- From Rilke to Stelarc:Cross-Mapping Body Figurations in Early Twentieth-Century German Literature with Early Twenty-First-Century Body Performances
In a recent project, the Australian-based performance artist Stelarc (Stelios Arcadiou) describes plans to graft a third ear onto his body. His goal is to shock the audience with a monstrous body image. His projects are developed with the assistance of the Australian research and performance group TC&A, which uses cutting-edge science such as tissue engineering in its art work. Stelarc's third ear, grown from his own body tissue and attached to his arm, will send "sweet nothings" (Linke 81–83) and will demonstrate the extension of the human body to a highly artificial but living sculpture. According to Stelarc's Website, the ultimate plan includes not only a visual multiplication of the organ for hearing but also an internet connected transmitter through which he wants to communicate worldwide (see http://www.stelarc.va.com.au). Seen from an aesthetic point of view, this project carries out what the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century dreamt of. The futurist movement, in particular, conceptualized the human body as a machine, as seen in Marinetti's Mafarka, le futuriste ('Mafarka, the Futurist,' 1909) or Umberto Boccioni's Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio ('Unique Forms in the Continuity of Space,' 1913). This view of the body as malleable and performative has a long tradition, from Hephaestus's creation of Pandora to La Mettrie's L'homme machine ('Machine Man,' 1748). In German literature, E. T. A. Hoffmann's story "Der Sandmann" (1817), or Gustav Meyrink's novel Der Golem (1915) illustrate that the utopian desire of perfecting the human body can turn against the creator and humankind itself. Still more ecently, Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927) connects the utopian project with religion and hubris, the supernatural and ongoing industrialization. The image of the body, it seems, is bound to its scientific alterability as well as to its social functionality. Its appearance in the arts, especially in the fine arts and literature, depends on the balance of these two elements. The combination of both elements in Stelarc's performances and his "Extra Ear" project follow a paradigm that was established within the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements when, for the first time in art and literary history, art and life were regarded as completely interchangeable. [End Page 441]
The European avant-garde of the early twentieth century, including the German avant-garde movements, can be defined as characterized by a blurring of the boundaries between life and art, and between body and text. In Germany, the strict social environment of the nineteenth century and its manifestation in the official art politics of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the twentieth century were attacked in the manifestos and performances of internationally connected avant-garde groups, such as the Berlin Sturm movement, the expressionist group "The Blue Rider," or by the response to the futurist art movements and the activities of the Dada groups. Influenced by the French symbolists, impressionists, and the fauvists, as well as by the new mass media (photography, magazines, newspaper, and film) and the physical-culture movements at the turn of the century (Neue Körperkultur, Fkk, Wandervogel), the perception of the body underwent a change in the arts. When the French artist Auguste Rodin sculpted his famous figures (Le Monument à Balzac, 1891–97; La Main de Dieu, 1896–1902; Mouvement de Danse, 1910), German critics such as Georg Simmel generally agreed that the last bastion of classical beauty, sculpture, had finally fallen. The ideal image of the human body that was held to reproduce beauty in its manifestations and the unity of the mind was replaced by fragments, pictures of body parts, descriptions of its disappearance, or, in Rodin's case, by a concentration on the sculpture's surface from a material point of view.
Rather than comparing body images in avant-garde art and literature to reconstruct (again) the history of the body against the wider background of European history and societies of different ages, this article investigates the ways in which images were constructed by...