance’ in which she has redefined herself as a montage of historical and mythological women, she has chosen desirable features from each woman, not for their principles of beauty but for the stories of power and strength they represent. She morphs herself into a readymade, a collection of facial features of goddesses that are deemed pleasurable by classical art, such as Aphrodite and Venus, as well as the Mona Lisa. This selection allows her to become a representation of a woman in all its forms. By broadcasting these works live, and exhibiting the videos in gallery spaces, she allows the audience to interact and engage directly with her performance, but also spreads her message of defining the body from the inside out, to a large populous effectively. By continually changing her exterior ORLAN constantly redefines herself, thereby noticeably revealing the fluidity of the human condition.

Furthermore, Marc Quinn’s sculptural works challenges societal beliefs about humanity through his interest in anatomy and how the extents of the human condition can be represented through our physical bodies. He interestingly plays between how significant individuals are perceived as influential and sophisticated in comparison to those who are deemed as incomplete and abnormal by society. This is evident in his solid gold statue of Kate Moss, Sphinx (2005). This sculpture in a way establishes the primacy given to Gods and Deities, illuminating the god like or supernatural qualities that are bestowed upon celebrities. He gives the human condition transient tendencies, by establishing a sense of pressure through her straining yoga pose. Quinn has presented Moss, not as herself but as society sees her – ever-changing (following the fashion world). This is astutely contrasted by his series of large and evocative marble sculptures of disabled individuals and amputees. He believes that representing paralympians and war veterans with marble challenges traditional notions of the ideal whole, as well as classical sculpture itself. As seen in one of his most recent works, “Alison Lapper” (2000), this large sculpture sat atop a plinth in Trafalgar square. His positioning and exposure is his way of directly raising awareness as well as evoking thought about the possibilities of the human condition. Alison Lapper was born without arms and deformed legs, Quinn has chosen to use her disability in a large and evocative way to provoke a cognitive response from the audience, which serves as mode of direct interaction. His choice to sculpt with the classical medium of marble, a hard and dense stone to portray somebody that society defines as fragile and weak, confirms his motif, that the disabled are “monument(s) to future possibilities of the human race and its capacity for resilience” (Quinn, 2000). His provocative work perfectly explains the difficulty of defining an individual, and that true character should be judged by resilience and courage.

In essence, Shlipa Gupta, ORLAN, and Marc Quinn challenge the ways that we define and categorise humans by contributing perceptiveness, into how our physical bodies are often the motivation for definition, but that the human condition can only be understood by delving into new ways of appreciating our existence. Their exploration of what lies within (physically and mentally) gives a new meaning to being “human”, that values the beauty of our scientific bodies and individuality.

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