Life is Finite

Christian Hain

Maybe it’s time to savour the simple fact again – challenging, empowering, terrible, all-encompassing, and indeed: beautiful. A fundamental verity that is one of the most neglected, if not actively suppressed, insights in the modern world. A globalized technocentric society has no place for fragility and contemplation, it seems; the swarm knows no limitations: it just is, and computers won’t die (well, hardware does, thanks for reminding me – there’d better be a time machine in the cloud.) The eight-billion-and-counting entity that forms humanity today doesn’t need a raison d’être, numbers will provide all the justification necessary. Living 90 years is better than living 80 years, being a billionaire is better than being a millionaire – simple, evident truth accessible for everyone. Who’d think to ask this actually makes sense?

Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed plague,
which devastated medieval Europe.

Massified humanity wants, and probably needs, to be ruled by numbers, resulting for instance in staged images of 90-plus year olds getting vaccinated, sold to the public as the highest – not merely medical but overall human – achievement of recent decades. A visual critique would not omit the cartoon sweater, worn to make the nonagenarian look as hip and fresh as possible (PR people in general are rather stupid).
The same imagery would have appeared absurd a few years ago. But it’s all in the air of the times, in line with overprotected children bereaved of every chance to develop an individual personality, a singular character moulded by dangerous and even hurtful experiences – up to pensioners who’d never go cycling without wearing a helmet, still not having found a meaning in their life – and consequentially death.
Never having consciously applied meaning, there’s much unfinished business that gets ever harder to push aside, and the angst grows stronger the older a society gets.
We experience the reality of a world where politics impair human dignity in the name of life and health, as human beings are no longer allowed to be social entities. People are taken prisoner not just of their own fears but literally by others: sentenced to life, to subsist at all costs. Haven’t we all heard stories of somebody’s relatives unable to leave their cell – pardon, suite – in a retirement home for months, against their will, because only the will to live is deemed rational, superior to all other values?
Maybe it’s time to think about quality again, shouldn’t the way we live now be as important as the mere fact of existence? There’s a close connection between art and death, the former having always been – among other things – an expression of the attempt to overcome the latter. Just like science seeks to vanquish it today, not necessarily more successfully, but certainly less humanely. To seek and to assign meaning to one’s life and consequently death, means to make sense in the sense of a mental creation. The construction of meaning – that’s also one purpose, and power, of art.
One morning, digging into my air-trade-certified-eco-friendly-muesli-with-soja-milk, a heretic thought crossed my mind: what if all those vegan, organic, environmental hipsters like me realized that an epidemic is as natural a process as ever it gets? Mother Nature sorting out the old and the weak, particularly where there is a flagrant overpopulation of a given species (mankind’s reproduction number ‘R’ being skyrocketing high, and arguably the reason for most, if not all fundamental problems the world and we are facing today). Mother Nature eating her parents, it’s Cronos reversed.
That’s cynical and spoken in the abstract, whereas in reality who wouldn’t fear for his own life when it’s endangered, who wouldn’t worry for his relatives? Rest assured, I do. But then again, maybe it’s time to transcend our primitive instincts. Let’s savour the truth again: Life is finite. Art … maybe less so.
We’re living through a time of crisis, and the slogan ‘May you live in interesting times’ suddenly sounds ‘so 2019’, right? It’s probably the closest to an existential crisis contemporary generations have ever gone through, yet it’s still not clear whose fault that is: the virus’s, or the virus’s politics, and which one causes more suffering. Honestly, it’s not really that serious a crisis. Without wanting to talk the risks down, we shouldn’t exaggerate Covid. Compared to the plagues of the past – and present, in certain regions – it’s rather tame. Now here is one scary thought: To what means would our leaders and self-proclaimed healers resort if one of those, or a successor, broke free and roamed around the globe?
It’s hard not to detect at least traces of mass hysteria on a global scale today. Sometimes, running headlong into the storm might be better than being paralysed by fear without a way out, than life in the conditional tense, ruled by fear: What could go wrong, if I left my home? Live and let die, or lead death into life.
How will artists make use of the situation in future works? Being used to working in the studio, and with all kinds of technical equipment that Bezos and others deliver to their doorstep, the means of production have not altered.

Art handlers are comfortable coming to work at Tate Liverpool.

But imagine a new Boccaccio coming forward in maybe a year from now (if the plague is over by then), and presenting the Decameron’s Hollywood version: 10 people equally composed of all phenotypical variants, sexual orientations, age and socioeconomic groups, get together on Zoom!
Human beings get used to anything and everything. Being a rather weak character myself, I headed full of optimism into the situation when it all began almost a year ago, developed the outline of another work project, mail-ordered some work-out equipment and academic literature (for dummies) from a discipline, I (still) know nothing about. At some point in summer, I stopped caring about all that, and slid into Kung Fu movies from the 1960s/70s. Once, and purely by chance, I even watched Braveheart when it was running on TV. That final scene in all its historic bs-ery and pathetic Hollywood kitsch, but he had a point, right? Freeedoom on the executioner’s block, what an impressive image.
What are others doing to pass the time? Not artists: the people behind, otherwise exposing, and selling, them? Windows exhibitions are one way of dealing with, and in, the situation, but don’t get too risky, as Mehdi Chouakri, whose endeavours were shaken by a rather amusing obscenity complaint, will confirm: a prudish neighbour alerted the authorities. Reading the galleries’ mails was fun, the most professional following marketing guidelines to the letter: there is no bad situation, if you don’t mention it. How long did it take you to realize that their doors are actually closed, and you may only visit the show online in, say, Sprüth Magers’ newsletter? Art exhibitions now work like a take-away menu, with optional click&collect. Uber eats art – that actually sounds like a great business model! At the end of the day, every crisis is a chance. One really smart, or at least business-minded, dealer clan turned their exhibition space into a Covid test centre. Physical art fairs might be done for good, but the guys from Basel won’t mind. If your brand is strong enough, the change offers a great savings potential. Who in his right mind would travel to Basel when he can spend some quality time with his tablet on board a yacht in the Caribbean?
Meanwhile, museums opted for video tours, and it will be exciting to observe what happens once they’re open again. Will people come back? Or will they be too used to contemplating art on screen, in their pyjamas? Perhaps fearing this, Berlinische Galerie offered audio walks to architectural sites in the institution’s neighbourhood. Kindl Brewery’s Art Foundation combined window shopping with a very similar experience: behold art through the windows, listen to an audio installation on the dedicated app, and hold a – well, Sterni, or Brlo, or whatever brew you prefer. Some jointly managed Berlin public galleries like the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) went a step further, and offered guided visits by phone. And no, not for the blind, but for everyone.
For the rest, professionals and audiences alike are still waiting for all this to blow over. After weeks and months in lockdown, I feel like I badly need a haircut.

Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021

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