I Told You I Was Ill

The following text was commissioned for Tamsin Snow and Sarah Tynan’s Resort, which just closed at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray. A really excellent, compelling exhibition, I was of course delighted to write on technology and death, two of my favourite things.


In A Singular Modernity (2002), the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson writes that the contemporary moment is one defined by a repurposing, a ‘reminting’ of the modern, with the net result that, ‘modernism itself…is unmodern; ‘modernity’ however — in the newly approved positive sense — is good because it is postmodern’. As a consequence of this, the “modern” is made anew, estranged from the utopian ideals to which it is typically bound: it becomes post-modern — a style accommodated, according little friction, within the ceaseless pluralism of contemporary life. Now, “modern” is one toothless option within a context in which, as Mark Fisher put it, ‘a capacity to make an infinity of meaningless choices has replaced the capacity to actually change things’.

A consumerist repackaging of the modern is one emptied of any shock of the new. At all times familiar, it aims to please and cajole: in the ‘flat’ design of recent technological form; in the modishness of post-war design and what Owen Hatherley has termed ‘austerity nostalgia’; in the pick-and-mix brutalism of postmodern starchictecture, and so forth. Unyoked from the bracing political or social implications that made the modern, modern, it now arrives in pre-digested form, an unthreatening and pernicious nod towards radicality.

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Still sensate, modernism might be thought as a body (of works, of thought, etc); but if we were to diagnose it, what would be at issue? On first touch, we can of course sense that it is dead. It looks dead. Its skin, in the interests of this digression, is ice cold; its limbs stiffened in rigor mortis, maybe its skin is even starting to constrict and retreat towards bone. It smells awful. Properly dead; and yet, from somewhere deep in its larynx we can discern something like a hiss, an insistent if barely verbal effusion — FEED ME. And so you’d feed it, but it would never be satisfied: it would always want more. This thing is voracious and not at all fussy; and pretty quickly you’d come to realise that is not dead at all.

In Resort, this undead metaphor is apt. Sarah Tynan presents us with a blighted space; the once-pristine white walls have atrophied, spewing forth into the gallery space; within this crumbling cavity hang a series of three paintings depicting stock photos of falling fruit, recalling the contemporary administration of health through rapturous espousals of wellness and “clean” eating. In the adjoining space, Tamsin Snow’s video Showroom is a pitch-dark, if natural extension of this administration; namely, the total rationalisation of life itself, extending even so far as the autopsy. Uniting both bodies of work is a preoccupation with the architecture of public space: how its spaces participate in, and reiterate, a body that is increasingly putrid, and putrefying — zombie modernism.

In its imbrication with critique, modernism might be thought as an instrument: one that unearths false consciousness, as the scalpel finds tumours. However modernism turns the blade back on itself; we can see this, for example, in the winnowing of painting towards its axiomatic characteristic, flatness. There is then an ostensible self-sufficiency to modernism: the human, itself — its codes and necessities — determining the actual boundaries of epistemology. Extending this logic, even death becomes circumscribed in human, rational terms. Even more than this, death becomes sellable; because when we talk about modernism, now, we mean its contemporary, consumerist variant; and when we talk about modernism, we typically mean some vagary of capitalism. Snow’s Showroom, a CGI walk-through of a speculative autopsy facility, shows us what this scenario might look like. Traditionally, autopsy is a ghastly, brutal procedure; however increasingly its invasive character is supplanted by technology through virtopsy, which allows virtual scanning and imaging to carry out tasks usually the preserve of the scalpel and bone saw. In the video, the autopsy is cast in a new, spectral light: no longer working through gore, the procedure becomes almost transcendent, a miraculous seeing-through that leaves the body inviolate. The autopsy, at best difficult to market, becomes glossy as its externality is heightened. Here, the art of dying is satisfied only in life’s extension via a capitalisation that circumnavigates even biological death.

With Snow’s work, we witness the full embrace of an immaterial techno-logic that both orders and eschews the body; in Tynan’s work this logic itself is in tatters, becoming bruised and crumbling; finite, corporeal. Materials typically associated with modernity — the crumb rubber of industry, the blank plasterboard of everything, including of course the gallery’s white cube — have come unstuck, metastasised. Bursting out into the gallery space, their situation suggests an afterlife for which they are ill-suited. They flounder and crumple onto the ground. Interjecting this disarray, three paintings of fruit — perfect depictions of corporatised, subjective well-being — hang as though in the vain attempt to stem  this surrounding rot. And indeed, this is precisely what happens: as the ability to change anything of substance grows more and more scant, the subjective bodily space becomes the only viable horizon for change.

Michel Foucault once noted the paradoxical co-arrival of things like insurance and health policy with an onslaught of wars; or as he put it, ‘Go get slaughtered and we promise you a long and pleasant life’; ‘Life insurance’ he claimed, ‘is connected with a death command’. The gaze of modernity, and thus of modernism, is one of anthropocentric regularisation: of the external position, of a method that orders the human as much as it, itself, is ordered. What Resort presents is this logic’s invariable conclusion, as life and death are qualified in calculation, becoming more and more lucrative. These works present the commodification and administration of health as big-business: infinitely reproducible, even as the earth’s resources shrink more and more. Technology creates an abundance that is not there in real life: with the cadaver as with modernism, it manufactures the look of both health and presence — via capital — where there is none. An unending death rattle: FEED ME.

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