On Jan Obornik’s Oeuvre
By Michael Stoeber
At the end of his novel Nadja (1928), André Breton, spokesman for the Surrealists, declared: “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.” Breton’s proclamation would prove to be visionary. Even though the attribute convulsive had not previously been associated with the aesthetic canon, it emerged in twentieth-century art and established a tradition within which Jan Obornik’s work can also be apprehended. For the Surrealists, convulsive beauty meant a complex reality. They initially identified it in the seizures of the female patients diagnosed with histeria by the Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud’s teacher. These patients werenot only treated with the aid of hypnosis, but with electroshocks as well. The Surrealists were particularly captivated by Charcot’s young and beautiful Augustine. They regarded her bouts of hysteria as images of an unfettered emotional force testifying to an internal reality that turns outward with eruptive power. In the energy released they not only saw the longing a woman embodies to be someone else, but also an allegory for the artistic act itself. It no longer exhausted itself in the mere imitation of reality. Convulsive beauty is poetic radiance and sudden enlightenment: A vibrant, Dionysian clarity that also exists in the sexual act- hymnic, bursting, transforming.
For the Surrealists, eroticism and violence, beauty and pain not only enter into a close alliance in suffering and in the treatment of hysterics. “The simplest Surrealist act consists, revolver in hand, of going down into the street and firing haphazardly, as much as one can, into the crowd.” The fantasy of violence that André Breton lends expression to in this sentence finds its most famous artistic pendant in a scene in the film An Andalusian Dog in which a razor blade slices through a human eye. Like hysteria, the Surrealists regarded sex and violence as nothing more than a means of revolting against individual role assignments and the societal status quo. In Jan Obornik’s art, these motifs exist as a kind of undercurrent. They prime his works more than they define them in their ontology. They emerge more in commentary, in the artist’s verbal reflections on his works than in the works themselves. For instance, when, in conversation, he makes reference to his having been strongly influenced by the splatter movies of the sixties and seventies as well as by films by David Lynch or Matthew Barney’s sculptures. Francis Bacon might also be mentioned in this context, even though the artist does not do so himself. In the painter’s representational paintings, one sees a deformation of the human body and a reduction to its essential existence as a creature, which is also present in Obornik’s sculptures, without, however, being strictly associated with the motif of forsakenness and an existence without meaning and salvation.
This is precisely what makes Jan Obornik’s art so full of innuendo, indeed, so polyvalent. The viewer associates in numerous directions, ultimately only to withdraw into his or her reminiscences and focus on the singular status of the works. The gaze inward recalls the Surrealists. An internal reality that in this case is not only metaphorically but also quite concretely turned outward. It is primarily the works made of polyurethane foam that bring this to mind. Obornik squeezes the substance directly out of the spray can and uses it to create biogenic and organic sculptures. These sometimes seem to represent sections of the inside of the body, for example organ, a reddish lump of flesh from which pale tentacles in the form of all possible kinds of tubes made of transparent plastic protrude. In contrast, when the artist paints the objects with flesh-colored acrylic and applies animal hair to them—as is the case of bodynuggets, a title he chose to be analogous to Patricia Piccinini’s Carnuggets—hybrid body shapes and functions come to mind. The simulation is as irritating as it is perfect. Because our brains function in this way in their quest for meaning, we almost involuntarily associate blood and flesh, organs and extensions with skin and hair. Their fragmentation and removal from a physically intact context as well as our inability to unequivocally assign Obornik’s sculptures to specific organs tends to make our flesh creep. Disassociation and fragmentation bring to mind David Lynch’s daydreams and games of deception, the detached ear in a luscious front yard in Blue Velvet. It symbolizes the forcible invasion of the uncanny and horror into the innocent idyll of a safe American middle-class world.
The dubious form of the organs simultanously triggers memories of a number of experiments on humans, from the medieval homunculus and Frankenstein’s experiments to biomorphing, which also appears in the sculptures by the Chapman brothers. Obornik’s works—whether extensions, fingerfood, or settlement—seem to completely reduce us to a utility value. The human being becomes a disposable materialistic quantity. While looking at these objects, one is no longer capable of thinking of classic ideals of humanity, integrity, identity, and individuality (Goethe: “The greatest happiness of humanity is the personality”), indeed, of metaphysics and transcendence. This is especially the case when, as in settlement, various organs are lying together in a kind of pan, as if they were to be eaten shortly in a cannibalistic ritual despite their green underlay. The numerous sculptures that Obornik has shrink-wrapped as products thwart apprehension. Not only has he formally combined a synthetic material, polyurethane, with another one, transparent foil, in an aesthetically appealing way, but he also steers our view in completely different directions. A sanitary reality appears out from behind the horror of fragmentation and the sadistic experiment that has to some extent already long since become reality. The human being as a cyborg, as a cybernetic organism, a hybrid comprised of living organism and machine. This concept is used to describe human beings whose organs have been permanently substituted by artificial components. What sounds like science fiction has already become reality if one bears in mind that people have access to pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, or cochlea and retina implants.
Behind this concept a notion emerges of the human being optimistically described by Sigmund Freud as a kind of “prosthetic God”. However, the fascination with and fear of what is scientifically and technologically possible balance each other out. This is in effect no different than the sculptures by Matthew Barney, whom Obornik also refers to as a source of inspiration. Work by this American artist continues to be an encrypted response to the genetic and technical manipulations present-day human beings are subjected to—between recent brain research, the constant pressure to perform, and the decay of social values. The private mythology of biomorphic transformation and the artistic activity between scientific precision and fantastic imagination, medical intelligence and aesthetic refinement (also characteristic of Matthew Barney) fuel Jan Obornik’s so very different works as well. However, as different as they are, certain similarities in the preparation of the works can be observed. Despite the fact that both Barney´s and Obornik´s sculptures often appear surreal, neither of the artists has anything to do with the Surrealists’ écriture automatique, the semiconscious, dreamful approach to production these so valued because they held the dream and the unconscious in such high regard as creative forces. In contrast, Barney and Obornik are firmly rooted in the Cartesian spirit. Wide awake. Their phantasmagorias are always based on precise consideration and preliminary drawings carried out with architectural accuracy.
That Obornik plans his work is most clearly evident in the sculptures made of rigid foam, also a material one can buy from the local building center. While polyurethane is used as a sealing compound, rigid foam is used for the manufacture of insulating plates. The artist uses these feather-light plates like other artists do stone or wood in order to cut or mill works out of them. Thus, they literally correspond with the concept of sculpture, as the polyurethane works do with plasticity. The one is formed substractively, the other additively. Obornik’s sculptures are marked by their informality; one discovers echoes of constructive stylistic elements in them; however, not as a longing for the redeeming potential of the right angle. The artist has nothing in common with the ultimate forms and formulae of Concrete Art or the Bauhaus, but rather more with Isa Genzken’s Fuck the Bauhaus series. His Promethean pictorial fantasies can be attributed to transformation and metamorphosis, to hybrids, to female and male energy fluxes. The work multifunctional body could not be more characteristic for the latter; the title speaks volumes. The facture of the sculpture TAE-connection whose bright red contact points distinguish it from the pale blue of the rest of the object is equally as constructive as it is narrative—, by the way,. Its character is ambivalent, at the same time controlling, probing and monitoring, as if it was seeking to communicate. As a moving sculpture it belongs to the artist’s multifunctional objects which synaesthetically address different of the viewer’s senses simultaneously.
Contact points and interfaces emerge as a constant motif in Jan Obornik’s oeuvre. They, too, are ambivalent. On the one hand, they are places where the hybrid character of a work most clearly articulates itself; where human being and machine come together and connect to become a cyborg. On the other hand the sites, where they are incapable of making a connection and seem to search for contact, constitute eloquent symbols expressing a longing for contact and communication that either remains unfulfilled or has yet to be fulfilled. Plug is typical of an extended contact waiting for a connection. The extensions are riddled with electric cables and magnets. Connection device aims for link-up. And of course the ear trumpet is prepared for reception, while lecker! is longing for oral contact. Other works of a more installation-lke character focus on the establishment of contact and communication in large-scale arrangements. Jan Obornik borrowed the term “collective isolation” from the book Spheres III by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk as the title of his works. For the artist, the foam that serves the thinker as an extensive metaphor has become the genuine substance of his creation. For both of them, it is conceptual image as well as allegory. But as pessimistic as the term and the title may appear, they are not meant that bleak, neither in Sloterdijk’s view of the world nor in Obornik’s oeuvre. For the philosopher, the titillating self-disintegration of the foam symbolizes the fleetingness and fragility of values and assumptions in modernity. His “Theory of Cofragile Systems” ensues from the foamology obtained thereby. Co-fragile at the very least! Jan Obornik pins his hopes on the prefix.