Art, prosthesis and history

Alex Ajayi

Jane Blocker, a specialist in contemporary art and critical theory, presented “The Prosthetic Work of History: Sound, Repair and the Work of Goat Island” in the Wriston auditorium Thursday, May 14. The lecture was sponsored by the Department of Art and Art History, the Fine Arts Colloquium and the Wriston Art Collective as part of this year’s Visiting Artist Series.
Blocker, an associate professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, was a mentor to Lawrence’s own assistant professor of art history, Elizabeth Carlson, who warmly introduced the nearly tearful speaker.
Blocker’s lecture examined how we analyze history through art. She illustrated this with the 2005 performance piece “When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy” by Goat Island, a Chicago-based collaborative performance group. Goat Island’s piece incorporates aspects of film and historical documentation to make their audience rethink history through art.
These performances were based on and influenced by repair manuals as well as Paul Celan’s poetry and comedy routines, all of which are forms of “historical documentation.”
Said the group, “history has become an impossible problem,” creating a tension between real and representation. Specifically, Blocker’s study examined how historical art is emulated through the artistic process of repair and prosthetics.
Blocker cited Maria Abramovic’s 1992 recreation of Joseph Beuys’ 1965 work “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” According to Blocker, this groundbreaking performance piece exemplifies the process of emulating art using the process of repair, using prosthesis to repair historical ruptures.
For Blocker, the act of repairing and using a prosthetic is clearly illustrated in Goat Island’s “September roses.” The performance was designed to take place over the course of two nights, with only a portion of each night’s performance constituting entirely new material, unique to that night. The other performance material was to be repeated, in different sequences, each night.
This unique dynamic illustrates the mending element of art. “September roses” draws parallels between Abu Ghraib and WWII, analyzing the ways in which history is recreated through the process of repair.
Another form of repair Blocker described in her lecture was the process of making a bioartificial heart. During a scientific breakthrough in the lab of Doris Taylor, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at University of Minnesota, scientists were able to “wash away cells from an existing heart” and then “repopulate[d] that framework to form a beating heart.”
Blocker saw this scientific procedure paralleled in a sequence from “September roses” in which Goat Island performed the choreography of the Andrew Sisters’ 1941 song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to a distorted recording of Dolly Parton’s “The Great Pretender.” This sequence, Blocker argued, “was a defibrillated jumpstart that caused 1941 to start beating again.”
She summed up both this sequence and the procedure for creating a bioartificial heart in three steps: “Hollow, Fill and Make Recognizable.” She suggested that we see these steps as instructions for one way to repair history.