The marks of metembiosis

Among the most remarkable inventions of the Eighteenth-century esotericist, alchemist, savant, philosopher, and polygraph, Raimondo di Sangro, prince of Sansevero, are two astounding “anatomical machines”, on display in the underground vault of the family Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà, in Naples.
These anatomical statues or models are made up of two human skeletons (one from a male, the other from a female) enshrouded solely in a gruesome red and blue network of veins and arteries and without skin, inner organs, or muscles. According to the legend (if it is only a legend), the prince injected a liquid drug of his own invention into the bodies of the two subjects while they were still alive in order to fully metalize the thick and tangled web of blood vessels, from the aorta down to the thinnest capillaries. In fact, only the beating heart would have been able to push the mysterious fluid mixed with blood through the farthest offshoots of the circulatory system. The woman, furthermore, was pregnant.
True or invented, this horrific story of the stripping away of flesh and embalmment in vivo brings us to Roberto Kusterle’s most recent photographs in which the skin of the people photographed has been torn away to a greater or lesser extent in order to reveal an underlying mesh of bristly and prickly sticks, spikes and twigs, whose chaotic jumble displays the hypothetical inner anatomy of stuffed men and women: our authentic human nature.
Weird creatures protrude from these flayed bodies as if they have sprouted from the internal chaos, or else crouch as warnings of the potential reversal of roles between men and beasts, men and nature. Now it is human beings who are inhabited by animals or provide animals with vantage points or supports as in Quartet, Growth, Curiosity, Meditations, Hunting Gift, Distrustful Owl, Song Branch, Peaceful Cohabitation, and, in particular, Vantage Point. And there is no differentiation between men and women: the feminine attributes, although evident and sometimes arousing, almost disappear before a common destiny of oppression that in the past was exerted and now is endured. Men have become slaves and bear the tokens of slavery: heavy leather strips that macerate the skin (Owl Carrier) or a cruel iron harness firmly imprisoning head and neck (The Falconer’s Yoke), while women make themselves available, offering their own living bodies as food to birds we imagine both curious and wise (Growth), or else they bear the heavy burden of a nagging family of winged creatures who live in the frightful intertwined nest into which their heads have been transformed (Chorus).
Such a reversal of the relationship between men and animals is apparent in Trainer, where the falcon (or is it a vulture?) is free to fly away while the man is shackled to his leather and metal destiny. Even more astonishing are the hybridizations, whereby humans exhibit the onset of a transformation that leads them into an uncanny or monstrous union with an animal as in Holy Wedding 1 and 2, She-Wolves, Deep Breath, The White Mask, Need for Morning, Meeting in the Woods, and, perhaps most gruesome, Repentant Hunter, where through a sort of nemesis there is no longer any distinction between prey and predator since both are bound together in a symbiosis or, better, in an authentic metembiosis, a transmigration-transformation of the two bodies, man and boar, rendered in an initial or advanced, but still incomplete, stage.
As in other works by Kusterle, this metembiosis hints at a possible drift towards the post-human, though not a post-human reinforced by robotic prostheses, grafts or genetic manipulation, but weakened (or strengthened) by animal or avian implants in a regression towards a primordial and unconscious nature that humanity thought had been tamed but that instead returns, powerful and inexorable, to encroach on territories from which it had been evicted.
Man finds himself reinserted into an animal world (just as in some earlier works by Kusterle he had been reinserted into vegetal or marine contexts) and is devastated by it. His pride has vanished, defeated and punished by otherness. This is because animals, exploited, beaten, hunted, eviscerated, and slaughtered are fellow travellers who beg with their mute force and eloquent eyes to be welcomed by us, as we can see in Hunting Gift, The Claw’s Dream, Bruges’ Caress, Trust. Or else, foregoing negotiations, they dominate us ruthlessly as they prepare to quietly and firmly dethrone us as in Sentry, Quartet, Peaceful Cohabitation, Distrustful Owl, The Falconer’s Yoke.
Marks of metembiosis can also be seen in human skin and eyes: men and women always have their eyes shut, as in relaxation or carelessness, or at the beginning of a hypnotic unconsciousness in the twilight of mind and soul. Only bodies endure, if only briefly, and yet they decay, desquamate and transform, as they seek to resist by embracing one another or shutting their eyes to the world, whereas their spirit has already departed, toppling backward into the abyss of oblivion. Animals, on the contrary, keep their patient eyes open as they gaze in astonishment, stare in agonizing attention at human beings and the world unfolding before them, a new and flawless world, a world filled with sensitivity and gentleness (Protection of the Nest): the promise of a novel existence, actually of a metembiosis.
Another symbolic site of transmigration is the skin. Smeared with clay, it is marked by roughness and scabrous opacity in what is almost a humiliation of the luminous smoothness of human epidermis, especially feminine. In some photographs, the skin has not been treated with clay but with light that has impressed traces of a photographic, almost radioactive, explosion on it, in a lightening burst of oozy drippings, innervations, phantasmic effusions: an X-ray photograph, as it were, of the underlying apparatus of organs and veins metamorphosing into sticks and twigs.
The conceptual synthesis of this metembiosis process is indicated by the title of the last photograph in the series, Symbiosis. In this photo, a woman, seen from behind and with her skin stained by clay, has a gigantic egg on her left shoulder that is decorated with a silver arabesque on a black background, a sort of cosmic egg that could engender a new race, a hybrid of human and animal, perhaps wiser ad less ferocious than our present one.

Giuseppe O. Longo