Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Appendix: Ironic Trans-Contextualisation in a Work of Postmodern Parody

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Appendix: Ironic Trans-Contextualisation in a Work of Postmodern Parody

Article excerpt

I'd like to engage with the workings of this subversive mode of intertextality by considering a visual text, brought to wide attention by Linda Hutcheon1 in her discussion n of the politics of postmodern parody: Canadian artist Andy Fabo's Craft of the Contaminated, a painting which plays havoc with mimesis and which takes up, through its engagement with its famous antecedent, the romantic theme of shipwreck or its aftermath.

The French artist, Théodore Géricault,2 interviewed two of the survivors of the infamous wreck of the government frigate, la Méduse, which was en route to take the new French Governor to Senegal, recently handed over by the British to the French. At 491 x 716 cm, dimensions conventionally at the time associated with religious or royal/imperial celebration, The Raft of the Medusa3 is a huge work that shows a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of La Méduse / The Medusa, which ran aground off the coast of today's Mauritania on July 5, 1816. The disaster was largely the result of inadequate experience and tensions between commander and crew. Two hundred and thirty-three of the privileged passengers climbed into lifeboats and canoes, the remaining one hundred and fifty crew, lower class passengers and "colonials" were left to drift to their fate on a hastily constructed raft, or to stay with the wrecked hull. Géricault's painting attracted scandalised condemnation as well as praise in the 1819 Salon in Paris because it was seen as blatantly critical of the politics of the Bourbon restoration under Louis XVIII and showed the incompetence of the sea captain under his orders. Still more scandalous perhaps was the elevation of an African to the pinnacle of the doubly triangular composition, brandishing his humanity, and condemning the slave trade that subtended the French empire. Of the one hundred and fifty on the raft cobbled together out of the wreckage, all but fifteen died in the thirteen days before their rescue by the Argus and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, and beyond these, madness. Géricault's proto-cinematic close-up invites the viewer to take the victims' point of view, and the corpse-strewn raft shockingly displays the proximity of marauding death for all. It also, according to some, clearly depicted the state of French domestic politics, drifting haplessly towards its ruin. By the radical foreshortening Géricault makes the few centimeters between victims and the Argus they are hailing seem intractable. I should add that in the quest for understanding of what the raft victims endured Géricault spent much time in hospital drawing the dying victims and subsequently procured severed limbs, working in his studio in dreadful intimacy with their progressive putrescence.

The title contrived for the revisitation of Géricault's painting by contemporary Canadian painter Andy Fabo with its rhyming pun (The Raft of the Medusa becoming The Craft of the Contaminated),4 puts the victims of the AIDs epidemic in the position of Géricault's slaves and fellow travellers, desperately hailing possible rescue. The doubly triangular composition from Géricault's own classical reference endures, giving prominence to the desperate and doomed gesture for help. Géricault's mast, bearing the shredded sail-cum-makeshift shelter is replaced here by a flaming tee-pee adorned with a bison; suggesting by their juxtaposition that the homophobic treatment of AIDS sufferers has an intimate connection to institutional, genocidal racism endured by native North Americans; the fire engulfs the figure offering comfort to the dying, and watching over the already dead. Fabo replaces Géricault's red shredded rag with which his African hails the tiny speck of the Argus, with the shredded, haemorrhaging Canadian flag (you can see the maple leaf bleeding off it) and the distant "vessel" of "rescue" is a mere TV image, a painting of an island which could almost be a surfacing submarine on a painted and televised ocean. …

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