Some call them prisoners. Others call them slaves.
Voluptuous limbs emerge from amorphous rock. They disclose virile figures entrapped in stone. Miserably dressed if dressed at all. A vague reminiscence of clothes is found in the form of shredded drapery, sticking to the wet, sweat soaked bodies. At moments, flesh and stone are indistinguishable from one another. It is unclear whether the engulfing matter wants to swallow or regurgitate the agonizing bodies that are engaged in an endless struggle to emancipate themselves from the tragic condition within which they have been entrapped for centuries.
According to Michelangelo, it is the task of the sculptor to set them free, to extract them from their captivity.
A metaphor or an actual call to socio-political activism?
Does a sculptor really have the means to enforce such a revolution?
Whatever the opinion may be, the work remains unfinished today, just as it was unfinished five centuries ago.
Hopeless believers, when afflicted by a disease affecting a specific body part, would donate votive offerings to their gods.
The artefacts, sculptural representations of the ailed body part, are rendered in various materials, according to the social status and the financial means of the client.
The offerings are gifted to plead for a miraculous healing or as a token of gratitude for the grace received.
In either case, a symbolic economical exchange takes place.
An asymmetric transaction policy fuelled by blackmail and fear, set by an omnipotent authority that is willing to concede salvation on the condition of unconditioned worship and total submission, expressed in the form of gifts and sacrifices.
The threat of punishment as a coercive force.
The worshipped authority will have what it demands. Either in flesh or in stone.
Power politics at its best.
Michelangelo stated that sculpture is “that which is done by means of removal”.
A critical reader could pose two questions concerning this cryptic statement: removal of what? And by which means?
From the cultural and artistic context within which Michelangelo was speaking, he obviously referred to the removal of stone with the aid of a hammer and a chisel.
Art and its practice have since become more complex and ambiguous. Ben Vautier opened Pandora’s box when he rhetorically asked: “Si tout est sculpture pourquoi faire de la sculpture?”.
One can therefore question Michelangelo’s declaration, and consider the various possibilities implied by it.
A ‘purist’ reading of the statement stresses that it doesn’t explicitly define “what” is removed and “how” the removal is done. This ambiguity allows the exploration of possibilities of a different “sculptural” method, and questions whether the result might still be considered sculpture.
A ‘fundamentalist’ interpretation of Michelangelo’s statement claims that any act involving the “removal” of something should be seen as a sculptural act, and the resulting object – a sculpture.
Following this line of thought, could the removal of food from a plate by means of eating be considered a sculptural act, and the resulting empty plate a sculpture? How about removing of petals from a flower, or picking fruit off a tree? Less innocently, could one remove a toy from a child’s hand, justifying the action as a sculptural gesture? What would be the sculpture then?
Externalizing the ethics that characterize fundamentalist hermeneutics would result in actions that would quickly degenerate into immoral, or even criminal, actions.
Is the surgeon who is removing bodily tissue, or a limb, performing a sculptural act? What about a torturer carrying out the exact same action, but with opposite intentions?
Can one justify the removal (i.e. appropriation) of a piece of land as a sculptural act? Or perhaps the removal of civil rights, or even identity?
If taken literally, Michelangelo’s quote remains valid.
A primitive form of capital punishment, still performed in some countries, dictates that the perpetrator of a specific crime must be executed by means of stoning carried out by a mob.
The biblical myth of David and Goliath narrates how a young shepherd defeated a giant using a slingshot and stones.
Lithobolia was an ancient Greek annual festival that commemorated the stoning to death of two foreign virgin goddesses, Damia and Auxesia. They represent the foreigner, the passer-by who often plays a role in the harvest festivals; the lapidation is a sacrificial rite.
Once a year, Muslims from all over the world gather in Mina, a city east of Mecca. They engage in a ritual of throwing pebbles at stone pillars, thus re-enacting Abraham’s defiance of the Devil’s temptation.
During violent civilian demonstration and asymmetric warfare, the unarmed population often resorts to throwing stones at authorities as a protest.
Rock formations of various dimensions travel at high speeds in outer space.
When a planet gets in their trajectory, they enter its atmosphere, effectively “stoning” its surface. Impact craters are scars that testify to the violent impact.
(A similar impact happens at a much smaller scale at the LHC, where subatomic parts are thrown against each other at extreme velocities. The destruction of the original parts is a procedure that enables to study the debris of the violent collision).
The list is not comprehensive and further research can contribute to it.
Leaving aside the symbolic meanings that can be associated to the actions and agents mentioned above. The described processes involve the same means, the throwing of stones, to achieve similar ends – the damaging or destruction of a body, both in its literal and figurative form.
While the motif of the ends might vary, the violent act of slinging an object onto another is the common denominator to both destructive and positivist ends.
And stone the common tool.
Moral judgement will determine the justification or legitimacy of the violence.
In sculpture, a mainstream concept is that the figure is contained within the stone.
What a sculptor must do is remove the excess material to free the figure from its imprisonment.
The truth is that there is an infinity of figures contained within the stone. What a sculptor must truly do is choose the one that he wants to set free. Or rather, negate the others their right to existence.
Sculpture’s generative process is characterized by denial and destruction.
The figure emerging from the stone does so at the cost of the others. It’s a struggle that is driven by the desire of birth.
The spermatozoic race to the egg.
In holy cities, temples and shrines the opposite takes place. There, people physically interact with the sacred stones – they touch, embrace, kiss, and press themselves against them as if they desire to become one with them.
The figure is not waiting to be freed from the stone but actively wants to become part of it.
On a larger scale, the cities, temples and shrines, with their strong protective walls resemble the egg, attracting millions of people driven by the desire to penetrate it.
A return to the womb.
Death is the goal of life.
And stones are where many beliefs begin and end.
Stones embody the history of religions.
Religions tell stories of stones, sanctified by the touch of venerable people. Prophets or Saints. Their contact leaving a mark on a stone’s surface. Most commonly in the shape of their hand, foot or fingerprint. The impressions testify to the miraculous interaction and give the stones a sacred status.
Other stones are sacred because of their symbolic function within a religion:
The Wailing Wall, the Anointment Stone, the Foundation Rock.
Precious shrines, impressive temples, and holy cities are built around these stones. Pilgrims from all over the world travel to these destinations to see and interact with their sacred stones.
The stones are touched, kissed, prayed to, and wept upon. Oils are poured on, and objects are rubbed against them. Touching them is the recommended liturgical behaviour — it is direct contact with divinity.
The stones’ sacredness grows in proportion with the number of people that interact with them, while an endless flow of caressing hands slowly erodes their surface.
Many sculptures have been deformed by this practice.
But what is more important, the mere materiality of an artefact or the tribute to the faith that it has come to represent?
These stones are sacred.
Art history tells the story of people and their culture, represented through their artwork.
Some artworks reached a status of secular sacredness.
The Venus of Willendorf, Michelangelo’s David, Duchamp’s Fountain.
Museums are shrines, and its pilgrims are visitors that travel long distances and stand in line for hours to admire the idolized masterpieces.
But here, the works’ sacred status demands the opposite behaviour. The endeavour to protect and to preserve them for eternity forbids all direct contact.
Visitors can engage with the artwork merely with their eyes.
To look is the only allowed behaviour.
People’s attraction to the artworks grows because the artefacts are untouchable.
The objects gain in sacredness.
But what is more important—the tactile connection with a sacred object, with the risk of damaging it forever, or the conservation of an invaluable work that will eternally testify to humanity’s cultural heritage?
These artworks are sacred.
Please don’t touch.
Rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock.
Repeat ad libitum.
An endless game of recurring violence in an effort to avoid greater violence.
The violence here is aimed at the enemy’s weapon.
In the hands of man, any object can become a weapon.
It needs to be destroyed to avoid an escalation of violence and the consequent mutual collapse of both parties. Once disarmed, the enemy becomes impotent.
A winner is proclaimed, the argument is settled, and the losing party must abide by the winner’s demand or to a previously agreed upon condition.
It is a game of arming oneself with a weapon more powerful than the opponent.
The nuclear arms race
The game is an example of how social relations and international politics work. The party with a more powerful instrument of violence will be the undisputed winner, without the necessity of bloodshed.
In the words of Friedrich Engels: “The triumph of force is based on the production of arms, and this in turn on production in general – therefore on ‘economic power’… on the material means which force has a its disposal.”
But there will be always be a third party with stronger arms.
Sooner or later all three parties will face destruction, unless two are willing to create an alliance and join forces to disempower the third party.
When the third party is out of the game one of the two remaining forces will always have the upper hand over the other. A new alliance will be formed between the previously defeated party and the weaker ally.
Rock and scissors against paper.
Paper and rock against scissors.
Scissors and paper against rock.
He loved his country of origin so much that he wanted a piece of it.
The desire to possess is also one of destruction.
He might have heard that “Sculpture is that which is done by means of removal”. Perhaps he thought the same sentiment can apply to the removal of sculptures from private collections, churches and museums to display them in his own museum. The interpretation is remarkable. It makes one reflect on the contextual meaning of “removal”.
Surely Napoleon had good intentions.
He took the advice literally. Maybe he had artistic ambitions and wanted to become a sculptor.
He demonstrated a profound understanding of sculptural principles. He decided to display the looted bounty so that it could be observed from all angles. One of the most historically revered sculptors and a contemporary of Napoleon, who made a few flattering portraits of his compatriot, seems not to have understood this lesson as well as the Emperor.
He surely knew that sculpture is “that which is done by means of removal”. Hardly anyone had sculped in a more subtle and sophisticated way than him. His marble sculptures made viewers believe whatever reality he chose to carve. Canova was a magician that turned the hardest matter into the softest skin, the purest silk, or the most weightless wings.
But in doing so, he took away from the stone’s main characteristics – its hardness, weight, and gravitas.
After surveying the repatriation of the Napoleonic loot, Canova deprived these sculptures of their three-dimensionality by placing them next to one another, on a shelf. They still stand there today, stiffly looking into the emptiness ahead of them.
Perhaps this display was intentional and a retaliation against Napoleon. Degrading the sculptures from the honourable rank the French General had granted them.
He reserved this luxury only to the statue that he made in his honour.
Naples’s lion. City of ancestors. Arguably Italy’s most violent city, where the credo of ‘removal’ is practiced with an unprecedented creativity.
Upon entering the studio, one is overwhelmed by the quantity of tiny sculptures present. A closer look at the replicas reveals their true nature: cut-outs from flashy catalogues, displayed as trompe-l’oeils to deceive the eye. They’re in fact just silhouettes.
Unwilling to follow Napoleon in his looting practice, contempt is found in the removal of photographic reproductions from fancy magazines. A small portable private collection.
One is often overwhelmed by the impossibility to grasp sculpture in its totality. Sculpture confronts us with the limits of our perception, set to see only what is presented before us. As a result, it deprives the work from its three-dimensionality. Our eyes reduce a sculpture to a silhouette. Clear cut propaganda. No ambiguities.
What Rodin took from his trip to Italy was the understanding that a sculpture is comprised of many, if not endless profiles, all working harmoniously to convey an intended concept. But we are still granted only one at a time.
Due to its nature and challenged by the impotence to fully grasp one’s subject, the painterly representation of reality comes to term with this handicap, while the painter engages in a schizophrenic imitative practice that functions as a cathartic process to exorcise the unsatisfiable desire to possess the object of one’s obsession.
Painting becomes a ritual that results in the offering of the true image.
Iconoclasm as a declaration of love.
The reproduced (produced again) subject, is highlighted with a luminescent violence that destroys/removes the identity of the portrayed. A phantasmagorical transcription.
A sacrifice of detail and a re-presentation of a new state of ambiguity.
Ancient faces fade into a blinding white light and become hypnotic suns.
Napoleon once boldly stated that all Italians are thieves. Canova, present at the occasion, immediately re-established order replying that this is not true of all Italians, but ‘Buonaparte’ (a good deal).
It remains to clarify whether the ‘art of removal’, so well-practiced by the three, is to be considered a sculptural practice or a crime.
Copyright © 2019 Athar Jaber