Monday, November 03, 2008

Jodorowsky, Actionists, and modern sculpture

Although the three may seem disparate, they all share common concerns and themes. That is, the film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Wien or Vienna Actionist group, and modern sculptors like Jean Arp and Henry Moore.

The central concern of all of these is how to turn the human figure into an abstract object in three dimensions, or in the case of filming of four dimensions---our static three plus that of time. How to turn a human figure into an abstract object without completely abandoning the link to the form. This is important because the arts of sculpture, live performance, and filmed performance all pivot around the issue of the individual as a vehicle for creating and communicating meaning.

The Vienna Actionists, in case you don't know, were a group of folks who struck out into performance art by using the body as a canvas with which to convey meaning. They took naked forms and drenched them with blood, then with paint, then with flour, then with eggs, wrapped them in wire. They orchestrated sexual acts as living art rather than as pornography, although they were certainly that also. It was the documented Action involving participants who were not performing as actors but rather as components of a larger artistic work that was meant to be read as visual art that was the thing.

Jodorowsky was/is an independent film maker who broke with all convention by turning his players into living symbols on the screen, where their interaction was that not of one human being to another but of one symbol or idea working with another. Jodorowsky managed to stage films illustrating his ideas with people as symbols using the bare minimum of traditional dramatic devices necessary to make the whole thing comprehensible. The problem which Jodorowsky faces is the same as that that the Actionists faced: how to use three dimensional figures who can move and speak to express abstract ideas that don't have anything obviously to do with human actions.

Which brings us to modern sculptors like Jean Arp and Henry Moore. Both of these artists discarded the idea of completely disposing with all representation and going straight from total abstract shapes up. Instead, the traditional subject matter of the human figure, that sculpture had been portraying for millennia, was preserved with the challenge being how to alter the form in comprehensible ways in order to express more complex ideas than could normally be expressed with the figure. To do this they constructed sculptures that took the form of the body and melted it down into organic components that they then extended and compressed in order to add expressive qualities to them.

The question of how to do this successfully is much more difficult than that of how to do similar things on a canvas with a two dimensional representation of form. If you're working with something that inhabits three dimensional space you can't just draw glows around people or mess with shapes and colors in a free way. You no longer have a canvas to contain your work. Sculpture in the round stands as an individual self contained figure in three dimensions that cannot depend on associated objects in a background or a foreground to carry the action. This is a severe limitation, and accounts for the very different solutions needed.

Forms, human forms, bird forms, some sorts of forms, become the wire model on which you have to hang your meaning. They're non-negotiable. You may not like it, but you're forced to communicate meaning through them, through a figure of a human being, or sometimes that of an animal. Ideas, though, are much more diverse than simple figures can normally communicate. It's as though ideas belong to a completely different order of being than figures existing in space, yet these have to be brought into association somehow in order to communicate meaning in three dimensions. Distortion has to preserve the minimum of comprehensibility in order to succeed in communicating some of the idea in a way that's minimally understandable without severe preparation.

The actor in a film, the participant in performance art, the figure in modern sculpture, are all irreducible components of their worlds that have to make and communicate that connection between the world of ideas and the world of the viewer. They have to make this using themselves. An actor as symbol of a force or an idea, a display of primal mysticism concerning death and rebirth in an art action, a model who is reduced to simpler shapes that are then extended and twisted in the limbs and torso when fixed in stone, all face the same problem.

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