“Human Negative” is a fictional art show curated by Yuqi Zhao for Critical Issues in Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Featuring eleven works of varied mediums by ten artists coming from diverse backgrounds, “Human Negative” propels the audiences to explore the connotations behind the concept of “negative.” The show thesis starts from decomposing the literal meanings of “negative," then combining it with the concept of “human.” It later encourages the audience to draw implications about the human body, human societal system, human culture, and human relationships through the artworks presented. Through exploring the subject matters negative to “human,” the exhibition also invites the viewers to fathom and to push the boundaries that define the “positive,” human. The curation process drew inspiration from the writings of classical philosophers as Plato to contemporary art critics as Nicolas Bourriaud.
How to understand “negative?”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “negative” could be defined as:
1. marked by denial, prohibition, or refusal; features of hostility, withdrawal, or pessimism
2. less than zero and opposite in sign to a positive; a loss
3. having the light and dark parts in approximately inverse relation to those of the original photographic subject, a reverse impression taken from a piece of sculpture or ceramics.
Taking the definition into the realm of traditional fine arts, “negative” usually refers to “negative space,” which is defined as “the space between, within and surrounding an object in an image. It shares edges with the positive space, defining the outline of the object and creating proportion.”
What’s “human negative?”
Following the definition of negative above, I propose that human negative could be discussed from three aspects presented below. These aspects will be further illustrated by artists’ works in the next section.
1. The absence of humans and the outline of human behavior
2. The inverse of human: utopia, the fantasy, and the ideal
3. The space in between humans: relationship
Below are the selected works for this virtual exhibition. Explanations see the bottom of the page.
1) The absence of humans, the outline of human
In this section, I chose seven works from six artists. All of the works presented here are absent of human presence, but are made by humans, for humans, and indicate the trace of humans. On one hand, formally, they register the first aspect of “human negative” - the absence of the human. On the other hand, these works also encourage audiences to ponder the outlines of a human, whether it should be evidence of an action, the outline of a body, memory, and culture, or our morals.
The first two works selected here are both Rachel Whiteread’s casts. Ghost (1990) is a true-to-scale negative cast of the entire inside of a house at 486 Archway Road in north London. The details are kept perfectly by the artists’ painstaking process; the viewers can observe the negatives of light switches, keyholes, and even the hair of the previous occupier. Untitled (1991) is a positive cast of a mattress, an object that is made to enclose the human body. Both of them explore the negative space of humans without the presence of a human.
The third work, Loving Care (1993) by Jenine Antonie, is a performance piece where the artist made an ink painting with the action of sweeping her ink dyed hair on the ground. The remnant of this work, although absent from human presence, outlines her action while creating the work. The fourth work chosen is Suh Do Ho’s Staircase - III (2010). Through creating architectural structures of his previous homes in transparent fabrics, Suh aims to evoke a sense of nostalgia in viewers. The work is not made for any human to use, yet it solidifies the concept of memory and culture into a space that indicates human existence. While negative of human, it makes the viewers ponder whether to what extent memories can define a human.
The last piece in this section is a clip from The World Tomorrow (2015.) David, the art piece displayed in the film, does not have a brain nor consciousness, but he ages as normal humans do. The piece is technically negative of human, yet it promotes us to think about the definitions of human and the moral behind our treatments to things we deem as “object.”
2) The inverse of human: utopia, the fantasy, and the ideals
The second section of this show deals with the inverse of humans - anything “we create that is not us.” The works below cover mainly the themes of utopia and the ideals.
Tracing back to the first literary representation of Utopia (ancient Greek word, meaning “not, place”) by Thomas More in the sixteenth century, the narratives in the text, as discussed in Duncombe’s essay, “Utopia, in brief, is everything More’s sixteen century Europe is not (pp.40).” Indeed, this idea of utopia has been iterated and produced since the More, but there seems to be no single plan that could be accepted by humans, and that is one of the reasons large-scale utopias are so horrific and short-lived (Duncombe, 42). Utopia stays in the realm of an imaginative process that is created by human but not human, inverse of human. Through art, we ask “what if” questions that open up fantastic impossibilities that may become possible in the future, or under circumstances.
In Yue Minjun’s Execution (1995), he painted several men in the pose of shooting their guns to the people on the other side of the painting in front of the Forbidden City. This scene recalls the tragedy of Tiananmen Square event. Yet, through taking away the gun and pasting his signature face of extreme laughter, the work attempts to picture an imaginative reality that could not be revised - what if the event did not happen? Full of irony, humor, and satire, Execution is a great example of the Utopia Yue created that criticizes the country’s rapid growth, its ambiguous political ideology, and the imaginary bliss encouraged by the government. Another great example is Cao Fei’s “Whose Utopia” (2006). The film consists of two parts: the first part depicting the repetitive and tedious work life of workers in a factory in the Pearl River Delta area (a fast-growing area specializes in manufacturing,) the second part featuring individual workers dancing ballet, hip-hop or even tai-chi in the factory while others are working. While most of the workers left their family to work in the cities to realize a better life, the truth is that with the harsh working conditions and tedious work, people are not satisfied with the reality. Under this condition, Whose Utopia is an imaginary piece asking us, what if everyone could make their dream come true; what if everyone could be whom they wanted to be?
The second topic that illustrates the "inverse of human" is the ideal representations that overflowed the media and our perception nowadays. As Hito Steyerl discussed in her essay “Withdrawal From Representation,” the majority of images we have created are photoshopped replicas, too improved to be true. And therefore the image of humanity articulated in these images has nothing to do with it. “It is an accurate portrait of what humans are not. It is a negative image (pp. 165).” Following this logic of human negative, I chose the work “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” by Hito Steyerl. In the film, she demonstrates various ways to not be seen or recorded by a camera and therefore actively stepping out of the representation. This work further develops the idea of the inverse of human,
and facilitates us to contemplate what the positives should be, and how have they been deliberately hiding from humanity.
3) The space in between humans: relationship
The final step I take is to think of negative as space in between subjects. This opens the understanding of “negative” up to gaining its own weight without being attached to a positive. To consolidate this idea, we can think of the “negative” as anything in between ---- it could be the air floating in between us, the space, the magnetic field, the light, and so on. Relating this to contemporary art, I would like to define the “negative” as the relationship between subjects.
In 133 Persons Paid to Have their Hair Dyed Blond (2001), through having 133 illegal vendors paid to dye their hair blond at the Venice Biennale, the act made these people stand out as being publicly called out, yet the reward is monetary. It explores the human relationship under capitalism exploits through creating and exposing tensions underlying the labor system (Bishop, 71).
Ishi’s Light (2003) is another example that explores the relationship between the viewers and themselves. Standing in front of the piece, viewers see their images reflected, encompassed by the egg-shaped, shelter-like sculpture. Seeing ourselves reflected in a shiny, distorted, and inverted interior creates unexpected relationships between us to ourselves.
Bishop, Claire. "Antagonism and relational aesthetics." October (2004): 51-79.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. "Relational Aesthetics ." Dijon: Les presses du reel (2002).
Kee, Joan. "The World in Plain View: Form in the Service of the Global." Contemporary
Art (1989): 95-104.
Steyerl, Hito. "The spam of the earth: Withdrawal from representation." E-flux Journal 32,
no. 2 (2012): 1-9.
Laurberg, Marie. "The Return of the Imaginary–Utopian Impulses in Contemporary Art."
Utopia & Contemporary Art (2012): 17-27.