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Digital Psyche: Michael Rees
November 22, 1997-January 25, 1998

Michael Rees

Michael Rees
Digital Psyche

Everyone can dream, and must have dreamed his whole life, of a perfect duplication or multiplication of his being, but such copies only have the power of dreams, and are destroyed when one attempts to force the dream into the real.
--Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation , 1994

Throughout history, artists, writers, scientists, humanists, and others have reinvented the human body as a slippery surface on which to map out social, political, economic, sexual, technological, and other cultural changes. Through our corporeal meanderings we have learned that the physical and metaphysical body is mutable and clonable as views of the body shift with social disruption and transformations. Michael Rees's work, realized through a CAD (computer-aided design) modeling program, trades on anxiety over our historically fragmented body and psyche. He works within a new visual language for social exchange that is rooted in rapid-prototyping industries, metaphysics, and the language of medical-imaging technology--x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other seemingly non-invasive views of the body.

Rees's fascination with exploring the corporeal and sensational body originates from diverse and separate impulses that he collapses together in the corpus of his sculptures and images. According to Rees, the "work emerges from places I cannot fully rationalize," and becomes the "center of a multipointed star" of influences. 1 However, he does identify four main impetuses for the work: the myth of Pygmalion--a masculine impulse to create; the system of chakras from yoga practice; the ecstatic body, which for Rees includes sex, sleep, and death; and finally, computer-generated scientific and medical images of the body. Rees's sculptures and computer-generated images settle themselves into a space between dreams and the physical world. In the realm of art making, our multiple reincarnations or dreams of the body are not always destroyed when they are made real, as Baudrillard suggests, but instead may sustain their dreamlike currency.
Rees produces his work on the computer. Working in a CAD program, which allows the artist to work in a 3-dimensional space, Rees creates fictionalized body fragments, often combining "real" body organs with bony structures--works that may seem both vaguely familiar and vaguely horrifying. For instance, in Ajña 5 , Rees nests a uterus within a skull--a reference to the Pygmalion myth of man as creator of image and subsequent life--and, in Rees's opinion, "uterine envy" made physical. In Greek mythology Pygmalion was the King of Cyprus who carved and then fell in love with a statue of a woman which the goddess Aphrodite brought to life as Galatea. Hence Pygmalion ultimately "created" a life. For Rees, this male desire to create life constitutes the "uterine envy" to which he refers both in Pygmalion and in his own work.
By using the CAD program Rees is able to not only "sculpt" the exterior of the objects, but also perform detailed work on the interior surfaces of the sculptures, traveling around the inside of his fictional bodies. Rees then produces his sculptures through rapid prototyping, an additive manufacturing process wherein stored electronic files are transferred to a machine that creates a 3-dimensional sculpture by laser forming, particle by particle, layer by layer, sculptures out of whatever material the artist chooses. The sculpture is built up in layers that are 2,000th of an inch thick, allowing for detail as intimate as Rees's fingerprint to be replicated into a sculpture's surface, thus merging the individualized body with the machine and the sculpture. Rees has designed sculptures with such diverse materials as toner-bonded paper, photopolymer resin, epoxy-filled cornstarch, and thermoplastic. The bizarre configurations that Rees can build on the computer are sculpturally replicated through rapid prototyping in a way that he could not have achieved as successfully through traditional sculpture methods. Industrial applications of rapid prototyping can be found in the prototyping phase of automotive parts manufacture. Ironically, Rees co-opts an industrial manufacturing process to make his delicate, humanoid sculptures. And while Rees's sculptures defy anatomical logic and traditional practice, he is able to nest organs within bony structures in the same way, if not in the same place, that they are nested within a human body, lending the works an ambiguous and uncomfortable sense of seeming to be actual internal structures. Using high-tech industrial design methods, Rees's works presage physical and metaphysical bodily potential for alteration, substitution, prosthesis (cyborgs), and cloning--all of which, we have come to realize, are startlingly possible.

Michael Rees's explorations of the fictionalized body resonate in 18th-century Enlightenment explorations of the corporeal. According to Barbara Maria Stafford in Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine , "The eighteenth century, that second 'age of discovery,' might well be termed the 'era of uncovering.' That germinal period forecast our current information-rich and collaborative computer epoch."2 She continues,
Prophetically, the eighteenth century viewer's struggle to pierce to the bottom of all the blurred visual signals . . . seems to be fulfilled in twentieth-century transparent medical visualizations. Computed tomography x-ray imaging (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound now probe noninvasively, but publicly, formerly private regions and occluded and secluded recesses.3
Michael Rees's fantastic voyage into a fictional body space traffics on these modern technologies and Enlightenment ideologies. Eighteenth-century microscopic inquiry into new and unseen worlds focused on making the invisible visible, the unseen accessible. Visual art was influenced by these scientific inquiries into the body and the natural world, especially in what Stafford calls bizarreries , artists' small drawings of the world newly revealed through scientific and technological inquiry. Bizarreries illustrate how scientific and aesthetic interests merged into artistic images for popular culture. Similarly, Rees's sculptures and images trade on the mass popularization of a digitalized world. Yet Rees also recognizes that loss of boundaries--from the loss of control we may feel over the private portions of our bodies now easily accessed through technology--results in destabilized images of the human body. His fragmented and alien-like human remnants are both familiar and unfamiliar. They may reassure through their reference to our bodies, or destabilize for the very same reason. They may seem both rational and irrational, real and unreal. Through his digitalization of experience, Rees redefines our bodies in terms of anxiety, comfort, industrial design and metaphysical ideas.
Rees's use of the metaphysical Ajña , a reference to the sixth master chakra, may equalize the fears of technology and bodily invasion that his work may also induce. Derived from the Sanskrit word for wheel or circle, chakras are the seven centers of spiritual energy in the body, according to yoga philosophy. Some authors refer to the chakras as the subtle body--our psychic selves housed within our physical bodies. Rees chooses the sixth chakra because of its location in the forehead and its association with clairvoyance, intuition, and imagination. According to some yoga practitioners, if the highest level within the Ajña chakra is reached, it is the point of no return--complete peace. To Rees, the sixth chakra also refers to the dreaming state, where beauty and terror often collide. Rees's Ajña , then, becomes a bridge between the opposing qualities of Rees's sculptural works themselves, which instill in us both fear of technology and its effects on our bodies, and the simultaneous seduction of technology and the knowledge it reveals to us. Like the multilimbed Hindu god Shiva, Rees's multiorganed, mythological bodies both repel and seduce, pronouncing that both anxiety and comfort may exist within the same realm.

The body has been and continues to be a locus for contesting physical and psychic boundaries and for exploring a technological age in flux. What do Rees's hybrid forms say to us? How do they communicate with us in their simultaneous looking backward--the Enlightenment, fragments--and looking forward--technological developments in the arena of science and medicine? Rees's body and organ fragments function as relics--fragments that represent a whole--and as complete sculptures--objects deliberately constructed to appear as a fragment. Through his work, Rees confounds traditional limitations on image making and the body's representation. His varied influences, anchored by technology and metaphysics, collide within his work, illustrating the multiple intelligences and modes of perception that we must reconcile in our culture. Rees's role in the visual construction of our changing modernity is to make physical and visible a body that can become obsolete without technology. As our culture becomes more digitalized and computer-oriented, entire bodies can be left behind if they are not accounted for through computer imaging or internet access. Rees recognizes that technology is the inevitable extension of our own physical and metaphysical bodies which exist in a system of bits, bytes, and constant questions about the mythologies and truths of creation, recreation, and existence.

Dana Self

Unpublished artist's statement.

Barbara Maria Stafford in Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine , (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991) p. 24

Stafford, p. 26.