Francis Picabia (1879-1953): portraying subjectivity as mechanical process
What might be another unacknowledged artistic predecessor to the pomo
academic science fictions of Baudrillard, Haraway, Gibson, Ballard and Dick?
Reply: Francis Picabia's "Spanish Portrait - Machine" exhibition from 1922 -
which you can see now at the Center Georges Pompidou till June 30th.
The Pompidou show is a reconstruction of the exhibition of drawings Picabia
made at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona in 1922 where he starts asserting
that traditional portraiture give way to spatialized mechanical concerns by
mixing portraits of Spanish women, toreros, and mechanical schematic
drawings in a flamboyantly explosive fashion. Picabia, here, addresses how
technology infects people. That such a DaDa concept engages our contemporary
fixations today is remarkable.
In these works from 1922 a profound crisis is raised by the
interface/dialectic between body and machine. Should belief in the bodies
"obsolescence" be theorized as cultural exhaustion or as a refusal of
technocratic control because the intractability of the body would no longer
be so central an issue? Should the portrait and the machine be intertwined
in a complex and ambiguous way where flesh will no longer be the grounds for
subjectivity? And does this, plus the AIDS crises, explain much contemporary
anxiety over the body in art today?
These depictions seem to facilitate an inebriated Spanish subjectivity by
constructing a space of accommodation for an intensely passionate existence.
If in cyberspace our ontologies are adrift vis-a-vis how personal
subjectivity was once understood, Picabia's central idea in these works
leads us right up to that slippery elocution between mechanical embodiment
and subjectivity - between physical embodiment and machine
assistance/circumvention - where we teeter today.
By using Spanish Gypsy culture, that of the Bullfight and the Flamenco,
Picabia however keeps some soul in the machine, and somehow makes mechanical
inebriated subjectivity seem desirable.
Picabia's effective use of machine metaphors for the corrida (bullfight) and
the psychotechnologies which go along with that head-set's concern for (I
hate this term) "the body", give us pause for thought about how we will
engage with Virtual Reality technologies when they come charging full-speed
from around the corner at us quite soon now. Picabia's Western understanding
of space remains primarily frontal however in its metaphoric conception.
Enter VR as technology/portraiture that magically promises to dissolve the
distance that the Modernist spatially grided vision has erected.
Picabia draws these Spanish machinic-portraits while considering the
immateriality of the sitter - of people as a fluctuating concept. There is
no Debordian spectacular society where all people are advertisements for the
status quo portrayed here - as later found so often in Pop and then
"politically correct" art. Picabia simply traces the tensions between human
narratives and the mechanical spectacle. Thus Picabia is the oracle pointing
to ambiguous/creative resolutions between the two competing categories of
being - just as "science fictions" do through dismemberment of traditional
For Picabia, mechanical penetration achieves and performs direct bodily
engagement. The subject's existence is enhanced by his/her disappearance
into technology-induced cyberspatial realms. The body's dissolution may be
But is Picabia just being DaDa disingenuous by resisting firm conclusions
and by citing this panoply of postures - variously recommending all options?
Given the 1920's death, or explanation of, a mythic Father/God, alongside
the enduring wish of Western modern thought to trundle exterior reality, why
should technology/personhood now appear to take on this particular form in
the early 1920s?
Might it be that by entering the repetition of the machine the subject is
dissolved in the swirls of repeats, but is at the same time further licensed
through an extension of motorized possession? Here, then, are the
paradoxically simultaneous experiences of death and immortality that are
fundamental to religious practice.
Having explained God, Picabia creates a new cyber-based art form and engages
each of us as discontinuous human existences by virtue of a relocation of
Admirable drawings. Consequential idea!