From Transformation to Sketches– How an artist participates in a Model of the World
by CHENG Wenchi
I hovered with mine arms, and moved myself, looking still when I should be changed into a bird as Parnphile was ; and behold neither feathers did burgeon out nor appearance of wings, but verily my hair did turn into ruggedness and my tender skin wore tough and hard; my fingers and toes leaving the number of five grew together into hooves, and from the end of my back grew a great tail, and now my face became monstrous and my mouth long and my nostrils wide, my lips hanging down, and mine ears exceedingly increased with bristles. ──Lucius Apuleius，Metamorphoses
In the realm of art, the theme of human transformation has always been subject to a certain degree of attention, and in an era of easily accessible CG technology, combining animal features with the human figure has become increasingly commonplace in mass media such as animation and video games. The Austrian Electronic Art Festival of 2005 featured the “Hybrid” concept, inspired by New York-based artist Daniel Lee’s work, “Source”, with a theme emphasizing a revealing tribute to biotechnology. This follows his 1993 digital photography exhibition “Zodiac” - utilizing an old Macintosh computer – which gained international attention through display at the Harris Gallery in New York. He once again uses the theme of human/animal hybrid to explore and interpret the combined status of technology and art. (note 1) At a certain level, the series directs our collective mythology and public discussion towards “animality”.
If Daniel Lee’s hybrid impression (utilizing existing desire for biotechnology, or symbolically through CG software) combines animal characteristics (faces) with the human body, realizing and rationalizing the driving force behind unconscious desire, we see another type of “feature-swapping” art through Wu Chuanlun’s sculptures in his “You are my nature” series, made through sculpting defective animal toys. Here it must be pointed out that the contrast between the two is not merely in the difference between combinations of “animal face/human body” and “human face/animal body”, but more significantly in “CG artwork” and “hand sculpting”, as well as their different sources - “digital photography” and “defective toys”. Although digital image manipulation and individual transformation are arguably in different realms, it would be a pity to prematurely shut down a chance to open discussion space and collective consciousness – or in Roy Ascott’s words, “hyper cortex” – without deriving meaning from it.
Returning our focus to Wu Chuanlun, as philosopher Richard Rorty proposed in his book “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” (1989), in distinguishing between an artist’s personal creative exploration and works focusing on “human solidarity” in the public domain, we can place Daniel Lee’s works in the latter category. As such, this article will focus on the self-realization of “personal trivialities” as material; namely animal models with human faces (e.g. “You are my nature”) or other visual works of blatantly personal interest allow us to explore “private irony” – creation of art through personal rather than collective experience - even if these works “do not contribute to the public good” (note. 2), they provide us with a new way to look at today’s works, particularly when it comes to understanding artists as young as him.
How are we to understand the role of transformation or sculpting in the works of the “You are my nature” series? Besides the “Chimera” interpretation, which implicitly suggests biological transformation, are they really a “purely subtractive process”, as stated by the artist? Do they reveal a hidden face, or give animals extra human characteristics that did not exist before? (i.e. the two extremes of humans becoming animals, or animals becoming humans) For more insight, let us consider transformation in literature. Roman Poet Ovid derived inspiration from recurring Greek and Roman mythology. We can see that limited transformation is often punitive, such as when a ruler is given the ears of a donkey. Complete transformation often has rather embarrassing motivation and implications. The Taurus myth describes how Zeus coveted Phoenician princess Europa and transformed into a white bull, bearing children with her. More terrifying is the story of the Minotaur: King Minos of Crete incurred the wrath of Poseidon for reneging on a promise, and Poseidon compelled the Queen to fall in love with a sacrificial white bull, convincing her to disguise herself as a female bull to mate with him, giving birth to the Minotaur, a beast with the body of a man and the head of a bull. And in “Metamorphses”, Apuleius wishes to become a bird, but is instead tricked into becoming a ridiculed donkey, perhaps implying that the author intended to obtain birdlike (superhuman) vision, but was instead tragically transformed into livestock.
From the above examples, it is easy to detect the common theme of a “secret, unspeakable sexual relationship”; through illicit peeping, Apuleius learned of the magical ointment that could transform him (despite it being a deception, transforming him into a donkey). Berg also said that “it is through sex that we understand that the one you love is as important as the world”; as such, imagination “compels people to move the world through an act of love.” But “sex” is not merely a physical impulse, it includes expansion of self-consciousness and fusion of “object” base desires in the subconscious. Therefore, this type of transformation is more permeable to the creator’s pen, as creative material or source for projection. In other words, the artist’s task is to try to incorporate “raw materials” yet to be accounted for in the consciousness and process them into text or visual content, and transformation is a key step or “method” in integration. And so, we come to the understanding that the artist intentionally seeks to “let transformation occur naturally” by highlighting the process of model sculpting.
“Model” is a hint from “You are my nature” about “another nature”. It is not nature as we commonly understand it in natural history, but something else entirely. Even if… animal models with their original faces erased by the artist are placed before our eyes, we still would not consider them monsters – on the contrary, we would refer them as their original form.──Wang Power
In an article titled “Two types of nature: Wu Chuanlun <KiSS… and SAVE> Solo Exhibition model issues”, Wang Powei provides a detailed introduction to philosopher Michel Foucault’s observations regarding natural history and display, thus explaining how Wu Chuanlun shows an untraditional perspective through model exhibition, in “Specimen Museum” and “You are my Nature”. According to Wu, this batch of defective animal models is like a transformed model of the world, and it gives us clues as to how the artist reproduces alternative nature.
Historically, especially during the Renaissance period, the purpose of art was to imitate nature. However, when the artist’s definition of nature is equivalent to the original form as shown by models, can this artificially created model - or object used as a “model” - be understood as naturally existing? (note 3) As the definition of “nature” changes, the exhibition seen by viewers of the “Specimen Museum” series features an intertwined combination of classical exhibition display, and digital imagery. The perception gap was erased by various “artificially vintage frames” and “specimen photo scans” created using 3D modeling software.
At the same time, as we compare it with the artificial “debris” series created using 3D material, we can see his thinking about the dialectical relationship between modeling and digital material. In such experimentation, 3D software is not simply a styling tool, but rather something that allows for direct perception of the object (or raw materials). As such, the factor determining the quality of design is the return from the production mold to classic sculpting technique. This exceptional creative thought process provokes the viewer’s criterion of aesthetic value.
What type of (natural) reproduction can be defined as art, and what does this intention reveal about the relationship between man and nature? Perhaps we can contemplate how John Berger discusses the effect of creating a link to nature via drawing. He believes that drawings introduce natural space into man-made space, and this re-introduction, particularly for artists who seek to truthfully depict nature, is the nature that people originally attempted to escape from. Within buildings - a declaration of artificial man-made space to nature – it gains anew a different way of viewing, demonstrating through this type of drawing that culture is turning to nature once more.
Interesting, Wu Chuanlun supposedly based the sketches of his “Domesticated” series based on Google search results for “”bestiality, kissing”. These aluminum framed, internet-derived A4 paper sketches of human and animal figurines kissing allows us to understand what Berger was referring to by “reclaiming nature”. Here, the implications of “Domestication” are twofold. It points to the process in which, through sculpting, the artist tames pixels from the internet, and the “raw materials” become prey in the course of processing. In addition, there is the sense of uneasiness caused by people kissing animals, as these animals are normally living in a state of human domestication. From the Internet, to prey on paper are analogies derived from a technological medium, issues both real and proposed. As such, reproduction no longer represents the conversion from natural to artificial, but involves the dialectic of contemporary reality or digital content.
Carefully scrutinizing the disturbing intimacy between man and beast, and how the action of “sketching” within the space created by an aluminum frame allows us to see that this exists, compelling us to think about the true meaning of nature (including whether or not the kissing subject actually occurred as depicted, and whether or not the visual content created by the medium is objective). When a human and animal combination, originally considered natural (alternatively, something outside the nominal understanding of natural), is a visual theme, what is the “prey”? Perhaps when the viewer uses their (long domesticated) perspective to view people and animals kissing, true alienation is not the original reality of the animal, but a once again transformed view of reality. Although the nature emphasized by artists is not, at a certain level, the world once familiar, the models are actually closer to the state of contemporary ambiguous objects, so that these models composed of prefabricated objects and materials is no longer something we are accustomed to.
Finally, let us recall the aforementioned “When myths begin to think”, a book enshrining postmodern aesthetics, arguing that if we reconstruct a model of the world, abandoning or rewriting text is an inevitable trend from here on out. If this is the case, then perhaps we can consider “prehistory” (mythology) creation, and what the same generation of artists are working on – in other words, of course Wu Chuanlun’s creative method in <KiSS… and SAVE> (2012) utilizes a model of the world distinct from mere misuse, but we should also pay attention to the effect of rewriting public/private text, and what intention this entails (note 4).
Through classical aesthetic techniques such as sketching and transformation via elimination, Wu Chuanlun participates anew in world creation, ensuring that this “world no longer unique (source)” remains valid. Perhaps this is also the difference in level between him and artists who misappropriate old world (material); after all, only creative force from the spirit can redeem self image from the unstopping materialization world model, and it is what we need to combat the continuous institutional domestication of art!
1.Chen Minghui <Beyond the boundaries of humanity and animality>，<Artist Magazine No.432>
2. Public/private viewpoint usage based on Fukushima Ryouta’s book <When myths begin to think>; he argues that , the contemporary invention of the new field of information collection is equivalent to the existence of public domain. The practice of turning actual phenomena into language (private domain) is more suitable from the perspective of aesthetics or irony.
3.“This batch of defective toys came from Mainland factories, rejected due to shoddy coating, or warping resulting in inability to stand. I consider these to be unpolished marble, and reveal the face beneath, using eyes as coordinates – it is entirely a process of subtraction… you are neither man nor beast, but you could be my nature.” This is the artist statement for “You are my nature”. This simply refers to the definition of nature in aesthetics, not even including the effect of biotechnology , computing, or other fields.
4.Besides Zhuang Peixin’s recent misappropriation of the “Star Trek” series in recycling parallel connected stories, there is also private writing of prehistory as seen in Jiang Zhonglun <2024 Future Show>, useful for contemplating their mythical meaning. It should be emphasized that although this article focuses on “originality and purpose”, the reader must pay attention to the fact that like unnatural modeling and creation, rewriting of future history will also be an important aesthete.