Body, God, and Data is the holy trinity holding together Danish artist Marie Munk’s second institutional solo show in Denmark at Gammel Holtegaard. In the few years since she graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, Munk has consistently explored issues related to biotechnologies, mainly working with silicone, which she skilfully crafts into hyperrealist yet alien versions of bodily textures. At Gl. Holtegaard, she continues to look into the relationship between humans and technology, taking over the museum’s baroque architecture with Big Energy, a large-scale installation pervaded by her signature material.
The piece creates the scenography of an imaginary data centre at the crossroads of a bizarre temple and a weird butcher shop: lines of organic-looking threads, reminiscent of umbilical cords or intestines define the outline of a corridor that sets the frame for the visitor’s movement through the piece. Above it, a lowered metal ceiling is fitted with square air vents humming heavily in the background.
Big Energy unfolds a linear narrative that follows the work’s architecture. As the visitor progresses through the installation, the bodily elements initially organised into a functioning system start to break off from it, eventually taking over the system itself. The red, blood-like substance that taints the vents overhead becomes progressively thicker until a seemingly organic substance spatters out of them as the umbilical cords, now a disconnected mass of entangled intestines, lead the visitor into the last gallery. Here, four large lumps of silicone-made meat stand around a globe made of the same material. Crowned with small artificial candles, these body-free organs frame the space of what could be a new religious cult.
Religion is, after all, the third element in Munk’s narrative and is represented throughout the installation by small plastic lights that turn the meaty silicone tubes into sacred candelabra. Despite this prominent role, however, religion seems to be the least altered of the forces at play, remaining a somehow unquestioned power alongside the progressive melting of human and technology into each other. From the exhibition text, I learn that Munk is partly inspired by the concept of “dataism” elaborated by best-selling historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus (2015). According to Harari, technological progress is developing towards data superpowers, turning AI into a new worshipped power.
The dystopian scenario in which technology infringes on democratic processes by targeting and manipulating individual profiles is a severe concern and already a reality, as exposed globally by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. However, Harari’s dataism is constructed on an implicit conception of consciousness that defines humans mainly as sophisticated data-processing machines whose free-will disintegrates under more advanced computing powers.
Resting on a version of the mind-body problem that believes that intelligence can simply decouple from embodied consciousness, this assumption throws away decades of philosophical debate over the issue of embodiment. For this reason, the reference to Harari risks pushing Munk’s notable efforts too close to a simplified image of a set of very complex issues. Moreover, I am not convinced that Harari’s technological determinism is a good match for the piece. On the contrary, I see in Munk’s work the potential for the unexpected reaffirmation of the unruly power of the flesh over a technological understanding of the body as a unified functional unity composed of computable data.
Several elements in the work indicate that a more valuable reading can come through the lens of the so-called “body-horror” genre. First of all, the scenographic and narrative qualities of the installation offer a cinematic reference. Secondly, Munk’s material rendering of the flesh is strongly reminiscent of David Cronenberg films such as Videodrome (1983) or The Fly (1986), where the Canadian director crafted grotesque catharses for anxieties about the body and its relationship to technology. Most poignantly, the collapse between man and machine is at the core of what body-horror disturbs in its media-using spectators. The same embodied experience is central for Munk’s show and, I believe, its most important quality, as I participate in it through paradoxical feelings of repugnance and attraction. In the contrast between these two emotional states, the show comes alive for me, literally vibrating in my guts.
The complex issues at stake inhabit well this unresolved condition, unleashing a desirable ambiguity on the show’s slightly simplistic symbologies. It remains to be asked why the exhibition text states that Munk’s work offers an image of the future without engaging its clearly anachronistic futurism reminiscent of 1980s horror movies. It is perhaps a missed opportunity, not least because during the same decade, the already obsolete dichotomy between artificial and natural, man and machine, was thrown out of the window by germinal texts such as Donna Haraway’s.
The relationship between the body and technology and its consequences for our definition of the human has been on the theoretical and artistic agenda for decades, and increasingly so, as these connections become more complex. Munk’s work can represent a valid contribution to this field of enquiry insofar as it suggests that the horrific, messy power of the flesh can make the case for a radical theory of embodied experience. Aside from the installation’s impressive craftsmanship and scale, I believe this is the work’s most precious and original idea and hope the artist will continue exploring it in the future.