SUBJECT #02 — Sublimity — EPISODE 3
PROLOGUE: Through his personal exploration of possibly sublime experiences, Dutch designer and writer Sander Manse tries to define his experience of sublimity, as something that lies in between the fake and reality.
The idea that something can surpass beauty and be sublime is very old and maybe a bit dated. I do like that it can refer to a feeling or an experience. I try to come up with a new ‘version’ of it in this text.
By Sander Manse
In his theory of aesthetics Kant claims the sublime is a state, a feeling, a rush, a moment of incredible intensity. A certain type of sublimity is connected to the feeling of horror, being overwhelmed by something that is bigger than you, something that can kill you. I think I had some of these ‘sublime’ experiences with two video artworks that felt like the thing Kant describes, but did not quite fit into his category. I will try to come up with some words for this specific sublimity.
The pieces are Imitation of Life (2013) by Mathias Poledna and Untitled (Human Mask) (2014) by Pierre Huyghe. Within these works, the ‘sublime’ surfaces as the feeling of being fooled, or tricked, or mislead by something ambiguous, closely related to the feeling of awe and excitement for a small model or maquette of something big. It is similar to the thrill and revelation of discovering something is fake, when a living statue comes to life, when a spot on the wall turns out to be a fly. Both video pieces featured animals dressed up as humans, pretending to be something else. They portrayed an animal acting out a human activity. They tried to mimic, copy, fake. They both revealed a sublime ambiguity.
1. Imitation of Life
Walking around the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013, a gentle and mesmerising song pulled me into a short animated clip by Mathias Poledna. I saw a donkey dressed as a sailor, being woken up by birds in the middle of the woods. It’s a Disney cartoon: delicately hand-drawn characters, watercolour backgrounds, and a high pitched bird voice asking: “Hello, how did you get here?”. Then the sailor starts singing: “I’ve got a feeling you’re fooling / I’ve got a feeling it’s all a frame” And a broadway-like performance sets off, with the donkey dancing through the woods, birds and other animals joining in. “Fooling with me” Then it hit me: it’s fake. He is fooling. It’s not Disney, it’s Mathias Poledna, making a perfect replica, mimicking the Disney aesthetics, evoking the same nostalgia as the real stuff.
I got stuck in the 3 minute loop and watched the piece over and over again. The lyrics lingered in my head for the rest of the week. It’s a love song, it’s supposed to be sung to someone. “I’ve got the feeling you’re having fun / I’ll get a go by when you are done / fooling with me”. The piece grew on me, back home I read every thing about it I could find. Poledna produced something that could have been over 70 years old, copying the traditional techniques, hiring an enormous team of animators and even a full orchestra to record the song. He moved to LA some years ago, the city of illusion production – the home of the long gone golden Disney era. It took some time before I started to see the precision and the actual realness of this movie, second to second, frame to frame. He dissected the original and worked out a perfect copy: the whole painstaking process, the labour intensive methods, the script, the timing, the singing, the dancing. Yet, what I saw there in Venice was something new.
Next to the fact that it was shown in a specific context, only two things within this piece reveal that this is not a real Disney production: the lyrics of the song, and the fact that we’re looking at a donkey dressed as a sailor. But why is the donkey out of place here? It was always the least popular animal in the Disney repertoire. There is Eeyore starring in the Disney adaptions of Winnie-the-Pooh, in which he is characterised as the gloomy and pessimistic type. Yet, the donkey in Imitation of Life is full of energy and takes pleasure in dancing. Maybe something feels wrong about the donkey being the lead character. This detail lifts the whole thing up out of the ‘fake’ time is supposes to be in and puts it back into the 2013 Biennale. The donkey is a clue for the detective in search of the ‘real’. It is the inverted crocodile on a fake Lacoste sweater, the misspelled brand name on a fake watch, the fake leather on a fake leather bag.
2. Untitled (Human Mask)
The movie by Pierre Huyghe starts off with the camera hovering through a devastated village, wondering in slow motion over the ruins and debris. We encounter a building. Inside, a white mask filled up with black eyes stares into space. It looks like we are in a restaurant. We zoom out and the person wearing the masks appears to be a waitress. The mask moves and hairy arms and legs stick out of the suit. It is a monkey. Dressed as a waitress. Outside, a metallic voice blares through a megaphone. The monkey sits and waits, lingering in the empty kitchen. After some time, the waitress starts serving out drinks and brings around cutlery to people that are not there. She looks restless, moving through the empty space. A cat is introduced into the scene, the monkey stares into space, the cat leaves. Nothing really happens. Is she bored? Frightened? Lonely?
Later, I learn the movie is shot in Fukushima after the earthquake in 2014. The monkey acts as a waitress in an empty restaurant in a disaster zone. The situation could be real. Such restaurants do exist in Japan. The monkey continues to act like she was taught to act. The camera just happens to be there as a witness. But we are looking at a very well-staged and well-edited movie. As Pierre Huyghe said in a lecture, this movie leaks into reality. It has the potential to be real, but it’s staged. As the director, Huyghe sets the stage, the monkey is the actor and she just acts out her role. Most of the things that happen are coincidental and pretty much pointless. No narration, no story. It’s just a moment.
The monkey is real, the mask is real, the situation is real. But the movie is, in a way, fake. Fake because I am looking at it during a screening at the Berlinale 2014. Fake because the cinematography and editing is so beautifully done. The movie is just as fake as the monkey is a fake, fabricated waitress. She acts like one, but she’s not. And it leaves me with shivers and emptiness and a weird sympathy for her as an animal. The situation that is portrayed works as a magnifying glass for our relationship to animals. When we dress up this monkey, teach her the proceedings required to serve out drinks, she is still a monkey. When everyone leaves she will sit there, slip back into her role, and act before an absent audience.
The chemical process of sublimation is the phase transition of a solid substance into a gas, skipping the intermediate step of being a liquid. It is a transition that does not happen gradually, it is governed by thresholds. It jumps from one state to the other. Similar to the feeling of the ambiguous sublime, it is either this or that. It is a solid, fixed thing or it is vapour. Vapour as in a Fata Morgana, a mirror image, a reflection, a copy, a duplication. It is almost real, but not quite. There is something wrong and itchy, you have the feeling it is trying to be something that it’s not. It discomforts you (it tries to fool you!), it makes you doubt, it tests your senses. When you reach out to touch it, it turns out to be just air.
We can’t stand the feeling of being fooled. When we suspect something is wrong we look closer. It guides all the attention to its details; you’re grabbling all over, searching for more clues and marks that could reveal the actual nature of the work. What’s behind the mask? What is it supposed to be imitating? In a society where culture is marked by authenticity and symbolism, we see copying and faking as something wrong, something morally wrong. At the same time the uncomfortable situations of discovering something is fake offers a sense of precision and beauty. Without a fake, there is no real.
Sander Manse (1991, Rotterdam, NL) is a designer and writer, currently living and working in Berlin. He is set to explore the potential of theoretical research and writing within the design practice.
SUBJECT is an ongoing feature series inviting artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs to share their point of view and interpretation of a given subject. To inspire, open up horizons and start conversations – because more perspectives make a better story. SUBJECT is curated and edited by Sidsel Søgaard Spas.
SUBJECT #02 raises the subject of the sublime. What is sublimity, can it be reached, and how is the notion of this affecting artistic and creative practices? Alter Ego has invited three contributors to interpret and shape the subject to their own opinion. This piece by Sander Manse completes this series.