Art and Agency – Alfred Gell

Art and Agency.jpgIn Gell’s discussion of our current interpretations of anthropological icons, he proposes a new way of looking at art theory that pushes away from iconophilia and representations aesthetically. In contrast, Gell offers a new way of looking at how the art object’s relations to its surroundings and placement in the outside world through society and social surroundings to create a “nexus”. This Art Nexus is comprised of the relationship between four subjects; the Artist, the Recipient, The Index (the Material), and the Prototype (What the image is trying to represent). These subjects are interchangeable as agent and patient, and has different agents for different artworks.

In terms of my own discussion, this has made me question what it is that makes the piece of art valuable to discussion, and it is in this nexus that the piece of art is made due to social relations. For example, when looking at particularly portraiture, and that relationship between agent and patient, it has opened discussion in the idea that the Prototype is in fact the agent, and thus a portrait is forced into portraying the sitter as its primary agent, which then makes the index of paint or portrayal of existentialism secondary factors. If portraiture was to be considered a true representation of the human form then it must encapsulate the human condition as a primary agent rather than the desire to create a naturalist likeness.


Art’s Agency and Art History History – Robin Osbourne and Jeremy Tanner

Using Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency as a primary influence for its approach to art history, Art’s Agency and Art History gives clear insight into anthropological studies and social relations between art objects and theories.

Art's Agency

The book creates insight into the history of the portrayal of the human form, and more particularly I was interested in the ideologies of the human form within the book. The book uses comparisons between Greek, Buddhist and Christian ideologies and contemporary art movement, whilst comparing contemporary art’s similar agencies but under different motives such as using the body of the sitter in the work could be used to bring the spirit of the person into the portrait, but in a modern day world it could be seen as bringing substance into the portrait.Using the Art Nexus that Gell creates in “Art and Agency”, Tanner uses his own examples of relics from previous civilisations to give example of how the through the own objects making it becomes an Indexical representation of the human form. Tanner also compares and contrasts the use of the ideal figure, such as the use of the naturalist figure in Classical Greek art and how the essence of the figure is maintained within Buddhist practice of giving objects to a piece of art, such as the subject’s own hair to an effigy.

Transcendence with The Human Body in Art – Doug Adams

TranscendenceWhen reading Doug Adams’ analysis of North American 20th Century art, I was allowed to look at the human form as a centre beyond ourselves, and look at how previous civilisations have affected how we produce art in portrayal of Transcendent beings. In the book, Adams’ makes correlations between the works of 4 contemporary artists (Segal, De Staebler, Johns, and Christo) and their relation to theologies and other works pivotal to our understanding on the body and consciousness.

Through reading this particular book the notion of transcendence has now become a particular topic of discussion in my thesis as the representation of spiritual form or a superior being will allow me to discuss the representations of clerical beings, and their relation to us who portray them as such.

I was particularly intrigued by Adams’ perception of George Segal’s The Holocaust, which looked at the transcendence of the human form as a chain of corporeal frames which pushed the essence of our existence as a network of figures as opposed to one sole entity. The configuration of Biblical and Hebrew subjects representing the holocaust victims allows them to become transcendent, but it is more the arrangement of the bodies I am interested in, as they allow the human form to be represented as a network of individuals as opposed to one singular being.

Nicholas Mirzoeff – Bodyscape: Art, Modernity, and the Ideal Figure

c26ed130fcf3ca81d97ec79f0329b866When looking at attitudes and ideologies of previous theorists on the ideal human form, Mirzoeff’s ‘bodyscape’ came of great aid. The book focuses on the arguments posed by previous ages on the search that Western art has indulged itself in for the utopian figure, entwining it with the contemporary ideas of looking at more Avant-Garde bodily forms.

I was intrigued by Mirzoeff’s in depth explanation about the Renaissance’s search for the Utopian figure and the remnants of how culture pursues that today. Mirzoeff uses the Vitruvian man as a key example of this, with its geometric forms. But then Mirzoeff contravenes this by asking ‘how can this be an example of the perfect form when the subject is incomplete?’ and explains that the body itself is spatial, and not merely an outline

I personally found the book particularly interesting to read due to the relevance it has to my project as coming from a traditionalist portrait artist’s background, and the evidence and arguments raised allow me to look at other beliefs in my research. Although the book was highly relevant, I found the book rather dense and at times difficult to comprehend.

The Body In Contemporary Art – Sally O’Reilly

9780500204009_21190I decided to begin my research into the ideal body by looking at how art culture has decided to interpret the human anatomy in a modern era. The book gives a plethora of artists which have their work surrounded around the body, holding different topics such as feminism and technology used to incorporate these artworks.

After reading the book I felt that there was plenty of resources and avenues to further my research, yet I felt that the book didn’t give enough information as to why these practitioners explore the human form, nor as to what makes them significant. For example, when writing about Marc Quinn’s ‘Genomic Portrait’, O’Reilly gives a detailed account into the processes that went into creating the artwork, but fails to mention the conceptualism behind the portrait making it a ‘true’ representation of the body, or fails to offer any alternative artists along the lines of using human matter into their work, and therefore I feel the subject of the body was too literal.

Marc Quinn – ‘A Genomic Portrait: Sir John Sulston”

by Marc Quinn, sample of sitter's DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel, 2001

by Marc Quinn, sample of sitter’s DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel, 2001

In this article I intend to scrutinise the use of metaphor in the art piece “A Genomic Portrait: Sir John Sulston” by Marc Quinn, and assess whether regarding it as a portrait is consistent or even relevant in today’s art culture. Coming from a portrait artist’s background, I find it interesting to delve into the interpretations of portraiture in modern art and how these conceptualisms are metaphors for the human form itself, constantly chanmging oour perception on what we regard as portraiture.

In Quinn’s Exhibit, he has extracted DNA from leading geneticist Sir John Sulston, and using the growth of bacteria onto agar jelly it creates a unique arrangement onto the gelatine. Although the finished product in a literal sense is abstract, the piece could be considered more realistic that any other paintings exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. This is down to the work actually being part of the ‘sitter’, and through this donation, not only do we get an outline of the processes that led to the creation of Sir John Sulston, but it can also be said that this is a representation of parents, grandparents and other ancestors in his immediate bloodline.

This solidarity of the layout of the bacteria and its uniqueness is what puts itself forward as a portrait, in the same way DNA sequencing would give a unique personal coding, and using this coding you can get a true representation of the person. On the other hand, this just makes the DNA sequence a number, and loses any true physical resonance of the person. In addition to this, the representation obtained using coding will never truly be accurate to the subject duie to environmental changes, such as scarrification.

However, this is not the first time an artist has ‘given themselves’ to a piece of work in order to add conceptualism to the piece. Italian Artist Pierro Manzoni exhibited cans of his own faeces entitled “Artist’s Shit”, which questioned the commercialism in modern art at the time, which questioned the commercialism in modern art at the time, asking whether it is the art itself or the name attributed to it which makes the work successful. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp have also produced work, using their own urine/semen to create paintings. Therefore it raises the question – are these works of art any less relevant in representing the subject than Quinn’s? Although it can be argued that the processes taking place on the Agar are unique to any other replication, and this concept of personal identification is what seperated it from the work mentioned.

In conclusion, I believe that it is the physical presence of the subject in Quinn’s work, and most importantly the arrangement of the bacteria onto the work that makes the piece successful in terms of portraiture. It is that unique formation on gelatine which has been shaped individually by the DNA sample, and unlike any others. In the same way a person’s mobile phone has been manipulated to fit its owners identity and preferences, or a clay pot that is hand moulded leaves imprints of the sculptor, it is this physical presence that makes it a true portrait, and not the unique coding or merely an artist giving their own flesh and blood to the work that makes it successful