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Karlos Gil: Come to Dust

Susana Ventura


Come to Dust is Karlos Gil's second solo exhibition at Galeria Francisco Fino, in Lisbon, three years after Phantom Limbs, whose trace we still recognise in a floor sculpture in synthetic polymer titled Phantom Limbs (Body). The modules of the latter allow for different arrangements in space, and the various depressions on them resemble prothesis moulds—perhaps those that come alive before us in the exhibition's central piece, the video Uncanny Valley, which delimits two very distinct spaces within the gallery. In a way, this connection between the two pieces corresponds to the difference we find between the two exhibitions, as we notice an evolution to the artist's interest in the body. While in the first exhibition the latter was but a phantasmagorical recollection which one accessed via objects that referred to ages of major technological advances, in Come to Dust the body becomes the main object of enquiry to look at the current world from the thresholds between the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the artificial, reality and fiction. Protheses definitely, already exist in such thresholds, as they are two-fold fictional devices (they simultaneously create illusions of body organs, thus enhancing the corresponding sense, and carry along chances of compossibility with other worlds) that, according to their compatibility with the receiving organism, might be constituted by organic or inorganic, natural or artificial materials.

A recurrent idea in Gil's body of work, the intensification of the senses is almost extreme in this exhibition. In the series Second Skin, which delimits the perimeter of the first room, encompassing Uncanny Valley, the "canvases" acquire a depth similar to that of skin, revealing various sensitive or hypersensitive layers—hence the tactility of these "canvases," which shift our focus to Gil's jacquard canvases, where it is skin, or the simulacrum of it, which is now understood as fabric. These layers result from the interaction of ingredients alien to artistic experimentation but common in laboratories from the beauty industry—such as snake poison, botulinum toxin (Botox), calcium chloride, collagen, castor oil, sweetbrier, among others—foretelling with that the apparent future of the body: the increasingly hybrid manipulation of it. In working with the viscosity and elasticity typical of this sort of materials, a formless, thick surface is obtained onto which fragments of perfect bodies taken from Shiseido advertising campaigns insinuate themselves. A Japanese cosmetics company, Shiseido uses the Japanese ideal of immaculate beauty in its images, which—let us keep in mind—sometimes results from a methodological, systematic control over the very behaviours of the body (often contradicting its very nature). In Japanese culture, the body, just like cherry blossom trees that are manipulated to flower before the leaves appear, is a plastic matter that can be moulded so as to achieve the ideal of beauty. Ironically, Gil's canvases seem to allude to the very title of the exhibition—Come to Dust—which, besides proving a common fate to all of us, seems to hang over those imprisoned bodies more pronouncedly. Gil's canvases, however, do construct a seductive, simultaneously bright and perishable veiling that, with repetition, seems to reaffirm the possibility of constructing a new body resulting from the symbiosis of common organic matters of several living beings: a possibility that can be regarded as a positivistic critique of the future of the body.

This is also the moment when the video Uncanny Valley creates a significant counterpoint. At the beginning of it, we are led to believe we are returning to the subject matter of control over the body and its behaviours. That is when we notice a drone monitoring an artificially illuminated underground space, conjuring up apocalyptic scenarios from dystopian science fiction culture. The lights go out intermittently, the lift doors close, an electrifying, metallic sound contaminates the particles of grey, dense fog filling the air. The face on the image is one with perfectly human features, of an Oriental beauty and snow-white complexion. One hand caresses another, as though trying to get to know it. The former seems familiar, while the latter looks a little stiff and lifeless, with rigid, cadenced gestures. Now emerging before us, the body moves its arms similarly, its hands weighing down, resembling those of porcelain dolls. Occasional cuts and glitches invade the image, and as the shot changes we see the body once again, moving fluidly and continuously, apparently controlling the crawl of a spider with fat, hairy legs and body. We are left in doubt as to the nature of this spider, and of the body too, which tries to get to know its face with its lifeless hand. As the shots alternate, there is almost always that apparent glitch, as though the image itself were constructed from two superposed layers that corresponded to two distinct but temporally and spatially simultaneous worlds, which only come to light and reveal their true nature when the two bodies' superposition creates that gap. Instead of remaining forever unsure about the bodies' nature, we find the encounter between the human being and their android double, or, just like in the evolution of species, we see the spider trashing about before the controller fully cuts the lights off.

After all, what can the future of (human and non-human) bodies be?

Gil relevantly asks these questions taking as starting point Japanese culture, which, through scientific advances in both cosmetics and robotics,[1] pursues a body standard which is necessarily beyond the human and its natural condition. And when we are faced with this post-human condition, the artist opens up a sort of portal into a fantastic world. In this world, there are two orange suns (a direct reference to science fiction, as was the case of Tatooine) enveloped in a celestial fog, and birds are heard and trees rustle, sounds captured using an algorithm that allows for recording natural sounds, combining internet frequencies, and live-streaming the former to the exhibition. This ever-changing performance creates a sound landscape that wraps the body as much as the fog briefly distorts one's sight, where it is sound that reveals (as in Deleuze's body without organs[2]) that entirely fictitious and simultaneously real landscape.

Second Sun (Santorini/Arosa) evokes and materialises the poem that seems to be at the origin of the exhibition title. Written by Ursula K. Le Guin—mostly known for her science fiction books, though her literary and poetic production ought not to be reduced to that category—in the last years of her life, Come to Dust can be interpreted as an expression of her acceptance of death and, at the same time, as an important celebration of life, of all life, from the smallest cell to the whole universe.


Come to Dust


Spirit, rehearse the journeys of the body

that are to come, the motions

of the matter that held you.


Rise up in the smoke of palo santo.

Fall to the earth in the falling rain.

Sink in, sink down to the farthest roots.

Mount slowly in the rising sap

to the branches, the crown, the leaf-tips.

Come down to earth as leaves in autumn

to lie in the patient rot of winter.

Rise again in spring’s green fountains.

Drift in sunlight with the sacred pollen

to fall in blessing.


All earth’s dust

has been life, held soul, is holy.


— Ursula K. Le Guin


Karlos Gil

Galeria Francisco Fino

Susana Ventura 




Karlos Gil: Come to Dust. Exhibition views at Francisco Fino Gallery. Photos: @photodocumenta. Courtesy of the artist and Francisco Fino Gallery. 




[1] In order to develop Uncanny Valley, Karlos Gil worked with the Ishiguro Laboratory, Osaka—one of the world's leading robotics research centres, in particular as regards human-android interaction—the ATR Laboratories, Kyoto, and the Miraikan Museum, Tokyo.


[2] In the body without organs, writes Gilles Deleuze, a sensation from a certain sense organ is conveyed by another different organ due to the free circulation of temporary organs in the plane created by the body without organs: a plane no longer determined by the stratification of the organism, but rather by the sensation or set of sensations it creates (the organs being these receptacles of sensations).


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