Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Figuring: The VW Bug As Representative of the General Trend of De-figuring Through the Course of Our History

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

I was riding in the car recently with a very good friend of mine when a particular car caught my attention. I don't remember what car it was, exactly, but I remarked on how stupid it looked to me. My friend asked what I meant. I said I didn't like it because it wasn't figurative at all; it was like a bubble car. I also talked about how cars, and made things in general, have been getting less and less figurative over time. That turned into a bit of a conversation, but I ended up saying I would try to write out my thoughts to explain in more depth what I meant, and also to show it in pictures. Hence this blog post.

A good example of what I mean is demonstrated by comparing the old and new VW Bugs. What I mean can partially be clearly and obviously seen simply by the sensory experience of seeing the two face to face. Also, though, you can see much more of the man who made it in this old one. It is much more human. Or, you could say, you more readily see the more sensory parts of the man who made it in this one. The old Bug extends from man's body, from his foot.

The new bug, on the other hand, looks less like the man who made it and more like a bubble. The old one has rounded parts that come together to make a face, something that faces you. The new one, however, is round as a whole, more akin to fattened flying saucer. It is less human, as if aliens dropped it from outer space. In fact, it sort of has the over-all round, arching shape of heaven. Unlike the old one, which stands, or rides, upon the earth. The new one is not aesthetically an extension of any part of man's body and could be said to appear from nowhere. Or if pressed when confronted with the realization that man did, in fact, make it, you could say it came from the (empty side of) the more metaphysical parts of man.

I would say that this difference between the old and new bugs is representative of a general trend found both in man and the things he made and makes. This historical trend has underground roots in two places, I think. One of those places is in man himself. For at least 800 years, man and the things he makes have been becoming more and more cerebral, coming closer and closer to Nothing. In addition, there is a long and ongoing argument, both explicit in words and text and implicit in the work of various artists and worshipers, over the appropriateness of making or configuring representations of man or animals. At one time this discourse manifested itself as an argument over the use of icons in worship. More recently it became a philosophical discourse on the problem of representation, with roots in Plato and Aristotle. Most recently, people just make cars like the new VW Beetle, and don't really seem to have a clue what's going on.

A select few, however, are still aware. Aware that humans have bodies. Aware that bodies make things. And aware of the historical roots of the argument over icons. Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin (see link here for more pictures:, is aware. He is clearly an iconoclast (analogically against the use of icons in worship), but his buildings are not confused about whether they want to be heavenly or bubbly.

The iconoclastic position has its roots in God's 10 Commandments. "I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me..." It seems to me that this was meant to be applied in the context of worship; don't make images of false gods and bow down to them in worship. Because, later in scripture, God dictates the appearance of lots of images of things in heaven or below in the Temple. Pictured to the right is Joan Miro's "The Gold of Azure." He is a bit of an iconoclast, and his work is definitely interwoven with worship. I think, however, that he was an iconoclast for more medicinal than priestly reasons.

He was offering what the people needed, rearranging mind and sense to try and help us re-encounter reality after modernity taught us to perceive it from such a distance. Do note that the word azure is a reference to the blue of the sky. Clearly, Miro is digging up what lies hidden beneath the foundations of things. And when you see his works in person, figures very clearly re-appear from behind his dis-figuring. In photos you can see traces of this. There is nothing remotely resembling any of this, however, in the de-figuration of the new VW Bug. The new VW Bug simply maintains the distance of modernity from the body and reality. Although worship, like an icon, points beyond, such a distance from the start in the made artifice renders worship impossible (just as Christ's sacrifice makes true worship POSSIBLE).

One way to break our habitual distance from reality and the body is to cut it. "Covenant primarily signifies 'a disposition of property by will or otherwise.' In its use in the Septuagint, it is the rendering of a Hebrew word meaning a 'covenant' or agreement (from a verb signifying 'to cut or divide,' in allusion to a sacrificial custom in connection with 'covenant-making,' e.g., Gen. 15:10, 'divided' Jer. 34:18-19). In contradistinction to the English word 'covenant' (lit., 'a coming together')...For instance, in Gal. 3:17 it is used as an alternative to a 'promise' (vv. 16-18). God enjoined upon Abraham the rite of circumcision, but His promise to Abraham, here called a 'covenant,' was not conditional upon the observance of circumcision, though a penalty attached to its nonobservance." from: .

Libeskind's Jewish museum (pictured above) has no "windows." What would be the windows are really "cuts" in the body, which both divide and join together. We feel the incision as it is made in our own flesh. It divides flesh from flesh, and inside from outside. And the very act of perceiving the division separates our seeing from the act of cutting; it separates mind and body, physical and metaphysical. The cut, however, also lets light inside the building. And in our seeing the cutting, from which the blood of life flows, we are filled; we participate. Again, however, the new VW Bug participates in none of this seeing of what is broken in the world and thus reconciling with the One through whom wholeness is returning. Where figures often bring us into encounters with our own bodies and sensory reality, here the covenant does the same.

Seeing the de-figured new VW Bug, by this analogy of the covenant, however, would be like watching a surgery through a glass window. If you do happen to be aware of what's happening when something appears in the world, there is little or nothing about that made thing that reveals it to you.

Now, the title of this post indicates a general defiguring over time in our artifacts. Because we live after the exile of the figure, we have to look to the past just to get an idea of what figures actually are. The old VW Bug is a good example, but one example of something never gives us a full idea that would lend understanding. Pictured to the left is Michelangelo's Campidoglio in Rome, Italy, one of the most figurative pieces before which I've ever stood. It anchors itself to the earth, flies to the heavens, and opens itself to you in song. In person, one very clearly and profoundly senses all of this, and returns the gestures.

As suggested earlier, what often makes something figurative is the appearance of body parts: head, foot, mouth, eyes. Many or all of these appear in the old VW Bug. Pictured to the right, however, is a very literal example. I post it here for two reasons. One is to simply teach about figures and body parts. The other is to use what is pictured to the right, Frederico Zuccari's Garden Portal, Rome, 1590, as sort of the opposite side of the coin to the NEW VW Bug. Figures appear in the imagination. When the gap is so thoroughly closed between imagination and reality, the essence of the figure disappears. The ultimate idea of the figure is to be a hinge between heaven and earth, physical and metaphysical. This occurs in the old VW Bug, in Libeskind's iconoclastic Jewish Museum, as well as in Michelangelo's Campidoglio. This really doesn't happen in Zucarri's portal, or at least not in the same way. This is more of a comedic revelation of the absurd, of man's quest to build his Tower of Babel by way of a rude slap in the face while laughing at him.

To further complete the picture of what figures are, pictured to the left, in order, are Le Corbusier's Chapel de Haute at Ronchap and Windsor Castle. Both here primarily serve simply as visual demonstrations of what figures are. One must keep in mind, however, that figures rarely appear in photographs the way they appear in actuality. This is because figures act; they are active. As mentioned, they spring the imagination. In medieval times, it was believed that icons had magical powers. Photographs, however, freeze reality in place and time, from one vantage point. Figures, especially architectural figures, must typically be seen while standing or moving upon the earth with your head closer to heaven. Photographs flatten all of those relationships into one, into the visual plane of the picture. This difference between the photos and actual reality is especially striking in these two examples. The figures are much more prominent in person at both. Notably, there would not be much difference between the photograph and actually of Zucarri's Garden Portal.

There is much more to be said about this topic in relation to the history of man and why his artifacts, as extensions of himself, have become defigured over time as he has come closer both to Nothing and to closing the infinite gap between Nothing and Something. It cannot, however all be stated in one blog post, in which I am at least trying to be short and concise.

If interested, here are two other sites that better dig into the original Hebrew word for covenant, which might also, then, slightly altar your perception of sensory reality :)

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