Michael Rees

Special thanks to: 3D Systems ( Valencia, California), makers of stereolithography equipment1; D T M Corporation (Austin, Texas), makers of selective laser sintering equipment; Mark Abshire, Master SLAPattern Maker; Erin Dittoe, Astro Model Corporation (East Lake, Ohio); Vern Carter, Creative Technical Solutions (Indianapolis, Indiana); Steve Loidolt, Studio Assistant; and Mary Ann Strandell.

One can always, although it is never indispensable, turn the reference like a glove. Pretending to describe this or that, the veils or sails, for example, of saliva, the text veils itself in unveiling itself by itself, describing, with the same exhibitionistic modesty, its own texture.
— Jacques Derrida

There is a mind in the flesh.
—Antonin Artaud

Michael Rees's stereolithographic Ajña Spine sculptures are situated within what the artist has described as "an imaginary or metaphysical anatomy placed against the backdrop of medical anatomy." Using and exploring new technology to generate complex bi-organic forms has allowed Rees to pointedly raise some of the most poignant humanistic issues that face mankind in a post-technological, information-driven world. Computer-aided drafting (CAD) programs give Rees the capacity to move forms around in space, offer variations in form and structure, and intimately explore his materials using precise codes that are transferred immediately to object-making without actually touching or physically constructing the objects. He has described this sensation as being removed, yet "in another sense I'm closer to my thoughts and to the images they produce. There are other forces at play in which I participate."

The greatest artworks don't try to answer anything, nor do they propose solutions; they ask direct, powerful, and troubling questions. Michael Rees's sculptures elicit many such questions, including these: Upon how many levels does information operate? How is it generated, received, used, and validated? What is the nature of generative creativity? What separates man from animal? What are the limits of rationality and empirical knowledge? Can a metaphysical body of experience ever be scientifically validated? What is the nature of (visual) language? How do we experience truth and the relativity of truth? Can scientific analysis quantify the distinctions among the known, the unknown, and the not-known?

On one level, the Ajña Spine sculptures are hard to categorize. Their displacements and macabre edginess give them a surreal presence. Filled with a tension that is palpable, hovering between fragility and supple grace, their mystery is heightened by embedded coloration, unusual materials, and otherworldly precision. Through their identification with cutting-edge (hands-off!) fabrication techniques, Rees's sculptures raise the level of speculative inquiry to a new pitch. How should we re-characterize our experience of the past and of what we call "nature" in order to construct adequate concepts for scientific practice and social transformation? Their capacity to stimulate such queries alone would make them revolutionary objects. What is equally striking, however, is that these innovative sculptures seem somehow classically modern in their orientation. Their formal substructure and visual conceits follow a direct line of influence from Auguste Rodin. Rees's works are thus truly revolutionary because they are poised in the eternal present looking equally backward and forward in time.

In Ajña Spine 13, for example, we see that Rees evinces almost limitless capacities for modeling, montage, and seriality through an emphasis on the fragment that was pioneered by Rodin's study of the body moving through space. Rees does this while simultaneously attending to his own concerns to make manifest the contours of the ecstatic body. He places the organs of hearing on either end of the spine while lacing sets of floret-like forms (what the artist refers to as "energetic structures") along its length. The spine is then bracketed at the left and right by the shapes of human ears. In this work the flowering bud motif creates a systematized visual articulation of membrane-organs that are poised to send or receive psychic and auditory energy. Equally significant is the eroticized energy contained in Rees' works, similar to that expressed by Rodin ("He understood ... that life, and that which life springs from, [is] a kind of motor for the perennial cycles of desire that spin across and thereby propagate, the natural universe ..."2). The somatic energy left on Rodin's surfaces through his touch is also referred to in all of Rees's sculptures, demonstrating his intention to create an aura that infiltrates into, on, and around the body of each work at a level that equals its projected biotechnical dynamism. Before he began to use stereolithography three and a half years ago, Rees had already gained respect for his unconventional abstract floor, wall, and table sculptures, tracing the patterns of incipient atavistic flight-or-fight movements. A well-trained sculptor who is comfortable with mixed media, Rees incorporates his knowledge of materials into the construction of his computer imagery. He uses the computer screen to produce topological surveys of his complex forms and restlessly explores each part of their recesses. At the same time the touch of the artist is implicated and asserted in more tangible ways: Rees has made a point of imprinting a reduced image of his croix occulte (a location on the palm of the left hand, designated by palmistry) onto several of his works. They are thus encoded with his biological essence, his identifying "touch," as assuredly as any Rodin sculpture. Similarly, the additive aspect of stereolithography places Rees squarely within the modernist legacy of Rodin, who believed that the future of modern sculpture lay in modeling, not carving (that is, not in subtractive work, such as that of Michelangelo). It may be noted that Rodin's well-publicized position was a sore point with Brancusi, who countered with this published assertion in 1925: "Direct carving is the true path in sculpture."

There are other immediately recognizable Rodinesque aspects in Rees's work apart from the use of the fragment, the impulse towards eroticization, and the sign of the hand. These include the non-finito, the slightly off-balance look, and the generative appeal. As did Rodin, Rees believes that logic loses its efficacy when confronted with a visionary response to the world. He would be in accord with Rodin's thoughts: "To judge a work of art with the logical precision of a philosophical premise or through the analyses of experimental science is a fundamental error. It is even difficult to talk about it. Art contains some expression which could not be exactly demonstrated by reason. The artist's sensibility shows him beauties in nature which go beyond what his intelligence alone could have conceived. The artist makes tangible that which was invisible." 3 While Rees uses high technology to point to technology's limitations, within his work are countercurrents that make it contradictory and lend it greater complexity. The computer's capacity to reproduce the three principles of rhythm (rotation, reflection, and translation) is used by the artist to generate an interlacing of forms and patterns that create a weaving, plaiting, and knotting movement. In three dimensions this suggests grotesque traceries that add decorative aspects to the work.

In these strange, dream-like works, what is being sought by Rees are the essentials of various bioenergetic life forms. As all revolutionary work, Rees's Ajña Spine sculptures are straightforward, despite their complicated fabrication techniques. What we see are spinal columns that extend upward (with three exceptions). Attached in various configurations to the central stem of the vertebrae are body organs or elements gleaned from the artist's first three-dimensional computer sculpture, the Aqualine Creature. Overall, Rees's hybrid forms reside somewhere among the animal, human, and plant worlds their dispositions resisting both normal logic and reason, yet flourishing under an insistent biological imperative.

Rodin's work has been considered to bridge the concerns of 19th and 20th century sculpture. Similarly, Rees's work may link the concerns of modernity regarding the fragmentary, the ephemeral, and the contingent to those projected for the next century: seriality, the hyperreality of the simulacrum, sexual anthropology, medical hermeneutics, hybridity, and what Donna Haraway has termed "biotic systems." Rodin and Rees are both self-critical and adventurous; and both, of course, are profoundly humanistic. At its most basic level, Rees's work asks that we go beyond the world of ideas and words, beyond scientific rationality, to penetrate the realm of being that existed before Logos and Mythos were cleaved in two. It wants us to reach beyond the limitations of language. In essence, Rees's sculpture is a method that allows us to consider, as Heidegger states succinctly in "What Calls for Thinking": What makes a call upon us that we should think, and by thinking, be who we are?

Dominique Nahas
New York, NY

Dominique Nahas is a cultural critic and independent curator working in New York.

1 Stereolithography is a specific process under the umbrella of automatic additive fabrication. Two other processes are used in this exhibition - selective laser sintering and 3D printing. Additive fabrication has been applied in industry since the late 1980's. Ajña is a reference to the sixth master chakra, according to yoga philosophy.

2 Siegfried Salzmann, "Innovative Energies in the Work of Rodin," In: Rodin - Eros and Creativity, edited by Rainer Crone and Siegfried Salzmann (Prestal Verlag, 1992), p. 198.

3 Auguste Rodin - Readings in His Life and Work, edited and with an introduction by Albert Elsen (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965), p. 177.

Back to top