Private Project

Fragile

In this project I am investigating the western preoccupation with biological transcendence. The desire to transcend the limits of the biological body and to become one with (a) God, or, indeed, to become a god oneself has been constant throughout western history and reappears, albeit in transmuted form, in contemporary cyber-discourse and biomedical engineering.

Historically in the west the biological body has been denigrated in favour of the soul/mind. Although seen as earth-bound and corrupt, for some Early Christians (2nd to 4th century BCE) the body could be a vehicle in service of “human fluidity into the divine”. Given the paradox that the Christian must die in order to live, the paradigmatic image of Christian art is not the beautiful god or hero of Greek sculpture, nor the powerful Roman emperor, but the martyr who gladly yields up his or her body to violent death. For both Early Christians and later Christian mystics, preparation for a life beyond the biological body involved a life-long ascetical program, which might include the mortification of the flesh and the redirection of libido from the human world to the divine. For some Christians, the hatred of the body suggested by much orthodox theology took extreme and pathological forms. For example, Origen, believing that sexuality was the primary source of sin and evil, castrated themselves for the greater glory of God. Similarly, flagellants beat themselves almost to death in their efforts to attain a state of spiritual ecstasy in preparation for the afterlife.

These fantasies of biological transcendence took varied forms. For Florentine mystics such as Maria Pazzi and Umiliana de’Cherchi the final destination in the mystic odyssey was the falling away of the biological body and the union with God in a spiritual marriage. For Renaissance humanist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Cornelius Agrippa the earthly body was a tool to be manipulated in the service of a transcendent end in which it would become dematerialized pure spirit. In the occult magical doctrine propounded by Ficino, Agrippa and Giordano Bruno the human individual could through magic literally become God through the exercise of intellect and creative power. As in the beliefs of the Christian mystics, here too this result is imagined as post-biological, with the effacement or dissolution of the mortal flesh.

In the early 21st century how far along the way to becoming “post-biological” are we? Will a transhuman future see humans become undying gods? Will a posthuman culture regard bodies as fashion accessories which can be changed and manipulated at will? Currently, finitude is a condition of human being and human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. Will we, and it, survive?

  • Lisa MacLean
    Director
  • Lisa MacLean
    Producer
  • Project Type:
    Experimental, Short, Web / New Media
  • Genres:
    Art, Memento Mori, Requiem, Short, Experimental
  • Runtime:
    10 minutes 5 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    March 23, 2017
  • Production Budget:
    1,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    Canada
  • Country of Filming:
    Canada
  • Language:
    English
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital
  • Film Color:
    Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    No
Director Biography - Lisa MacLean

Lisa MacLean has an MFA in Studio Art and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Art History, English, and Sociology) from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She has exhibited her art work and created installations locally, nationally, and internationally for many years and has been an artist in residence at institutions in Belgium, France, Turkey, and Italy. In addition to teaching in several post-secondary institutions in Canada and producing her own work, Lisa has curated a range of exhibitions and taken part in many collaborative projects. Spanning a variety of disciplines including digital media, photography, video, and mixed media installation, her practice confronts concerns related to cultural and natural history, gender, landscape and the body, architectural space, the environment, and memory.

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Director Statement

I have always been fascinated by the human body and the ways in which it has been represented historically in both anatomical art and medical science. The picture of humanity that emerges from a study of bodily representation is one of fantasy and pathos. While actual human bodies are subject to disease, dissolution and death, we continue to try to overcome the limitations of biology in fantasies of transcendence, whether these be predicated on more and more extreme medical interventions into the human body or on developing virtual bodies which might allow us to become undying gods.

This body of work was inspired initially by a rotting pumpkin. Noticing it in a bowl at a friend’s house, I marveled at its beautiful colours and the fascinating shapes the mold made as it traveled over the vegetable’s skin-like surface. This chance encounter prompted my mind to travel in various seemingly divergent but ultimately related directions. Why not select various vegetables, especially those whose rounded physiognomy suggested the human body such as the gourd and the squash, and photographically record the process of their decay? The vegetables became surrogate human beings whose decline uncannily mirrored our own.

The images in this film allude also to the art historical genre of Vanitas paintings, most fully developed in 17th century Holland. Those images, of flowers, fruit, tiny insects, sometimes butterflies, smoking candles and occasionally skulls, are called “Vanity paintings” and were meant to be evocations of the transience of human existence. Such paintings are complex moral allegories which depict the vanity of all earthly desires. The flowers and the fruit are symbols of earthly beauty and its ephemerality, reminders, in a time of religious belief, that all material life disappears while the kingdom of heaven alone remains. In a single image, painters would combine a universe of floral birth and death: buds, flowers in full bloom and flowers with drooping or fallen petals or being consumed by insects are all included in the composition to indicate the inevitable passage of time and the approach of death.

However, whatever the fantasy, the actual biological body imaged by art and worked upon by medical science is mortal and it may be that, irrespective of our fantasies of transcendence, finitude is a crucial condition of being human.