“A Thin Line” brings together three sculptures by Daniel Joshua Goldstein culled from two distinct periods of the artist’s output. These works also represent two very different traditions of presenting the idea of “the presence of absence”. The first two, Icarian XXIII and Icarian III (1995) are related to relics, to the preservation and display of a “precious thing” associated with a personality that has left the earth but whose power somehow continues to inhere within a physical remnant . The third piece Invisible Man (2010) relates to the tradition of trompe l’oeil: optical illusion to create a sense of surprise, awe and even cognitive dissonance in a viewer.
These two modes of presentation have a long history. The relic and the illusionistic construction have both proven effective in pitching the human viewer into an emotional space of reverence. What is more they are related to the realms of death and/or dimensions outside the experience of the every-day. The relic is the trace of a famous or sacred body. The illusionistic construction is a device employed by an artisan to allow a certain type of presence to manifest. More often then not it is the presence of space itself- the picture of a window, a doorway or some other opening that leads the viewer’s gaze through the material surface. Both the relic and the tromp l’oeil are archaic technologies of aesthetic transport.
Relics as the holders of recovered presence
The “Icarian Series” is a set of over twenty leather skins that once covered the work-out equipment at the Muscle System Gym in San Francisco. In 1991 as the gym was overhauling its equipment, Goldstein noticed how all of the leather had been worn down into all sorts of beautiful, anthropomorphic patterns through the years of sweat and repetitive friction. After months of wrangling with the management he was finally able to obtain the skins. By 1992 Goldstein had lost hundreds of people in his social network to AIDS including his first partner and almost all of his closest friends. The Muscle System had been the social nexus for thousands of gay men in the 70′s and 80′s. It functioned as a meeting place, a sort of church. For over a year these sheets of worn leather lay in his studio piled up like so many pelts. He was at a loss with what to do with them. After discussions with a close friend he came to the conclusion that they were perfect as they were. In their strange simplicity they were subtle, mysterious works of art, latter-day readymades. As representational objects of a cultural moment, a halcyon era before the coming of AIDS, they were true relics. Goldstein had large wooden crates constructed, lined them with black felt and edged them with copper. These became reliquaries to house the skins.
In the 18 years since the pieces first went on display at museums and galleries across the world, their resemblances to religious relics has been commented upon almost continually. This appears to be traceable to two causes. First, morphologically they are of the same type as sacred Roman Catholic objects such as the Shroud of Turin or St. Veronica’s Veil. Second, there is a cultural way of seeing the victims of AIDS as grossly wronged, evenof thinking of them in terms of martyrdom. A minority group attacked by religious zealots and politicians alike, gay men dying by the tens of thousands in the 1980′s and 90′s suddenly seemed to resonate with the archetypal qualities of earlier peoples destroyed en masse: indigenous cultures, Jews, witches, renegade feminists, religious dissenters, social reformers, mystical saints.
The language of liturgy and rite, of hagiography and even angelology appeared in popular culture as the voices of the dying and their loved ones began to be heard. Likewise these experiences became the raw material of a new and ever expanding theme in contemporary art, literature and film: the gay hero fighting not just for liberty, but for life itself. Well before AIDS, Sartre had written his Saint Genet about the gay playwright Jean Genet and this was echoed decades later by Mark Halperin in his Saint Foucault, a work on queer culture and the penultimate postmodernist philosopher, aptly subtitled Towards a Gay Hagiography! Both Genet and Foucault were fascinated by the connections between power and sex, church-state hierarchy and the violent suppression of dissent.
From Tom Hank’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia in which he referred to the crowds of angels filling heaven, to Tony Kushner’s titanic theater work Angels in America, those lost to AIDS (or about to be lost) were imagined in terms of heavenly messengers. Serendipitously, Kushner’s drama won a Pulizter prize in 1993, the year the “Icarian Series” first went on public display in New York City. In 1995 one of the “Icarian Series” would be included in a ground-breaking show at the National Museum of Victoria in Australia: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. Art historian and curator Rosemary Crumlin told Goldstein that she would often find people holding one another and weeping before his “reliquary”.
Like the religiously devout who come to see pieces of a saint’s clothing or the fragments of a body, those who lived through AIDS in the 1980′s experience these objects as sites of presence. There is no theology here, no church hierarchy, no long established tradition of miracles associated with these objects; however, the similarity is in the physical experience of their numinous presence. Deep human suffering, a terrible and often early death , feelings of love and devotion- these somatic-memory aspects of AIDS are all woven into the story of the “Icarian Series”. What is more, these pieces have surfaces marked by the bodies of men who were in the prime of their erotic and creative potential. This crossing of glory and death, of beauty and loss is the stuff of high drama, of liturgical ritual. The relic is the place where these contraries intersect. This imaginary X is inscribed upon all relics marking them with the sign of a hidden and living treasure.
Transporting the viewer: Trompe l’oeil and the double-image
“Oh yes- now I see it.” exclaimed a friend as we watched Goldstein’s suspended sculpture “Invisible Man”slowly turning from its small, silent motor. Made of over 800 medical syringes each tipped with a red crystal bead, the center of this cloud of needles is a void. When seen from a distance this emptiness takes on a human contour. Like an object in a dark room during a lightning storm, one waits between flashes (or in this case the moments in the turn) when the apparition at the center manifests out of the hovering swarm of tubes.
Psychologists and neurologists tell us the human eye is always scanning the landscape for things that appear to be alive. We also project faces and human forms onto inanimate objects and natural arrangements: hills, trees, mountainsides, even clouds. Anthropologist Stewart Elliot Guthrie believes that this innate aptitude may be the basis of the religious impulse itself.
This fooling of the eye (trompe l’oeil) is one of the earliest concerns of art. Ancient philosophers told stories of artists whose paintings of fruit were so life-like they could fool birds. In the Renaissance when Italian artists began to invent or reinvent this type of illusionistic representation (the Greeks and Romans were earlier practitioners), it was often used in tandem with architecture. Indeed geometric perspective drawing and architecture are a pair of culturally conjoined twins.
Mantegna’s fresco of an opening in the dome in the Castle of San Grigorio reveals a blue sky through which lazy white clouds drift. Around the railing of the oculus a host of figures, human, animal and mythological peer down at the viewer. The artist has created the illusion of three dimensionality through the trickery of foreshortening, shading and convergent lines. The very experience of open space, the layer of empty air above the peeping courtiers and pudgy putti, draws the eye up as if it were a helium balloon, beckoning out and into the placid empyrean. Space expanding before the viewer is the intended illusion. This causes internal movement as the viewer ascends through the geometric powers of the painting. The eye is fooled, the human being responds with feelings of wonder, with a phenomenal sense of rapture
Goldstein’s “Invisible Man” is a trompe l’oeil object in a similar sense. Although the space in the center of the figure is there (unlike the faux sky in the Mantegna fresco), the void is “man-shaped” by virtue of the fact that its edges have been limned by the red crystals. The syringes act like the angular lines of perspective drawing, pulling the figure out and surrounding it in a halo of light. “Now you see him, now you don’t.” said my friend during our gallery visit. This statement moves the object from the category of trompe l’oiel into that of the double-image, a close cousin that more closely ties the work to Guthrie’s idea of the mind’s capacity for visualizing two things in one- the cloud that looks like a profile, the Virgin Mary on the burnt tortilla.
In the Victorian period, artists like CharlesAllan Gilbert created double-images that played on opposing states of being: beauty and ugliness, life and death. These optical illusions marry symbolic elements that are categorically and visually contradictory. “Invisible Man” plays a similar game as it evokes the horrors associated with needles and injections (a reality for many living with HIV) and the beauty of a floating figure that resembles something from another world. The needles are directed inwardly as if attacking the human figure, but they can also be read as emanating rays spreading outward- the glow of glory.
In relation to those living with AIDS invisibility becomes a crucial issue. As with any disease, those with an illness often experience ostracism and separation. Quarantine can be imposed by one’s peer group or one’s self. When I am “a man” I am seen. I belong to a large category of privilege and substance. A healthy man is visible as MAN. To be diseased is to be moved in the very nature of my substance- whether physically or categorically. When I am sick I take on both a new sort of visibility, which in severe cases- such as social spaces where AIDS still creates extreme stigma- can evolve into invisibility. Another type of potential invisibility may be related to the alignment of sickness and death. For often the sick person is the one closer to death, the one who may, through that new proximity to the grave, be about to become an “invisible man”.
“Invisible Man” was first shown in Vienna, Austria at the International AIDS Conference in 2010. UN AIDS in Geneva commissioned French film-maker Cedric Pilard to make this short film about the sculpture.