Life and Death

By O'Kane, Paul | Art Monthly, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Life and Death


O'Kane, Paul, Art Monthly


In Patrick Keiller's recent Tate Britain installation, The Robinson Institute, 2012, the filmmaker isolated a short clip from his 2010 film Robinson In Ruins. As usual, Keiller's lens meditates on a banal scene, in this case framing an agricultural field undergoing cultivation. The clip was accompanied by the words: 'Robinson rarely saw anyone working in the fields, even during harvest.'

As is often the case with Keiller, a small observation hints at a major historical issue latent within the everyday. Here, it is progressive dehumanisation and the increasing mediation of our relationship with both nature and subsistence that spills out, bringing with it lost spirits of people driven off their lands by greedy profiteers and inexorably progressing technology, a history of enclosures, protests, unemployment and homelessness, of 'public' and 'common' land abused and expropriated by sinister, exploitative forces, as well as dark forebodings of GM crops and increasingly processed food.

As Walter Benjamin suggested in the 1930s, mechanical reproduction alters human values, including the value of art. In search of some affirmative, contemporary response, art turns itself inside out. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Jean Baudrillard, Peter Halley and Hal Foster all extended Benjamin's thesis. And Hito Steyerl is an artist and writer perpetuating this legacy today (Reviews p35). The influence of mechanical reproduction on human values is also the context for Kazuo Ishiguro's award-winning novel Never Let Me Go, 2005, that was subsequently made into a much less effective film. In eerily flat-footed prose, Ishiguro's adolescent protagonists report their awakening to the reality of their peculiar relation to life and death. They are in fact clones, outcomes of a certain modern, utilitarian logic produced through advances in science. They are bred purely to 'donate' organs to people more real than themselves. Being, for them, is not something one owns and lives but something one dutifully hones for the benefit of others, thus the essential inhumanity of class and caste hierarchy is implied.

There is no piety in the self-image of the clones, perhaps they are too young for that, but as a result of their strange origin and hopeless destiny it seems their emotions are repressed, etiolated, limited. Significantly, the clones are encouraged - almost bribed - to make art and are trained in a homecounties institution that might seem uncanny to anyone involved in English arts education in the Cold War period. Thus, art turns out to serve the purpose of either salving the conscience of their masters and/or providing evidence that clones have 'souls', traces of real humanity that endure, despite their artificial origins and ultimately hopeless mode of being.

Never Let Me Go is a convincing metaphor, helping us speculate on both our current human condition and the place of art within it. Postwar and post-9/11 society has grown-up, lived through and gone beyond the nightmarish imagery of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and now Ishiguro's metaphor allows us to see how the vitality, future and hope of our society is itself consumed by rampant, unregulated consumerism. We have reached a point where we reproduce only to consume and vice versa, becoming locked in a deathly matrix where merchandise masters meaning. But amid this bewildering transformation Ishiguro provides an image with some critical traction.

As modernity emerged, any 'darkness' and 'superstition' supposedly separating enlightened, Christian civilisation from the guiding beliefs of supposedly primitive heathens was not, it seems, eradicated but merely displaced as newly appropriate representations of being, life and death appeared. The early 19th-century Romantics' response to changes in the technologised relationship between humanity, art, life, death and being is most clearly evident in Mary Shelley's tale of Frankenstein's monster. …

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