Magazine article Tate Etc.

Extending Bodies

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Extending Bodies

Article excerpt

We have an inherent desire to go beyond our capabilities, to push beyond our limits. We study to increase knowledge, make machines to produce more than we can with our own hands, create devices to go faster, see further, speak louder and, when our bodies refuse to do what we think they should, we find ways to supplement them and exceed our corporeal boundaries.

Technology is everywhere, and we swim through most of our current lives in an intangible digital realm. The body, though, is analogue and driven by the senses, and we have long built palpable extensions for it. Often the best way to understand something is to try to make it. What happens, then, if we try to make a body? Eighteenth-century automata were exactly that: mechanised beings with the appearance of life. As science historian Simon Schaffer explains, automata developed from clockwork mechanisms regulating time into entertainment, and then into machines synchronising labourforthe industrial revolution. Jacques de Vaucanson was a pioneer of automata. He studied human anatomy to work out how to construct a living being, and in doing so discovered our automatic functions- lungs, for example, work like bellows. In 1737 he created a flautist that could play for more hours than any human, and in 1745 invented the first fully automated loom that would eventually radicalise the capabilities of production.

Vaucanson's inventions became the basis for the collection of automata at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, and it was here Marcel Duchamp encountered them, displayed among clocks and mechanisms. His fascination was fuelled too by literature, including Raymond Roussel's surreal travelogue Impressions of Africa 1910, where machines replace humans and humans make use of mechanised organs, and Auguste Viliiers de L'lsle-Adam's The Future Eve 1886, where a fictionalised Thomas Edison creates a replica of a friend's fiancée that is 'an Android of my own making... with all the illusion of life'. In Duchamp's masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23 he describes the Bride, in his notes to accompany the piece in the publication The Green Box 1934, as a 'new human being, half robot and half fourth dimensional'. The Future Eve would popularise the term android, while robot entered the language through Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots 1920- robot being the English translation of the Czech robotnik, meaning forced labour or drudgery.

The simultaneous hope for technology and fear of its impact fills visual art-from Robert Seymour's 1828 etching March of the Intellect, showing the steam engine as an autonomous mechanical monster exhaling hot air balloons, to Fritz Lang's film Metropolis 1927, and even to the 2015 television series Humans. Seeing human beings mimic machines and machines mimic human beings is fascinating - especiallyforthefailures, when technology reveals our limits and vice versa. Artworks have a crucial role in enabling usto imagine our own selves through the technologised body, particularly in times of crisis. Some demonstrate dark futures of body augmentation -for example Jacob Epstein's Rock Drill 1913. In 1940, he described this plaster figure supported by the eponymous drill as: The armed sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into.' The sculpture was first exhibited in 1915, but at its next outing in 1916, the year of the Battle of the Somme, the artist stripped away the drill, legs and one arm, casting the eviscerated figure in gun metal and re-titling it Torso in Metal.

Other artworks satirise humanity's failings through the mechanised body: Hans Bellmer's series of works La Poupée (The Doll) C1934-8 offered a critique to the stereotypes of physical normalcy propagated by Nazi art and culture, while Yael Bartana's animation Degenerative Art Lives 2010 reworks Otto Dix's 1920 painting War Cripples, showing amputee soldiers returning from the First World War in an endless march of automata. …

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