Humanity’s self-image was redefined in the modern era not by art but by the mass medium of photography. Take for example the photograph from the American Civil War reproduced here (click image left). Previously artists had mythologized war as heroic due to the fact that their patrons were the ones who waged the wars. But the photographs of carnage during the American Civil War (1861-65) represent one of the first occasions when the general population could begin to see war and human behaviour from a much more pragmatic and demythologised perspective.
Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen has produced what might be called “post-photographic” representations of humanity’s indelible and intrinsic inhumanity by computer manipulating images of colonialism and war from Chinese photographic archives. His 1990-98 series of such images was given the generic title Revolt in the Soul and Body. Apinan Poshyananda reports that Chieh-Jen was inspired by “ancient Buddhist and Taoist drawings of purgatory and hell” (Poshyananda 2000: 190). Then in 1997 he produced the series Lost Voice digitally manipulating photographs of mounds of mutilated corpses taken during the 1945-49 civil war in China (Poshyananda 2000: 190).
The link with religious depictions of purgatory and hell makes us aware that these images are fundamentally connected with what we might call the “spiritual” where the spiritual in Western culture is ineluctably entwined with the “death of god” that accompanied the emergence of capitalism and technoscience. The standard religious response to such images of inhuman-human behaviour is to say such things are “evil”.
But Chieh-Jen’s approach to these images is akin to the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman–in particular their monumental work Hell, 2000, which was destroyed in the Saatchi Gallery warehouse fire in 2004 and which they have recently (2008) recreated. Both Chieh-Jen and the Chapman brothers approach such themes with humour. Is this an obscene approach? I don’t really think so because humour can be serious as well as stupid.
Imagery such as Chieh-Jen and the Chapman’s underlines a view of humanity that arose with modernity. Since Darwin’s Origin of the Species(1859) we have been aware that we are merely animals. And the more science discovers about us and our animal bretheren the less difference is revealed between us and the other species. Even the much vaunted notion of free will is increasingly in doubt as scientific research progresses. For example in 1983 Benjamin Libet carried out a series of experiments which indicate that our thoughts and actions may actually occur a fraction of a second before we become aware of them (Frith 2007a,b). In other words, consciousness becomes an after effect. A great deal of cognitive processes occur unconsciously; and we are not necessarily talking here about the Freudian “savage” unconscious which is probably a small subset of unconscious cognitive processes.
The romantics were correct when they situated creativity within the unconscious. Where romantic philosophy goes awry is when it suggests that this mode of processing is somehow entirely distinct from reason, because it is also the case that our reasoning processes are largely unconscious. Moreover, human beings rely on each other to think. The clique or tribe is a mode of collective consciousness. And it can be pretty frightening. Take for example the infamous Milgram experiment (Wikipedia) and the Sanford prison experiment http://www.prisonexp.org/.
If we want to understand Chieh-Jen’s images in modern terms then we need to jettison the mythology of evil as an external, demonic, force that possesses people. There are no evil people, in that sense, there are just people. Some, of course may be ill and psychopathy appears to be the result of structural problems within brain development. In a sense we are machines, and we can malfunction.
But it is also the case that war and violence are part of human nature. And most violence is socially sanctioned, either by small groups (the suicide bomber and his or her cell) or by nations. The vast majority of us submit to the will of the pack; and this seems to be so innate as to be preprogrammed, or wired into the brain. The army personnel who dropped Zyklon B tablets into the Nazi gas chambers were just doing their job. They were part of a swarm or nest and as such could not be expected to exercise “free will”. A film such as Schindler’s List which portrays the concentration camp commandant as pathological is not really presenting us with the most realistic picture of ourselves. What would be much more chilling would be a portrayal of that person as someone as sane as anyone. I think that would be closer to the truth.
And this observation appears to explain why Chieh-Jen montages himself into his scenes of carnage either masochistically, as a victim, or sadistically, as a perpetrator. What he seems to be telling us is that, given the right circumstances, this could be you.
The other aspect of Chieh-Jen’s horrific scenes concern their erotic aspect. Poshyananda describes one image (below left) from the Lost Voice, 1997, series in which “Chen insinuates images of his naked body, which appears laughing or being fellated by his own decapitated head.” (Poshyananda 2000: 190).
One is reminded here of a series of images reproduced in George Bataille’s The Tears of Eros (middle, right and below). The images are of Fou-Tchou-Li who was found guilty by the Mongolian princes of the murder of Prince Ao-Han-Ouan. He was sentenced to slow death by Leng-Tch’e (cutting into pieces) and was executed in Beijing 10 April 1905 (Bataille 1989: 2004).
Bataille encountered these images in George Dumas’ Traité de psychologie (Treatise on psychology), 1923, and reports that in order to prolong the torture, opium was administered to the condemned man (Bataille 1989: 205). But he also itimates that Dumas’ account suggests that the ecstatic expression on the victim’s face is not reducible to the drug. In 1925 one of the photographs (the first one illustrated here) was given to Bataille by Dr. Borel, one of the first French psychoanalysts. (ibid.). Then in 1938 (two years prior to the Nazi invasion of France) when practicing yoga Bataille discerned:
in the violence of this image, an infinite capacity for reversal. Through this violence—even today I cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form—I was so stunned that I reached the point of ecstasy. My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism—and in particular sadism. From the most unspeakable to the most elevated. … What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish—but which at the same time delivered me from it—was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror. (Bataille 1989: 206-7)
It would be disturbing to realise that this photograph could be depicting human nature; it is, perhaps, even more disturbing to think that it could be revealing something sacred or spiritual.
In The Tears of Eros Bataille provides the reader with a manifold of images from the history of art that indicate a connection between torment and the sacred. But the species of sacred that Bataille is considering is not associated with the Judeo-Christian God and the suffering Christ. Bataille’s philosophy, instead, is an especially sophisticated instance of the way in which surrealism combined science and romanticism. In the wake of Darwin we know there is no God and that we are not made in the image of God, but we also know that we were created by nature.
The last bastion of the sacred, accordingly, is nature; unless we take the hard, rationalistic scientific approach and conceive of nature as a complex universe of machines within machines. Bataille does not take the rationalistic approach but instead weaves quasi-scientific speculation with psychoanalysis and Nietzschean romanticism. For example, Allan Stoekl explains that in Bataille’s philosophy “all entities are collections of other entitites … What cells are to a human being, a human being is to that larger organism, the community” (in Bataille 1985: xxi). Bataille compares society to an organism—a natural entity—which, perhaps, therefore, can be considered as a vessel for the sacred. Herein, possibly, we gain a little more understanding concerning Chieh-Jen’s tactic of inserting himself into his orgies of destruction. We are all implicated.
In 1936 Bataille founded a journal and a secret society with Georges Ambrosino, Pierre Klossowski, Jean Wahl and Jules Monnerot; both called Acéphale (literally “headless”). The title suggests Bataille’s focus on the other of reason and it is rather interesting to see contemporary scientific research appearing to provide some support for his philosophical intutions. His thinking was no doubt driven by the death of God which effectively removed the god-head and revealed the human as animal. But there is more to his thinking than the surrealists’ total assimilation of the Freudian unconscious. Bataille also developed an extravagant post-Marxist “economics” based not upon the rational control of money and capital but upon notions of potlatch, sacrifice and the interconnection of eroticism and death.
He was, in effect, attempting to create a new mythology for the post-divine modern world. And of course this mythology had to accommodate the fact that the “modern” “rational” early twentieth century context in which he was writing had proven itself (in WWI) to be the most violent of all time.
Bataille, George. 1985. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Bataille, George. 1989. The Tears of Eros. San Francisco: Bay Books. Originally published as Les larmes d’Eros, 1961, by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris. Frith, Chris. 2007a. Making up the mind: how the brain creates our mental world. Oxford: Blackwell. Frith, Chris. 2007b. “Hands up if you think you’ve got free will”. New Scientist. 11 August, pp. 46-47. Online version: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/mg19526162.100-determining-free-will.html Poshyananda, Apinan. 2000. “Chen Chieh-Jen”. In Fresh Cream, Iwona Blazwick et al., p. 190. London: Phaidon.