The art of lying down
A photograph captured in January on the streets of the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa, showing a young woman protesting against the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández, captured the world’s attention. Lolling on the pavement before a line of police officers, her head on her hands in nonplussed defiance, she struck a pose that located herself in a long line of iconic loungers in the history of image making – from a 2nd-Century sculpture of Sleeping Hermaphroditus to the recumbent field hands in Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 painting, Rest from Work.
After a Chinese woman hopped onto a conveyor belt to join her handbag as it slipped through a security scanner at a crowded checkpoint in Dongguan Railway Station in southern China, the eerie X-rays captured by the machine went viral in February. Transforming the anxious commuter from flesh into a dark ghostly shudder, the images seemed at once futuristic and primitive, recalling what archaeologists have termed the ‘X-ray style’ of Aboriginal art dating back thousands of years, discovered in Ubirr (in the East Alligator Region of Kakadu National Park, Australia).
In February, South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk launched into the sun’s orbit his old commuter car, a 2008 Tesla Roadster. Photos that went viral – of a mannequin dressed as an astronaut appearing to steer the car through space – offered a dislocating perspective of Earth, which the car seems surreally to be speeding away from. Not since Bosch depicted on the closed doors of his famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a ghostly globe adrift in the heavens, has our planet seemed so strangely out of reach.
NBA Old Master
In April, a startling photo showed James Harden, a guard for the Houston Rockets, losing his balance and stumbling into the front row of fans gathered in the Target Center arena in Minnesota. The image reminded many on social media of dramas depicted in Renaissance masterpieces; I saw echoes of Raphael’s The Transfiguration – the famous final painting by the High Renaissance master – especially in the aggressive pointing by bystanders in both images.
Lava river in a quiet neighbourhood
On 5 May, the largest earthquake to hit Hawaii in 40 years upset a shelf of magma inside the volcano Kīlauea. Photos of fiery lava oozing its way through the streets of the islands’ District of Puna stopped the world in its tracks. A similar sulphuric phenomenon captured the imagination of 18th-Century Europe, when ominous rumblings from Italy’s serially eruptive Mount Vesuvius inspired the English painter Joseph Wright of Derby to depict the cataclysm in a series of works.
Stork trapped in plastic
A chilling photo that captures the plight of a stork ensnared by a clear plastic bag was widely shared when it featured in a National Geographic campaign launched in May. Though the photographer who captured the image in Spain freed the encumbered creature, the image haunts. The predicament of a bird trapped in a lethal bubble recalls the drama of British artist Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump.
A photo taken at the G7 summit in June, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel, flanked by world leaders, leans over a table to address the sitting US President, seemed to many to capture the tense relationship between Donald Trump and his Nato allies. The arrangement of figures uncannily recalls the composition of the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch’s cryptic painting The Conjurer (1502), in which a group of respectable townspeople are slowly lured into the orbit of a savvy huckster.
In order to stop an aerial strike by Belgium’s Vincent Kompany during this year’s World Cup in Russia, Japan’s goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima found himself undertaking some extraordinary vertical acrobatics. Kawashima’s soaring physique, as captured in a thrilling photo by Petr David Josek, mirrors a relatively rare portrayal of a winged Christ hovering hummingbird-like above St Francis as he receives the same wounds Christ suffered during crucifixion.
Following the death of US Senator John McCain in August, the White House conveyed mixed signals about how much respect the former prisoner of war and Republican nominee for president deserved. The Trump administration first lowered, then raised, then lowered again the Stars and Stripes. In light of the controversy, we explored how artworks from Emanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) to contemporary artist Sean Scully’s Ghost Gun (2017) have tapped into the talismanic mystique of the American flag.
Against a sky scarfed by smoke and tear gas, a protester thrusts forward with his right hand a tattered Palestinian flag, striking a pose that many on social media controversially likened to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. But it’s the sling he whirls above his head with his left hand that fixes him forever in an ancient posture of stone hurlers that dates back at least to the 7th-Century BC and a gypsum relief of striding Assyrian slingers suspended in mid swing.
The photo of a prosthetic expert tinkering with the cranial circuitry of a robot created by the company Engineered Arts is as captivating as it is disquieting. Engineered Art’s commitment to making from inanimate matter “faithful recreations of real-world people with accuracy possible to the last pore or finest of hairs”, recalls the devotion of the mythic Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion, whose passion for a beauty he had chiselled from stone precipitates the magical melting of her marble body into living flesh.
The crack of the hammer was still ringing in the air of the auction house when the work that had just been sold for 1.2m Euros, British street artist Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon, suddenly began to slip in slivers from the bottom of its frame to a chorus of gasps. In time, the art world would learn that Banksy had engineered the prank by fitting the frame with a hidden shredder to create a new work in its own right: ‘Love is in the bin’. The unravelling of the romantic image into flimsy ribbons recalls MC Escher’s famous fraying of faces, Bond of Union (1956).
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