After three months of lockdown, getting in the car with the perspective of driving somewhere to see an exhibition is as wonderful as it is weird. Sometimes, during this quarantine, I have asked myself if art is really something we should focus on during these singular, unprecedented times, and sometimes I’ve hesitated before uttering a feeble ‘YES!’. Of course, being healthy and being safe is a lot more important than having a nice painting hanging on the wall.. but I hope you agree that leaving it at that would be way too reductive.
I am glad to say that the first exhibition that I have had the honour to step into has been Geumhyung Jeong’s Upgrade in Process at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive. Jeong boasts an impressive list of shows, having exhibited at Delfina Foundation London, Kunsthalle Basel and Tate Modern, and discovering her works so close to home has been such a pleasure. She is a South Korean choreographer and performer whose work is constantly… on the edge. On the edge of performance, of traditional expositions, of theatre, of human and machine. Mannequins and electronic components become protagonists of erotic narratives, in search of the love they can’t feel because of their inanimate status. Through her remote control of the robots on the scene, Jeong explores the dynamics of authority and the relationship between humans and machines.
The exhibition follows in an almost-too-defined chronological order Jeong’s construction of the robots she uses in her performances, following the same narrative she started in 2019 for her solo shows at Kunsthalle Basel and at the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art. The artist individually produces each piece following DIY instructions, and for this reason they look uncompleted, flawed. However, Jeong makes them contradictorily human by controlling their movements and forcing them to perform affective, sensual gestures towards each other – metaphorically mirroring how, commonly, machines and technology are thought of turning us into insensitive cyborgs.
Starting from all the components and instruments that are then going to be used to give life to one of the robots, all laid down on a table as if a surgical operation was about to start, the visitors walk past similar tables which, this time, become the stages of the performance: referencing the artist’s interest towards theatre, Jeong’s creations, at different stages of their assemblage, occupy the tables as if they were ready to show the visitors what they can do (unfortunately, that can happen only in the presence of the artist). The installations create a sense of nakedness, of vulnerability as the figures lie defenseless on the surfaces: the visitors are encouraged to study their components and how they have been constructed, as if we were all protagonists of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632).
Once again, I find that the world of mechanics, robotics and technology reveals more things about us humans than I would have ever imagined. It is since the writing of Frankenstein and probably even before that, that humans want to create new, living creatures, and robotics is just a different result of that same desire. Jeong explores how these creatures, actually, are not that far from us… or are they? For now, they are just puppets in the hands of their creators, they don’t have the ability to think… yet.
I have been reading this book, called Tools and Weapons by the president of Microsoft Brad Smith, which is really eye-opening from this point of view: what if, one day, machines can think? Well, actually they already do, in some way. Algorithms, their ability to learn from their same mistakes and to autoregulate, are at the base of what is called cybernetics. Of course, there is still a long way to go before producing computers that can really think by themselves… but it might not even be that far from us. The most fascinating part of this is the ethical issues involved with it – just like it happens in Frankenstein. Is it ethically acceptable to artificially create another thinking being?
To go back to the question I posed in the fist paragraph, that is why art is necessary. It has the power to highlight the most crucial changes in today’s society with such an empathy that, for those open to the idea, it really provides opportunities to reflect, to ask new questions. And maybe, to reach new conclusions.