A.R.S. MORIENDI: “THE EXHAUSTED SKY” OF MAMORU TSUKADA
BY ROLLIN BEAMISH
“...besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it in ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros, there was an instinct of death.”
“If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization -possibly the whole of mankind- have become ‘neurotic’?”
“The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. (...) Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help, they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to exert himself in his struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”
Sigmund Freud, Excerpted from “Civilization and its Discontents”.
While considering the “The Exhausted Sky”, the ambitious recent project preoccupying Japanese artist Mamoru Tsukada, it seems appropriate to begin with the above citations from Sigmund Freud, written at a point when his ambivalence over the trajectory of human culture was perhaps at its most despairing. “Civilization and its Discontents” was written in 1929, more than ten years after the end of World War I -the “imperialist mass slaughter” as Leninists were wont to call it- and at the beginning of the social unrest and crisis of global capitalism leading to the moral and technological horrors of World War II. In his paper, Freud effectively sketched a telos for human civilization that aligned with his observations of individual pathologies. Thus, the “death instinct” -Freud’s description of the apparent human urge towards destruction, or a return to a “primeval inorganic state”- could be extrapolated onto society as a whole. This implied that, despite the enduring, preservative characteristics of civilization, its ultimate destiny was perhaps oriented towards the communal disintegration of the organism, and that the most effective way of realizing this “aim” was through collective action in civilization.
Freud died almost literally on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, and he certainly had reasons for his pessimism. Still, even he might have been shocked over the unprecedented capacity, manifested in the atomic bomb, to technologically realize the implications of his diagnosis of communal “Todestrieb”. Regardless of what one thinks of Freud or his theories, these remarks of his are stunning, and have become only more trenchant as time has passed. For, although it’s a widely accepted misconception that lemmings instinctively commit mass suicide, much contemporary evidence suggests that humans may be altogether equal to this task.
Certainly, this is a rather melancholy train of thought to begin a discussion of the work of an artist. Nevertheless, “The Exhausted Sky” encourages this of us, for this expansive project of photography and installation explores the physical and emotional cost, individually and societally, of the development of nuclear technology. The foundations of this project, which Tsukada initiated in 2013, began with the triangulation of three points on the globe significant to the history of nuclear technology: Berlin, where the first experiments leading to the discovery of nuclear fission were made in 1938; the “Trinity” atomic test site, 53 km southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, where the first successful test of a plutonium implosion fission device was made; and finally the city of Hiroshima, infamous for being the first of the only two cities where an atomic weapon was actually deployed in war (though, horrifically enough, not at a military target).
Rather than prosaically documenting these sites in an aesthetic one might expect, Tsukada has rather bafflingly turned the camera upwards to instead focus upon the sky. Because of this, we must simply accept his word that the resulting images have indeed come from these places of historical significance. In changing perspective, Tsukada implicitly invokes what is often concealed by the specificity of place; namely, the interrelationships of our world as a whole. Tsukada views the sky as an index of the “commons”, or the fact that we must all coexist in this one world; there is no other “place” for us. Hence, in directing us upwards, Tsukada invites us to consider that the changes and circulations of the biosphere as a whole are perhaps most clearly “expressed” through changes in weather patterns. All we have to do is look up. In photographing, re-photographing, superimposing, and editing these images of skies from these specific locations, Tsukada engages in a process that hyper-attenuates this simple act. It is “drawn out”; not in the manner of a film with a prescribed running time; nor in the manner of a loop with a presumably infinite repetition; but rather in an ambiguous “duration” of another kind, which perhaps highlights the ways in which both time and place are disclosed to us “ready-made”. This readiness-to-hand often has the unfortunate side-effect of concealing more than it ultimately reveals; we commonly “see through” the ordinariness of a given context. Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message” alludes to the risks run by such an assumption of transparency, while the Duchampian “ready-made” asks us to consider context itself as a “medium”. And thus, interestingly, aesthetic strategies, ever Janus-faced, risk utter misdirection while simultaneously highlighting the best pathways by which to navigate such difficulties.
Hence, in considering “The Exhausted Sky”, it’s important not to fall into easy assumptions, beginning even with the title itself, of which we must necessarily inquire: precisely what, or whom, is exhausted? It seems ridiculous to suggest that the sky is exhausted “in itself”; rather, it is more interesting to consider whether the sky (and tacitly, the biosphere as a whole) is becoming exhausted “for us”. In 1992, ridiculing the “save the planet” rhetoric endemic to liberal environmentalism, George Carlin perspicaciously quipped: “The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are!” This is pure Nietzschean perspectivism: an acknowledgment of the intrinsically illusory and contradictory nature of the “truths” we establish so desperately to ensure the stability of the logos by which we gain purchase on “reality”. Tsukada likewise asks us to shift our point of view.
Indeed, nuclear technology eminently highlights the precariousness of our survivability. Take for example the danger of Acute Radiation Syndrome (A.R.S.), which is an enduring risk run even by nuclear technology employed for “peaceful” purposes. In a jarring, almost literal illustration of Freud’s description of the death drive, A.R.S. results in cellular degradation through damage to the very genetic structure of an organism. Cells cannot divide normally and the organism effectively begins to “break down”. Interestingly, this process, (and more broadly, the notion of the human agency at play in risking the dissolution of a sustainable biosphere) is also aesthetically invoked by Tsukada in his work. In installation, Tsukada places hundreds of digital prints of his “Exhausted Sky” images on the floor of the exhibition space. During the course of the exhibition viewers must walk over these images, eventually degrading or outright destroying them. In a separate space, examples of images that have already undergone this process of degradation are installed as works in their own right: an invitation for viewers to contemplate their role in this process of disintegration. These poetics of the specificity of space create an opportunity to reflect not on the precariousness of place itself, but rather how we occupy a place; how we occupy our home. The metaphorical potential this holds with regard to the conceptual impetus of the overall project is clear. What is perhaps more noteworthy is to ask why Tsukada is inviting us to consider these questions on the first place. As dire and melancholy as our global situation may be, and although art can often maddeningly highlight this, it is nevertheless difficult to consider any work of art to be entirely nihilistic. At worst (and this is indeed a real problem) art can become a palliative measure; an almost autonomic reflex, both productive of civilizational reification as well as contingently generative of loci for the circulation of capital. But it’s always something more as well, even if we are unable to grasp it completely.
As such, it might be appropriate to consider the incommensurable qualities of art; in other words, art’s “divinity”. Perhaps the power of art stems from its capacity to seemingly generate possibility ex nihilo -outside the scope of intentionality and legibility. What is uncanny in all this is that, though art perhaps mirrors the generative power of “nature”, it is nevertheless decidedly human, as if “something” were speaking through us. We might shudder in consideration of whether this is the ebullient power of “Eros” at work, or just another expression of the telos of “Thanatos”.
Clearly however, nuclear technology also expresses a certain divinity of its own. Indeed, its ultimate destiny might be expressed as a form of “divine violence” in the sense employed by Walter Benjamin: a force of absolute effacement; not expiatory, not punitive, but a “swallowing up”, as it were, without a trace. There was a certain ambivalent trauma in Benjamin’s ruminations on this power, for despite its eschatological implications, he argued that such divine expression was the only way out of the deadlock of a civilization “im Bann” -or “spellbound”- by its history and mythology; in short, its ideology. That survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks described the initial blast of the bombs as infinitely bright, “like a million camera flashes going off at once”, certainly does evoke Benjamin’s expression of the excessive incommensurability of divine emergence.
Indeed, art is subjected to an excessiveness of its own and, whether explicit or implicit, embedded within any art is a question of value. The real test might be to engage this question of value head-on; accepting that in shifting these coordinates, one might radically change the scope and destiny of meaning outright; risking the dissolution of deeply “valued” categories and distinctions -including art. For now though, we can put aside the question of what precisely constitutes art per se, and what its destiny might be. Tsukada and his “Exhausted Sky” invite us to rather think about where we are, what we are doing, and what we might leave behind.
We can think about Peterborough’s close proximity to Port Hope, where the Eldorado Radium Extraction Plant processed uranium sourced from, among other places, Port Radium in Canada’s Northwest Territory – and whose processed minerals were secretly delivered for use in the Manhattan Project, and the creation of the first atomic bombs tested at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, and dropped on Hiroshima. We can think about Chalk River, which once housed Chalk River Laboratories, home of the first reactor outside the U.S. with the ability to refine weapons-grade plutonium. We can think about Elliot Lake Ontario, which would later become known as “the uranium capital of the world”; a testament both to the post-war boom in mining for military purposes, as well as Canada’s history of contributing to the global proliferation of nuclear technology. In short, we can think of Canada’s contribution to the Manhattan Project as well as broader global efforts to refine fissile material for use in nuclear weapons development after the war. And despite, the fact that Canada ceased all exports of nuclear material for military purposes in 1965 -becoming a signatory of the United Nations Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty in 1970- we can nevertheless consider what our communities and governments have done, and are continuing to do, to either further or hinder our chances for survival as a species. These specific details -the obverse, perhaps, of the holism Mamoru Tsukada at first invokes with “The Exhausted Sky”- might hit close to home, since they form an indelible part of the context into which even Peterborough itself is embedded. For, if one were pressed to the absurd task of determining a “function” for art, seeing one’s familiar surroundings anew might be a good place to start.
Hence the importance for us to think of our ongoing collective activity, including what manner of “divinity” we might strive for, however fatuously. Will it be gregariously generative, “ex nihilo”; or will it swallow us up without a trace? Such ambivalence must make us consider that transcendence might lie outside of value; truly beyond good and evil. And so, in wondering where we’ll go, or what we’ll achieve, it seems an opportune moment to repeat the last sentence of Freud’s paper, added in 1931 after the ascendancy of Hitler had become clear, “But who can foresee with what success, and with what result?”
Berlin, September 2017
Rollin Beamish (*1977) is an artist and Associate Professor of Painting at the Montana State University. Born, raised, and educated in Ohio, he eventually escaped and currently divides most of his time between Berlin, Germany and Bozeman, Montana.