The following is an edited extract from the conversation between artist John Stark and anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt, the first 5000 years and The Utopia of Rules. The conversation was originally published in the catalogue that accompanies DoL Po, Stark’s solo show at Charlie Smith London, 20th May – 26th June 2016.
David Graeber: Industry without imagination. For Marx, that’s what bees represent. Spiders can make amazingly engineered webs, he notes, beehives can put architects to shame, but what makes the worst architect different from the best bee is that the architect raises the structure first in imagination. Bees thus make things, but they don’t create, or so Marx claims. Whether this is true or not isn’t really the point, so much as this is how we still think of bees. Marx was a Romantic when all is said and done; he felt the productive imagination was everything, it was a pure force of good in the world. But in the intellectual tradition that produced him – and still produces us – this was very much a dissident view. The tradition is actually quite suspicious of imagination, which is seen as an extension of the deep creative impulses and drives that ultimately motivate us. Freud was merely echoing the common attitude when he labelled these the id. There’s always at least a subtle feeling that imagination is somehow demonic, evil.
If so, the relation between the witches and beekeepers in your paintings becomes one of levels. The witches are that fantasy of demonic imagination let loose. They seem to say ‘let’s violate the ultimate taboo and admit what’s really driving us to create works of grace and beauty’. But at the same time, the technical perfection, the meticulousness and precision of the work that went into creating these visions is in dialogue with the message; it contains and encompasses the chaos.
There’s always at least a subtle feeling that imagination is somehow demonic, evil.
In the second series, the beekeepers, you, the technician – who in the witch series is trying to exorcise your own imagination onto the canvas and then trap and contain it with your own spectacular proficiency – gets projected onto the canvas as the faceless beekeeper (just as the artist is faceless to someone merely looking at the panel), now having contained all that creative mess inside these perfect little boxes. Except in doing so, don’t you destroy the very idea that the hidden productive force is really imagination? Because bees are in no sense imaginative. They’re running a little factory in there. So what happens to the imagination? In a way, I guess you could say it escapes into the landscape…
John Stark: I know we’re not supposed to admit it, but that’s what’s happening in the world. Imagination is being squashed by a corrupt system reinforced by batons and pepper spray. And eventually, yes, it spills over. Imagination could be seen to dissipate into the landscape or perhaps it exists outside the paintings in the space between maker and beholder. Or maybe it’s more present in the marketing strategy so rather than ‘the medium is the message’, I would say, the medium carries a message. I think the paintings of beekeepers are maybe some of my most imaginative works – the bee isn’t the be all and end all.
But if we take the bee’s model as an allegory for the subjugated human body or proletariat worker for example, there’s a kind of moral alchemy at play, as the bees’ bodies are also vessels of transmutational power – nectar and saliva combine into sweet vomit stored in cells, i.e. honey. I guess I’m struggling here to attempt to allegorise the complexities of our current capitalist economy and Marx is always a great teacher that way. Adam Smith would have associated the cooperative model of the bees with his invisible hand theory perhaps? The agent of divine providence or the hand of god which would be somewhat questionable.
DG: Well, there’s always Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees – a lot of people think he sets the stage for Adam Smith, in fact for economics in general, when he tells the story of a corrupt and licentious beehive (a really weird concept in itself if you really think about it), which decides on social reforms, adopts true Christian virtue, and suddenly becomes poor and miserable. Private vices, he concludes, lead to public benefits. It was a total scandal in 1720. But even though it anticipates Smith, Smith couldn’t stand Mandeville; he basically said he thought the guy was a jerk. Smith didn’t think we were driven to accumulate wealth because we’re bad – though he did point out that even those weird people who did accumulate wealth just for its own sake couldn’t do too much damage, owing to the invisible hand – but really, we seek wealth because we want everyone else to love us.
JS: I often state the reason I make paintings is because I’m seeking love and admiration from the entire world. Does that make me a capitalist?
DG: Oh, Smith wasn’t really a capitalist. They just adopted him.
JS: Ah, so he was just misguided – a puppet in a way. So perhaps those beekeepers aren’t so bad after all. I mean, they could be me, you and everyone we know in our most vulnerable states. But aside from a socio-political reading of the bee allegory, if we refer back to a more mythic reading of the work, an important symbol of focus for me personally and creatively is the alchemical symbol of the Black Sun. The stage where the black earth is closed inside a vessel and heated. By penetration of external fire, an inner fire’s activated and the matter starts to putrefy. So pain, suffering and darkness is charred and burnt to attain a positive state of transformation and renewal. Decapitation, and the Raven’s Head are alchemical symbols associated with the Black Sun and refer to the dying of the common man, the dying of his inner chaos and doubt. So with that in mind, the ideological honey (that can be read as symbolic value within the painting) might eventually become ash and maybe this feeling of desperation arises from a burnt-out despair that’s channelled through the work. It’s not exactly a climactic catharsis occurring with the keepers, its more slow-burn, like a hot lump of coal.
DG: You know, I think I’m beginning to get a sense of what’s going on here. So in DoL Po you’re trying to explore the dynamic between the extremes you created with the witches and the beekeepers, hence the theme of exchange. Which is actually the thing I find most interesting in your appeal to Adam Smith. On the one hand, you have his argument about the division of labour, with the famous pin factory. On the other, you have exchange. Smith insists this is ultimately what makes us human. You never see two dogs exchanging a bone, he says. But at the same time, he also says it’s our natural proclivity to ‘truck and barter’ that eventually gives rise to the division of labour and not the other way around.
Actually, this makes me wonder about something. When you got the idea for that worker’s hammer, which is a bone, were you thinking of all this? Smith’s line about the bones, as the primordial object of exchange, then of course there’s the obelisk and the bone as first tool in Kubrick’s 2001, even if it’s in an act of violence. But here, you could be thought of as echoing Smith – that really it’s the swapping and trading that drives production, that’s the deep archaeology of creation, even – we need to make things in order to swap them for something else. These are the two fantasies we have, the two founding myths: our civilisation is really sublimated aggression, or our civilisation is really the overcoming of aggression through exchange. They’re closely related. But the bone hammer seems to make a mockery of both of them, as well should be.
JS: That painting does make a mockery as you say and distils the founding myths. The nail in the centre of the painting is also the vanishing point, on which the painting would be hung and thus, the point where value is created. In truth I can’t say I was referring to Smith’s line on bones as the first token of exchange, although I am aware of such exchanges, along with stones, dried cods and tallied sticks used as IOUs which you mention in your book Debt. The bone was simply a symbol of death, the exterminations through history and the reducing of a human life to dust.
At the origin of money we have a ‘relation of representation’ of death as an invisible world – the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species.
How that painting came about was through an exchange of ideas with friends and co-conspirators Rebecca and Mike. First there was the title, which made me think of the scene in Kubrick’s 2001, then the idea of a primordial femur bone labelled as a museum artefact became evident. The lettering is based on Albrecht Dürer’s letterforms. It’s a medieval black letter, a style which the Nazis appropriated a lot until one day they stopped using it because they thought it looked too Jewish. I thought about a lot of things while making that painting. Human remains found around the sites of concentration camps. How we dig down as archaeologists and how we look up into space as astronomers to similarly find the truth. If we look at close up images of planets it’s amazing how similar their surfaces are to that of fossils and bones.
In your book Debt you cite Bruno Théret. I was struck by this, Théret’s profound idea:
At the origin of money we have a ‘relation of representation’ of death as an invisible world, before and beyond life – a representation that is the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which humanity emerged.
And you then observe that this would seem to suggest that we are not driven to ‘truck and barter’, you write that ‘Rather, it ensures that we are always creating symbols – such as money itself. This is how we come to see ourselves in a cosmos surrounded by invisible forces; as in debt to the universe.’
And in your essay On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets you talk about the universe those puppets inhabit, the mix between positive and negative imagery and how the symbols hover between the mythic and the real. How a giant floating pig may come to represent greed or the world bank for example. The bible would tell us it’s sinful to eat pig meat, or to become pig keepers and in some cultures pigs are often seen as sacrificial animals. In Korean shamanism for example the pig’s head is used in offerings to the gods where money is placed into the ears, mouth and nostrils of the pig for good luck.
The pig in Korea – the most widely consumed meat – is also a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity.
DG: Really, so Koreans are pro-pig? That’s nice to hear. Pigs don’t get a lot of respect. It’s remarkable how many cultural traditions are radically anti-pig. Calling someone a pig is almost always an insult anywhere in the world (much like dogs, but rarely, if ever, cats or horses). Some have speculated, you know, that it’s because we feel especially guilty about pigs. After all, pretty much any other animal we eat we have some kind of alibi: chickens we can say we keep them mainly for the eggs, sheep for the wool, cows for the milk … Pigs, no, we just kill them and eat them. That’s it. Plus they’re the most human-like to boot. So it’s really a little like cannibalism, except, we’re killing and eating something that represents the part of us we’re least happy to acknowledge, the dirty, fleshy self-indulgence. In a way the pigs are the most human figures in any of these paintings. They’re the closest, in a way, to everyman.
JS: If you referred to someone’s appearance as piggish in Korea it would most certainly be seen as insulting, yet the pig in Korea – the most widely consumed meat – is of course seen as a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity. Remember though, South Korea is a capitalist society on overdrive built on a culture of reciprocity. Korean shamanism – or Muism – has been pushed out to the fringes, but most certainly operates clandestine between the shadows of modern day Korea. I even heard the head of Samsung employs shamans to be present as advisors during business meetings and transactions. I find that very interesting, that the head of one of the most powerful technology companies in the world, in private, draws on ancient traditions which are stigmatised in public. Many Koreans, including my mother-in-law, still consult shamans regularly to pray for family fortune or to be rid of problems, be they health, financial or family related, or in times of plain desperation.
Sure, pigs remind us of ourselves; their eyes and skin are particularly human-like. Maybe those works do have the most humanity in them because they are of flesh. Elsewhere we see machines, or flesh being probed, targeted or observed by machines. Therefore the paintings of pigs act as sacrificial totems against the violence of technology. In DoL Po I’m trying to explore these points in question. As we traverse the uncanny valley where technology seems to be overshadowing humanity, is technology another tool to access the further capabilities of the mind? What are the consequences of, say, fully automated luxury communism (FALC)? Is it possible do you think, for us to reconcile a depersonalized existence with new forms of relation through screens? Is it ‘truck and barter’ or a medium of exchange between old and new forms of communication? It certainly feels to me that we are socially reconfigured in a very different way from, say, ten years ago, perhaps in a more hive-minded way.
For surgeons, green helps to stabilise their vision since it’s the opposite to red on the colour wheel.
DG: Hence the pigs in the cross-hairs, in a sense, because you have those lines – not really cross-hairs, obviously, but the lines from the image preview that evoke them – in the pig and drone paintings. Though the other thing you have in both is that very striking shade of green. It’s funny, you don’t often think of colours as conveying a sense of social class, but my first reaction to that was, well, that’s a very working class colour. No rich or even middle class person would allow that colour anywhere near them if they could possibly avoid it. They organise their lives around not being around colours like that. It evokes tarps, solvents, industrial processes, stuff you try to get off your hands in big metal sinks in unheated washrooms. It alludes to all the things you’re not supposed to see. But it also evokes military night vision goggles, being able to see the things you’re not supposed to be able to see so as to kill them. Hence the connection between the drones, which exist only to slaughter, and the pigs, which exist only to be slaughtered. All brawny labour that the green evokes is the sort of thing we’d presumably be eliminating in FALC, but is it eliminated, really, or does it just come to pervade everything, until we can no longer even see it?
JS: Yes, that green, it could almost be seen as revolting. It does strange things to the eyes when working on a painting, days on end staring at that green. I wanted these works to have an effect as if glazed with Swarfega gel or ectoplasm. I was also thinking about chromakey: the technology used in special effects to pull subjects out of the real and into the digital realm, a projected world of pure imagination where anything is possible. Another point of reference are hospital workers’ clothes – or scrubs as they are known – which are usually coloured green or greenish blue and are designed simply, so they’re less likely to be contaminated by infectious agents. For surgeons, especially when looking at the inside of a human body, green helps to stabilise their vision since it’s the opposite to red on the colour wheel.
DG: The other exception to the avoidance of human flesh of course is the beekeeper unmasked. I found that image genuinely striking. But also kind of wistful. In a single image, suddenly, the keeper’s mask is off, you can finally see one of the faces – and it’s not at all a scary face, in fact he looks more soft and vulnerable – and you also see what’s inside the boxes, the honeycombs with the bees all over it. And the look in the beekeeper’s eye, it’s almost one of love. It’s like you suddenly wanted to undo the entire effect.
Cover image: John Stark, Beasts of England IV, oil on wood panel, 96x122cm