The Machine in the Ghost

thomas

‘In Walter Benjamin’s often-quoted but little-read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), the writer bemoans the increasingly prevalent loss of the aura or authenticity of an object when it is replicated. Appropriately, Benjamin identifies that we are now locked within systems (a Bayrelian idea if ever there were one). He implies that some of this missing aura has been diverted into the way creative objects are produced and those who control those means (an idea tacitly endorsed by the current monopolising advances by gatekeepers such as Windows, Google and Spotify and their otherwise bewildering worship at the expense of what is now risibly labelled “content”). We might go further and claim that our lives have lost this “aura” or had it stolen. Even statements of defiance, however, are consumed in both senses of the word; either converted into harmless saleable wares or crushed, as evidenced in Bayrle’s General Electric (1970).

Despite Benjamin’s accuracy, Bayrle’s artwork proves the theorist was too pessimistic. Aura may well be located in the eye of the beholder and may exist still within the capabilities of the creator. An artist such as Bayrle can isolate commonplace throwaway objects and infuse them with previously absent substance, if not quite authenticity. Despite its commercialisation, the power of art as “a place without” has not yet been completely erased. We may well be adrift in a sea of flotsam, but the best artists can raise an object above our heads to contemplate for the briefest of moments. Notably, the old word for aura, which the quasi-Marxist Benjamin sidestepped, was “soul”. In Bayrle’s Madonna Mercedes (1989), we are presented with a Virgin Mary and child icon made from distorted shots of a luxury car. “What is sacred?” he may be asking us. “Is anything still profane?” Perhaps there is the suggestion that spiritual glory has been replaced by soulless greed. It is worth asking, however, as Bayrle’s work mischievously hints, whether we ever had a soul to lose. And if we did, what price did it sell for?’

On Thomas Bayrle, Pop Art and the missing soul of modernity

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