Image credit: Normform on Shutterstock.
In Rachel Chu’s artwork Fractured Skull (Figure 1), a shattered human skull has been reconstituted via the art of kintsugi, whereby the fault lines of the repaired object, rather than being disguised, are made visible.1 Normally applied to ceramics, the kintsugi process foregrounds the effects of time on a given object, drawing the viewer’s focus to the piece’s stress points, and those edges most vulnerable to the vagaries of time.
The kintsugi object is not the same as it was prior to its breaking; the visibility of its reconstruction brings our attention to its frangible qualities and enhances our understanding of its shape. Christy Bartlett, describing an 18th century Karatsu chaire, a form of Japanese tea caddy (Figure 2), explains how “branching lines of gold lacquer virtually diagram the point of impact [and] both surface interest and structural interest have been intensified by the effects of mending, [displaying] the slow inexorable work of time (sabi) or […] a moment of sharp demarcation between pristine or whole and shattered.”2
Chu’s skull is, like the chaire, a vessel intensified by its mending, but the effect here is different, because the breaking of a functional ornament is different from the breaking of a skull; kintsugi suggests repair as an accentuation of an object’s original qualities, but a human skull shattered in this way implies something else; a catastrophe. The kintsugi here might initially suggest one of two things; that the fracturing of the skull was the cause of the person’s death, and that it has subsequently been repaired post-mortem, or that the damage was done to the skull after death by the passage of time, and that what we see here is an archaeological reassembly. The skull, though, is coloured jet black, which implies that it has been deliberately decorated, and the kintsugi lacquer, as with the chaire, is gold. This isn’t, then, a skull reconstituted in the pursuit of archeological knowledge.
The effect of this fragile meeting of death and decoration is to produce a form of memento mori, an art object upon which to meditate on the transience of human life. Traditionally, the memento mori has operated as both ornament and prop, taking the form of either a real skull or a two or three-dimensional rendering in paint or wood or stone; a famous example of a painted memento mori is Philippe de Champaigne’s 1671 Vanitas (Figure 3), a painting which frames the human skull with two other transient objects; a still life of a flower and an hourglass representing the sands of time.3
Alternatively, a memento mori might be something more palpable, such as a set of 16th century rosary beads (Figure 4).4
In the case of the beads, one can hold the memento mori in one’s hand and envision the deathly transition from living subject to physical object, or enjoy the brief mastery of death that comes with being the observer, rather than the object viewed. But despite being graspable in the moment, the object’s ontological power is ultimately triumphant; our ability to hold it is always temporary. The memento mori, as well as a bulwark against hubris, is taken to be a spur for action, an imperative to live, to create while one still can.
But what happens when the memento mori is not a real object? Chu’s skull is, in fact, a photorealistic CG sculpture. Chu also works as a 3D animator, where her portfolio ranges from video games to Hollywood blockbusters. When we first see “Fractured Skull,” we imagine it to be an object we can physically hold; one that we can grasp and rotate in our hand, but when we discover that it is a digital rendering, we must rethink our process of what it means to hold it. Chu’s computer-rendered kintsugi skull implies a proliferation of lost edges; the real skull that serves as a model for the CG artwork and therefore by extension the life of the skull’s owner; the flesh implied by the presence of the skull; the mutable digital edge that abuts both the constructed object and its real-world referent. Where does holding these respective edges in our perception situate us? A computer-generated memento mori cannot be physically held. It can, however, operate as the site of a dialogic relation between those aforementioned present and absent edges. This relation is predicated upon the quality of what I want to call the object’s holding. Holding, I would suggest, is a property that ranges from the topography of the object itself—its edges, its visible adhesions—to its effects on the beholder’s understanding of its temporality, and the shared qualities that emerge between object and viewer, those qualities that are, in effect, ‘held’ in the space between both. The hold, then, encompasses our relation to the lost edges of this artwork.
How does this relation of holding operate, and how might it help us to understand the lost edges of Chu’s skull? I conceive of holding as, fundamentally, a coming together of temporalities, one formally influenced by Walter Benjamin’s complex model of jetztzeit (now-time) as famously outlined in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin describes this process as follows: Die Geschichte ist Gegenstand einer Konstruktion deren Ort nicht die homogene und leere Zeit sondern die von Jetztzeit erfüllte bildet.5
I include Benjamin’s definition here in the original German because something is often lost in translation. The sentence broadly translates as, “History is the object of a location whose site is not empty, homogenous time, but instead that form which is fulfilled by ‘now-time.’” Jetztzeit, then, stages a meeting place between monadic and more free-flowing synchronic concepts of time; effectively, the monads are retrospectively situated in a temporal constellation, removing their boundedness and inviting a form of intertemporal and historical communication. Fredric Jameson glosses Benjamin’s model further, arguing that it illustrates:
[…] a kind of temporal double standard in which we live a superficial and measurable, “linear” time in our official daily lives, while from time to time glimpsing the deepest “synchronic” temporality that governs life as such. The first of these, denounced by Benjamin as “homogeneous” time, is that of narrative sequence and causality, the second that of his “periods without transitions,” his “dialectical images.”6
Benjamin’s dialectical image is notoriously hard to parse, but I want to think of it here in the context of Benjamin’s use of the expression erfüllte bildet, which might be prosaically translated, as I have done above, as “that form which is fulfilled by ‘now-time.’” However, this translation loses the dual etymology of bildet, which contains the word Bild (picture), which foregrounds the explicit visual framing afforded by Benjamin’s concept; the art image as dialectical, a frozen moment which can contain multiple temporalities, allowing us, as in Jameson’s gloss, to see both the linear and synchronic within the same picture. Jameson then situates Benjamin’s model within:
[…] the dialectic of the boundary and the limit: the distinction, in other words, between an ending beyond which nothing exists and a borderline between two entities. This dialectic […] will equally afford Benjamin a productive ambiguity in mediating between the isolation of his episodes as so many discontinuous monads and their interrelationship as elements within a larger monadic field.7
I now take up Greg’s statement that straight lines are lies and circles are hopeless as a refutation of the problem of limit. To open a dialogic, holding relation with Chu’s skull relies, necessarily, on the permeability of a boundary. A skull is not, here, an unknowable thing-in-itself; in our awareness of its lost edges it holds a recognisable trace of being, and to know this requires a relation to the object. Where Benjamin uses the dialectical image to juxtapose, in a flash, the synchronicity of historical monads within the broader limit of history, communication with the implicit history of the skull broadens that field not only to the limits of history but also of ontology. Chu’s skull offers a dialectical image of the memento mori as painting, as palpable object and as real human skull; we think initially that the object is real and graspable, and our subsequent awareness of the artificiality of its digital production can only partially mitigate our visual response to the skull itself, which is crafted deliberately to look genuine.
It’s also worth thinking here about Chu’s use of a specifically Asiatic art process in “Fractured Skull.” In Ornamentalism, Anne Anlin Cheng argues that Western perception of Asiatic art is inextricable from an orientalist conflation of the artwork and the (particularly female) body. However, Cheng suggests that:
The making of personhood through synthetic assemblage or accretion can be impoverishing and additive. It can produce a person-assemblage that destroys autonomy but one that disrupts the privileged notion of natural bodies as well […] it also speaks to a desire for objectness in the dream of the human. [emphasis mine]8
This places “Fractured Skull” within an additional matrix of interpretation, one that incorporates a further ‘edge’ that could be lost in the flattening of the skull’s ontology into an objectification, an elision of the personhood in favour of objecthood. However, Cheng’s argument that this process can also be additive gestures towards that complexity that Chu’s artwork produces; by producing a synthesised skull as the object of our perception, our ‘holding’ can both recall and resist this process of objectification.
To hold the skull, inasmuch as we can, and to ruminate, memento mori-like, on its lost edges, thus involves a complex dialectical process. Chu’s digital skull might initially seem to belong to the same taxonomy of memento mori as de Champaigne’s painted skull, but while that painting is eventually understood as a two-dimensional representation, one might easily continue to think of the skull as genuine. Furthermore, and to use another famous Benjaminian term, the skull’s aura is therefore a disputed quality; despite the conjuring of its human antecedent, it isn’t ultimately possible to know whether it has an initial referent or not. This process both essentialises the skull’s memento mori qualities, as in de Champaigne’s painting) and destabilises them. Holding the skull—which cannot be done physically, but instead through a dialogical understanding of the generated object’s unstable and absent referent, which is the spur for our initial understanding of the object—operates not only as an embrace but also an ontological synthesis. It’s a dialectical flash of simultaneity that is generative in both directions; a version of Benjamin’s erfüllte bildet in which both living and ‘dead’ subject, effectively, hold each other via their lost edges.
This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here.
- Chu, Rachel, “Fractured Skull.” https://rachelfchu.com/skull (accessed Jan.6, 2023)
- Bartlett, Christy, “A Tearoom View of Mended Ceramics.” In Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, eds. Christy Bartlett, James-Henry Holland, and Charly Iten. Münster: Museum für Lackkunst, 2008, 8-14.
- De Champaigne, Philippe, “Vanitas.” Useum.org, https://useum.org/artwork/Vanitas-Philippe-de-Champaigne-1671 (accessed Jan.6, 2023)
- “Rosary Bead, ca. 1520-1530.” Vam.ac.uk, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O92557/memento-mori-pendents-rosary-bead/ (accessed Jan.6, 2023)
- Benjamin, Walter, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte.” In Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991, 691-707.
- Jameson, Fredric, The Benjamin Files. London: Verso, 2020, 53.
- Ibid., 8.
- Cheng, Anne Anlin, Ornamentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 18.