Thursday, April 2, 2020

carbon dad 2017: Paul Emmanuel

by Pam Allara

(This post builds on our previous discussion of Paul Emmanuel's exhibition "Men and Monuments", exploring his ongoing project to honor the memory of his late father in a remarkable fashion.  As the world faces the challenges of new forms of grieving and mourning, we find Paul Emmanuel's deeply personal memorial project, "carbon dad 2017," to be especially meaningful)


Carbon dad 2017
Photographed at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery
2020
Original drawing, hand-incised into carbon paper, carbon residue
110 x 440 cm
Artist's collection
Photographed by Paul Emmanuel
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
In 2017, Paul Emmanuel initiated a project that is profoundly personal, but also engages end of life issues in society more broadly. What rituals attend the body’s last passage, from living to dead? Susan Sontag has observed that death is ‘obscenely meaningless,’ because of society’s inability to come to terms with it. Until the early 20th century, death—apart from accidents and war-- routinely took place at home. In this domestic context, deathbed portraits were a common practice as a means of honoring the dead. Today, death takes place off-site: relatives are frequently not present when a family member dies; instead, the lifeless body, the corpse, is trolleyed off to a funeral parlor, where, after it is suitably prepared and dressed, it can be viewed if the family so decides, and a ritual of mourning can begin.

From 2014 to 2018 Emmanuel, in an exceptional gesture of filial fidelity, attended to his parents daily at the nursing home where they existed in the liminal state between life and death. In a way, Emmanuel can be said to have served as a sort of shaman who ascribed ritual meaning to their demise both through his repeated physical touch and through his art. As he has written with respect to his father: “…I tended to his frequent skin abrasions, cutting his twisted toenails, massaging his feet”. To Emmanuel, it seemed that his father, like the majority of frail care residents, was unwanted, forgotten and abandoned by society. The facility was a locale for people to wait to die.

Whereas in The Lost Men series, Emmanuel transformed his own body into a living grave marker by impressing the names of men who died in various wars on his skin, in carbon dad 2017 ,(2018-9; fig. 6) a monumental drawing from the Substance of Shadows series now in process, he used the body of his father, Emile, who reluctantly but generously, agreed at age 93 to let his son photograph him naked. He died a few months later in February, 2018.

Carbon dad 2017
Photographed at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery
2020
Original drawing, hand-incised into carbon paper, carbon residue
110 x 440 cm
Artist's collection
Photographed by Paul Emmanuel
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
For this new project, Emmanuel has turned from the silk organdi he used in The Lost Men series to the humble medium of carbon paper. The choice is significant for a number of reasons. First, it is an object once in common use that has been rendered obsolete in the age of the mechanical photocopy, and thus it speaks to past history. (Emmanuel was able to obtain the last roll of carbon paper available in South Africa.) Second, as Emmanuel has noted, it is a medium of transference from one text to another, just as his father’s body hovered between life and death. In addition, carbon is one of the four basic elements in the human body, and the building block of all of body’s cells. As such, it is a direct surrogate for the body. And finally, unlike the developed photographic paper used in the Transitions series, the delicate carbon paper has parallels with human skin; it is vulnerable and easily can be torn when the image is picked out of the black carbon surface with the artist’s sharp metal blade. Emmanuel has elected to let those ‘wounds’ remain.

Carbon dad 2017
Photographed at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery
2020
Original drawing, hand-incised into carbon paper, carbon residue
110 x 440 cm
Artist's collection
Photographed by Paul Emmanuel
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
As with the works in The Lost Men series, carbon dad 2017 is designed to be suspended. Hanging horizontally at eye-level, the life-sized, prone naked body is depicted twice: face down on the left and on his back on the right. The viewers’ initial reactions will undoubtedly be one of shock at this exposed, nearly inanimate figure; it is a portrait of somebody, for sure, and the person is male. (However, in this state, the term ‘male’, like the body itself, has been stripped of meaning.) Part of the discomfort at looking at this body is not that it is ugly—which it is not—but that it is old, and elderly bodies are rarely seen naked. According to one sociologist, “Culture provides us with almost no images of the aging body unclothed…older people thus experience their bodies in the context of a profound cultural silence.” We cover the body of the dying because it represents the truth that the person will expire, and so too will we decline, lose control over our bodily functions and die. carbon dad 2017 is shocking because his aged body is uncovered for interpersonal communication: the arms, although immobile, appear to be gesturing, and the eyes appear to be partially open. His state is literally and figuratively one of suspended animation, not-yet-dead, a ‘carbon copy’ of an intermediary state the viewer is forced to face.

Albrecht Dürer.
Self portrait c 1509
Wikimedia
The care with which the lumpen forms of the body are rendered recall the 19th century ecorché anatomy drawings designed as teaching tools in art academies and medical schools, but also renderings of the nude body throughout art history. I’m reminded of Dürer’s Nude Self-Portrait , an ink drawing from 1503-5, which exhibits a similar attention to the abstract patterning on the naked body created by the detailed modeling of the skin. Emmanuel is an extraordinary draftsman, and the care with which he attended to his father’s body while living is extended to its depiction. As he has written about carbon dad 2017: “The act of inscribing millions of overlapping lines to try and define the surface of my father’s wrinkled form became a meditation.”

The delicate, draped paper also resembles a shroud, a deliberate reference on Emmanuel’s part. While attending a Catholic secondary school, he learned about the Shroud of Turin, which bears the image of Christ said to be created by a flash of light as Christ rose from the dead. This hovering image also takes on aspects of the sacred and the miraculous, a reliquary to solemnly contemplate. And like the shrouds in The Lost Men series, it doubles as a site of mourning for those who have sat by the side of a dying relative or friend.

Paul Emmanuel
Transitions 1 (fifth drawing)
2009
Original drawing hand-incised into exposed colour photographic paper
48 x 48 cm
Spier Collection
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
In the Transitions series, the first group of five drawings depict a circumcision. In the last drawing, the naked infant lies alone with his bandaged penis exposed, the very picture of vulnerability. The pose parallels that of carbon dad, and seen together, they bookend life’s progression toward death. From birth, male identity is constructed and controlled by invasive operations such as circumcision, but in the process of dying, the meanings superimposed on the body are elided, and what is left is palpably present, but ungraspable.

(Drawn from Pamela Allara's longer essay in the book titled Paul Emmanuel, Wits Arts Museum, 2020).



  • Our conversation about the work of Paul Emmanuel continues with our discussion of his "Veil 1954".

16 comments:

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  2. Pam's commentary on Paul Emmanuel's extraordinary "carbon dad 2017" project helps me understand why I have been recoiling from the recent rhetorical tendency to equate the struggle against Covid-19 with "war." I appreciate the need to marshal all national resources, on a comparable level to the mobilization effort of war, but the language of military conflict seems deeply unseemly at the moment, especially when all nations are now engaged in a common struggle. Among other things, the war system tends to render the military war Dead as anonymous and generic, so that the most perfect and sacralized victims are the Unknown Soidiers, who inspire the next generation to march into the maw of war. Paul's work is perhaps the most powerful antidote I know to this mode of thinking; as much as possible, the Dead at the Somme are restored to their full humanity, their recovered, particular names painfully embodied into Paul's very flesh. Similarly, carbon dad 2017 resists any tendency to render his lost father Emile, as a generic Father figure, but rather painstakingly honors every wrinkle in his body, transcribed and reproduced through the marvel of carbon paper. At a time when we are bombarded by statistics and modeled projections, that tend to efface the irreducible specificity of each human being under threat by the pandemic, Paul's work demands that we see in each one of us, living and dead, the full spectrum of individual human experience. I am reminded of the remarkable Rabbinic commentary just after 9/11, when the death toll at Ground Zero was thought to be a good deal higher than the final accounting: "It wasn’t that 5,000 people died that day. Rather, a person died. 5,000 times." Such is the lesson Paul Emmanuel imparts to us: that each passing is worthy of note, of weight, of witnessing in the deepest sense of the term. As Willy Loman puts it: Attention must be paid.

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  3. It is interesting to read about an exhibition that i am not able to see at this present time. The points raised in Pam's and Mark's comments are useful, worth considering as many people dying from COVID-19 can't all be named. another war with an unseen enemy until you feel the heat, lack of taste but yet we are all gripped by fear. A reflection of past wars and silent voices.

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