History according to ecology

“My conscience is perfectly aligned with the horizon and is borne from oil.” Nikolai Nekh

My conscience is oil – perhaps the most concise statement of Nikolai Nekh’s work – is the acknowledgement of a turning point of an ontological perspective on the man. Before this statement, another stressed this post-human jump as well: “I am made of images”. Meat gives its place to metal, blood to an oily and viscous sap, bones to metal, brain to transistors. The construction of the body according to Nekh is prosthetic, humanoid, vaguely anthropomorphic, never fully human – or, at least, not exactly as we know it in reality; somewhere between the digital and the sentient body, the body builds itself on additions and subtractions. There is no gender, it doesn’t need weight, height, matter: it is post-human. It may be simply a “ghost” on a basic hardware. But it has consciousness; and if it has conscious, it has intelligence; and if it has intelligence, it has the ability to foresee a critical and historical narrative of life.

This is the communicating conscious that Nekh has in Achilles Heel. The horizon triggers History’s unfoldment in an axial travel between east and west, between the Greek classical antiquity and the hyper-industrial modernity. The video is used to review the canons and the edification of history; the story – increasingly forgotten among contemporary artists but recalled in this case – ranks over the scholar hermetic text; image’s fragmentation is the memory of a temporization of several periods, chronologies, civilizations, techniques and expressions. In this context, we are no longer faced with a simple awareness, but a superconscious made of art.

“The government was forced to crack down on pollution to keep the Taj Mahal’s marble a little bit cleaner.” (Idem)

But this review’s overtone is something different. The wars and diplomatic meetings are not the motives of this story-history. Neither the church, the courts, the governments, the kings and politicians. The action – keep in mind – matches a character who sees the long days of his existence filled with work. There is an outstanding narrative, not seen from the perspective of power or empowerment. The emphasis, if we want, is the ecology and systems that shape it. As put by the curator Sandra Vieira Jürgens, the exhibition “is […] a reflection on the economic and political dependency, the historical relationship between man and nature, the consequences of technical possibilities on the social balance, the economic and ecological sustainability in humanity’s evolution and its importance and current significance”. The extractive industry is often mentioned, because interpreting man’s presence in the world as a vampiric, parasitic relationship has become something natural. First the wood, then the coal, then mines, oil. The important thing is to keep the “flame” burning, the symbol of lighting and triumph over nature’s darkness.

“The contrapposto was a catastrophe.” (Idem)

The representations of the classic body, in accordance with contrapposto’s harmony, freed a heel and put all the weight of gravity over the other. A cut in the flexed heel makes a feeling, perception, idea crumble down. A small incision is enough for an empire to end up succumbing to apathy and perdition. All beauty hides some weakness; all the power has a Trojan horse lurking around. Even totalitarian regimes – or especially totalitarian regimes. Not even a trained education – controlled and controlling, deviation avoider – sustained the rebellion. Actually,

“Have you noticed how Putin moves his body? […] I think it might be the effect of the KGB training. I guess there’s any link between the industry I work in now and with the new pedagogical system that’s emerging.” (Idem)

After all, education has always been, from a historical point of view, the banner of democracy. But what democracy? And what history?

The curatorial text emphasizes this failed invulnerability, this Apollonian attempt to fight the uncontrollable Dionysiac, the nature in its primeval condition. History is the inclusion of a magnificent sinusoid, made of achievements and failures, rises and falls, amplitudes and frequencies more or less big. But history is always fragmented, engrained between the superiority of some and the inferiority of others; the perspective is not always the most democratic and vision hides artifices that block the dissent, criticism, and, of course, the review.

Achilles heel – through the hybrid, fragmentary, transposing and recursive aesthetics of digital cultures, images that overlap each other in several layers of understanding, a sort of digital assemblage – this is the acknowledgement of the vast power of contemporary art when it comes to researching History, contemplating new codes, flattening the great moments of History to then give them new morphologies, under penalty of becoming a fossil. But, above all, the need to tell stories and history through art once more, from a collective and individual point of view, of the one often forgotten, of a simple worker and citizen.

With Sandra Vieira Jürgens’ curatorship, Achilles’ Heel, of Nikolai Nekh, can be seen until 9 September at the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Lisbon.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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