Gil Marco Shani's Post-Political Practice (or the Draftsman's Contract)

Sarit Shapira

[E]very man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself … The same trade generally passes down from father to son, inclinations often following descent; but if any man's genius lies another way, he is by adoption translated into a family that deals in the trade to which he is inclined. ... The chief, and almost the only business of the Syphogrants, is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently.
- Sir Thomas More, Utopia1

A dog's tongue sticks out, the tongues of several wolves, a bloodstain revealed at the opening of a pup tent, a woman's vagina being possessed by two soldiers, the pointed beak of a bird either in flight or perched on a branch, triangular roofs, blood dripping from the either pierced or speckled body of a fawn, a crushed arm and leg of a soldier lying by an armored vehicle, anemone petals, underwear, the mouths of sewing sweatshop workers, the unbuttoned shirts of teenage boys seated on their beds, an intravenous bag suspended over the bed of a wounded man, the leash in the soldier's hand restraining a dog, the blood splattering from a body thrust against the wall by two figures whose tight-lipped mouths are tinged with red—like many other mouths, and glandes, and petals, and pointed beaks, and other sharp points shaped like pyramid tops.
    This is just a partial inventory of the images in Gil Marco Shani's drawings, the bulk of which appear in his artist's book, Dome (2006). The red stain passes from one page to the next, like a leitmotif, as a trace of painterly practice, as staining or seal, a mark of disgrace or an ultimate authority. This stain punctuates the surfaces of the works like a last sign of life beating on the monitor; thus in the range of "bleeding" subjects, and thus in the myriad architectural images or the sights of workshops shriveled to fit a geometrical grid. As if in these superstructures (archi-tecture) and in the smoothly ordered sites of production, as in all the other loci, the same red stain signifies the traces of abominable and passionate activities.
    Each time anew, the same red stain is confronted with the movement of the line on the drawing surface. This line, which defines the figures partaking in libidinous scenes, extends around the bounds of their body, often slightly compressing-distorting their features. This line extracts its figures from the emptiness of the paper; without it they lack differentiation, features, and identity—their content is, though, as empty as the backdrop engulfing it. This dependent identity of the figures and depictions of the act of drawing enables the classification of Shani's works as part of Heinrich Wölfflin's historiographical diagnosis, where he indicates a painterly inclination dominated by acts of drawing, recurring in different historical periods. According to Wölfflin, "If ever a fact of art history has become popular, it is that the primitives were essentially draughtsmen […] Linear vision […] means that the sense and beauty of things is first sought in the outline […] [T]he eye is led along the boundaries, and induced to feel along the edges […] Linear art, too, has to deal with bodies and space […] But line as fixed boundary is assigned a superior or equal value to them. […] Not the fact that lines are present decides as to the linear character of a style, but—as we have already remarked—the power with which they compel the eye to follow them. The contour of the classic design exercises an absolute power: it is the contour which tells us the facts and on it the picture as decoration rests."2
    The lines in Shani's drawings exemplify this "compulsiveness" of the medium of drawing. It seems, however, that the domination and arbitrariness of the linear element is more conspicuous in his paintings, where there is nothing but a monochromatic color screen presented as a platform in the service of a determined line. The presence of this line becomes more acute when the painting's dimensions grow: as in the large-scale paintings with the blue background created recently, where the intensity of the line, moving and operating on a uniform, desolate background (as in the desert, at sea, in the sky) was likewise heightened. These paintings even appear momentarily as drawings stretched or blown far beyond their contours; therefore the dictates determined by their lines contain a certain air of exaggeration, almost consciously vulgar, almost deliberately mutant.
    To a large extent, these lines are no less violent3 and violating than the subjects they depict: the rape, the wrongs of the occupation, sexual degeneracy trailing behind political degeneracy, sadism aimed at the helpless (mainly animals). The validity and aggression of the lines are equal to their obsessive determination to discipline anything that might be the trace of a wild hand gesture, thereby forcing the urge into the narrow bounds defining the quasi-"objective" existence of things. This "realistic" aspect of the works' nuances, set against the aridity of the backdrop, reveals itself as a drawing of a memory emerging ex nihilo, while forcing what the features of objects in the world once were (or are supposed to be in the future) on the figures, the objects, and the landscapes. It is an artificial memory since the background for its operation is artificial—the result of painterly work, which also calls to mind distinctively artificial products such as posters or design items painted with industrial paint.
    There, within and out of meticulously made artificial site and memory, while the line creating and defining his figures also restrains any expression of sensuality presented by their postures and the scenes around them, the dramatic role of each figure is gradually elucidated. Being defined by the very medium which curbs any emotional expression, this figure embodies the momentum when love is replaced by greed, sensuality by lechery, sexuality by perversion, lust by pornography, wild attack by tyrannical violence, revelry by brutality, erotic power by enacting violation. This is also true of the figures engaged in acts of orgy, in the privacy of masturbation, in scenes of flagellation, vis-à-vis the hunting victim, during the execution of the evils of the occupation; this is also the state of things, however, with regard to the images of architecture, the pyramids or the erect minaret, in which sexuality, libidinal forces, Eros and Thanatos, are repressed.
    The reference to the figures' physicality in Shani's works is manifested in the unique taste ascribed to their mouths: the kissing, sucking, licking, devouring mouth, likened to a beak; the mouth expected to scream or cry in agony. In these works, however, there is no expression that may call to mind any voice or sound.4 Instead, the explicit violence in the works is accompanied by a sense of a voiceless muteness, the same oppressive silence which is no longer signified in the memory of the signals of life. This silence is the companion of a petrified world, whose stasis is evident precisely because the works are filled with figures presenting movements, postures, and situations (injury, being hunted, separation, death) that may be perceived as the outcomes of antecedent or subsequent moments. Due to the line defining them, however, they are presented as bedeviled, denied all contact with time and its laws.
    One past memory is certainly implanted in these figures, referring one to the beginnings of conceptual art, to the works of Marcel Duchamp, and even to their antecedents, those of Paul Cézanne. These works have turned the world upside down so that restrainment, prohibition, or perversion of feelings, passions, and drives will be recognized as their means of conceptual practice. In remembering and depicting this conceptual process, Shani's works refer one to important landmarks in the route of modernist conceptualization, which are, at any event, a part of it—both due to their identification as the traces (linguistic signs) of a multidisciplinary visual apparatus which produces popular printed matter such as porn magazines, Japanese manga, teenage magazines, and interior design and office furniture publications. Shani's "indexical" works, however—through their narratives and from the linear sanctions they impose on their libidinal subjects—return the memory of the strict principles of early conceptual dynasty to the distant offspring of "Popist" practice, the one often unfortunately deemed by the public a lightsome, vain activity which is only slightly removed from design or entertainment products.
    Like many other images which follow the media—or, to use Jean Baudrillard's words, the "precession of simulacra"5—Shani's figures too transpire in a "hyper-realistic" space (Baudrillard) devoid of either nostalgic expression or any evidence for the memory of worlds lost from that space. The total correlation between that which is activated and produced by mechanized reproduction apparatuses (such as a voiceless violence) and an innate deficiency (such as muteness), generates an entirely flat field of action found at a type of "zero point" where everything might end, or alternatively—begin again. These two options are at stake whenever a work of art affiliated with the issuing apparatuses of mechanized products and images is produced or presented. But when works of art—like Shani's—are executed manually, through art's "classical" media, such as drawing and painting, there seems to be a good chance that this "zero point" (according to Roland Barthes) of the linguistic sphere would become the point of departure for something new and unfamiliar. Clearly, such annexation to the mechanized production apparatuses is primarily intended for the regulation and "cooling" of any passion, emotion, or an unmediated expression. At the same time, despite the explicit political disillusionment manifested in the works and the certainty arising from them that every moment of climax has already been compressed and trampled into the linguistic plane, and that every manifestation of pathos is only a pathetic cliché, Shani's works return, time and again, to the practice of drawing and drawing-based painting like pilgrims making their way to the blocked gates of a place which remembers that the individual's manual creation and the traditional medium of painting were once attributed the value of an "origin," a moment of catharsis, and a mythical zero point.6
    In fact, the return to and repetition of the act of painting and drawing occur in each of the works. During the work process Shani customarily smears monochromatic paint on the picture plane, draws on it, covering the drawing with an additional layer of paint, drawing on it again, and so on, until reaching a satisfactory result. In this prolonged, obsessive, serial process, he raises and closes a curtain before and behind the drama of drawing, as one who knows that a scene may emerge only when the previous show is over. He erases and reveals the drawing, as one who acknowledges its ephemeral validity, as if he were intermittently turning on and off the "aura" of the act of drawing and painting. Every time he erases and subsequently draws his painting anew, however, the same blank color plate is offered as a site where the possible existence of a "place" and an "origin" is introduced: a realm where both an absolute starting point for the work's tools, and an unmediated (empathic) point in which the means of painting are perceived, is made possible. Shani's drawing, as mediated as it may be by contexts and means (mediums and media), momentarily binds its elegant and modeled face with lines extending over and under the painting strata, like a neural grid striving to grasp anew the immediate, active, unmediated existence of the medium of painting and drawing.
    In the past six years Shani has been working on an ambitious, yet unrealized, project entitled School for Terror,7 to which a large number of paintings, objects, sculptures, and small-scale installations created during this period refer (or were practically extracted from it). The project is supposed to span a sequence of installations, which, as chapters in a literary or cinematic narrative, evolve from one to another in the rooms of an architectural structure. The scenes spun in its rooms unfold a visual narrative concocted by Shani, like a quasi-colonialist epic about a camel caravan progressing in infinite, desolate desert expanses until it loses its way and collapses.8 This background plot is woven into the memories of other wilderness epics, motivated by tragic romantic visions, such as the one described in Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel In Desert and Wilderness (1912), or those presented in later cinematic pieces, such as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Bernardo Bertolucci's Sheltering Sky (1991), Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (1996), or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (2007).
    Parts of Shani's installation epic were planned as rooms transforming into landscape simulations where hot wind blows forcefully from giant fans. Other rooms feature camel figures handcrafted from paper,9 some of them placed on set tables as in the production halls of cheap decorative knickknacks. These camels, which are "second-rate goods," to quote Shani, often resemble maimed animals: limbs spread, collapsing, afflicted. Their design from papercuts and paper folding often lends them a skeletal look that calls to mind skinned corpses of which only the bones remain. Some of the camels are wrapped in nylon, further reinforcing their identification with corpses wrapped before their removal from the world. In every corner where these paper camels are placed, the eschatological horizon of romantic and post-romantic voyages is, in fact, found. A political reading of the works would regard the camels' dead, shell-like appearance as a metaphor for the deteriorated state of the romantic-colonialist voyage into the fantastic realm of the Orient. (A reading of these sickly, forlorn camels in the mirror of the recent tragic political events on the Gaza-Israel border may deem them an embodiment of the weakness and death to which the Orient, its inhabitants and animals, have been condemned).
    The camels are the remains of a ruined world, but at the same time, they are the offspring of a lineage which continues to be produced in the gray workshops contained within the School for Terror. These production sites were planned according to the structures of workshops employing mainly migrant Asian workers, located in areas of light industry and inexpensive trade which have developed in recent years at the margins of big Western cities, alongside the great industries of the age of globalization. Shani seems to join the backyard of the "First World" in order to discover and devise there a production mechanism whose action and products will disconcert one with the memory of moments of (post-colonial) disillusionment, which identified the fiction concerning the vitality of the East as one of the fibs, manipulations, and commodities of colonialism and capitalism. The "terror" imposed by each of Shani's workshops on its visitors is largely due to his ability to produce—time and again, incessantly and compulsively—hybridization of the fantasy about the Orient (in the figure of the camel) with the illusion about the exotic (by means of the image of paper-folding reminiscent of Japanese origami).
    The organs of this reified, camel-shaped hybrid are created and shattered through the paper folds—just as the figures in Shani's paintings and drawings are defined and forced by means of sharp lines. The folding of the paper camels is done manually, in spite of and through its execution in the shadow of the interests of the "global" world and the reproductive patterns of an industrialized mechanism. Such is Shani's drawing too, conveyed via a manual act, despite and by following the contour of the images in "media" patterns and products. For Shani, obeying the "cold" procedures and exhibits (to use Marshall McLuhan's words) of mass media is perceived differently when it is executed by hand, through the warmth and privacy of individual touch.
    Therefore, the performers of the folding and preparation of the camel figures—as silent, submissive, obedient, and alienated as they may be—are summoned to "school" to learn and exercise another production possibility in unison; or more accurately, they are invited to come together so that their identity as workers will, at some point, turn into a new (or renewed) craftsman guild. This guild pins its hopes on the private hand, the personal eye, and the individual's judgment to redeem it from the dead-end to which the cynical, political sobriety condemned its products. This guild is also called upon to be the painter's life saver.

1. Sir Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Dover Thrift, 1997), pp. 33-34.

2. Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, trans.: Marie Donald Mackie Hottinger (New York: Dover, 1972), pp. 29, 18, 19, 30 [respectively].

3. Shani refers to the figures whose contours are tightened around them as "papercuts." This image hints at the violence involved in dictating defining lines and the figures' definition.

4. This phrasing is based on an argument made by Jacques Lacan in his Seminar X, maintaining that when the image of the voice is invoked by visual means (such as Edvard Munch's The Scream), it embodies the unheard voice; see: Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre X: L'angoisse, 1962-63 (Paris: Seuil, 2004).

5. Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra," Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

6. This refers to ideas introduced by Walter Benjamin in his canonical essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

7. The school image already appeared in Shani's early work, when in 1996, in the video Infancy/The Soft Age?? (featured in the exhibition "Sap," curator: Sarit Shapira), he revisited his former high school gym, executing a clownish dance in its empty space, as if in hindsight.

8. This camel caravan is also the underlying motif in a series of large-scale paintings Shani created between 2004 and 2007.

9. This production line of camels made by handiwork alludes to an earlier work by Shani, Decorative Attendance (1996), also featured in the exhibition "Sap." In that work Shani hand-sewed a collection of uniquely modeled shoes in consecutive sizes.