My Rhino Is Not a Myth – A Phenomenology of Art and Body

In the context of the cultural program Timișoara 2023 – European Capital of Culture, the fifth edition of the Art Encounters Biennial of Contemporary Art presented this year an experimental curatorial solution in which a group of young curators who are active on the scene in Bucharest, Cluj, Timișoara and beyond – Cristina Bută, Monica Dănilă, Edith Lázár, Ann Mbuti, Cristina Stoenescu and Georgia Țidorescu – teamed up rhizomatically with Adrian Notz, a well-known international guest. The collaborative formula, the dynamic nature of the project, the capacity to contaminate artist-run platforms in the city (Avantpost, Balamuc, Baraka, Lapsus, Nava C2, Simultan) as well as unconventional exhibition spaces – Timișoara’s tram depot, the Faber workshops, a warehouse near Mega Image or the Victoria cinema – evoke the accomplishments of the Indonesian collective ruangrupa at documenta 15. The connection to the big art scene, alongside dynamic and inclusive events such as the previously mentioned documenta 15 in Kassel in 2022 and the latest edition of the Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, is also confirmed by the energy with which the Art Encounters Biennale has engaged both current directions of international artistic research such as the theme of post-medium affect, the posthumanist critique of the Anthropocene, the relationship of art to nature via technology, and the imperatives of the experimental scene such as care, collaboration, inhabitation, the creation of human and non-human connections.

All these directions are also suggested by the title of the biennial My Rhino Is Not a Myth: art science fiction, a title that brings to mind the 16th-century appetite for visual art, science, and magic as well as the intimate communication that existed between the fields of art and science, respectively that of hermeticism and alchemy. A revival of Dürer’s Rhinoceros and the pre-Cartesian interpretation of the world implies both the liberation of truth and science itself from the grids of positivism and abstracting rationalism as well as a revaluation of the body that regains spiritual, magical, and vital connotations. In this context, the meaning of the term science must be interpreted more from a phenomenological point of view, in the sense of humanization and a return to the everyday world, to “things themselves,” as well as in the sense of placing the thought in an indissoluble link with affect and corporeality. The cold and sterile scientific perspective associated with the third person will thus be replaced by a warm, first-person view and abstract rationality by the free and concrete phenomenological description akin to poetry.

As an imaginary object, Dürer’s Rhinoceros, a drawing of an animal that the artist had not been able to see with his own eyes, raises the phenomenological question of “intentionality” and the precedence of meaning: can I really see what I do not know? Can I see “a rhino” if I don’t know what “a rhino” is? What does the act of seeing entail? What is the relationship between the seen thing and the seeing eye? In the phenomenological sense, art is the best response to all these questions. It is in aesthetic pleasure, and nowhere else where we feel the primary delight of the simple act of seeing, the amazement given by the things that appear near us, by the colors that instantly change our affective mood. Merleau Ponty, phenomenologist of perception and the body, pointed out in this respect that the invisible richness and depth of the visible is much better captured by the artist’s colors than by “the philosophy that paints in black and white.” This thought also suggests that old engravings, such as Dürer’s Rhinoceros or his Melencolia, represent a special kind of philosophy in pictures.

In this context, I will take a phenomenological approach to each of the four projects in the exhibition My Rhino Is Not a Myth: Anticipations and SighsBroken Cyphers, Carriers of New Seeds, and Streams of Navigation. From the first part, in order to follow the theme of perception and the body, we chose Giulia Crețulescu’s approach, two works in particular, Riding a Speeding Vehicle under Hypnosis, a series of handmade objects that follow the ergonomic design of race car seats, respectively the Membrane series – consisting of translucent objects made of white, light silicone that reinterpret the shape of essential parts of the human body: a hand, a face. It is no coincidence that the objects in the first series, textile structures made of a shiny grey, sturdy, and flexible material, are mounted vertically on the wall and remind us of the human silhouette, which lies between the two poles of existence: the transgressive one – the angel wing – and the prisoner – the straightjacket.

We find ourselves in the age of perfect design, of fulfilled functionality, of hyper-progress for the sake of progress, which forces man to maintain the same machine rhythm, an age in which the phenomenological analysis of the “man-object” and the authentic work, pioneered in the middle of the last century by Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty, must be taken up again on new premises, and why not with artistic means. In this respect, Giulia Crețulescu’s objects tackle in Object Oriented Ontology the relationship between being born and built, between the natural thing, the tool, and the work of art, as well as between the subject and its world.

The race car, that symbol of speed and human augmentation, brings into question the transition from modern hybris, fueled by new possibilities of transcending space and time, to the anguish of the postmodern individual for whom superhuman pace and ubiquity become painful. We are stuck in this paradigm of hyper-reality (Baudrillard), hyper-speed and performance, the paradigm of fast food, fast art, fast self, etc., in which paradoxically, as Mark Fisher remarked, the future refuses to come.

Robbed of time and the possibility of living, of his once authentic, durable things, modern man finds himself a slave to plastic and consumer goods, abandoned to the flow of media affects. In a last attempt to put anguish and finitude behind him, his body tends to automate itself, to grow a new, more resistant skin. Starting from the definition of the “living body,” of the vulnerable human body which, according to Merleau Ponty: “is present when a cross of sorts occurs between the one-who-sees and the visible, between the one-who-touches and what is touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand,” in short, when “the spark of the one who feels sensitively ignites,” Giulia Crețulescu asks herself if the machine-becoming of man can mean anything other than the death of the spark, other than the detachment from the organic?

Placed at the crossroads of the organic and futurology, her artificial skin membranes and angel-wing-like seats speak in this sense to the vulnerability of the living body, its finitude but also its freedom to rise above mathematical functionalism, to demand its own time, disconnected from the linear time of work, production, capital. These objects, which, despite their futuristic design, are crafted by hand, quietly, and carefully, are fighting for the right of things to have a story, a past, and a future, a living body. Once in a gallery space, they relinquish their function and their speed to recharge themselves with “spark,” with aura. The hybrid, futuristic appearance of the wing-chairs, of the silicone mask with metal rivets, of the hand, augmented with aluminum rods, speak rather of a de-territorialization of the body, of its liberation in terms of overcoming the normalization of the face, the standardization of gesture, culminating in the transcendence of the anthropocentric paradigm itself. Machine-becoming is thus defined not as a surrender of the organic but as leaving behind the rigid concepts of man, subject, object and replacing them with the more supple concepts of agent (Latour), chiasm, living body, and flesh (Merleau Ponty).

In the same sphere of bringing out of hiding new connections, new functions, new scenarios about the world is Sensitive Dependence, the work of Floriama Cândea, a painter who gives up color to focus on subtle exercises of technological appropriation of movement, breathing, flow, duration. The installation involves a series of transparent glass globes housing hybrid plants – white leaves with fine silicone veins and black, compact flowers – that can be activated by the human touch. To be more specific, using an assemblage of pulse oximeters, cables, and Arduino boards, Sensitive Dependence converts the viewer’s heartbeat into a flow of vegetal energy which enlivens plants, making white leaves pulsate and flowers breathe like lung tissue trapped in a pleura of black cloth.

It is important to note that the origin of these entities is the so-called decellularization process, used in biomedical engineering to separate the extracellular matrix of a tissue (ECM) from the cells it hosts. In other words, Floriama Cândea’s fine silicon ribs convey the idea of a decellularized leaf that keeps only the formal matrix of the body: white, almost translucent connective tissue. Interestingly, this biological framework on which bodily functions are based brings us paradoxically close to what Aristotle would have called the “form” of the leaf. We must admit the power of art to propel one unexpectedly into a twilight zone where the metaphysical touches the biological, the human returns to the vegetal (see also the unexpected structure of the upside-down tree lung), and the plant-becoming (Deleuze) seeks the idea (Plato).

All this, plus the tendencies of sublimation and fusion of opposites (motion-rest, air-earth, invisible-visible) and the choice of non-colors (black-white), shows that the remarkable approach of Floriama Cândea foreshadows a new kind of philosophy. A hybrid, non-discursive philosophy that replaces categories and words with visual forms and signs and can be placed somewhere between Deleuze’s Cinema-Thinking and Merleau-Ponty’s Painting-Thinking. In this context, the artist’s focus on rethinking the intricate network of the world, on rearranging the species and genres of Being based on new affinities and continuities of the visible and the invisible, lines up perfectly with Merleau Ponty’s ontology (“any theory of painting is metaphysics”), putting into action the philosopher’s demands: “The whole description of our landscape and the lines of our universe, and of our inner monologue, needs to be redone. Colors, sounds, and things – like Van Gogh’s stars – are the focal points and radiance of being.”

Floriama Cândea’s cyborg plants, placed at the intersection of the natural with the artificial, of reality with virtuality in a world of differences and affinities, avoid any age-old classifications and norms. They propose rethinking the world beyond genres and species, following new categories and “focal points” belonging to art (shapes, sounds, colors) and everyday life (things, technologies). However, transcending hierarchies and taxonomies isn’t possible unless a preliminary interrogation of the hidden codes and unexamined presuppositions at the root of every historical worldview is undertaken. This brings us to the main line of inquiry that the Art Encounters curatorial team attaches to the Broken Cyphers section, of which the project is a part, a section with a real phenomenological stake.

The artist introduces a new type of ontology: visual, capable of understanding hybrid, natural-technological ways of existing. To overcome the solipsisms and dichotomies that have isolated man from the world and its things, this ontology first follows the classical phenomenological premises of reintegrating man into the world and reclaiming things as things. Things, as key elements, will be redesigned beyond the rigid functionalities of the anthropocentric perspective from within the new technological rhizome – IoT (Internet of Things). This new web of the world, linking smart devices but also biochipped animals or humans augmented by heart monitors, expands the human form towards the machine-becoming and simultaneously redefines work as an agent capable of interacting and transmitting data autonomously. In this case, technology questions our capacity to act upon the world, to transform plants and things into our own bodily extensions. Revealing the constant exchanges and negotiations between man, art, and nature, it plays the role of a mediator that monitors our physiological states, gives the sculpture a living body, and synchronizes man and artificial nature together in a breath.

The third work, Pteridophilia, a hypnotic video installation that explores the eco-queer potential by merging erotic connotations with critical assertions about the Anthropocene, succeeded in inspiring strong emotions of admiration and revolt in the audience, climaxing with the visit of the Timișoara police to the exhibition space. The project belongs to the artist Zheng Bo and extends on the thematic-aesthetic axis of their work at the Venice Biennale, Le Sacre du printemps (2021), a slow, upside-down projection aiming at the depersonalized union of young people with slender tree trunks. The new work brings together six young people in a forest of ferns, plants that are highly valued by Taiwan’s indigenous people but not by nationalists or Japanese colonizers. The set design involves a three-screen installation with cushions and natural ferns scattered among them, inviting viewers to come closer and touch them.

In the Art Encounters catalog, Zheng Bo, who is part of the Carriers of New Seeds branch, presents themselves as a social artist who migrated towards environmentally friendly practices in 2013 when they claimed a patch of grass in the old Shanghai Cement Factory space that was to be leveled by bulldozers as their artwork. Since then, he has been visiting Taipei’s forests to watch the explosion of giant, free-living ferns, including the bird’s-nest species, Asplenium nidus, known for its habit of climbing trees, soaring skyward, feeding directly from the air on raindrops. In the forest, the air is purer, the mind becomes sharper, and the body more agile. The space is also in perpetual motion, gathering dimensions, becoming denser and denser as people, ferns, trees, stones, and earth intermingle. Sexuality “spreads like a scent from the bodily region it inhabits in particular,” conferring ambiguity and tension, displaying its spatial, atmospheric valences (Merleau-Ponty).

Of course, Zheng Bo’s artistic perspective on space is a qualitative one. Clearly diverging from the quantitative interpretations of space measured by a scientist, abstracted by a geometrician, it approaches instead the phenomenological perspective of lived, experienced space. The artist’s films thus conceal twilight zones, zones in which humans and plants become hard to distinguish. In this context, Pteridophilia stages an affective space, a color-space, guided by the plurality of green shades that invoke the will to live, the Freudian Eros as the principle of life that is indivisible from the principle of death. Zheng Bo’s choice never to raise the camera to the sky can, therefore, connect the feeling of a prison space, without horizon and escape, that the green prison gives with the impossibility of separating Eros from Thanatos.

The choice to reshape the space, the world starting from a simple color, was interpreted in Deleuze’s writings on cinema based on the color-image, a subspecies of the affective image, which is not just a colored image, it does not refer to the color of one object or another but is an absorbing power that swallows up portions of the scene, rearranging the space and generating affects. The same choice puts into action Merleau Ponty’s urge to reorganize the axes of the universe according to concrete points of reference (things, colors). Pteridophilia, in this sense, is defined as a unique visual ontology of similarity, linking the soft green of the leaves to the youth’s glowing skin and the light-dark circles under the eyes, the sap-filled branches to the veins of the arms swollen with effort. We recognize a transposition into the cinematic language of Merleau-Ponty’s famous passage revealing the power of a shade of red to link flower petals to women’s dresses, cardinals’ cloaks to revolutionary flags, and further to connect hues with textures (metallic, fluffy), progressing to the final cartography of depth and the invisible richness of the visible.

Depicting these immersive encounters, immersing oneself in the greenery that looks back at you, Zheng Bo’s films launch a phenomenological analysis of the very act of seeing, where seeing means “entering the universe of beings that show themselves,” “to come to inhabit them and to observe from within them all other things” (Merleau Ponty). Also, useful here is the concept of reversibility that Merleau Ponty grounded in the artistic experience of Cezanne and Klee and the uncanny feeling of being looked back on by the trees you paint. The uncomfortable sensation for which man generally avoids exposing his body is given by the fixed gaze of the other, which causes a kind of colonization of the body that is taken in possession, deprived of itself, and reduced to the position of a slave. A similar feeling is felt by the young people moving naked, vulnerable among the ferns. To be close to plants to the point of falling in love, to allow oneself to be looked at, requires both adherence to an exchange of roles and an understanding of that deep reversibility at the level of being where to see means to be seen, to have a body means to become the object of the gaze, of the desire of the other, but also to possess the power to subjugate the viewer, to overturn the master-slave dialectic.

We can thus conclude that Zheng Bo’s eco-sexual films approach sexuality in a phenomenological manner, seeking a metaphysical meaning for desire and denouncing its incomprehensibility if “we treat man as a machine driven by natural laws, or as a bundle of instincts” (Merleau Ponty). The phenomenon of eroticism returns to the tension of existence that aspires to another existence without which it would not sustain itself, to the structural ambiguity of the body that includes the bivalence of object-subject, master-slave, to the transcendent courage of coming out of the skin, of spilling out into the human or non-human other, into the flesh of the world. We can thus read both the custom of archaic cultures to eat the flesh of spiritual animals to grow spiritually and the practice of Taiwanese populations to eat the plant flesh of the fern Asplenium nidus.

The active role of the ferns, which become spiritual guides and fascinating bodies that annihilate the will of human power, increases their importance to the indigenous community and combats the indifference of the colonizing Japanese. When interpreted in a political light, this relationship creates a dialectic that overturns the colonizer-colonized relationship in both the human and the broader living realm. Man’s relationship with plants is rather centered on the Taoist concept of wuwei, which does not imply a simple non-action but a subtle taking care of and “letting be” of things that Western culture has to learn from.

Sebastian Moldovan’s project POST WORLD UNDERCOVER GUERRILLA FAKE ROCK MANUFACTURING FACILITY INSTALLATION is a subversive attempt to dissociate itself from the imperatives of Western aesthetics centered on the auctorial function and the production of (whole, valuable, pleasure-generating) objects. As with other projects developed by the artist, the approach is a processual one, with the space itself at stake, a site-specific intervention that took shape based on the impressions and reactions generated by the location: the tram depot in Timișoara. In the same way, the project is an experiential and collaborative one, realized in partnership with Lucia Ghegu and Albert Kaan who, together with Sebastian Moldovan, spent more than a month in the space, living and working together.

Their story is simple: a group of people take refuge in an abandoned industrial area to manufacture paper stones, pondering the meanings that time, space, and life itself can still hold in the empire of the Anthropocene and the Post prefixes. The raw uselessness of paper stones frees them from the regime of utilitarian functionality, giving them an uncertain status as hybrid objects placed somewhere between the natural thing and the work of art, qualifying them at best as instruments for measuring the passage of time. Here we can recall Borges’s story, The Immortal, in which people once confronted with the poisoned Pharmakon of immortality, cease to be animated by the inevitable enthusiasm of the finite and slowly, slowly sink into stillness, turning into stones, but also the metallic “stones,” wrapped in rags, with the help of which Tarkovsky’s characters in Stalker opened their path, a metaphysical rather than topographical route through the uncertain chimerical “Zone” of life.

The tracing of a path, the creation of a route to follow, and the production of a space accompanied by special operating rules is, in fact, the aim of the three artists in POST WORLD UNDERCOVER GUERRILLA FAKE ROCK MANUFACTURING FACILITY INSTALLATION (as certified by the direction of Streams of Navigation). Thus, as soon as they enter the depot, the viewers of the installation notice the presence of a thin wire of an electric fence, frightening and fascinating at the same time, which will guide them uninterruptedly as they walk through the vast space, divided into three halls, whose structure and homogeneity have been altered using mirrors. Somewhere in the middle, the space conceals a dense area: it is the necessary journey through a tram turned into a tuning fork and bait for paranormal phenomena. In this zone of flashing white light, marked by the presence of a two-dimensional body made of layers of transparency and iridescence, we listen to experimental music, which is amplified by the body of the tram, whose metal casing functions as an acoustic guitar, a recording device for paranormal entities and a corridor connecting to other time zones and other travelers.

Another way of working with the space is through subtle video inserts hidden along the route. In these short films, a character in a blue jumpsuit performs repetitive gestures that simulate work, rest, or even levitation. One of the tablets on which the videos run is hidden in a grey metal box, which may once have concealed a control panel. To see it, you have to lean a little to the right of a small hole in the box, now adorned by artists with a cheap curtain veil that was fashionable in socialist apartments. Note that all these interventions start a game with spatial directions and conventions – up-down, inside-out – bringing space itself into presence and adding dimensions to it. The route thus recaptures the space inside a box or an abandoned sewer, and the space above or below the tram reactivates the inaccessible area behind the old machines where the eye now reaches with the help of a mirror.

In the last part of the hall, the industrial space merges into the natural sphere. In a metal cabinet, we see a series of sketches and instructions on the growth of plants that reveal the artists’ interest in renegotiating the human-nature relationship. On a low table, next to a few stones, we discover a pile of sprouted potatoes, both alive and dead, unsuitable for eating, for ‘consumption.’ The light streams in through a high window with rusty latticework. One can finally see outside where a plant explosion of ivy and wild strains is taking place. Through a broken hole, the vegetation even managed to get inside. We feel that this exercise of creating and arranging space, an affective space, immeasurable in Cartesian axes and coordinates, is coming to an end. Inside becomes outside and, as phenomenologists have shown, there is no fragmentation between inside and outside, between consciousness and body, and between body and world. The body is everything; the body is me; the body is alive; it sees and, at the same time, is visible; the body is in the world. My body stretches to the edge of my gaze, swallowing slices of the world. We finally understand the meaning of Merleau-Ponty’s statement that our glances are not “acts of consciousness,” but “openings of our flesh which are immediately filled by the universal flesh of the world.”


Translated by Camelia Diaconu


* This journalistic material was produced with the support of an Energie! Creative Grant awarded by the Municipality of Timișoara, through the Center for Projects, within the Power Station component of the National Cultural Programme “Timișoara – European Capital of Culture in the year 2023”.

The material does not necessarily represent the position of the Center for Projects and the latter is not responsible for its content or how it may be used.


Raluca Oancea

Raluca Oancea (Nestor), member of International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS), is a lecturer at The National University of Arts in Buchares...

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