Svai and Paul Stanikas. Sex and Death

The art of the Lithuanian, Paris-based artists Svai and Paul Stanikas originates from an interesting yet seemingly idiosyncratic and maybe even an altogether contradictory topos. The reason being is that the formal language these artists work in is, to extend the linguistic metaphor, polyglot: photography, video, installation, sculpture and drawing, to name just a few. Witness, for example, an early work from 1997 titled Your Father, Your Sons and Your Daughter.

Here the viewer is confronted with a series of sculptures whose newness is driven by a contemporary sensibility as well as an aesthetic that harks back to an older artistic practice. Formally, the sculptures are textbook cases of ostensibly classical figurative work detailed with an obsessive attention to an emotive naturalism: nuances detected in the softly modeled contours of faces are revealing in their minutia, as well the demure mannerism underscored in the theatricality of the horizontally displayed figures. Because the sculptures’ placement is parallel to the floor and they feign death, they have a memento mori quality that is compounded by their subordinate reception to the viewer. For the point from which observation takes place is surrogate for other forms of hegemony of a sexual and gendered nature highlighted through spatial incongruity and a detached voyeurism in seeing defenseless bodies laid flat and that are presumably lifeless: a catatonic state, perhaps–or the Big Sleep?

While the corporeality of these sculptures equally resides in a zone of density and levity and paradoxically palpitates with dynamism as well as an implosive stasis, the death the sculptures visually bespeak of stealthily alludes to sexuality as well. The daughter, in this death-driven triangulation of father and male and female progeny, lies seductively posed in a palimpsest of Eros and Thanatos; that is, the life instinct and the death drive. In the daughter’s visage resides a compelling beauty of somatic satiation that concomitantly conveys mortality. This look, which is counter to the Gaze, has been presented to us before in the history of art and visual culture. One can think of Bataille’s The Eye, for example. Specifically, the (in) famous picture found in that book of a Chinese man who has had his limbs hacked off and is tied to a stake. This deplorable demise is both a grand death underlined in the morbid spectacle made public as well as the little death conveyed in a look that is orgasmic as it is horrific; or, how about Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa or even Michelangelo’s Pieta. The former being the eroticization of the spiritual, while the latter is the closure of a narrative cycle where the face of Christ and his eyes wide shut is erogenous as it is fatal. Both constitute the myriad social forms that death can take, particularly where pain morphs into pleasure and vice versa.

In the art of the Stanikas, there are many deaths, both little and grand, and thus sexuality is never far from its presumed antitheses as it is the other in a different guise. Death and sexuality as the penumbra of human interaction are springboards for the artists into other realms that interrogate, both outwardly and self-reflexively, questions that have been the great philosophical quagmire since the human species had picked itself up and began to walk upright. But these grand themes are not the meta-narratives of stodgy academicians; for the Stanikas always insert such heady themes into the social realm of which they are always a part. This is underscored, for instance in one of their most ostensibly epic works to date titled World War (2003), as well in the Sorcery (2003) pictures.

In a series of largely formatted black and white photographs that constitute World War, trauma becomes the narrative axis from which political discourse is articulated. The triptych consists of three images: one is a fragmented skull that teeters on some indiscernible mechanical environment. Cranial imagery has a historicity that spans the existence of human occupation on earth. From early instances of burial practices where the cranium was left partially exposed above ground, to the more recent utopian fantasies of cryogenics where only the heads of the deceased are submerged in liquid nitrogen with the intention that in the future they will be given a whole new different body when reanimated. With Stanikas, however, the cranium serves a plethora of functions, both aesthetically and as symbol of the other: technology meets anthropology.

In the Sorcery works, the Stanikas have added a new dimension to Courbet’s Origin of the World, that famous lost painting of full frontal female genitalia. Here, the artists have reconfigured the equivalency of the earth goddess to that of fetish object to the degree that it becomes the locus of the occult and the hermetic. As these few examples among many more make quite clear, the art of the Stanikas has a poetic ruthlessness underscored in an aesthetic that is both compelling as it is disquieting.