Fuzzy Limits

A Personal Consideration on Art and—its—Limits

To present “Fuzzy Limits” by Lilian Lykiardopoulou‘s at the Stillpoint exhibition I would like to offer some free-floating thoughts on (contemporary) art and limits.

Art has always conferred—or returned—to reality a number of additional dimensions transforming and enriching daily life, consciousness, and what is usually taken for granted. Art conditions our language, perception, and aesthetics and, by working with imagination, it modifies, questions and expands their limits. Traditionally, classical art has had an educational function, while with postmodernity it has taken—and has often been substituted by—further valences, sometimes radical, sometimes playful, sometimes shocking ones. Divertissement or metaphoric call to arms, by capturing the spirit of the time, art expresses it and also acts as a forecasting agent.

In the nineteenth century, artistic avant-gardes have interpreted and prosecuted Nietzsche’s announcement that there are no facts, only interpretations. They participated to cultural and social transformations showing the astonishing strength of imagination. While Freud in his essay on the uncanny of 1919 (1) pointed out that what is fearful, frightening, essentially derives not from the unknown, but from what appears to us known and familiar, several artists experimented in the deconstructing and decontextualizing the human figure, as well as simple, familiar objects. Duchamp’s urinal (1917) for example, and his pipe that is not a pipe, proclaimed the absurdity of all pre-established meanings. In a playful and also revolutionary manner, his message subverted the perception of the world, and therefore, of the subject itself.

However art does not escapes from history; art itself historicizes, and therefore is constantly forced to find new ways to keep the explosive power alive in its coeval time. Not an easy task, indeed, today, in an era pervaded by a variety of stimuli and transformations which one could not have imagined few decades ago. Nowadays, art has become a very bizarre and extremely broad definition that includes—so to say—Michelangelo, Modigliani, Picasso, Warhol and Manzoni, an Italian artist famous for his ninety 30 mg cans titled “Artist’s Shit”. Well, Piero Manzoni intended to reflect—in 1961—on modern capitalism and consumerism through a work that still contains a mystery (perhaps even more obscure than any possible psychoanalytic interpretation): what is really the content of the small tins? So far no one has dared to open one, mainly because it would lose its value (last year at an auction in Milan, one of them was sold for 275,000 Euros).

If, as Joseph Beyus said (yet demonstrating the opposite), everyone is an artist, and if art increasingly seems to be called to shock and surpass all limits, breaking all taboos, then one may wonder: to what end? And to who’s advantage? Is this art’s destination or could it be found elsewhere instead?

Art can lead people to reflect on social and political issues, but there are a number of ways in which it can do so. In 2012-2013 the Venetian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited in the Warsaw ghetto a work called “Him.” It is a statue portraying Hitler kneeling in a praying position. It has been said that this work, located where hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred during the Nazi era, should invite to reflect upon on the nature of evil. Even the pictures of the South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi (some of which showed in Zurich a few years ago) (2) are shocking: they portray homosexual women who have been victims of so-called “corrective rapes” (a vile act still often perpetrated to bring lesbian women back to an alleged heterosexual normality).

Both these artistic expressions want to make us reflect on the nature of evil. However, it is my impression that they show a marked difference in the core of their reflection – something that is not to be understood in quantitative terms, but qualitatives ones. In fact, the call for awareness through Muholi’s dramatic narrative of real and current dehumanizing facts committed in the name of the ruling gender has a different nature than the pseudometaphysical triviality of a highly outrageous coup de théâtre sold for 15 million euro.

This amount reminds us that art is fantasy, imagination, and—increasingly—market. And in the neoliberal era, where the market reigns supreme, even art does not elude it; on the contrary, it often places itself at its service. Inevitably, art does not only produce a message, but also objects: it becomes an object among objects, goods. This means that art fully enters into the economic system that it wants to (or it says it wants to) subvert. And it can reach a point where it often confuses itself with a brand (3) and turns into an advertisement—something that, in its nature, is opposed to whatever art is supposed to be. Furthermore, when the artist as a well-payed star becomes a sort of pagan deity, (s)he  – instead of the medium—becomes ‘the message’.

Objects sometimes, with their simple permanence and unrelatedness to biological cycles, remind us of our finitude of human beings. In front of limits man is usually (and dramatically) challenged when (s)he is confronted with those few but crucial – C.G. Jung would say archetypical—phases of ‘natural’ existence: indeed, analog and not digital stages, marked by birth, transformation, death. These could remind us, as Seneca wrote to Lucilius, that life is dying every day (4)—in other terms, that each additional day is a day less. Thus only when art combines imagination, which seems limitless, with the intrinsic limit of life through a meaningful narration, it can help us to reach a tertium that may arise.

In our digital time, the limits (of objects and subjects) have expanded, virtualized, and, apparently, they have evaporated. We live in a transformed, amplified, and interconnected space-time that affects our own anthropological perception. Borrowing a definition by David Brooks (5), one of the most brilliant thinkers of recent times, namely Byung-Chul Han—professor at the Universität der Künste in Berlin—argues that a 100 years after Dadaism we have entered the era of “Data-ism” (6): through a flood of data, figures and diagrams, we try to make sense of things, and even to grasp the meaning of what, with an obsolete and unscientific term, has been called “psyche” or “soul”. This, as psychotherapists well know, is not quantifiable. For Byung-Chul Han we have entered a ‘second Enlightenment’ according to which everything has to be quantified and transformed in information: that is, the new totalitarian faith of the digital age as a whole, whose keyword is transparency and whose longing is a “quantified self”. Monetarized and commercialized, the big data actually are a huge business, and sometimes create, as said by Han, new ‘classes’ in the ‘digital society’: people who have a low economic coefficient are considered—by some big data companies – as “waste”.

However the self is not quantifiable and can never become totally transparent and completely understandable. Data are additives and not narratives. Meaning, however, is based on narration. Differently from the accumulation of data, human identity constitutes itself as a specific, unique narration within an individual and, at the same time, collective temporality – and (human) memory needs to forget too.

On the contrary, today’s illusion of an absolute knowledge through a never-ending flow of information is an expression of a power that is stronger than the power that uses force and violence: according to Han the more silently it acts, the stronger is its ability to enslave individuals. Intelligent power that molds itself on the psyche of individuals is more powerful than the repressive power.

Similarly, the art expert (who defines himself as a ‘cultural anthropologist’) Philippe Daverio reminds us that art is a complex matter which is the opposite of banality, and trash.

“In one year we see a quantity of images equal to those which humanity has experienced since the times of Julius Caesar until the First World War. Do we want more? Enough! Some sort of ecosystem of the image has to be restored. We are full of images, full of sounds, full of noises. We live in a kaleidoscope needed by power in order to keep us in confused and infantile state of mind” (7).

It is not easy to find new ways to recover the bite of artistic expressions alien and superior to the current, very fashionable mannerism of the continuous scandal. Artists like—for instance—Ai Weiwei or Banksy, despite having become ‘stars’, try to look for new dynamics—a big challenge—to counter the neo-liberal power that flattens and absorbs with its consumerist logic. Maybe only narratives of sense, not shouted out or flaunted around could help us to recover the active original vocation of art, and counteract the currently powerful ‘colonization of the unconscious’ (recently mentioned by Evangelos at the opening of Stillpoint London). Being vigilant with respect to these current trends, should be crucial for any artist, and maybe it can also be done lightly, and in a playful way.

At a first glance, Lilian Lykiardopoulou’s works express simplicity in their use of materials, the choice of few colors, and the essentiality of the issues. Often they seem to just hint, thus leaving space for imagination. They pose, under a different light, textural aspects of everyday life. They are, so to speak, predigitalized, almost organic surfaces, which seem to contain suggestions from the animal world (and animals are a recurring motif in her artistic journey). It seems to me that Lilian’s works contain a constant element of joyfulness and playfulness: it is through this filmy glance that they try to transform our common perception of reality ant its limits, recalling further, perhaps unsettling aspects beyond normality (and superficiality) of things and of the relationships we have with them.


[My thanks to Donatella Buonassisi for her insightful and inspiring review of the text].

(1)  Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny [Das Unheimliche], The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and transl. by J. Strachey in collaboration with A. Freud, A. Strachey, and A. Tyson, in 24 vols., Vol. XVII, The Hogart Press, London, 1957, 219-256.

(2)  http://www.0010.ch/ausstellungen/2013/108. See also: http://zanelemuholi.com/; https://inkanyiso.org/.

(3)  Cfr. Jakob Lusensky, Brandpsycho. Four essays on de:branding, The Zurich Lab[oratory], 2015.  

(4)  Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Vol. I of Seneca in Ten Volumes, transl. by R.M. Gummere, Harvard U.P., Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967, Epistula XXIV, paras. 19-20, 177.

(5)  David Brooks, The Philosophy of Data, New York Times, 4.2.2013; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/opinion/brooks-the-philosophy-of-data.html.

(6)  Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2014.

(7)  My translation; orig.: “Noi vediamo in un anno una quantità di immagini che è pari a quella che ha vissuto l’umanità dall’epoca di Giulio Cesare fino alla prima guerra mondiale. Ne vogliamo mettere delle altre ancora? Basta! C’è una sorta di ecosistema dell’immagine che va ristabilito. Siamo pieni di immagini, pieni di suoni, pieni di rumori. Viviamo in un caleidoscopio che è voluto dal potere per tenerci rimbambiti” From the speech: Oltre i limiti dell’arte: le sfide della contemporaneità, Cortile Palazzo Carignano, Torino, 24.7.2012; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7I9wVJ_fxg.


Giovanni Sorge

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