TEXTS MECHANICS OF THE SOUL
Mechanics of the soul is an extensive excerpt of a coming essay on Pedro Gómez-Egaña's work, written by the dramaturg Bojana Bauer.
Accidents and machines could easily be designated as central subjects of Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s art. Indeed, machines, mostly familiar ones from our daily lives, inhabit his pieces, represented mostly through drawn sketches. More hidden mechanisms constitute the back bone of narrative layers, as they appear as stage devices, or dramaturgical principles. Yet, mechanics is interwoven with the irrationality of the accident. Accidents happen as accidents do. From accidental encounters, to tragedies and catastrophes, people, things and words collide, as it seems, without warning. Is it that accidents happen to machines, or machines emerge from accidents? This remains ambiguous. The rather eventful world with its underlying drama produced by Egaña, conveys a sense of marvel at the big world, its largeness being carried through each singular event.
The formal structuring of most of Egaña’s works shapes simple images out of, at times, improbable encounters. These encounters concern as much materials the artist uses: text, drawings, music, as the series of references those materials produce. Drawings, that are recurrent and central in the work as they constitute both the figural and the abstract foundation, are reduced to basics; they are an almost cartoonish typological representation of images, objects, people. They are sometime principal actors of the piece: flat, pictorial objects, become characters in Anytime Now (2008), or a full skeletal structure of an installation staging a mobile dinosaur in Swimming sideways (2008). In the piece Birds (2007), they constitute an animated film projected onstage. Again in Birds, drawings come to life when appearing shaped into paper maquettes of animated objects.
Machines such as cars, airplanes and helicopters are recurrent “characters” of Egaña’s settings. They are traced in single black line on white paper, making figures of pure contour, without thickness. Their figuration is so reduced and lacking bodily dimensions that they immediately make us think about the function they exercise in the overall dispositif. They move, and carry movement. But it leaves us perplexed on wether they are agents of their own actions, and according to what logic they are being moved.
Aesthetically proposing lightness, with its depurated lines, minimised scenographic elements and overall simplicity, these scenes unapologetically do not accomplish the contained finish of minimalist aesthetic Quite the opposite: Egaña’s figures are shaky and fragile, suspended in the moment that they do not own. Drawings appear in the whiteness of the background in the time of (often tragic) events, to be then brushed off or faded out of the viewer’s sight . The sense of fragility may be a result of the uncertainty transpiring the black trace, as would a drawing that discovers the world while it’s tracing it. The iconic lightness becomes a matter-of-fact fragility embarking on the laborious task of setting things in motion.
For this seems to be the question: how do things move? What makes them move? What moves this world? Does the world run itself? These questions might appear as child-like, just as Egaña’s drawings. Yet, in those simple animations, wobbly, slow moving cars and helicopters, buildings and mountains, people and dinosaurs, one can recognise two key concepts running through most of modern art: those of machine and of life.
The discussion concerning the mechanic and the organic, the calculable matter and the soul, the technical and the natural is evidently more ancient than the last century’s race for technological progress. But let us stay for now with more specific artistic doings such as it appears in Egaña’s pieces: the figure of the machine isn’t only content of a pictorial representation. Mechanics appear as a conceptual and organisational element, for it is the mechanics of the staging that is both used and brought into question. Here we can also say that the artists take on theatrical (or dramaturgical) construction is reflecting his conception of the world (something that all theatre does off course). This is to say that although not set explicitly for theatre, with the exception of one piece (Birds, 2007), most of Egaña’s works can be said to explore aspects of theatricality, its narratives, rhythms, movement.
In Anytime Now the question of how an artist runs the show is performed to be closely linked to the anatomy of the (re)presentational machine. Although Anytime now is a video piece, the camera frame is referencing the box-theatre. In a single frame, the camera is registering the torso of a man whose face above the mouth does not fit in the image. He is bringing paper cut-outs of people and objects into the frame to then simulate their crash, by simply shaking them and squashing them in his hands. A panoply of these figures comes in the frame to meet the fatal moment and disappearance led by the artists hands.
Egaña often refers to the figure of puppeteer in his position of setting in motion and arranging this somewhat falsely apocalyptic world he creates. This reference is interesting since it echoes the turn of the century fascination with mechanical, artificial bodies and automatons. If we go back to this pivotal period, we’ll find, as R. Herbert suggests, that after an initial antagonism to serial and uniform character of industrial production, modern(ist) artists adopted the machine as the sign of progress and future. They did this both by depicting the machinery and by using it as means of production of art works. This is how, following the romantic concept of the creative genius who's in touch with nature, the artists-constructor or artists-engineer appears. The machine becomes the image of speed and movement: exemplified by constructivist approaches of Malévitch, or such musical scores as Ballet Mechanique. In this context of literature, theatre and film, series of marionettes, robots and automatons are produced, bringing to the forefront both an idealised as well as menacing image of meeting between nature and artifice. For example, in his somewhat infamous theory of new theatre, Gordon Craig went as far as to substitute the actor entirely with the marionette, symbolising, according to Craig, timelessness beyond life. Weather represented in fear of the machine, reminiscent of romantic stigmatisation of mechanics, lifeless shell and its strange universes of robots, golems and homunculus, or conciliating nature and artifice to create new entities, artistic doings were busy trying to understand and analyse the mixity between natural and artificial. Now, these efforts can be seen in the succession of paradigms that all try to "penetrate the secrets movements of the organism" (Plassard 1992:22). They also can be directly linked to Cartesian meditations establishing the flow between the mechanic and the organic.
Regardless the evident disparities between phantastic and those more rational expressions, they above all point out the erosion of the perfectly oiled Cartesian machine as it manifestly failed to explain the unification of the body and the soul. As Descartes eradicated the life principle from the functions of the soul, to leave it with purely intellectual properties, he indeed created a modern body: the one of mind coordinatinated with the biologically and mathematically transparent organism. Watching the swan’s song of the carefully articulated paper dinosaur skeleton in Swimming Sideways, it is difficult not to recognise in it a penchant for revisiting these questions. The beast is surely composed of inanimate matter, held up by cables that are tied to a rotational device. When the machine starts coiling the cables, attachments snap, making different parts of animal’s body drop. The release of tension produces movement, movement of very short breath, as the beast gradually settles on the floor to rest. The architecture of the installation is carefully calculated, balanced out and structured, as well as the functioning and the timing of the motorised part of the sculpture. Seeing the fall of the dinosaur puppet is also quite an emotional experience as one cannot help but personify the dying beast. It however isn't simply the matter of seeing an allegory as hermeneutic answer to this piece. The "humanisation" of the creature doesn't intervene simply as a consequence of emotional identification. It is rather the logic of movement itself that operates as a conductor of what for now could be named the "soul" of the dinosaur. Curiously, the complete exposure of the machinery that enables the sculpture's movement doesn't seem to provide the expected sense of transparency and analytic satisfaction. The whole set-up is of course a school-level demonstration of force/gravity/mass equations, yet it still does nothing to the impression that some unknown force has its fingers in it. With ones gaze drawn into its movement, one might even perceive expressive "quality" in it, comparable to the singularity of breathing and weight distribution of human movement. Needless to say that assigning such characteristics to flesh-less, life-less, paper structure, moved by a rudimentary motor coil, radically blurs the line between animate and inanimate. But it is the aforementioned logic of movement that requires our attention, providing that it carries the sign of spontaneous movement. This paradoxically directs us back to platonic principles that run through Egaña's work despite the described calculated construction.
The piece Birds might bring us some answers to this apparently impossible conjuncture. The piece is structured along parallel tracks, where one follows the simple suite of tableaux of its musical score (Gustav Holst's Planets) while the other, slotted into the this basic structure consist of a hypertext-like broken narratives of daily life episodes, observation and fake scientific affirmations. These narratives are carried through projected text, drawings, film excerpts. Things that appear in these narratives don't have much in common. They are dramaturgically linked precisely by their disparity and randomness of their encounter. What allows them to be in the same time and space of the performance and enter our, the viewers’, time and space go beyond the fact that almost anything could be shuffled into a chance driven encounter. There is a vague sense of belonging to a vaster entity. It rings, I mentioned earlier, as an underlining neoplatonism, best illustrated by Plato himself: "...this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related." (Plato, Timeus, 29/30)
Does it mean that the artist is longing for a harmonious unifying principle, "principle" being understood etymologically, as movement before any other movement? Quite certainly not; it is the paradoxical meeting between the "mechanic" and "soul" paradigms that should require our attention and not either of the concepts individually. Egaña's work by no means advocates a return to the "soul of the world" metaphysics, nor does he present any unifying theory of the world for that matter. If anything, the self-generating movement represented by the work’s dramaturgy is immanent to any given action, but that is a whole new question that won't be our subject here. The sense of marvel at the world, be it presented in the "life principle" or in the concept of mechanical organism, refers above all to the complex reading of the world, between its reality (our reality) and the theory of it.
Elie During, L'âme, Corpus GF Flammarion, Paris 1997
Robert L. Herbert, The arrival of the machine: modernist art in Europe, 1910-25 - Technology and the Rest of Culture, in Social Research, fall 1997
Hans Thies Lehmann, Le théâtre postdramatique, L'Arche, Paris 2002
Didier Plassard, L'acteur en effigie, L'Age d'Homme, Paris 1992
Plato, Timaeus, available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html
Bojana Bauer, is a dance theoretician and dramaturge, born in Belgrade, currently living in Paris. She is a PhD candidate in performing arts aesthetics at Paris 8 University. As a dramaturge, she collaborates with choreographers Vera Mantero, Brynjar Bandlien and Mário Afonso as well as with the interdisciplinary organisation Binaural Media, Portugal. In 2005 -2006 she worked with Alkantara festival in Lisbon. She publishes in Repères (ed. Biennale Val de Marne), Dance Zone (ed. Theatre Institute, Prague) and Performance Research (ed. Routledge, London)