Gestures Towards Divinity by Charm Cochran
The works of Francis Bacon evoke different reactions for good reason. He inspires controversy and awe. But as the game’s blurb points out, “This game is not about him.”
We are first introduced to him through plaques explaining his overall life story and his triptychs. As we view his works, the middle panel beckons us to LOOK CLOSER. We accidentally enter these paintings and emerge into his strange, surrealistic visions. There, depending on which triptych we’ve gone through, we can talk to a Fury, George Dyer, and Dyer’s corpse.
The entire game revolves around exhausting conversation trees between these characters in the artworks and the people in the gallery. By asking around, we’ll learn about what Bacon has thought about life, art, God, the soul, love, and some more. While it may remind players of Emily Short’s influential Galatea, this game is mechanically far simpler: you’ll be switching back and forth between different characters to unlock new topics to talk about.
While the gameplay was tedious, I couldn’t satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to know more about Francis Bacon’s art and how people understood them. Why are people so drawn and repelled toward his works? Is there some deeper meaning or could it simply be nothing at all? What was his relationship with Dyer? Why did he paint the Fury like that? Is the painting of the corpse just shock art or is there more to it?
As we ask these questions to different people, we begin to get a portrait of an artist from different perspectives. One fan sees him as a surrealist artist capable of subversion and bold new ideas. A detractor, on the other hand, finds his work too grotesque and even opportunistic. But those who are close to him – the models of his work – see him as someone who craves masochistic pleasure and forced his partners to replace for his long-lost desire. He desires violence upon himself. For those who remain unconvinced and decide to investigate the question of Bacon’s intentions even further, you’ll have the opportunity to “talk” to his self-portrait at the end of the game. He doesn’t respond to anything you ask him because he seems too interested in himself as an artist. But you can tell him who he is, and he screams, implying you taught him something he didn’t realize he had all along. At any point in the game, we can leave the gallery and get on with our lives.
Whether you dug through every topic or not, the game suspends its judgment on Bacon’s art. We are left with our own voices to find out how we feel about his work. In my case, I wasn’t aware he was a real figure until I started writing this review and I found his work beautiful. But his actions are inexcusable to me: he was an incorrigible, abusive artist who profited from people’s misery for the sake of art. At the same time, he’s been dead for so long that I don’t have an ethical problem with his work being seen all over the world. Other people could disagree with me and that’s fine.
This game is not about Francis Bacon the artist. It’s about how the people inside and outside his works are affected by them.
When we ask people and the subject matter questions about Bacon’s art and philosophy, we’re actually teasing out something else entirely: our lives. Bacon is simply an author-function; his biographical details don’t really matter. His works are the real focal point. What’s more important is what we take away from it, and that journey is always meaningful.
As for me, his works and this game embody the sadder parts of queer desire. What we desire is often taboo because we cannot decouple love and dehumanization from our thinking. Losing it hurts even more because we can’t talk about what we’ve lost. Shame and fear drive us into abstraction, into talking about nothing else because words and gestures no longer reflect our state of mind.
Is it so wrong for us to seek it?
Gestures Towards Divinity, like other works of art, cannot answer that question. All we can do is enter the game and explore it. Perhaps, we could chance upon some important truth that even their creators don’t know – or we don’t. Satisfying or lacking, they are all we have.
Whatever the case, our personal answers we find are always gesturing toward something. Our curiosity is what makes art divine to us.