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Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Art as a consciousness of war

Can’t Help Myself, the work presented by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at the 2019 Venice Biennale, triggers profound reflections of dramatic relevance

There is something surprisingly moving in the visionary perspective of some works of art. Sometimes it almost seems to be caught on an unavoidable fact that of forgetting some objects. I am thinking, for example, of the sphere of reflections put forward by the last Biennale, and in particular of the mechanical arm created by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. So much instagrammed, shared and admired. I think that until you get rid of the device and realize the tenderness that even a machine causes, you almost miss the opportunity for yet another attempt at self-reflection.

In short, a lost cause for all of us who do not reflect on the present but above all on the future. Because art has always sent alarm signals about the near future. And what in our eyes seems to be a fascinating reproduction or simply the result of a technologically advanced study, often carries with it a bitter aftertaste of truth which, even if it often does not speak with our words, always comes to a point where we have all in common. But how does a machine that is itself made up of inanimate bolts and mechanisms move within me the shame of a past to which I don’t even belong?

Interpretive codes that unlock inside and magically connect to universal history. Suddenly we become a community through a simple gesture, that of harvesting. Collect to live. Collect to survive. But what for? Few works of art have involved as emotionally as this robotic arm, designed to respond to a perpetual motion, namely to collect a hydraulic fluid that allows it to survive but which is constantly leaking. And the more you participate in the collection, the more you notice that the movements are large, tired and desperate. If the liquid seeps too much, the machine will stop working.

The most intense reflection occurs only after a few minutes, when one realizes that this dance of death is fun for the viewer. It involves us and almost invites us to participate and share constantly, while the machine has little time. That is enough to try to survive until this filtered liquid ends and the machine will only have the image of a happy gesture in the memory of all of us spectators. The robotic arm stopped working in 2019 when it filtered this lifeblood for the last time, allowing itself to slowly die. And what remains is the memory of a gesture that comes to life in the collective memory. Not the effort to survive, or how much he chased his life, no matter his story, and what he did or how much he tried, only he remains with no way out.

Made by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the arm was named “Can’t Help Myself”, “I can’t help myself”. The philosophical interpretation of the subject is that of hydraulic fluid in relation to our commitment to self-destruct mentally and physically for money. Everyone becomes an attempt to support life, since the system was designed to enslave us and take away the best years of our life, giving us the illusion of the future. Another future that lies further ahead, much further ahead, so as to make us participate in this squid game that will have no winners or losers.

And then 2019 becomes a direct corridor to 2022, where the European war conflict of these days continues to postpone this image of desperation in the head. Recalling information one by one and connecting them with a desperate cry for help. A ceasefire that finds no peace in the improper uses of political propaganda. And then we continue to empathize with this mechanical arm that makes liquid – today’s rhetoric – a rhetoric that Francesca Mannocchi tells us in her war reports. This is the real war for Ukraine, being a civil engineer, getting up one day and instead of going to the office you find yourself with a gun in your hand.

The real war for these people is above all fighting with the fear that we Europeans will have forgotten the rhetoric of the drama in ten days. When we leaf through the newspapers and we ask at the table while we have coffee: “So how many refugees are we today? But are they refugees refugees or are they just refugees? ”. Are we conscious conscious or are we just unconscious? Rhetoric, says Aristotle, exists as a function of a judgment: every deliberation must be judged. And in this both the attitude of the rhetorician (ethos) and the disposition of the listener (pathos) play a fundamental role. A lesson that we hope art will never make us forget.