The Nature of Desire
From modernism to alter-modernism
By Kristin McIver
Nature in the 21st century is no longer real. The industrial revolution of the previous century significantly changed the world around us, with man-made “improvements” giving rise to a global nature that is more artificial than the real world. Nature is no longer something given, but something made. Artifice has become our reality, and elements of this “improved” nature have become the object of our collective desires.
Human desire is a fundamental urge which used to be directly related to our species’ will to survive - desire for food, water, shelter, security and reproduction. These days we enjoy an increased standard of living. However despite the fact that our immediate needs are more or less constantly satiated, the urge of desire remains. The object of our desire has simply shifted, creating a world of perpetual consumption. This in turn has fuelled the production of artifice.
From the genetic hybrids on our dinner plates; the constructed fantasies of our global cities; the digital windows to our world; the airbrushed photographs of our aspirations; to the varied personas we portray through our attire, the artificial has replaced the real. The natural world is no longer enough.
Humans wish to control our environment, to remove the fear that we are at the mercy of nature and death. This desire has driven humankind to change our world from a natural environment of which we are a biotic factor, into a “machine for living”1, of which we are both creator and controller.
But how far can we push nature in our desire for a better world?
Revisiting the key formative stages of modern day desire may shed light on the uncertain world of our future.
MODERNISM – TRUTH IN NATURE
A desire for truth, purity and transparency in response to the machine age.
The late 19th and early 20th century marked the start of a social revolution, coined the Modern Period. This cultural shift was due in part to enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the consequences of two world wars.
In response to a world undergoing immense change, artists sought to strip back the layers of artifice of recent history to reveal truth in the nature of the world around them. The modernist desire was simple – a return to order, stability, truth and clarity.
The architecture of the time reflected this ideology. As demonstrated in Mies Van Der Rohe’s buildings, modernist architecture sought to remove all decoration or artifice, paring the structures down to their essential elements - walls to divide and protect, windows to provide transparency to the outside world, and spaces to work, eat, bathe and relax.
These elements are present only as required and no more. Every form serves a clear functional purpose, and resists decoration. These modernist structures represent an ideal for living and working, based on the 20th century desire for order and truth.
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis
Likewise, modernist art sought to dispense with artifice to reveal truth in nature and its materials. According to Sandra Bocola, “the material became the message.”2 Through its non-representation, its geometry, its mathematics and materiality, art became nature, and nature became art.
In Vir Heroicus Sublimis, translated as “Man, Heroic and Sublime”, Barnett Newman rejected the artifice of representational western painting, what he termed “the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth.” This work is an overt rejection of previous artistic depictions of religion, aristocracy and war propaganda.
Newman’s painting instead presents the viewer with form, composition, colour, and material – the essential functional elements of a painting.
The largest painting produced at the time, the scale of Vir Heroicus Sublimis overwhelms the viewer, monumentalising its formal and material characteristics. The compositional placement of the vertical lines within the work utilise mathematical principles of the Golden Ratio to divide the field with vertical lines in an aesthetically harmonious way.
Saturated reds and a vibrant interplay between contrasting colours bring the work to life as the eyes constantly adjust to the spectral contrast. While on closer inspection the layering and texture of the paint draws us into the artist’s perspective, revealing the truth behind its construction.
The use of this “ideal” geometry and considered materiality creates visual harmony. In this way the work becomes closer to nature, closer to what Newman refers to in the title as the sublime. Nature becomes the work, and nature becomes an ideal.
The only representation within the work is the modernist desire for truth and purity in nature.
Jackson Pollock, Convergence
Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, produced shortly after the war, reveals the same desire for truth and purity in nature.
Pollock’s works are about paint. They too reject artificial representation in favour of materiality. Further to this, Pollock’s action paintings are about autonomy – the surrealist ideology linking the subconscious internal with the physical external.
His breakthrough methodology used subconscious control over the body. Pollock became part of the painting; preferring to work without a plan and allowing the work evolve naturally. The artist was merely a transponder, dripping paint onto the canvas in an apparently autonomous fashion according to nature’s plan.
The resulting works are huge canvases covered in intertwined splashes and explosions of colour, which appear to have been created in a state of sublime ecstasy. The resulting works embody nature and physiology, and the desire for their convergence.
In the creation of these works, the artist was at one with nature.
Donald Judd, Untitled
Donald Judd’s artworks focus on the objectification and de-psychologising of form. Like the work of Newman and Pollock, Judd’s minimalist sculptures also attempt to represent purity in their use of materials and methods.
Judd sought to distance his work from other forms of abstraction such as European Constructivism, explaining “those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values and feelings of the European tradition.”2 His minimal sculptures render a certainty that is beyond doubt or cultural misinterpretation. Judd’s objects are an exercise in materiality.
His steel and plexiglass cubes sculptures such as Untitled achieve complete non-representation through their repetition. By eliminating any counter-relativity, each object within the works carries no cultural or historical absolutes – no one element within the work is more or less important than another. Each object, and the space around it, is equal.
Through his complete objectification, Judd created artworks that are at once an embrace of the machine age in their construction, and a mockery of the modern world in their depersonalisation.
Judd’s work represents the ultimate desire for truth – faith in reality, faith in nature and faith in its materials. This concept was at odds with what was becoming an increasingly modern and artificial world. As Sandra Bocola stated, “minimalist art represents the ideology that has taken the abandoned place of the ideal.”2 Judd’s sculptures are idealised structures which monumentalise nature.
The potential of the modern world of the time was likewise becoming more desirable than the real world itself. Modernism was fated to ideology, as even when depicting truth in nature, an artist cannot avoid depicting an ideal.
POST-MODERNISM – THE END OF NATURE
A rejection of the “absolute” laws of nature, politics, science, ethics and religion in response to the media age.
As the world advanced at great speed through the 20th century, the collective consciousness shifted. The cultural movement unfolding from 1970 onwards became known as the
post-modern period. Key movements such as feminism, the green movement and the media revolution, began a departure in consciousness away from the rigid ideology of modernism.
Consumer products, fashion, entertainment and advertising began to shape our perception of reality, and this dream factory became a prototype for the capitalist economy. Through their consumer choices, consumers were able to buy into a fantasy world that was seemingly better than that which could be provided by nature.
Post-modern artists constructed their own fantasies in response to the artificial world unfolding around them. They rejected the absolute laws of nature, producing works that presented many truths. In summation of the post-modern movement, Jeffrey Deitch commented “it may be that the end of Modernism not only coincides with the end of nature, but with the end of truth.”3
1970s architecture evolved from mere utility, to what Aldo Rossi described as “architecture of metaphor, covering content with fantasy”2. Playground cities such Las Vegas began to overtly indulge in artifice. One could visit Las Vegas and subsequently experience New York, Paris, Venice, and ancient Egypt – all within a short stroll.
The “post-tourist” began to desire this artificiality, as it allowed them to experience different cultures without being exposed to the unpleasant realities of the real urban landscape. Why put up with the real world, when one can impose their desires onto the natural world?
Walter De Maria, Lightning Field
Minimalist, environmental and conceptual artist, Walter De Maria created some of the most significant conceptual artworks of the early post-modern period. Lightning Field is an environmental sculpture arranged on a remote plain in New Mexico. Spaced 65m apart, De Maria’s lightning rods are the only man-made objects visible within a vast natural arena. The resulting work is a poignant interplay between man and nature, nature and artifice.
De Maria’s man-made objects appear to be in harmony with the earth. But is this new environment natural, or artificial? De Maria urged his viewers to contemplate this question by spending 24 hours immersed in his artificial environment, while acknowledging its natural surrounds.
When viewed on a sunny day, the sheer scale of the work prompts its viewer to consider humankind’s interaction with nature. Lightning Field makes the viewer aware of the scarcity of a natural environment untouched by the human element.
In the event of a lightning storm, the work takes on another level of spectacle, becoming a conductor that attracts the lightning bolts and further emphasises human intervention with nature. Lightning Field is a bold statement on humankind’s triumph over nature.
De Mariautilised the power of scale and spectacle to highlight an important human duality – our fragility in the face of nature, versus our desire to control nature. Our inability to submit to the former has resulted in the creation of a post-natural nature.
Walter De Maria, Earth Room
Similarly, De Maria’s Earth Room is an installation in a room of a New York apartment building, entirely filled with rich brown earth. Viewing the work is a sensory experience of sight and smell, which urge the viewer to ponder the artificiality of the environment in which we live.
De Maria’s Earth Room began as an artwork, but has become a place. In a modern world where much of the natural earth is covered, Earth Room becomes a monument to earth, to nature itself.
Following the machine age, The City became the life force of a nation, and nature became a place one visited on the weekends. De Maria proposed that humankind, through our desire to control nature, has lost touch with the natural world altogether.
Earth Room encourages the viewer to question the nature of nature in the modern world. And to question the nature of the desire which fuels this artificiality.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #14
As mass media permeated contemporary culture, it became increasingly difficult to discern reality from fiction. The media age taught us that there was not one truth, but that there could be many truths. Film and television began to blur the lines between reality and fiction.
Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills is a series of photographs depicting female characters in a fictional 1950’s black and white film. Sherman’s works present the illusion that they are reconstructions of film stills from an unidentified film. The irony is that there is no original film to begin with. Sherman’s photographs are a representation of fiction, an artificial copy without an original. Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills challenge the notion of film and how this affects our perception of reality versus fiction.
Untitled Film Stills highlight the way in which the media create fictional stereotypes to which the world aspires. Sherman’s use of female stereotypes is a feminist dialogue exposing the objectification of females in the media. These very stereotypes have become the ideals to which women aspire, shaping ideals of “real” femininity.
Through Untitled Film Stills, Sherman demonstrated that film and television don’t just mimic life; they create an ideal for life whose basis lies in a fictional realm. She asked her viewers to question whether art imitates life or life imitates art.
The persistent simultaneity of news, entertainment, sport, documentary and advertising caused a blurring between fiction and fact, reality and nature. It served to decrease the importance of news events in favour of fictional entertainment.
This gave further wind to the already burgeoning consumer society. Through the media, corporate profiteers had the means to create stereotypes, and then convince consumers to aspire to these fictional ideals – perpetuating the capitalist web of desire.
Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson & Bubbles
Towards the latter part of the 20th century, these ideals became so entrenched that mass culture virtually replaced religion as the focus of our ideals. Advancements in digital technology and plastic surgery meant that fictional stereotypes could be further enhanced, and humans (referred to increasingly as consumers) had the means to strive toward these artificial ideals.
Jeff Koons’ pristine porcelain sculpture, Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a study in acceptance of these 20th century ideals. The work highlights a middle class affluenza encouraged by unrealistic desires. Michael Jackson is an icon of the 20th century, and a symbol of humankind’s desire for perfection and self-improvement. His countless plastic surgery procedures have rendered him a living, breathing example of post-modernism - the post-human.
In Michael Jackson & Bubbles, Koons referenced the idolisation of pop culture, borrowing from multiple historical periods (renaissance, rococo and souvenir kitsch) to paint Jackson as a saintly figure. Koons suggested that the gospel of Christ has been replaced by the gospel of consumerism. Francis Bonami commented on Koons’ ethos that “the history of nostalgia is healed by the immediacy of desires fulfilled by the Wal-Mart economy.”4
Koons’ optimistic vision of the 21st century creates monumentality out of the banal, celebrating the energy of humankind through celebrity, fashion, and consumption. His recent retrospective held at Palais Versailles, remind us of a time when excess reigned supreme. Koons states that his work, “like Versailles, achieves transcendence”4 through decadence and artificiality.
Both Sherman and Koons highlight the post-human condition of the late 20th century, in which aspirational desire has driven humankind to forge an increasingly artificial reality.
ALTERMODERNISM – AN ALTERNATIVE NATURE
A new modernity of mass communication, technology and cultural hybridisation in response to the global age.
The 21st century heralded the end of post-modernism - according leading critical theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriard in his latest Tate Triennial. The curator proposes that we are in the midst of a new social and cultural consciousness, resulting in art movement that he terms Alter-modern, or “art without borders.” 5
Globalisation, including travel, communication and migration, is affecting the way we live.
Virtual environments are shaping our perception of reality. Social networking devices are replacing our natural social order, connecting us more than ever before, while isolating us physically.
Our crops are almost entirely genetically modified, our clothing is more or less entirely synthetic, and most consumer products have crossed several continents before arriving on our shelves. The recent financial boom has encouraged a new level of decadence and excess. No money, it seems, is enough to satiate our global desires.
The world around us is almost completely artificial. Nature and culture are merged, and the new global perspective has formed an artistic sensibility based on blurred cultural boundaries. Bourriard proposes that artists starting from this globalised state of consciousness are creating a new art which reflects the cultural hybridisation of the 21st century.
Architecture in the 21st century appeals to global ideals. The construction of global cities such as Dubai, which utilise latest digital technology in their planning and construction, are designed to attract the wealthy decadent from around the world. Their organic forms and utopic designs aim to inspire humankind and stimulate the desires of global consumption.
Franz Ackermann, Untitled 1 (Evasion)
Franz Ackermann’s fantasy landscapes depict environments of exotica and the idyll in the 21st century, as seen through travel, urbanisation and globalisation.
Described as psychedelic and apocalyptic, Ackermann’s paintings and installations are visions of globalisation and the commoditisation of landscape. In colourful abstraction they transpose city street maps with the artist’s own impression of real cityscapes.
Ackermann’s intricate and abstract works highlight the global condition of information overload, an overlaying of ideas, and ideals. Never before has the modern world had such abundant access to affordable air travel, mobility through international relocation, and information sources to fuel our desires.
Works such as Untitled (Evasion 1) parody the destructive nature of global tourism – the glamour and exoticism of ideal cities, with the social and environmental destruction left in their wake. His resulting “non-places” are less representation of a specific place than dystopian impression of global confusion and intertwinement.
Ackermann highlights the insatiable human desire for exotica and spectacle in the 21st century that is ultimately devastating for both the natural and cultural environment. We no longer desire simply artificial representation in our environments, as seen in the architecture of post-modernism. The global culture of humankind craves highly fanaticised environments and artificial dreamscapes.
Simon Starling, The Nanjing Particles
Simon Starling’s practice examines the socio-economic implications of globalisation. In his work The Nanjing Particles, Starling comments on the continual global exploitation of labour forces to satiate western capitalist desires.
The Nanjing Particles is a million to 1 scale representation of a silver particle extracted from a photograph of Chinese immigrant factory workers – the only remaining evidence of their time at the factory.
The work, installed at Mass MOCA, references the gallery’s industrial history (the building was the site of the factory in question), and reveals the hidden face of global industry. In his abstract representation of global economies, Starling juxtaposes historical material with contemporary modes of production to create a work which is global in both form and content.
The decadence and excess of late capitalism has resulted in a global class society. “The good life” as experienced in rapidly expanding economies, relies on the exploitation of human labour for its viability. Western consumer products often cross multiple borders in their production life-cycle, as is highlighted by the outsourcing of Starling’s work to a factory in Nanjing, China.
Low paid workers, the unseen human production line for western consumerism, are unable for the most part to participate in the spoils of their labour. In contemporary global economies such as Dubai, workers are imported for manpower then shipped back to their less fortunate origins to make way for the affluent, leaving little trace of their presence.
The Nanjing Particles represents a modern world more complex than it appears. Starling exposes the imposed cultural fingerprints that hide behind our excessive existence. Human desire possesses a dark shadow - the moral implications of our artificial world.
Damien Hirst, For the Love of God
The current global condition is based on a trifecta of ideals – interconnectedness, technology, and consumption. Across the globe, faith is increasingly being replaced by desire. The media and digital age fuel a desiring machine, resulting in a global culture obsessed with material consumption.
Corporate profiteers are expanding their markets into remote corners of the globe, exploiting countries desperately trying to buy into the capitalist dream. The resulting production surge now threatens the very environment upon which we rely for our survival.
Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God has been hailed on the one hand as the greatest work of art ever produced, and on the other “more high class commodity art than avant guard creation”. In this age of commodity fetish, it is no accident that the work represents consumer ideals - Hirst speaks of the global concern with commodity over survival, artificiality over nature, desire over faith, life over death.
Viewers are asked to engage in a private audience with the work, creating an almost sublime, religious experience as humankind comes face to face with their own image in the 21st century – humankind is beyond nature, humankind is even beyond artifice, humankind is desire itself.
Our very DNA is being shaped and manipulated in an attempt to satisfy our narcissistic desires, and to quell our fear of death. For the Love of God stands as a bold resistance of death, the ultimate triumph of man over nature, and a monument to desire.
We have become as a species, insatiable. But if we keep consuming at the current rate, our desire may ultimately be the catalyst for the destruction of nature.
The modern world, which has been shaped by desire, embodies an artificial fantasy that is no longer connected with nature. Our children may never know how “real” nature looks, smells or tastes. Future generations may live the entirety of their lives in a world constructed on fantasy.
However, an entirely artificial world may prove unsustainable, as our natural resources struggle to cope with the demands of consumer obsessed society.
As technology improves, and increased interconnectedness propels our collective knowledge forward, humankind’s instinct for self-preservation may eventually override the urge to consume to the point of destruction.
In 30-40 years from now, what will be the post-global condition? Perhaps humankind will adopt a state of post-desire. Our fundamental human need for survival may necessitate a desire to return to nature.
1. Toward an Architecture / Le Corbusier
Published: Francis Lincoln, London, 2008
2. The Art of Modernism: Art, Culture, and Society from Goya to the Present Day / Sandra Bocola
Published: Prestel, London, 1999
3. Artificial Nature / Jeffrey Deitch
Published: Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, 1990
4. Jeff Koons / Francesco Bonami
Published: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2008
5. Altermodern, Tate Triennial 2009: Review / Richard Dorment
Form Follows Fiction / Jeffrey Deitch
Published: Charta, Milano, 2001
Post Human / Jeffrey Deitch
Published: Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, 1992
Artificial Nature / Jeffrey Deitch
Published: Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, 1990
Toward an Architecture / Le Corbusier
Published: Francis Lincoln, London, 2008
Blubberland / Elizabeth Farrelly
Published: University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia / Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari
Published: Viking Press, New York, 1977
The Art of Modernism: Art, Culture, and Society from Goya to the Present Day / Sandra Bocola
Published: Prestel, London, 1999
The Post Modern Reader / Edited by Charles Jencks
Published: St. Martin' Press, New York, 1992
Post Modernism and the Engendering of Marcel Duchamp / Amelia Jones
Published: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England], 1994
The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism / Charles Green
Published: UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000
Idylle: Traum und Trugschluss / Edited by Oliver Zybook
Published: Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, c2007
Jeff Koons: Versailles / Xavier Barral
Published: Éditions Xavier Barral, Paris, 2008
Jeff Koons / Francesco Bonami
Published: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2008
Altermodern Tate Triennial / Tate Britain
http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/ Viewed 25/04/09
Altermodern Review: The Richest and most generous Tate Triennial yet / Adrian Searle
Altermodern, Tate Triennial 2009: Review / Richard Dorment