The Real, The Virtual and the
Work of Witkin
Virtual Reality: the place where
flesh goes to die and the electronic body struggles to be born at the fin-de-millennium...1
In this essay I want to think about
the fascination contemporary culture, particularly photography, has with
the visceral and virtual body. The body is now in a very real sense 'hot'
property. No longer marginal it lies at the very centre of scientific and
cultural discourse and political and ethical debate. Kroker and Weinstein's
definition of VR (cited above) as a transitional space might be as good
a place as any from which to consider the current status of the human body
and technology. New technologies, that is opto-electronics and their application
in science and culture, which increasingly becomes a merging field, raise
fundamental questions about who we are, and how our world might be. The
body is, along with cyberspace, perceived as a final frontier and increasingly
what the body is will depend on how it is represented; on how it is understood;
on how we negotiate meaning.2
This means not just thinking about how we are positioned by discourse,
but how we might position ourselves within discourse.3
It means taking responsibility for the knowledge we produce. Moreover,
if we are to provide knowledge adequate to the demands of the present then
it is in the here and now that we should begin.
Current discourses about the body
and technology are for the most part fetishistic and reductionist accounts
of the present; it is not accidental that biological essentialism has been
superseded by a facile genetic essentialism which is rarely questioned.
Similarly, visual work that takes as its subject 'the body' is on the whole
assumed to be politically progressive. I am as wary of this as I am of
the critical or historical writing that accompanies the exhibition and
publication of such images. This is to say that within postmodernism such
questions are repressed. However, they are important if we are to make
some sense of the ways in which responses to what are called 'new' (although
more accurately not so new technologies) run simultaneously in opposite
directions: a projection into the future and a regression to the past.
Few would dispute that we live in
a period of rapid social change which has produced a crisis in the real;
in representation. If the present seems 'out of control' one assumption
is that if we are not in control of the present, then at least in employing
the latest electronic technology we can be involved in directing the future.
We can be masters of a virtual universe. This is a question of power. It
is the mark of a lack of political imagination and a naive faith in the
emancipatory qualities of technology that computers have been seized upon
as if a postmodern life-raft, a Star-ship Enterprise to beam us out of
the present. Within the realm of visual culture a long-discredited essentialism
of political commitment has been resurrected arguing yet again that in
the right hands, if the right people are wired, freedom is just around
At the very same moment there has
been a plea for a return to the past, to a craft-based master photography
as if we can escape from the present through a naive, nostalgic and regressive
return to the authentic experience of the photographer-as-sovereign-author
working in a pre-postmodern garden before the Fall. These positions are
two sides of the same coin. Both are marked by 'nostalgia' whether for
future or past. Both share in common the desire to transcend the present
by swiftly dispatching all those tiresome economic, political, philosophical
and ethical questions that haunt our times, which we seem unable to think
about, let alone answer. In this essay I want to explore the ways in which
our present postmodern culture is haunted not just by fantasies about the
future, but by pre-modern, that is medieval beliefs. I take as my examples
medical imaging and art photography. While bodies and technologies have
no origins, they do have histories and these need to be traced.
I want to argue that what is repressed
in medical imaging returns in the realm of contemporary art. As medical
imaging has become more abstract, less meaty, art has become more visceral;
more bodily. The techno-futuristic realm of medical imaging provides a
framework in which to consider the photographic images of Joel-Peter Witkin.
The first epitomises a nostalgia for the future and the latter a yearning
for the past. Both are characteristic of postmodernism. Witkin (and many
others) exercise tight authorial control. It would, for example, be impossible
for the critique that follows to appear alongside his photographs. This
is undoubtedly a form of censorship. I primarily focus upon his work and
his use of cadavers and body parts as a means to discuss what is a more
general trend within the art market. Broadly, the arguments presented here
could be applied to other artists such as Hirst or Serrano; to recent publication
of photographs from medical and police archives or to artists' illegal
acquisition of body parts from morgues in order to make work. Witkin's
work is only distinguished by its extremity. Whatever way you look at it
there is a market, a trade in bodies and they are not virtual.
This might tell us something about
the present popular fascination with medical images of the human body.
Medical images, especially abstract images produced by such methods as
photomicrography or radiography have largely been ignored by historians
of photography. Where they are used by historians of medicine, these images
are usually treated as unproblematic illustration. These images have been
located in archives; their authors are usually anonymous; access is restricted.
Recently, however, computer generated medical imagery has become widely
circulated to a keen viewing public. Ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging,
tomography are remote technologies with a history rooted in techno-military
warfare. The images they produce are seductive and because they offer us
so much to see, we marvel at their beauty and so tend to overlook what
has been excised. On closer inspection we begin to notice that all traces
of bodily disorder, mess, chaos are removed. The desire here is for clean-cut,
flattened, soft, seamless imagery. The result is a highly sanitised, orderly
vision of the body. A simulated depth is complemented by, which is to say
aestheticised by, the use of electronically generated colour, providing
an almost hallucinogenic quality. Moreover, vessel, cell or gene is isolated
from its ground so that the object in view seems to float alone in space
and allows our eye only to focus on this or that element as if totally
unrelated to the body. Flesh is reduced to abstract information. It is
no longer that the body is fragmented but rather it is dematerialised (technologies
such as x-ray and electron microscope played an important role here) and
finally disappears, as if the visceral is what we most fear. We could describe
this as a kind of postmodern flaying where we are now eager participants
in such disciplinary processes and therefore medical images once circulated
to a private audience can now be safely shown publicly. They appear in
everyday culture as a display of power, not of humans but of intelligent
machines. It is the body that becomes a ghost while its pictures are living,
teeming with life, even after death.
This more anonymous context is important
to an understanding of Witkin's work. He argues that he wants his prints
to "look like old photographs that have been hidden in someone's attic
and suddenly brought to light".4
To this end he employs formal theatrical props of nineteenth century photography:
the proscenium arch; the use of the curtain, the fetishistic techniques
of a dark photographic and fine art printing. The space within the frame
is compressed, congested with detail, depthless. This is further emphasised
by the use of collaged backdrops. In neo-medieval, or neo-neo-classical
spectacle, he conjures up the spectres of Dürer or David, as if to
flatter the viewer's art historical knowledge, but also to make us intelligent
consumers of what has already been consumed.
This formal ordering is combined
with a grotesque content of sutured foetuses, stumps and cadavers in various
states of decay thus producing a powerful mingling of the aesthetic and
the medical which verges on the pornographic. What once coalesced on the
anatomy table, now congeals in the bloody tableaux created in Witkin's
studio. This work has a history in anatomical dissection (a more adult
version of infantile sadism), religious iconography (with its simultaneous
elevation and degradation of women), and pornography (the body as meat).
But it is a history of which Witkin cannot speak. Such a history can, however,
be traced in wax Venuses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The
pose of these female dolls closely resembles that of swooning saints, as
well as the standardised pose of pornographic models. Laid out on velvet,
satin or silk, like toys they could be opened up and the viewer could see
the mysterious organs of the interior, particularly reproductive. For Witkin,
the past, like the body can be cut just how one wants. Witkin is also an
editor of privately printed books: Masterpieces of Medical Photography,
1987; Gods of Heaven and Earth, 1989; Harm's Way, 1994. In a process of
representational asset-stripping, images are wrenched from archives of
police, medicine, asylums. Re-assembled and re-contextualised they are
beautifully re-printed on matt art paper, bound in cloth and produced in
'limited' editions of 5,000. Witkin is keen to display his academic credentials
and commissions scientists, art historians, medics to write essays which
lend a specious credibility to his art. Those who had remained below the
threshold of vision until the nineteenth century; those classified as 'other'
were brought into view so that they could be made to disappear into 'ignoble'
archives in what was an act of representational liquidation. Here they
are resurrected. What was once tragedy becomes farce. The dead or merely
different return not as subjects in their own right, but only as so much
grist to the mill of art.
Witkin's preferred technique is
to gouge, lacerate, scratch the negatives; the prints are then toned, death
is warmed up, faux-foxed, spattered with potassium cyanide, which gives
the appearance of decay. The result is a stained and abused image. It shares
this distinguishing mark with the pornographic image. Finally, with the
use of encaustic the prints are redemptively polished in a bogus act of
reparation and sanctification.5
This simulates the fate of bodies. Witkin becomes a kind of textual anatomist.
The skin of the photographic emulsion stands as metaphor for human skin.
Bodies once wounded, bound, masked or gagged, are finally killed and chopped
up like so many pieces of meat.6
This is a metaphoric and literal scavenging; a cannibalisation of styles
and bodies; a chilling universe in which bodies are collapsed into texts;
reality into fantasy.
But bodies are not texts; aesthetics
are not ethics any more than virtuality is reality. The bodies and cadavers
come from the geographical margins and the recently deregulated markets
of eastern block countries which have recently become a sort of playground
for Western artists.7
Bodies become commodities, articles of trade, like any other. They are
easy to come by for those with money and power. These bodies, cadavers
or human remains, alive or dead, are objects with one last value which
can be bought whole or in part. There is a trade in bodies, whereby the
poor, while still alive, are forced to sell their organs, their bodies,
their children, sometimes their lives. What Witkin produces is a system
of representation that reinforces the mercenary logic of a global market
economy which is little more than a form of corporate feudalism.
The lie of voyeurism is, of course,
that the object agrees to its exhibition. These 'other' surplus bodies,
with heads laterally or literally severed can't look back. Those who were
once subjects become objects, and in an act of subjugation are made to
bear the burden, the sheer material weight of corporeality and finally
death so that the artist, and the viewer, can have eternal life.8
In the killing fields of central Europe, or central America, maiming, torture
and death are all too close to home and so we prefer our corpses, like
history, dressed up.
This is the final irony: Witkin's
world is a universe where all boundaries are gone and yet such a world
can only exist in one of the most hidebound of institutions: the art gallery,
which in the late twentieth century is little more than a showroom for
the art market. This market is one with a voracious appetite for indelicacies.
The 'waning of affect' as we approach the end of the millennium has led
to an increased and as yet unsatisfied demand for butchered bodies and
strong meat, so long as it is well hung. We should be more critical.
1 A Kroker and M Weinstein, Data
Trash, 1994, p162
2 See D Haraway, 'A Manifesto for
Cyborgs', Socialist Review, no. 80, 1985: R Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects,
3 See S Hall, 'Cultural Identity
and Cinematic Representation', Framework, no. 36, 1989
4 Interview, Border Crossings, Winter
5 It is Witkin's wife who carries
out this last rite.
6 Witkin is keen to emphasise that
he does not tamper with the bodies, as if the process of choice of object
is not part of the process of making work.
7 Witkin claims his 'moral and ethical
stringency' in obtaining access to bodies. Permission, where it cannot
be agreed by the person because of reasons of insanity or death is always
sought and agreed by doctors as 'representatives of the State'. J-P Witkin,
public lecture, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 1995. These are bodies
which no one has claimed; Head of a Dead Man was a victim of police brutality
in Mexico City. More recent pictures are of asylum inmates in Budapest,
Hungary. This exhibits a truly remarkable lack of moral judgement and artistic
8 '[T]ruthfully they are aspects
of my own self', Journal of Contemporary Art, op. cit.
p112. There is a world of difference
between trying to understand the self as other and the narcissism of viewing
others as part of oneself.