Mimicry, psychasthenia and short-cuts-of-life

Ivan Šuković’s photo and video installation Life remains – discreet scenes takes as its “primal voice”, and shares close resonance with, Luigi Pirandello’s celebrated play Six Characters in Search of an Author. The artist photographed six people, members of one family, posing in the midst of a starving landscape of water and rock. Then he moved them into the closed environment of a natural history museum, amongst taxidermied animals, which seemingly became animated by the ordinary activity of the peaceful family everyday. The video is a static medium shot of the bottom part of the woman’s body, the mother, and her handiwork, knitting: a diligent, constant activity.
This piece sets a particular friction between text and image where faithfulness is no longer demanded of either of them. It illuminates (or outlines) an interstice between narrative and representation, body and space, individual and collective, private and public, memory and present, an in-between-space that is at the point of intersection or incision of aura of body, aura of landscape, aura of event, aura of time. This frees their peculiar, perverse existential excess or a lack of sense in which an individual slowly withers away, gives up its personality and cancels itself as an active, living place on the map of the world and event.
“Among distinctions, there is assuredly none more clear-cut than that between the organism and its surroundings; at least there is none in which the tangible experience of separation is more immediate”, wrote Roger Caillois. It is on the sense of distinction, or separation from the environment that individuals base their sense of being unique. According to Caillois, mimicry is the phenomenon of reducing or cancelling the distinction between the organism and its surroundings so that the organism assimilates the surroundings. In Šuković’s piece, mimicry, reducing or cancelling differences between bodies/members of one family and their surroundings, and the bodies of taxidermied animals in the glass cages of the natural history museum, do not function as strategies of attack or defence, that is, as practice of existential positioning of the self, nor as pantheistic, Arcadian flowing of all forms of existence from one to another, according to Pythagoras’s premise that nature is everywhere the same. Also, here nature does not function as a powerful synthesis, condensing of time, assemblage and making visible, embodying, of that which comes before death and that which comes with/after it, nor does it offer subtle eschatological propositions. According to Caillois, mimicry is not always superficial, it is not always adaptation of form to form (homomorphy): in some cases, and with some species biological assimilation has been noted too. In these scenes, these shortcuts-of-life, assimilation with means mimicry, levelling of the second kind, or on the other side. The strategies of mimicry here seem to be set in motion both by living organisms and their (inanimate) surroundings through their facing each other and because of their close contact. Here the cancellation of difference is not the aim but destiny: it does not mean to overcome, survive or persevere but to trap and enslave, go nowhere, remain at nothing, have nothing. Here mimicry mutates and is manifested as objectivation of living people in the context of still nature, or as phantom, eerie “coming to life” of still nature, inanimate surroundings by their being inhabited by the appearance of normalcy, ordinariness and functionality of “living” family rituals. Only in the presence of humans whose existence is in painful slow motion do the immobile figures of taxidermied animals become strangely enlivened. Here therefore there isn’t “clear-cut” death as removed, absent body nor “clear-cut” life as body/bodies that connect, and that are connected by a sense of existence, liberated by the fact that they have will, desires and choice, and agency to change. Here we don’t have clear, radical difference, ultimate opposition (animate and inanimate, life and death) but only heavy pulsation of low intensity (like-living, like-death) that mutually attune and mutually infect and incubate the state of mutual identification and existential levelling. This is, Caillois would say, a serious disturbance in the relationship between individual and space that he defined by the term psychastenia, which is essentially the instance of shrinking of the space of individuality, and very existence. These strategies of mimicry offer an almost pathological phenomenon that Caillois quotes: “alongside the instinct of self-preservation, which in some way orients the creature toward life, there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feeling – the inertia of the élan vital “.
In these scenes of grotesque play of family rituals and roles, theatre with masks that conceal (and reveal) family violence that smacks of normalcy, what is also (primarily and mutually) at work is the perfidious dimension of the practice of mimicry. Its outcome is mutual infection with immobility and deprivation between individual and surroundings. By the effect of contagion, it penetrates the family setting, as well as the living, plein air, natural environment and the chamber, still life environment of the public space of the museum, in order to return, reflect on the individuals, people, inscribing itself in them as their tragic immanence. It seems as if inanimate nature is not only their natural habitat, their external surroundings, but adopted, inner landscape, internalised ambience, not their memento mori but their modus vivendi.
Just as the glass that protects the museum exhibits functions as a mirror which makes us wonder who is really “behind the glass”, who is beholding whom as their own reflection, as the image of their existence. Namely, the see-through glass of this museum-home (and equally the glass of shop windows, modern buildings-habitats, lenses and screens) became an instrument in the chain of anamorphosis, mediator of mutual identification, that which reflects/verifies folding of both sides into one, equal existence. Inter-subjectivity switched into inter-objectivity as a mode of existence where everything emerges as living objectivation that can only observe one another, incapable to act, destined to recognise in that passive looking its own immobility. And this folding, this existential levelling is where the discreetness from the exhibition’s title is located.
The only author to be “found” here, the only agent is the artist – but he isn’t a community builder, healer of broken connections but one that will pick up shards of the broken family picture in that theatre of mirrors, reflections and shadows, the melancholy game of identification and depersonalisation that he set up with the protagonists of this sombre play. The artist will become a forensic investigator that diagnoses the commemorative dimension of existence of people who have been, in Pirandello’s words, “denied the right to live”. It is creation not creator that their universe is lacking; self-realization has recoiled before self-objectivation in which existence is neither presence nor absence, emptiness nor fullness, affirmation of life nor glorification of death, just a silent horror of the in-between-state and the in-between-existence.
The creator-artist does not “picture” the found, given, random but constructs, arranges, directs scenes in a way that it seems that they could not have been “set” in any different way, that they are sealed by the inevitable, by the fatal. The notion of fatalism in these scenes is also inscribed in the media used (photography and video), which are here employed to inhibit these illusion-events and illusion-people. This fully activates the Barthesian notion of photography as the return of the deceased (here also departure of the living), tautologically overlapping with the photographed scenes, bringing their sad game to the state of hypertrophy: “the Photograph… represents that very subtle moment when…I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro version of death…: I am truly becoming a spectre”. What Pascal Bonitzer calls “faceless photographic sadism” here brings forward the cold, executioner-style stripping of personality, subject’s lack of emotion, its “lapse into apathy” (Bataille). What Šuković further demands and gains from photography, along the line of the tautological overlap of scenes and media, is eccentric framing, or deframing. According to Bonitzer, deframing, a sadistic practice, “frustrating for the spectator and disfiguring for the “models” (Bresson’s term [for actors]), is the response of a cruel mastery, a cold and aggressive death-drive”. The family portrait in the landscape, in the rocky valley, became a series of figures cut below leg, thus deprived of part of their personality. The natural wholesomeness or wholesomeness of nature have here been defeated. In the same way, their positioning in the open space of pure nature is not the quiet experience of a family day out on the water’s edge, but it appears as levitation at the edge of a great dead emptiness, that seems to invisibly seep out and swallow people who seem untouched, stable in their poses of feigned closeness, shattered by their own state of immobility. Some of the scenes (mother knitting, father sitting at the edge of water) are repeated in several photographs, from different angles; they however do not act as a proof that events and people share one place, time, or emotion; they rather seem like moving points, floating signs that flash in certain moments at certain places almost by accident, destined to never rest. These photographs no longer know centre from the margin, living people from inanimate nature, organisms from the surroundings, full from empty, wholeness from fragments that disappear in implosion.
In the video too we see a de-framed figure, or framed “piece of body” of a woman, mother. She is knitting, and her activity is what locks our gaze and what “stitches” all the other scenes. Knitting is the only “live” continuous activity which is uninterrupted (by the nature of the medium of video): this however is not a sign of the woman’s (moral, experiential) constancy, of the one that “knits” the family ties, nor traditional situating of the woman in the private space of family home. This and such woman is here “guillotined”: her face has been taken away from her not through the act of pointed misogynist execution but as a corpus delicti of a loss of individuality that has been absorbed by the monstrosity of the seemingly ordinary idyllic homemaking activity. The continuity of this action is not about building, connecting, interlacing, regenerating but it becomes a duration that is merciless, useless, futile, irrevocable; unstoppable seeping, scattering and disappearance wound all these scenes.
It seems that the sense of wonder of these scenes is modelled after fashion or advertising photography, aimed a making the photographs attractive. However, we also encounter a mutually conditioned and cross-connected effect of making ordinary, taming, normalising, familiarisation of death at places where normally we would find affirmation of life, in the family, and at the same time we find alienation, artificialization and hellish prolongation of life in the body/through the body of taxidermied animal, inanimate object. These scenes transgress fundamental ontological demarcations: the anesthetized yet living (living yet anesthetized) people animate taxidermied animals, without promising life, without living a life; the taxidermied animals animate the anesthetized, yet living human beings only simulating eternal life.
A cold and heavy silence impregnates these scenes. It is not about silent, numb communication, but an acquired incapacity of speech, lack of contact and exchange. Speech is not evicted from these scenes: rather non-speech, non-communication has seeped into people and infected their relationships. Movements and poses that suggest speech, address, communication and emotion are but empty gestures; they remain equally silent, stunned, stymied and thwarted like the taxidermied animals, arranged, adjusted into poses that forlornly evoke memory of life, of irrevocable.
Just as every body-exhibit in the natural history museum codes the individual, only-its-own time and place making the museum a heterotopic structure, the human beings here do not make family as a community connected by a shared sense of closeness and belonging: they are scattered fragments of subjectivity trapped in the shards of emptied closeness. This is not a detailed history of the ruin of one particular family but a parable of death of relationships and feelings that established us, named us subject.
A game of chess with – almost identical – glass figures in one of the photos is not mental situating and precise projection of one position in relation to the constellations of forces around but aimless motion in a vacuum of the present in which contemplation of the next move is just a vain pose, looking through figures, phantom play of translucent images and reflections that don’t offer the possibility of establishing difference, thinking the other, living the change as living oneself.

Svetlana Racanović
art historian