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27.04.2010 10:40
The compass of pirate captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy points to a new evaluation of the relationship between Man and his world by means of instruments. Unlike Sparrow's compass, which commercializes the ambivalence of instruments on a mass-media scale, Subodh Gupta's and Valentina Vuksic's works indicate the interrelationship between Man, environment and instrument. Man is freed of his dominant position by emancipating the instrument from its purpose of being a means of controlling nature and culture.
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       Jack Sparrow Compass Replica - Master Replicas (Juni 2007)

The plot of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007) is determined by a magic compass that points to what one "most desires". This device in the hands of pirate captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) points to a new evaluation of the relationship between Man and his world by means of instruments. In the case of the pirate films produced by the Walt Disney studios, the compass permits orientation in the world of the psyche, which happens to be a fairly consistent reading of the cultural history of this type of device. First used for spatial orientation, this instrument probably owed its existence to Chinese magicians and found its way to Europe thanks to Arabian seafarers.*

This simple device based on the North-South polarization of the Earth's magnetic field helped explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Sebastian Cabot set their courses for the New World.  In mostly uncharted regions, the magnetic needle of the compass proved to be a "relatively" reliable aid to navigation, permitting orientation even when the sky was overcast. This device was relied upon out of necessity, but also regarded with suspicion, for it did not always indicate the north-south direction exactly. Even the Age of Enlightenment was unable to shake its skepticism about the compass, since its operation could not be explained as satisfactorily as, say, the orbits of the planets. In spite of detailed research and the enticement of academic competitions and awards, the Earth's magnetism still eluded mathematic formulation.  Only in the nineteenth century were mathematicians finally able to describe the behavior of the Earth's magnetic field and its dependence on cosmic factors such as sunspots.

The history of the compass shows that the instrument for spatial orientation also has temporal dimensions, and that the utility of instruments is generally ambivalent. The basic ambivalence of the compass was exploited for commercial purposes in the Pirates of the Caribbean. It can be seen as a projection in the sense that instruments alter the relationship between the subject and the world, and then alter the relationship of the subject to himself. Given this, the history of the compass can be read as an increasing mutual calibration of perception, the making of instruments and construction of theories, as well as a history of the changing interpretations and explorations of Man's self-image. The British physicist Michael Faraday speculated that the human body, properly hung, would line up with the Earth's magnetic field or perpendicular to it. The American poet Ezra Pound transposed the idea of human pointers into art theory by calling artists sensors, or antennas, of cultural change.  These examples from the history of magnetism could be completed with references to other fields. The Automata Studies of Claude Shannon and John McCarthy used analogies between technical inventions and human thought processes.

Subodh Gupta: Very hungry god, stainless steel structure and utensils, 360 x 280 x 330 cm, 2006, installation view at Church Sait-Bernard, courtesy in situ Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, Photo: Marc Domage

The pirate compass was conceived along these lines. It has a display that tells Jack Sparrow what he wants, which implies that, without the help of this device, he would not know. The compass therefore helps him in his self-determination. However, this is defined as a feedback process, and not as the discovery of static values, traditions and skills. For the representation of instrumental opportunism Johnny Depp is better suited than other actors who use values such as freedom, the sense of justice or hope for salvation to enhance their image. The freedom that he suggests, however, is deceptive, for it depends on the marketing of the film industry and the attractions of the Walt Disney theme parks. Nevertheless, this freedom is linked to advanced philosophical and esthetic ideas. Depp's fluid opportunism, prepared by films like Dead Man (1995) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), is related to the de-substantiation of the human subject in contemporary art, as exemplified by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta's Very Hungry God (2006). This sculpture consists of shining stainless steel buckets assembled into a more than three-meter-high human skull. The buckets are empty and evoke the history of vessels used to draw water and store it. At the same time, Very Hungry God calls the idea of the human head as a vessel and reservoir in question, since the buckets are completely empty.



Subodh Gupta: The Stainless Steel Bucket, 2008,
courtesy Subodh Gupta

The materials of Gupta's sculptures, utensils in everyday use in India, are also traditional attributes of the gods. As such, they are useful for spiritual orientation. His sculptures point to the ambivalent status of instruments that structure the relationship between Man and his inner world as well as his outer world. This inner world is considered by traditional Indian culture as a transit station. The artistic thematization of instruments and everyday materials as in Gupta's work is sculptural and therefore visual-spatial, yet it can also be time-based and appeal primarily to the ear instead of the eye.


Valentina Vuksic: Harddisko, 2004 (
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Valentina Vuksic created an acoustic-temporal installation using computer hard drives in her work titled Harddisko (2004). It consisted of a set of computer hard drives that were powered intermittently and went into operation at different intervals. The rhythm and sounds of the hard drives were puzzling to the audience, for they appeared to be structured, to have an order that could not readily be understood. The computers could be experienced as an ordered, but alien system that inspired wonder, as did the cosmic order of the heavenly bodies in archaic times. The casings had been removed so that the hard drive and access arms were visible. This revealed the projections that are associated with the computer. It could now be experienced as an entity that acted independently, as an object that did not inform how and why it moved. The grasp of calculation on our world and the calculating observations in our own minds were momentarily suspended by the attraction of a device that seemed to move by itself.

In Tripping Through Runtime (2009,, the artist experimented with microphones that translated into sound the magnetic fields in computers necessary for the storage and deletion of data. Artistic explorations of this kind sensitize us to possible subversions of the relationship between Man and Nature. The artistic exploration of instruments can therefore come to play a key role. Instruments are the condensation of cultural practices and of natural laws that broaden the horizon of individuals or of an entire culture when they are made explicit, as in historical reconstructions or artistic investigation. As a result, instruments become pointers independently of their habitual mode of use.  They hint at the story of the use of instruments and machines that has been folded into them. As means that are not subject to purpose and utility, they point to the possibility of altered subjectivity. Unlike Jack Sparrow's pirate compass, which commercializes the ambivalence of instruments on a mass-media scale, the use of instruments as a "pure means" indicates the interrelationship between Man, environment and instrument. Man is freed of his dominant position by emancipating the instrument from its purpose of being a means of controlling nature and culture.


* For a more detailed discussion of this, see Magnetismus – Eine Geschichte der Orientierung. Munich: Fink, 2010.

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