Author: Joseph Nechvatal --- Date: 06/06/96 --- Copyright: ThingReviews NYC

Picabia - 1922
Centre Georges Pompidou
May 8 - June 30

Picabia : portraying subjectivity as mechanical process

What might be another unacknowledged artistic predecessor to pomo academics and the "science fictions" of Baudrillard, Haraway, Debord, Gibson, Ballard and Dick? Answer : Picabia's Spanish Portrait - Machine exhibition from the 1922. You can see it at the Centre Georges Pompidou till June 30th. The Pompidou show is a reconstruction of the exhibition Picabia made at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona in 1922 where he starts asserting that portrait give way to spatialized mechanical concerns by mixing portraits of Spanish women, toreros, and mechanical schematic drawings in a flamboyantly combustible fashion. That such a DaDa concept engages our contemporary fixations today is remarkable. In these works a profound crisis is raised by the interface/dialectic between body and machine. Should belief in the bodies "obsolescence" be theorized as cultural exhaustion or as a refusal of technocratic control because the intractability of the body would no longer be so central an issue? Should the portrait and the machine be intertwined in a complex and ambiguous way where flesh will no longer be the grounds for subjectivity? And does this, plus AIDS, explains much contemporary anxiety over the body?

Picabia, in 1922, addresses how technology infects people. These depictions seem to facilitate an inebriated Spanish subjectivity by constructing a space of accommodation for an intensely passionate existence. If in cyberspace our ontologies are adrift vis-a-vis how personal subjectivity was once understood, Picabia's central idea in these works leads us right up to that slippery elision between mechanical embodiment and subjectivity, between physical embodiment and machine assistance/circumvention, where we teeter today.

By using Spanish Gypsy culture, that of the Bullfight and the Flamenco, Picabia however keeps some soul in the machine, and somehow makes mechanical inebriated subjectivity seem desirable. Picabia's effective use of machine metaphors for the corrida (bullfight) and the psychotechnologies which go along with that head-set's concern for (I hate this term) "the body", give us pause for thought about how we will engage with Virtual Reality technologies when they come charging full-speed from around the corner at us quite soon now. Picabia's Western understanding of space remains primarily frontal however in its metaphoric conception. Enter VR as technology/portraiture that magically promises to dissolve the distance that the Modernist spatially grided vision has erected.

Picabia draws these Spanish portraits while considering the immateriality of the sitter - of people as a fluctuating concept. There is no Debordian spectacular society where all people are advertisements for the status quo portrayed here, as later found in so often in Pop & "Politically Correct" art. Picabia simply traces the tensions between human narratives and the mechanical spectacle. Picabia is the oracle pointing to ambiguous/creative resolutions between the two competing categories of being - just as "science fictions" do through dismemberment of traditional narrative subjectivity. For Picabia, mechanical penetration achieves and performs direct bodily engagement. The subject's existence is enhanced by his/her disappearance into technology-induced cyberspatial realms. The body's dissolution may be empowering. Is Picabia being DaDa disingenuous by resisting firm conclusions and by citing this panoply of postures, variously recommending all these options?

Given the 1920's death, or explanation of, a mythic God, alongside the enduring wish of Western modern thought to trundle exterior reality, why should technology/personhood now appear to take on this particular form in the early 1920s? Might it be that by entering the repetition of the machine the subject is dissolved in the swirls of repeats, but is at the same time further empowered through an extension of motorized possession? Here, then, are the paradoxically simultaneous experiences of death and immortality that are fundamental to religious practice. Having explained God, Picabia creates a new art form and engages each of us as discontinuous human existences, by virtue of a relocation of souls/machine/consciousness to it.

Nice drawings. Great idea!

Joseph Nechvatal

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