Monday, March 19, 2007

We are minerals


Like the Blue Marble photograph, Chris Burden’s Medusa’s Head offers us a view on our planetary home. It is tempting to regard the view as a scary one: if you could see the total effect of the industrial activity that sustains our present form of life, this is how it would look—ugly, Dickensian, not so green. True, maybe, but banal if you make a sculpture to say it. But we can insist on the ecological character of Burden’s vision while charitably rejecting the reading on which it is a facile work of cynicism. The clue is in the original Medusa myth: if you look directly at Medusa’s head, you will be turned to stone. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, writing about the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadksy, can help us articulate our alternate ecological reading of Burden's sculpture:
Vernadsky portrayed living matter as a geological force—indeed, the greatest of all geological forces. Life moves and transforms matter across oceans and continents. Life, as flying phosphorous-rich gulls, racing schools of mackerel, and sediment-churning polychaete worms, moves and chemically transforms the planet’s surface. […] the material of Earth’s crust has been packaged into myriad moving beings whose reproduction and growth break down matter on a global scale. People, for example, redistribute and concentrate oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, phosphorous, and other elements of Earth’s crust into two-legged, upright forms that have an amazing propensity to wander across, dig into, and in countless other ways alter Earth’s surface. We are walking, talking minerals. (What is Life? page 49)


Anonymous Perezoso said...

Ah almost enjoy that Burden piece: and perhaps one could read it in greenish terms, but by doing so one overlooks the, shall we say, pathological aspects of work: the Medusa, however trite in Lucasland, was not a figure of fun. So I would say an anti-feminist reading may be warranted: the world as whore, more or less.

4/05/2007 6:08 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

You are thinking of Clash of the Titans, maybe? Personally I find the Harryhausen Medusa pretty frightening.

My suggestion was that Burden was punning on the turn-to-stone part of the Medusa myth (and punning, like any form of figurative speech, relies on the figurative use's not having all the features of the original use).

But I certainly see something in your suggestion--you can see Burden's world as fully exploited, penetrated, and remade in man's image, as the earth of the early modern world view on which it is still feminine but valuable only as an instrument; nature disenchanted, externalized, a thing to be mined and interrogated and used, but still addressed as woman.

However, even if that's what this world represents, your suggestion that Burden's overall rhetorical move is anti-feminist seems to require that he also endorse that world, as if artists only made things that pictured what they like and agree with.

Maybe my reading of the title, when I'm not bending it to accomodate my own mineral-vitalogical reveries, is based on the fact that this piece, especially viewed in person, is extremely seductive--this is an action-world of energetic doings, and you get caught up in the fun of creative activity, plus you get charmed by the HO scale trains and tracks--and when you get caught up in action-world, the alpha-state world of average, inauthentic rule-following and plowing ahead and radical entropic acceleration, you submit to a kind of psychic petrification ("like the calcification of the pineal gland, which ceases to secrete the natural DMT that makes the world of childhood so crystal-crazy and spirit-governed and whole," some might say).

What about this: it is kind of retrograde and primitive to think that the title refers to what the sculpture looks like, I mean, that it's called "Medusa's Head" because it *resembles* Medusa's head. Better to see the sculpture as picturing the petrified head while the true Medusa that caused it is somewhere else and not represented in the physical part of the sculpture.

4/06/2007 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Perezoso said...

((<----------loves Harryhausen. Methinx it was Jason and the Argonauts. (Lucasworld = shall we say Baudrillard-lite reading of cinematic lies of the Star Wars era).))

I do not think Burden intended "Medusa's Head" to be ironic--- or at least not wholly--but more akin to like Chamberlain's sculptures of smashed-up jalopies, etc. Tho' the UCLA aesthetes would probably take issue with my non-marxist (and non-PC) insta- interpretations--cyber-aesthetics!-- I read MH as expressionist to some degree (and possibly tragic), but not therefore "primitive." (I don't make that facile identity).

Frightening, yeah: the greek myths are definitely that, before they were turned into Kitsch by the Ho-wood pimps. The serpent-like railroad lines could be, as you stated, sort of anti-industrialist, but I refuse to read ANY art-work according to the pre-fabricated marxist template. One could use other templates for attempting to understand the work: even Jeffersonian-secularist---or think of Thoreau's laments regarding the iron-horse. Some bizarre Bust of Jefferson (yet with hints of some ancient vulvic icon perhaps): that is, a bust disfigured, grotesque, smeared with like excrement from a crack-ho. ;) But dat may be a bit drah-matic.

4/06/2007 11:37 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

I'm not familiar with Chamberlain. An artist friend tells me he's a charlatan, but I think the objection might be purely verbal.

I think it's plausible that Burden made MH because it was fun to make and stuck the title on later, though that's not an especially charitable view.

As for Marxist interpretations, do think that Marx's view of human activity (as articulated in Alienated Labor) is relevant--MH is a world totally transformed by work. If Burden's piece has Marxist affinities, I think they stop with the natural-historical perspective on how humans build their world; MH-world makes the action look too fun ("Let me play, I want to set up bridges and derricks, too!") for it to feel like a critique of capitalism.

Expressionist is a good word here, I agree.

4/06/2007 5:43 PM  

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