Back in 1964, in a book that immediately prompted vigorous debate (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man), Marshall McLuhan concluded the chapter “Hybrid Energy: Les Liaisons Dangereuses” with a singular, if not provocative, definition of hybridity. He observed how the direct encounter between two media, and their subsequent hybridisation, is a dynamic that sparks an authentic moment of truth and revelation, from which a new form cannot but emerge. Over fifty years later, we can now frame McLuhan’s emphasis in the broader context of what we have known since the late ’80s as the pictorial or visual turn. Many other scholars, from David Freedberg to Tom Mitchell and Gottfried Boehm, have added important contributions of their own. In the essay Four fundamental concepts of image science (2007), Mitchell in particular notes that every pictorial turn is a remarkable opportunity for artists and their audience. It “reappears numerous times in the history of culture, usually at moments when some new technology of reproduction, or some set of images associated with new social, political, or aesthetic movements has arrived on the scene. The dilation of the instruments of expression, the explosion of combinatorial possibilities and an ever-denser interweaving of mutual borrowings opens up new opportunities and new forms, resulting in new subjects and new forms of consumption.”
In this vein, the exhibition “Hybris. Hybrids and Monsters in Contemporary Art” surveys and sequences a series of works and groups of works by 19 artists from 7 countries, from different cultural contexts and historical periods. (The oldest works date back at least 40 years.) Linking all of them is a shared quest to explore one of the most challenging themes cutting across our contemporary world: the complex relationship between identity and alterity. Beginning with the Biennale organised by Jean Clair, “Identity and alterity: figures of the body 1895–1995”, later artistic explorations set out their objectives more precisely. Thus, representing the body gave way, in a post-human perspective, to manipulating it. The intercultural debate turned into the need for an encounter – indeed, a clash – with that which is not part of human civilisation: the inanimate, the inorganic, the animal, the monster, and pervasive and invasive technologies. In just a decade or so, the body became a surface bearing layers of changing information codes (from genetics to informatics), acquiring a mutating morphology that blended and blurred them.
The exhibition’s three parts – “Hybrid spaces”, “I–the other, the hybrid, the monster” and “Metamorphoses and metaphors” – at least hint at the complexity of this problem, and visitors will see that they fit together into a single discourse. The terms used suggest very clearly that the artists’ individual paths (even though these are people from different generations) and the signs they produced are a mix of different times and even far-off eras. Ultimately, the obsession with monsters/hybrids has pervaded our civilisation ever since it first appeared.
Inevitably, the artists include a strong Russian contingent. In its general thinking on the relationship between identity and alterity, the West has paid scant attention to the explorations by Russian artists. Yet one of the goals – and perhaps the merits – of this survey, despite its modest size, is precisely its appreciation of a journey with such deep, distant roots.
Professor of Russian Art History and Contemporary Art History at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Director of the Centre of Studies of Russian Art (CSAR).
Professor of Modern Art History at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.