At ALBA, Stine Deja and Marie Munk have installed an enormous person. Perhaps a kind of deity, an omniscient Big Brother, or an enlarged reflection of ourselves. The head is reminiscent of the great statues of Buddhism, and the hands that stir restlessly in the windows of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The soundtrack emphasises the solemn, spiritual, almost melancholy atmosphere, while the blinding clinical clarity that dominates the space recalls both God as we meet him in a Hollywood movie, and life as conjured under a microscope in a laboratory. In this figure, then, we meet another dead metaphor that refers both to the divine and its absence.
The exhibition’s title, Divine Desires, further exacerbates this contradiction. For where the divine can be understood as something static and calm-inducing, desire is the opposite. The hand pulls at the window like the insomniac scrolls the night away in the glow of their smartphone, and as if the passers-by outside were part of the endless newsfeed. What insight is this person after? And when will it be enough? Here, it seems the object itself has been replaced by a void, or that the desire referred to in the title is simply desire for its own sake.
With the development of perspective in the renaissance came the idea of the painting as a window; an opening towards a fictional world, separate from our own. Where the flat, gothic pictures of the past had been presentations – direct, almost carnal – this technical progression instead produced re-presentations. And in that shift, art became full of the stuff of desire: absence, distance. As one of the great thinkers of the time, Filarete, put it, the new spacious painting can be understood as false, because it shows us ‘something which is not’ – una cosa che non e’.
The screen readily presents itself as the latest iteration of the window metaphor: a luminous, interactive picture that makes it possible for us to observe life. But even if this new window remains, to a great extent, an engine of desire, it does not any longer represent the distance to the desired object, but the very infrastructure that provides access to it. It is this logical glitch that Divine Desires confronts us with.
Once we step out of the frame and enter the room on the other side of the window, it becomes apparent that we are in a machine, a factory. Deja and Munk’s mechanical hand points to the ways in which our collection of information, that is, our relation to enlightenment, is not just a type of consumption, but also very much a form of labour. Representation and production are one and the same, and what is produced goes by the name of ‘content’. We are stood, as if at a conveyer belt, passive and disinterested, reproducing the world as it rolls by on the other side of a pane of glass. If, in the first instance, the great figure could be read as some higher power, puppeteering the minuscule pedestrians with its enormous hands, it now looks more like Prometheus, chained inside his cave as punishment for having stolen fire from the Gods.
Fire, enlightenment, the apple from the tree of knowledge – all this brings us back to Adam and Eve and literally the oldest story in the book. The difference, I suppose, is this new absentminded servility: that the gathering and production of information renders us, precisely, ‘followers’ – not, as the Gods feared in the case of Prometheus, competition for Mount Olympus. We love our prison and the way that the hand’s almost hypnotically repetitive movements across the screen can make the body disappear and the self disintegrate. For what our new minion status lacks in thought and action, it gains in desire and pleasure. Both the pleasure that comes with devotion, and devotion’s proximity to surrender – to let oneself be carried along in the stream is also, on some level, to renounce accountability. But equally the masochistic kind inherent to the notion of ‘doom scrolling’, and the strong auto-eroticism that characterises our constant and concomitant production and consumption of our own and other people’s narratives.
The window is, in other words, completely perforated. Everyone is at once inside and outside the factory, on both sides of the screen. But that is not the same as to say that the distance is no longer there, or that desire can continue to produce itself. In Divine Desires the glass surface is reintroduced as a central element in order to question whether what we see through it is still, as in the time of Filarete una cosa che non e’ – something that is not.
Kristian Vistrup Madsen