Written by Nino Ricci
At a first glance Ed Pien’s Reckoning evokes the pre-human world of the climbing primates who formed our distant ancestors. And yet the figures in it, even etched out as sparely as they are, clearly suggest the human, as much in their postures and implied gestures as in their form. Rather than the past, then, we might be looking at the future, one in which some final reckoning has returned us to a post-apocalypse primordial state, a possibility reinforced not only by the stark minimalism of Pien’s cut-outs but by the reflective laminate that covers them, which shimmers when it catches the light with the otherworldly beauty of a chemical spill or radiation event.
Part of the eeriness of the piece may come from its taking us to the margins of what has been called the “uncanny valley,” a crossroad of strangeness where depictions of the human create a particularly powerful sense of dissonance in us by blurring the line of species differentiation. The term itself arose in the 1970s in the field of robotics with respect to the dividing line between human and machine, but a similar effect had been noted by Charles Darwin back in the 1800s in relation to humans and animals. Darwin himself would become a chief victim of the effect: after the publication of Descent of Man, caricatures of him as part-ape went viral.
The dividing line between animal and human has always been a troubling one for humans. Early religions usually made a place for animals in their depictions of the divine, but by the time we get to Western monotheism the animal has become the symbol of everything degraded and base. The Great Chain of Being of the Middle Ages codified this notion, with humans caught at the half-way point between the God to whose example they ought to aspire and the beasts whose example they must resist. Since Darwin, however, the Great Chain of Being has essentially been turned on its head. Far from having been created “in God’s image” as direct descendants of the divine, it seems instead that we have descended from the worms. This profound shift in the conception of what it means to be human, one in which we can no longer claim any special moral status within creation, is one whose implications we are still grappling with.
All of this background seems to inform Pien’s Reckoning without, however, fully explaining its power. For all the eeriness of the piece, there is also a calm in it as if we have somehow passed through the uncanny valley and come out unscathed on the other side, at home in our reversion. Though Pien’s figures operate in a simian world they seem to do so without having shed their distinctive humanness, walking the branches with the poise of tightrope walkers, stepping through the air with the grace of dancers. In the foreground someone bends as if in a more positive sort of reckoning than that of final judgement, the one of a harvest. Whether primordial past or actual present or imagined future, this is a world that seems to function, drawing us in with its strange harmony even while it resists us.