Wednesday, December 23, 2009

(Hu)Man -Thing 2

I commented a few posts ago about how the theme of human and nonhuman merging, typical of the traditional 'grotesque' style, has a particular poignancy in the 21st century. As the natural world begins to express its suffering more persistently, and we are forced to reevaluate our status as one creature among many, the style that was once 'grotesque' is experiencing a political rebirth.

American artist Kate MacDowell has a body of work that speaks to this theme amazingly well, and I was thrilled to discover it. Click on the images for a closer look.

MacDowell's philosophy is worth quoting, for it articulates the way in which artists and creators are reworking traditional techniques and visual themes for the contemporary context:

"In my work [the] romantic ideal of union with the natural world conflicts with our contemporary impact on the environment. These pieces are in part responses to environmental stressors including climate change, toxic pollution, and gm crops. They also borrow from myth, art history, figures of speech and other cultural touchstones. In some pieces aspects of the human figure stand-in for ourselves and act out sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous transformations which illustrate our current relationship with the natural world. In others, animals take on anthropomorphic qualities when they are given safety equipment to attempt to protect them from man-made environmental threats. In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices."

These are beautiful, disturbing images. And, as always, I see them as part of a larger movement in visual media. I am intrigued by the sculpture below, called 'Cross Pollination,' because it reminds me of a certain game I like to play:

In BioShock, the player modifies the body of their avatar in a way that breaks down the border between inside/outside and human/nonhuman. Using Plasmids - mutagens that enable the body's genetic code to be 'rewritten' - the player is able to perform a number of acts, including turning their hands and arms into a beehive. Bees (are they wasps? I'm not an entomologist) crawl in and out of holes in the hands, ready to form a swarm and attack enemies at your instruction.

As the PC blurb puts it, the player is given the opportunity to "biologically modify your body: send electric bolts storming from your fingertips or unleash a swarm of killer hornets hatched from the veins in your arms." This clip is a bit dark, but you get the gist:

It's interesting how the theme of human/nonhuman merging is presented here as a form of power. The term 'grotesque' appears with notable frequency in both the reviews and promotional material, for the game tells a tale in which becoming grotesque is a form of agency. Despite the violence involved: being grotesque signals a gain, rather than a loss. Rather a political story in today's context.

[Images used with permission from the artist. Screenshot via CVG.]

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