“Life has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you give. In that way, you see, there is a possibility of creating a community.”
Poised to drive fervent enthusiasm, if not new high in record price, once again at Christie’s sale this week in New York, the new “sculpture” of digital artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, is what is termed a “phygital” (a new word I recently learned among many others …) artwork which consists of both physical and digital elements in its presentation. In a slowly rotating metal-framed column with LED screens on all four sides, the work, titled Human One, features in the round a fashionable astronaut striding infinitely with a nonchalant cadence through a dreamily bleak landscape populated with large-scale historical and pop cultural icons. Progressing aimlessly with his head down day and night, the astronaut carries a kind of “seen it all” attitude, seemingly indifferent to the pile of Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, Pikachu or Dali’s melting clock that are scattered around the changing landscape. His gesture clearly speaks to the ephemerality of the fleeting modern culture, but what is less obvious is how this astronaut, intentionally or not, also walks right into the core of the centuries-old discussion of sculpture as an art form and its representation of human existence.
Since the focus of my MA research was on the postwar development of sculptural practice, I naturally find myself wondering the future of the medium on one hand, and the relevance of my research on the other (damn, did I spend a year studying something that is turning obsolete?), as digital and NFT art have suddenly taken over the art world in the last two years. While sculptures have never ceased to redefine themselves since Duchamp’s Fountain, they insistently remain in the physical dimension interacting with us in real space and time, unlike paintings which possess the ability to transport viewers beyond their very flatness into another realm even before the emergence of the digital world.
That is, until now. We have finally reached the right moment to ask if sculptures are necessarily tangible. If not, how do we understand sculpture in a virtual world? What else do we look at in a sculpture when the only material is computer code and that it does not even share the same space with us? Just as I was beginning to convince myself that all these hardly matter anymore, Beeple put his digital work in a physical box which is then marketed as a “kinetic video sculpture”; my first reaction was: why not describe it as “a video work that comes with a four-sided LED display box”? Or, to use today’s vocabulary, “a phygital NFT work”? It seems to me that, by calling it a kinetic sculpture, much emphasis is placed on its physicality. Is it simply a market-driven decision (think the recent offer of FEWOCiOUS‘s life size sculpture and video NFT at Sotheby’s)? The art historian side of me is trying to convince me that there is more to it by reminding me of Nam June Paik’s video sculptures, which the pioneer of video art began exploring from the late 1960s. Though one may argue that, while the physical forms of Nam’s video sculptures play an equally important part in their artistic expressions as his videos, the display box of Beeple’s Human One is but an accessory for art appreciation like The Frame recently introduced by Samsung. In other words, it is not integral to the work. Before we jump to this conclusion, let’s take a step back and consider the conventional way of sculpture display using plinths/pedestals. These are institutional inventions that frame a piece of sculpture to isolate it from its environment and elevate it to the height of gallery goers for optimal viewing experience. From Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Michelangelo’s David of the Renaissance to the modern abstract sculptures of Brancusi and the world renowned contemporary art commission program for the Forth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, this high culture have been so deep-rooted in sculptural practice that a plinth is naturally considered as part of a work, so much so that the Minimalists felt the need to confront it in order to upend the art system; the most telling examples are Carl Andre’s floor sculptures, which are like metal rugs that encourage viewers to step on.
If the plinth is a sign of the institutionalization and elitist culture of the art world, reflecting our anthropocentric behaviors and hierarchical standards, then does Human One not also reflect the way we look at things nowadays? We conceive the world through the screen and watch it spin before our eyes, at times in a detached manner, at times being willingly spun into it. Whether it is the artist’s intention or not, the seemingly unimportant display box sparks interesting discussion on the presentation of digital art as a cultural practice. However, besides its symbolism, a display box is still a display box; a coherent relationship with the subject (the video showing a walking astronaut) needs to be established in order for it to be called a sculpture, a piece of art rather than an object. This is a never ending debate that has haunted art history for more than a century, only this time we are questioning the very physical presence of a work.
Which finally takes us to the astronaut. I would understand the imagery in two separate but interrelated perspectives: on one hand, it is the endless walking of a solidary astronaut that the work depicts; on the other hand, the astronaut is being watched striding through a landscape that the artist can continue to alter in the future. First of all, the walking gesture of the protagonist brings to mind countless notable marching figures that mark critical shifts in not only art but human history at large. Consider the naturalism manifested in the ancient Greek Kouros (around 6th century BCE) that harbingered the Classical period of Greek culture on which the entire Western civilization is based; the powerful stride of the sculpture (1913) of Futurist artist Boccioni that celebrated the rise of machine age and foreshadowed the First World War; Rodin‘s seemingly unfinished walking figure (1877) that, together with the Impressionists who emerged around the same time amid the rapid modernization of Europe, confronted the traditional idealistic standard of the academy and heralded the beginning of modern art; and Giacometti‘s slender and fragile looking figures (1947) that visualize the vulnerable human condition after the Second World War. In different manners these walking figures manifest the existential inquiry of man’s place in the world in various stages of human evolution. Looking at Human One through this lens, Beeple’s walking astronaut strikes a chord with these canonical works in his continuous forward motion, raising question of the direction human is headed in this post-internet, post-pandemic age, where the line between the reality and the virtual world is increasing blurred.
Symbolizing the intriguing way humans constantly invent and reinvent meanings as we progress (What is ideal? What is power? How are wars good or bad? What is progress?), these walking men speak to the myth of society formation which is so aptly encapsulated by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre quoted above. In case you are still struggling to understand the digital community and the recent craze of the NFT art market, Sartre tells you that it is just another cycle of our evolving belief system. Although the astronaut in Human One is different from the sculptures mentioned above in his actual display of movement as opposed to a suggestion of such, all of them are similarly confined in the space generated by the artists and the social space defined by our common values, their unchanging pace juxtaposing with the ever changing reality. Observing the astronaut through the LED screen spinning slowly in front of us, we get a stronger sense that he is walking on the same spot in real space; the only change is the environment, the virtual landscape which is part of our reality now. As much as the ways the ancient Greek, Boccioni, Rodin and Giacometti had brilliantly captured the particular moments of our civilization, Beeple’s Human One witnesses the cusp of history when the space of human activity can be infinitely expanded in another dimension.
I shall leave my skepticism about the artist’s ability to change the visual elements of the work anytime in the future—a feature that is widely extolled by the auction house and media—to the next discussion. I would like to end this article by pointing out the complexity of the interaction between our perception and the digital world that is waiting to be explored further. I have tried to show that the physical presence of Human One gives the work a deeper layer of meaning; the turning column frames the walking astronaut in his perpetual advancement, engaging viewers in the fundamental issues of both sculptural practice and human existence. Physical and digital, they should be more than a concept of tangibility or a direct translation of each other (e.g. turning a sculpture into digital copy and vice versa), there are nuanced relationships in between to be unpacked. So, are sculptures necessarily tangible? I think I would quote Sartre and say that it depends on the meaning we give them. One thing I do know about sculptural practice today is that, we need to consider not only the relationship between the subject and the physical space (both positive and negative) but also between the physical space and virtual space.
Lastly, on a seemingly unrelated note, I bring your attention to Damien Hirst‘s controversial work executed in 1991, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. By suspending a formaldehyde preserved shark in a enormous vitrine, Hirst stages what Sigmund Freud calls an uncanny experience, evoking fear in us with something at once familiar and alien in an unexpected context that tests the boundaries between the real and unreal. When I look at Human One, I get the same uncanny feeling. Just as I have this involuntary anxiety that the shark might break out of the glass and swallow me whole, I cannot help thinking the astronaut, similarly trapped in a “vitrine,” would stop walking at any moment and take off his helmet to reveal himself. While Hirst’s work triggers our latent fear with nature, does Human One instigate a kind of disquietude in you? Should we be worried about our future?