Seven Fables for the Drone Age, Anna Johnson

Below is an essay by Anna Johnson, written for the Australian Galleries exhibition “Drone Dorje + The Drone Stripped Bare of all its Brides”.

SEVEN FABLES FOR THE DRONE AGE

 

BREATHING UNDER GLASS

The cracks that lace the glass casing of Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Even)” provided the final stroke and the ultimate physical irony.  The artwork was literally broken, so what better meditation on the futility of aesthetics, and the ultimate impotence of modern art? This work, created over the course of a decade or more, planned with meticulous notes and drawings and obscure hypothesis was completed by accident. The glass cracked and the major “drawn surface” of the work and its implicit fragility was rendered by a random act that did not belong to the artist.

Pablo Picasso’s majestic anti-war painting, “Guernica”, bears a strange (poetic if arbitrary) relationship to the Bride Stripped Bare. When the work was returned to Spain at the end of the Franco regime in September 1981 it was hung in the at the Cason del Buen Retiro in Madrid, and it could only be viewed under bomb and bullet proof glass. Was the government worried that someone was going to assassinate the painting? Literally try and kill the idea. The bodies were already dismembered, their blood drained into the monochrome of newsprint and the painting itself had served as a media messenger, touring the world urging an end to Fascism.

How did it look beneath glass, without breath, sheathed and protected? And why are some things in art perpetually concealed in rhetoric and symbolism? Murder, like rape, are rarely stripped bare in the realm of aesthetics. The frame creates the fetish. And Duchamp seemed keenly aware of this in what I view as his final ready-made artwork: his gravestone.

Upon the stone was carved this epitaph:

“D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent;” :

 “Besides, it’s always the others who die”.

Such a cutting wit speaks coolly for the commonly shabby ethics of the civilized world.

War, like death happens to other people. Bombs drop, elsewhere. Villages are on fire, far away. The crack in the glass looks beautiful in the museum and because it’s art…it’s not broken.

 

STOLEN BLUE PRINTS

The complex installation of “Drone Dorje” by Richard Goodwin includes detailed working drawings and models for the major works: a replicated sculpture of a drone and two very large scale mixed media drawings. The models mirror the intricate studies that Duchamp might have made for his “Bride Stripped Bare” but equally they stand for (or evoke) world war two cartography, contemporary CIA documents, architectural models and blue prints and the supposedly benign intricacy of scientific hypothesis.

To build the drone, Goodwin’s atelier had to trawl the internet and gain access to concealed information. The layers of this process mimic the layers of the drawings themselves. Duchamp is pure stealth. He is still being decoded. But the form and function of the drone stripped bare and unsheathed for intimate appraisal is the ultimate act of exposing the obscenity rather than the eroticism of contemporary war-fare. Here is a phallus that is sex and death in one, and its’ blow is silent. There is no irony here, the fetish of the swollen prow and its toxic cargo can be seen from every angle.

It is mapped and it is named.

 

THE SHADOW AND THE STAIN

The spectacle of poverty is different in the shelter of the gallery. Here a shanty dwelling has been built to house a video shot in a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai. We can go into the structure and sit in the darkness but without stench or danger. Or, more truthfully, we can look at the houses built on a single lane of an active highway through a slit, like the missing paling in a fence. It’s like a glimpse through a car window. What we might see on the way to a hotel.

Richard Goodwin chose to enact his “Drone Dorje” ritual on a patch of pavement that was actually constructed on top of a working roadway. It is common in India for whole lanes of highways to be subsumed into dwellings so that people are living not just in the street but on the freeway itself. The residents of the slum where this performance was enacted were invited to participate using their own skills and traditional ritual materials. Local women tenderly stitched a cotton skin onto the drone, and, upon completion placed Marigold wreathes upon its length. The original concept, to burn and offer ritual burial to the Drone was deemed too physically contentious to complete and so the relic we have is simply the offering. The artist say’s he chose this place as it was as physically close to the actual target zone of military aggression by the United States to Pakistan as he could safely reach.

The Drone model was taken to India in a suitcase in separate units, the operation of the ritual created a parallel to stealth but there was no mockery in the act.

“Drone Dorje” brings the weapon to the wound.

At first the room that contains disparate objects and esoteric drawings feels theatrical. Upon closer study there are symmetries at play, conversations being held and  we might be being asked to laugh at our assumptions about the purity of science or the wisdom of government. Like a shanty built in a road there is no safety. Everything is tremulous and everywhere is a target.

The term ‘war zone’ is an antiquity.

One such act of mirroring: The width of the charcoal drawing that the proto Drone sits upon is perhaps the exact width of the slum itself. And unlike the crisp beauty of the equations and dancing numbers of the major drawing, the ‘landing strip’ looks like residue, a drop cloth soaked in soot. Or blood as imagined by Picasso. In newsreel black and white.

 

THE PERPETUAL PERIPHERAL

What is on the edge of our vision? Often famine. Usually war. Because war is all the time and because war is no longer officiated by geography or ground troops. Death is deployed to places we’ll never see by machines with no witness. The disparity of wealth is astonishing. Imagine a village with no electricity or running water being targeted by aerial surveillance that costs billions. Do drones count sheep as well as civilians?

A Drone is the ultimate prosthetic. Richard Goodwin’s continued interest in where the body ends and art or architecture begins in the form of exoskeletons, has led him to question the drone as a prosthetic device. This machine extends the wish to kill without “engagement”. The human hand is removed but only remotely. Individuals are still operating the machine. Deployment infers choice.

 

BLIND PENETRATION

It’s not a model aeroplane. It is a remote assassin. The victims are unaccounted for. The targets are not public domain. The prow has strange proportions, like a bullet or an extinct bird. I had never seen one before, and this one is smeared with the ashes of the dead. Made of paper. Heavy as lead. Someone needed to lift the veil.

 

REDEMPTION SONG

If war is the most basic duality: them and us, good versus evil, theology versus ideology. Then only anti-dualist philosophy can shatter and heal the sanctioned philosophy of violence.

The Dorje stands for everything a Drone is not. 1.  It is a mystical talisman and symbol of integration on many levels both explicit and subtle. Where Drone is absurdly expensive a Dorje is priceless. Where a Drone is without conscience a Dorje aspires to pure consciousness, liberated by vigilant awareness.

As an art object it transcends the realm of sculptural integrity and begs us to consider spirit as equal to matter. Duchamp exposed the impotency of art when it was reduced to pure base materiality. Yet sculptural objects held within the hand have always emanated power. From the Venus of Willendorf to a Buddhist bell, what we touch is made sacred.

The more that is stripped bare the more we need to believe in. Science has no sutra. Science attests to material entities and projected outcomes but it is growing further and further detached from human rights, moral codes or the redemptive forces of progress. Art, like a dirty mirror, is almost as empty. The spectacle has been under glass for decades. The revolution is televised and the rituals that sought to integrate the highest dimensions of human experience are an exotic side show .

In this project, Richard Goodwin collates impossible dualities. A tiny exquisitely wrought model of a Drone is cast in Bronze like a Tantric ritual object. And the maps to arms are drawn with the tenderness of an erotic etching. A billion dollar deployment weapon sits on the paper landing strip of a slum and everything is compressed into one conversation. It fills my heart with a strange elation. The idea that we still might have a choice.

Can we meditate upon a Drone and follow its path into complete nihilism and despair or can we hope for something more historically enduring than a stain?

An artist can provide little more than a side-show. The bride or the corpse glimpsed through a black curtain or the veil of broken glass. But art still has the power to bring death to life and it’s not elsewhere. It never was.

 

  1. (Meditation upon the dorje will guide the body, mind and spirit to the awakened state where all the psycho-cosmic elements of our incarnation are integrated and raised to their highest level. It is both the Path and its Symbol. And it is an exquisitely curious artistic design that can be appreciated even if one is only at the preliminary stages necessary for the esoteric exploration of its utility. Sourced from www.dorge.org)

 

With thanks to the artist for this conversation,

Anna Johnson, October, 2013