Repetition Modification and Enactment


Catalogue essay for Michael Rees"Model Behavior"
Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston 2009

Michael Rees' works in Model Behavior are not so much conceptually driven as they are developing meaning in their actuation. The works are formed, made and presented. Meaning emerges through their making and parallels a premise advanced in Phenomenology. According to the philosopher Edmond Husserl, meaning is synchronous with experience rather than prior to it. Rees’s work flows from an idea shared by phenomenology and Consciousness Studies that meaning does not precede experience but occurs in the process of experience itself. Rees' sculpture does not reside in an inside or an outside, but takes place in that liminal threshold where the body meets the world.

Rees activates multiple aspects of sculpture by orchestrating movements, flows and forces. He works with resemblance or analogy with digits, organs, glands and membranes in short human parts. Rees speaks of his new body of works as "an equation of ambiguity". The works develop as a set of variations; arrangements of parts such as foot or toe, fused by a conduit, artery or intestine always in play with multiple shifts in scale. Also significant is the repeated or multiple use of a single form and an equalizing that takes place between the parts. No one part is more significant than the other. In fact the shapes seem to be generated from the inside out and the bottom up.

Many of these sculptures are made of cast bronze, or cast aluminum among the most traditional and stable of sculptural materials, yet Rees is able to achieve a sense of spontaneity, fluidity and immediacy associated with more temporal materials or mediums. He does this through a staged working process of forming, carving and molding then casting, reforming, carving and reworking again. They also seem to play with balance and instability. These multiple transformations finally producing animated bronze sculptures, a peculiar paradox.

Found within this paradox of the inert and static temporized, is both a connection to and an inversion of Rees’s prior work. In his previous work he used a 3d modeling code that was translated into a digital animation then input to a Rapid Proto type machine, resulting in static sculptures like Putto8, and Putto8 (v1, v2, v3), hybrid, headless conjoined bodies, frozen rather than dynamic.

Rees’s new bronze sculptures are in dialogue with several media works in the show which extend the sensitive space of the body and underline Rees’s use of humor as a nonconformity with reason. "Model Behavior" is a three channel installation in which Rees is mapped to several computer models via motion capture and flips between them. The works reach back to the Putto series: one of the models is one of the channels from this series. Another model came from the conceptual studies for a performance Rees did in 2007 called "Live Life". The model is a man with 4 gigantic feet at each of his hands and feet. The various channels are placed through out the exhibition and it is only after viewing the entire show, an equivalency becomes apparent. The equivalency is an equivalence of action; Rees' action, that is, what Rees does in on each single channel, the monster also does, and the Figure with 4 feet does, and so on. Two other media works enlarge expand on these equivalences, one of them Sculpture Turntable (2009) takes off from Rees' 2002 m_machine. In this iteration viewers can construct sculptural equivalencies interactively through the use of a dial for each hot area of the screen. In Studio Performance (1992-2009), Rees uses photographs from 1992 to create an eerie animation in which the artist is rocking back and forth in space while various objects and devices appear and disappear all over his body held on by belts, clamps and screw clamps and so on. Photographs from this period are also exhibited in the exhibition from the Studio Performance series.

Unlike work from the artist's Putto Series or Ajna Series, (2002), Rees reaches back to his work from 1991-95, in this new series to force the viewer to acknowledge the work as a result of a process. The sculptural surfaces are visual evidence of the passage of the medium itself from one state to another, for example, ridges, gouges and marks occurring in the modeling stage, in the casting stage and in the post casting stage are not meticulously finished and sometimes they are simply left. For Rees Accidents are not only expected and anticipated they are welcome.

The rough wrestled forms are activated and given psychological qualities by dismemberment, reassembling, twisting, pulling, and gouging. The sculpture Corpus Collosum appears as a re-assemblage after a wreckage of emergent body fragments, In Foot_S_Toe, it is as if a primitive force has formed an intestinal line with foot and toe masses, In Blob and Foot, parts of body insides are pulled out to the surface and so a strange body emerges. A body whose internal organs become part of the externally exposed surface so that these surfaces form a sensitive space. In all these works there is a new form of body emerging, this new body is a body directly experiencing a world that is not divided into an inner world and an outside one.

In attempting to decipher the relationships of the fragmented body-like forms and objects one is confronted with a strange mixed sense of the non-rational, primitivist and absurd. Since there seems to be no sense with the choices of one part in relation to another, the works follow no logic of being rationally or structurally composed. When all these appeals to logic become frustrated it seems apparent that we must utilize another methodology, that of narrative.

In order to make sense of our lives and the world around us we find the necessity for a certain kind of narrative, which makes the situation, object, or event intelligible. With an adequate narrative the sense of discontinuity generated by the irrational can give way to an emerging picture.

In the case of Rees’s fragmented, partial or hybrid creatures, a narrative of replicating and modifying would be most useful. The conjunctions of replicating and modifying set off multiple narrative associations including the origin narrative of evolution both biologically and culturally. Evolution allows us to tell stories about an organism, stories that are sanctioned. The power of evolution is that it shows us how life works; it gives us the official story or means to describe why the forms of life have the traits that they have. It is the story of repetition and modification.

Following this line, this story can be seen to begin with Empedocles (490 - 430 BC), perhaps the first theory of evolution. As his theory goes, earth had given birth to living creatures, individual limbs and organs, these wandered separately at first. “Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads” (On Nature B 57). These separate limbs combined into every sort of random or hybrid combinations, producing whole organisms of every imaginable amalgam and creating fantastic creatures.

“Many creatures were born with faces and breasts on both sides, man-faced ox-progeny, while others again sprang forth as ox-headed offspring of man, creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts. (On Nature B 61). This is a proto evolution narrative since implicit within is a process of natural selection. Of all the limbs and organs that came together in combinations, only some of these combinations were fit to survive (Aristotle, Phys. II 8, 198b29).

A more contemporary evolutionary narrative that underlies Rees’s thinking and work is the narrative of cultural evolution. Richard Dawkins developed a theory of cultural evolution advanced through what he calls the “meme.” Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. He compares the process by which memes change and survive through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. But unlike biological DNA, which modifies and changes glacially, the meme as a unit of repetition and modification is an immediate shift in cultural evolution. This is not a passive shift, in this evolution we imitate, incorporate and adapt, since we continuously face an ongoing sequence of alternative future possibilities, we necessarily select. In other words we actively guide our cultural existence and evolution.

This is analogous to the process of artmaking, and to a process Rees employs; that is, a strategy of selecting, repeating and modifying markers of the human form. Rees' claims that there is a performative aspect to this body of work, perhaps this is because like the human, his sculpture-creatures are in a state of evolution, actively becoming other, becoming their next formation or ‘selves’ in their repeating and replicating. This is evidenced by his multiple iterations of toes, feet or-conduit-intestine. Each form has its particular mold yet every repetition casting of the toe, foot or conduit-intestine is different; it is other than the previous since there is always difference in repetition. This both aesthetically and theoretically emphasizes the multiple against the serial in the work, in extending this idea to the human; it is that humans form selves, and life is a process of growing, changing and morphing thereby 'evolving' and so forming new selves. For both art and life, this exemplifies the replication and modification of the meme and meme mutation and to the vitality of an interaction with a world.

It is the strength of Rees’s work to show the primacy of making, privileging active process over abstract conceptualizing. In his energetic activity with material both sensible and intelligible, Rees is in a direct relationship with the forming of material in art and life. This underscores the larger point that consciousness is not somewhere inside of us but is enacted. 

Robert Gero

Link to show Model Behavior, Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston Texas 2009