|Before art, in the gallery, the body strives to become a purely visible presence; noises and breathing are muted in the shadow of some sublime display. Sometimes, though, people cannot but make their animal presence felt. In the Meteora in northern Greece, ancient monasteries sit atop dramatic vertical rock formations, up which clamber unfit groups of tourists, ferried there in air-conditioned coaches, and stunned by the sudden heat and the rigours of the climb. On entering the monasteries, they find themselves in the presence of Art, which they have travelled a long way to see. They crowd into tiny chambers where the remote figures of religion look blankly down on them from the ceilings and walls, and their heavy breaths are magnified under the vaults, and quickly the frescoes come to glisten with the damp of so much upturned, exhaled breath, as though sweating.
As a reaction against the blandishments of the further reaches of postmodern theory, which assured everybody both that the unity of their individual identities was pure projection, and that each cult, each colour, each sexual orientation was enclosed within its own secure discourse box from which no communication with others was possible or even desirable, there has recently been some talk again of universals. The circulation of breath may serve as a metaphor for the interconnection of discourses, never divided off sharply from one another, never existing incommunicado within themselves, but rather leaky, circulating, exchanging ceaselessly, like money.
But what is art doing here in the discourse of breathing? The art work has expanded and diffused, taking in almost any activity one can think of, from walking the street to parachute jumps, in its aspiration to universality. Art appears to be engaged in a thorough colonization of life. Like a Hegelian conceptual system, art has become a machine, gouging out, grinding up and expelling whatever material comes into its path. Yet this universal, colonizing impulse is not a reaction against but another product of postmodernism, with its erosion of barriers between disciplines and categories. In a dialectical reversal, art shows signs of returning to a sublated form of universal humanism.
Given this aesthetic colonization, many mundane activities can be recast primarily as art. Smoking may be seen no longer as a physically addictive, lethal habit foisted on the attention of youngsters but rather as an expression of culture to give the breath shape and form. Surrounded by those old, cancerous idols of screens large and small, learning did not take long. As a child, one's frozen fingers arched over to clutch imaginary fags, artfully, while blowing water vapour, become smoke, into the cold air. We would "smoke" languorously, or toughly (expel the air, perhaps, from the side of the mouth) or brusquely, as though it was cool but also no big deal.