PRINT October 2004


“Post Human”

A new race of humanoids was spawned in the ’60s. Think of Lichtenstein’s boneless, fleshless housewives, Segal’s mummified city dwellers, Wesselmann’s faceless, airbrushed sex toys. But the tribe kept increasing, as witnessed not just in mutant art, but also in the fin de ’80s tabloids—e.g. Jocelyn Wildenstein’s shrink-wrapped visage. And by now, the human race really is an endangered species. In 1992, this eerie evolution was freeze-framed in a landmark exhibition curated by Jeffrey Deitch. “Post Human,” whose yearlong itinerary—Lausanne, Turin, Athens, Hamburg, Jerusalem—may have bypassed the big-time art capitals, garnered a ream of notices in the European press. Media theorist Mckenzie Wark, writing two years later in World Art, found abstruse philosophical flaws in Deitch’s conception of the human and the natural, while a certain Stefano Casciani (reporting for Abitare, Nov. 1992) waxed effusive, speculating that the show “could have the same impact on art sociology . . . as Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture had on architecture.” Ripples were felt on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Elizabeth Janus, reporting on the show in these pages (Nov. 1992), questioned the exhibition’s “circuslike atmosphere” but singled out individual artists for praise, and one of the three-ring showstoppers, Charles Ray’s dressed-for-success giantess, titled Fall, ’91, even landed on the September cover of incoming Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky’s first issue.

“Post Human” was virtually a manifesto trumpeting a new art for a new breed of human. As Deitch’s text explained in the fragmented mottos that punctuated the billboard-style graphics of Dan Friedman’s catalogue design, “It is becoming routine for people to try to alter their appearance, their behavior, and their consciousness beyond what was once thought possible.” And we go on to read, “With the embrace of artificiality, Realism as we used to know it may no longer be possible.” The glossy color plates spoke volumes, whether the illustrations came from art or from “life.” The catalogue was to become something of a cult item that triggered the imaginations of many younger artists. Here was a permanent anthology of the “posthumanity” that surrounds us not only in galleries but on television, in magazines, even in real life, where the friendly androids among us chatter on about Botox and face-lifts. In the catalogue pages, one could see, for instance, four photos of Jane Fonda in four completely different but equally synthetic guises; Pat Buchanan being made up by a cosmetician for a TV appearance; computer morphs of once- human faces; before-and-after bellies and buttocks; and dead center, a profile view of Michael Jackson, clearly the sun god of this new solar system, who would later be deified by Jeff Koons.

This pure plastic environment, whether peopled by Ivana Trump or Barbie, set the stage for the artists in the show, whose works played perfectly in this parallel universe that was quickly replacing that old-fashioned thing called Nature. The result was a complete reshuffling of the contemporary-art deck, with an international mix of thirty-six artists (singles and pairs) that embraced Thomas Ruff and Jeff Wall, Clegg & Gutmann and Pruitt/Early, Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney and Yasumasa Morimura, Charles Ray and Martin Kippenberger. A new dynasty had installed itself, and this ruling class demanded fitting ancestry.

As for precursors, two venerable masters are illustrated in the catalogue’s introductory pages, though not represented in the exhibition itself: Duane Hanson (Woman with Dog, 1977) and Gilbert & George (photographed during the 1970 London performance of The Singing Sculpture). Hanson was a particularly astute choice to give parental authority to this latest strain of clones. At the time, high-minded art people generally considered Hanson to be cut of the same antimodernist cloth as Norman Rockwell, an embarrassingly trivial populist artist who, sure sign of insignificance, could always make the turnstiles spin. (In fact, when Kirk Varnedoe was first considered for the MoMA appointment, one of his adversaries pointed out that back in 1985 the candidate had written a monograph on Hanson, a disclosure intended to disqualify anybody who aspired to be a serious curator.)By the early ’90s, the received wisdom on Hanson’s art had done an about-face (or several): The sensationalist hack whose effigies belonged at Mme. Tussaud’s was suddenly a father figure to a new generation of hip posthumans. Hanson, cameo as a “Post Human” parent quickly led to a leading role in a 1997 retrospective at the original Saatchi Gallery on London’s Boundary Road, a habitat programmed to feature the future.

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, we now know that the show nurtured brilliant progeny, along with resuscitated precursors—whether the new brood knew it or not. In fact, on the heels of Deitch’s show, a fresh crop of body snatchers was reported in and about London. Had they been around a few years earlier, they might well have made their debut in “Post Human.” Prime candidates for “Post Human, the Sequel” are the Chapman brothers (who worked as studio assistants for posthuman archetypes Gilbert & George), Vanessa Beecroft (whose spectacularly uniformed or naked performers extend the Gilbert & George Singing Sculpture pedigree all the way back to the Rockettes), Ron Mueck (who mixed a little Gulliver into the DNA of Hanson’s life-size creations), and Maurizio Cattelan (who reincarnates Hanson’s tableaux as full-blown real-life theater). The list goes on and on—Marc Quinn, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Mariko Mori, John Currin, Yinka Shonibare—which is again a tribute to the way in which “Post Human” got right to the roots of a flourishing new genealogical tree for later-twentieth-century art.

And as usual, new art changes old art, and the present rewrites the past. The sex machines and robots of Duchamp and Picabia, Léger and Schlemmer may now seem Old Testament prophecies, as do the mostly prosthetic German war veterans depicted by Grosz and Dix. Reverberations can even be felt in a welling appreciation for a once-scorned art of centuries past, the hyperrealist polychrome sculptures of the Spanish baroque, with their real hair and fake tears. The search for proto-posthumanity is on.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.