What is ‘bare life’ and why is it such a popular subject in art? A meander along some examples produces a broad range of meanings, from a quest to find the essence of existence and social criticism, to a socio-psychological picture of fear.
1. A Touch of Agamben
Since Giorgio Agamben, ‘bare life’ has lost its innocence. If we thought the term stood for life – pur sang, unadorned, unprotected and vulnerable, this Italian philosopher has swathed the concept in a penetrating philosophical discourse that carries you ever farther towards that last grain of nakedness that you sometimes, in an unguarded moment, think you see in yourself.
For Agamben, bare life is not something natural or biological. It is no hippie-like nature at its purest, but the result of a political battle in which a ruling power strips its citizens of all their rights. The concentration camp serves as the model. The residents of this camp live without law and without rights, under the power of the ruler. They can simply be killed. According to Agamben, this situation has become more the rule than the exception. He calls the concentration camp the political paradigm of the modern age.
Some writers in this special edition think that one cannot discuss bare life without referring to Agamben. He is quoted in order to postulate a theory against the use of the term by Roger M. Buergel, the new Documenta chief, who in a brief text declared ‘bare life’ as one of the major leitmotivs of the coming Documenta. Although Agamben’s thinking is very present in Buergel’s text, the Italian philosopher is not ubiquitous. Buergel writes, ‘Bare life has an apocalyptic and clearly political dimension (as torture and concentration camps prove), but also a lyrical and even ecstatic dimension – a freedom to experience new and unexpected possibilities (in human relationships, and also in our relationship to nature, or more generally, to the world we live in). Here and there, art resolves the radical division between painful subjugation and joyful redemption.’ According to Buergel, there is also bare life outside Agamben’s concentration camp. He is not the only one who feels that way.
2. Various Naked
It is May, 2006. At the 4th Berlin Biennial, mankind is central – his life, his failings, his suffering. I quote from the catalogue: ‘In a certain way, it is an exhibition about life, but life reduced to its simplest elements: you are born, you live, and then you die.’ - curator Maurizio Cattelan
Perhaps it was strictly speaking not bare life; but what was shown was so raw that nakedness comes horridly close to home. This was most evident in Spiritual Midwifery Rush (2005), a series of photographs by Corey McCorkle with which the artist presents pictures of the birth of her son, with nothing concealed. It is not so much the obscene nudity of the birth that makes an impression and carries you to what seems to be the core of bare life. What does so is the image of the desolation of the baby, who sees the direct connection to his mother severed, not to mention the father, who seems to show more interest in the production of a work of art.
In Berlin, life was presented as a hard struggle for survival in which a human being can loose every hard-won form of civilization in the blink of an eye, be it through drunkenness (Gillian Wearing), lust (Nathalie Djurberg), or unrestrained aggression (Bruce Nauman). The undertone of the exhibition is one of unremitting loss, as if we are not so much born naked, but die naked, if indeed not already abandoned en route by God and His Commandments. In the catalogue, the curators speak rather depressingly of life as a perpetually postponed ‘tragic ending’.
As if to give those words added strength, at the end of the exhibition, around the corner near the cemetery, we find a representation of a drugs apartment, stinking of vomit, maniacally painted full by Kai Althof and Lutz Braun. It takes very little effort here to form an image of the tragic lives of the inhabitants, addicts beyond all social structure or protection, interminably stalled on the edge of life and death, ecstasy and suffering.
3. Expeditie Robinson
Loss of civilization as the germ of all the nakedness that is now being churned up – you do not have to be named Agamben to recognize a social trend with political potential here. Nonetheless, many refuse to speak out about the art that concerns human existence, whether it is produced by Bruce Nauman (the big-league bare life salesman), Sala Tykkä, in her most recent film, Zoo, or Olaf Breuning in his video, Group, made in 2001 (recently shown at Impakt in Utrecht: men wash up as beasts, cast off the animal in themselves and subsequently bash in each others’ brains). Much of this kind of art is limited to presenting a registration of stripped-down lives, contemptible behaviour, bloody sadism and unbridled aggression in an effort to penetrate deeper into the core of our civilization, if not our whole existence. A thorough reflection is never forthcoming, however, so the parading around of human shortcomings becomes as amusing as it is fatal. This is staring at apes and idiots in artsy variations on Dutch commercial television’s ‘wild life’ programmes, such as Expeditie Robinson and Bobos in the Bush, in which people desperately go in search of that final spark of authenticity that might possibly be discovered in a completely artificial existence (such as the last non-consumptive act in a completely commercialized existence).
Could a craving for authenticity be an explanation for the rising popularity of bare life in art – nakedness and exposure as a precious and rare commodity in a completely artificial existence? It is true that with the individual as a focal point, it is almost self-evident that we step back from the more socially oriented art of the last few years. Social problems fade into the background when the suffering of the subject demands all our attention. Forget the post-structuralist harping about environmental factors (context), forget the fragmented identities that manifest themselves in language. The meaning of life is being sought anew, first and foremost in the flesh. The human individual is once again the body in which civilization and culture seem to have a hard time getting a grip. Artists and curators are smelling blood.
It is a strange sensation: art as the evangelist of the spirit in what has become a totally digitalized existence. You can ask yourself where, at this moment in time, this retro-existentialism wants to lead us. Is there perhaps a compensation being made for something that has received too little attention in recent years? In any case, it raises the question of whether this interest in bare life perhaps has a romantic agenda of its own, arguing for a restoration of old values and rejecting every complication of life outside one’s own existence, or simply denying it? With much of this ‘bare’ art, be it Gillian Wearing’s drunken men, Breuning’s wild beasts or Mühl’s sex addicts, you cannot avoid this conclusion. The work is ironic, cynical and fatalistic in the way it expresses the fact that it is actually very pleasing to know that there is so much of the ape still lurking inside us. It discharges us from an awful lot of inconvenient duties to ourselves, to others and to society as a whole, and this too generates considerable pleasure. Why not profit from lust and cruelty, instead of keeping ourselves under control? What difference does it make? Artists are often the first to deny that there is any morality at all simmering away in their work: all they do is confirm what life is and how it is lived.
4. Witness and Redeemer
Giorgio Agamben has little interest in sketching bare life itself, for it is after all ‘bare’, and therefore by definition unarticulated. For him, bare life is not the product of an existential drama of the kind that art history would have us believe, the kind that belongs to all ages, but the product of an all-powerful political system. It is not the individual who is the subject, but the way in which the citizen is stripped of his rights by the ruling power. Bare life is the product of conscious deeds, not a question of fate.
For art, Agamben sees a different role than stirring up the existential pot and finding juicy ways to inform us about the tragic vacuousness of an unclad existence. He would prefer to see art play the role of witness, reporting on the concentration camp in an attempt to make us more attentive. In this theory, art becomes a kind of inspector of bare life, in line with what we have frequently been seeing at the big exhibitions – consider Alfredo Jaar’s reporting on Ruanda (2001), Zarina Bhimji, who made bloodcurdling films of the torture chambers in Uganda (2002), or Ronald Ophuis, with his scenes from Srebrenica, recently shown in Gouda (2005). In Berlin, Agamben might indeed have been charmed by Kai Althof and Lutz Braun’s drugs apartment, and even more so by Pawel Althamer, who in the context of the exhibition focused on a family whose application for refugee status had failed, who had no permission to stay, no money and nowhere to live as they found themselves wandering the streets in an illegal no man’s land.
For art theorist Boris Groys, this picture of bare life goes way too far. In his essay, Art in the Age of Bio-Politics: From Work of Art to Art Documentary, he points out that by definition, bare life cannot be represented, and therefore not even by the concentration camp. ‘Life in a concentration camp can be reported – it can be documented – but it cannot be presented for view.’ Life in a concentration camp completely surpasses our capacity to imagine it. I think everyone would agree with that, including the artists mentioned above.
5. A Flash of Light
So we find ourselves still empty-handed at the end of this meandering tour along a few of the examples of bare life in art. Tossed back and forth between existential drama and political struggle, we know only one thing for certain, and that is that in the strictest sense, bare life cannot be represented. When it is touched upon, it reaches no further than a symbolic indication, a tracing of a contour, a hint. In his text, Groys suggests that instead of representing it as a solution to the dilemma, art might be able to evoke bare life.
Buergel, as have many artists before him, sees yet other possibilities. He describes himself as a generalist bridge-builder, who, in his critical perception of existence, wants to bring together art and life, apocalypse and ecstasy, the present and the past in an exhibition that comprises a wide range of art, through history and from all directions. For him, bare life is epic and intimate. It is sooner everything than nothing.
I read a newspaper article on Francesca Woodman, the photographer who took her own life at the age of 22, and whom Buergel had given prominence in earlier exhibitions. Marianne Vermeijden wrote in the Dutch NRC Handelsblad how Woodman photographed herself ‘as a fossil, as a shadow, as a flash of light’. ‘In her images, physically, she has almost already disappeared around the corner....’ Vermeijden referred to the photographs as haunting images.
The levels at which this work evokes bare life are numerous, not only in the technical sense, with photography that Woodman duplicated in a play with light on her body, on paper, on a bronze sculpture, but also in actions with socio-cultural repercussions. And there is now an undeniable autobiographical aspect attached to the work: in death. As bare as life at the moment of death. The transparency is frightening, and to be honest, often repugnant.
In line with Woodman, who made bare life part of everything – the work, the material and the treatment – I am trying to find an example of art that evokes bare life without representing it, let us say in accordance with the strictest definition of the concept. One work comes to mind, by Franz Pomassl, shown in 1998 at Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg. This sound work in a dark cellar was explosively loud, blistering, complete. There was no chance of escape. The sound was everywhere, moving through you like an aggressive tidal wave, taking every molecule in its grip, bringing it into motion like a bowstring, shaking violently. Beyond that, there was nothing else, no sight, no sound, no memory, no self – nothing. Just that reverberation cutting through everything. It still surprises me that I managed to find the exit.
Now, so many years later, I still know exactly what the work was and what it did to me, but not what it meant. That seems to be the point of bare life: to escape all interpretation, to just be.