Art and disability - "5 Sculptures" by Hans Op de Beeck
Image (C) Copyright by the Artist / KIT Finance Private Bank Collection of Contemporary Art.
Hans Op de Beeck uses a prosthetic network tool (Facebook) to collect as much as almost 5000 "friends". On his own website, he does not use simple HTML but the latest Flash animation to show off his works. He apparently lives in Belgium but exhibits in Russia, USA, China, Germany and Switzerland, to name some. I will assume that he travels back and forth using prosthetic means of transport (cars, trains, planes). Most likely he is embedded in his network of associates by various means of prosthetic communication such as cell phones, fax machines. He will use prosthetic energy by way of batteries and power lines transmitted to his whereabouts. He is quite likely to protect his skin surface from external influences such as low or high temperature, humidity, but also from stares or touching, by wearing prosthetic devices of fabric like coverings such as trousers, socks, shoes or shirts, pullovers, hats or gloves. In other words, he appears to be just as much a cyborg as the rest of us in a way that has been outlined so aptly by Amber Case. And now that guy goes and points fingers? Yeah, I think we have to take a closer look, we gotta see that up close.
So, Hans Op De Beeck rather clearly makes quite extensive use of even advanced aspects of our human prosthetic culture (communication, travel, transport, et cetera) and then he proceeds to present this as artwork:
ArtBankingClub, Russia 27 November - 15 December 2009 - The 5 sculptures - 'Ingrid', 'Anke', 'Yves-Pascale', 'Iris' and 'Eric' represent five people who possess prosthetic limbs - bionic arms or legs, or who wear complex equipment on their bodies for medical or technical purposes. "Motion capture" apparatus on their face, a robotic suit for a paralysed person, a brain-scanner attached to the skull - the ethical questionability of these technological applications is brought to the fore by the Hans Op de Beeck exhibition at the Art Banking Club. They save lives yet simultaneously destroy the very essence of a person, blurring the line between the real human body and it's digital representation. These five sculptures,ambassadors of a technicized world, speak of the fading distinction between man and machine.
Ethical questionability? Of a prosthetic arm? Is this guy out of his mind? I mean sure, there are people that view the outer appearance as "essence of a person" and there actually are conditions that could lead to such an attitude. Maybe this was an ill-fated attempt, a temporary spark, a momentary lapse of reason, maybe a bet gone wrong, a promise he had to keep or debts to pay. Also, this is an art critic rant, not a health manual.
If anything, the boundary between this particular artistŽs own immersion in his own prosthetic world and a disabled person using a technical item in their personal prosthetic world may be shifted. But it is not the least bit fundamentally different. The real question that arises when I read this is whether artists should get basic training in what the very essence of a person is. In my view, Hans Op de Beeck has missed the relevant points - and that renders his contribution discriminating and rather useless to the debate of what is, or is not, the essence of a person.
Here we have an artist that willfully outcasts people that use some (but not necessarily other) technical means of support for their lives. These means of support have been called 'prosthetic' in a recent dialog about postmodern or information age humans. Doing so is sensible in a way as it allows us to draw parallels between prosthetics in the closer sense (such as prosthetic limbs) and all objects artificial that assume an accompanying role such as prosthetic limbs - like cell phones, laptops, cars or glasses. Why are people that use air conditioning or cars not ethically questionable in their human essence to Hans Op de Beeck - after all, they appear to actively endanger the very world that supports us and that goes to our core, that addresses our essence?
And then, we could also shed light on other aspects of being human. With or without prosthetic part/s, our existence features values and realities that go a lot further than prosthetic items. We are what we are in the eyes of others - and there are social values to our existences that do make us human. If atrocities are committed, the murderers are not called human but in-human, not human but monster. So we can easily infer aspect of human essence right there. Why are people that support nationalistic-ethnic separation or exploitation of minorities or tribes not ethically questionable in their behavior towards higher hopes for true essence of a person? Why is Hans Op De Beeck focusing on medical prosthetic support?
Furthermore, human essence is contained within ourselves. And that is also where it may be lost. What about mentally ill people that suffer from emotional alienation or hallucinations - is not that a condition where the essence of a human is really endangered? What about progressive neurological conditions such as dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, severe chronic pain? Why do people suffering from these seek suicide? Are they being stripped of what - to them and often not seen from the outside - they believe makes them human, their life worth living? An essence gone in such a way that ending the life, stopping them from being human, seems to be their only way out? Aren't we getting closer to what human essence could contain in such tragic situations?
In setting his priority at technical items that are chosen as arbitrarily as shoe laces or glasses, he seems to be as childish as a person that still continues a "Mac against Windows" platform war.
Get over it - we, humans, have used tools since the beginning of time. If you read this, you were using prosthetic tools of our times to get and retrieve this information. We banged the rocks together then, and we still do. That, using tools to enhance our lives, that, Hans, that is our essence. Whether we snap it on, attach it, wear it, have it in a shed or fill it up with gas.
Here, we have an artist that appears to have no idea how immersed in prosthetic support machines we are today. Stripped of all, he is what he fantasizes to be the "real" human body. What sort of life would he live? Swim to the USA to exhibit one of his puppets? Walk to Moscow for an exhibition, naked and barefeet? Eating what: berries he picked, cats he strangulated? Or would he trade money as prosthetic value, as replacement for his own hands' work?
Here, we have an artist that looks for the arcane stereotypes to highlight them ... once more. Nothing creative is required for that. In his view, the very essence of a person is "destroyed" if they wear a prosthetic arm. But is it destroyed if they wear a hip implant? Dentures? If a wound is sutured rather than left alone to heal? Is the essence of a person what he believes he sees? Is this guy even able to see? Is the very essence of a person destroyed if a tumor spreads, or is that just a health risk that threats our substrate? Amputees being partly artificial as opposed to other people being not is a real old stereotype. Why are stereotypes of disabled pulled out? Do we need that somehow? Did we look inviting? Disenfranchised and easy to abuse for an exhibit, maybe? Alright, your bluff is being called.
Are sleep, love, dedication, happiness, health and absence or slowing of further decay or suffering also the essence of another person in the rare case that Hans Op de Beeck would be entirely blind to these? Prosthetic parts such as portrayed in the above cited artwork happen for serious reasons. There are true benefits to using these parts. But those are not highlighted. An amputation is performed to treat a tumor from spreading, to treat severe chronic pain, to treat life threatening infection or to prevent serious complications. For the person that is concerned, the positive aspects are a huge factor even though these are hard to come by. For their family and friends too. Why not for Hans Op de Beeck? Is it helpful for his distortion to omit these aspects? What if age - that also ruins our youthful appearance - was an indicator for the loss of the essence of a person - would Hans Op de Beeck see that as something he would exhibit, or would that not satisfy voyeurism and sensationalism enough?
Here, this artist implies that "these technological applications destroy the very essence" - of me as a person. Not disability - but the prosthetic parts. See, that is really weird. For me, the loss of the hand was the aspect where I feel that some part of myself was lost. I heal, and that feeling diminishes. The prosthesis does not at all signify that any more - the prosthesis stands for supplement, replacement, tool, support and attempt at completion. - So if I understand right, not wearing a prosthetic arm for some reason makes me more essential as a person in the eyes of Hans Op de Beeck? How is that? Is that because then my neck and shoulders hurt more due to asymmetry? Because the skin on my stump gets injured more often? Because then I get more phantom pain? Is it because then I get stared at more frequently? Because I need to have my stump out? Why is that? Is suffering as fantasized by Hans Op de Beeck what makes the essence of a person? Should we get his advice on other matters, too? Is he one of the group of people that objectify amputees, mostly for reasons too dark and deep to actually care about?
I am not sure that artist reflected on the type of discriminating stereotypes he put out there. If anyone is actively reducing the essence of disabled people, however, it is heartless and mindless artists such as Hans Op de Beeck that for some reason uphold anatomic perfection as "human essence" and looks down on disabled people to the point where he must portray them as faceless, colorless and in a uniform white color - while at the same time splurging in prosthetic means of life support himself. His puppets and the accompanying text perpetuate and continue to implement fears and boundaries that in any future world of true essence of caring and living should have no bearing.