Set in the deserts of the Persian Gulf, Shirin
Neshat’s video Passage focuses on the state of limbo between
life and death that can only be comprehended by art and religion.
This no-man’s-land, where time and space become one, appears
as a blank patch on the map. On the one hand it lies beyond the
reach of the conquered world, on the other, it is like a spiritual
force field that radiates beyond life. With this burial ritual,
full of bewitching beauty, the Iranian artist celebrates a great
moment of loss, but also of redemption.
The concept of no-man´s land is of military origin and
describes a disputed area between two fronts. The no-man’s-land
referred to here has three dimensions, namely, physical-geographical,
socio-political, and finally an aesthetic dimension which is,
of course, the one that is of most interest to us in the context
of our exhibition. The first denotes not only mythical, uninhabited
natural spaces such as mountain ranges, primeval forests and deserts,
but also wastelands and abandoned zones in our big cities –
as well as all kinds of areas that are difficult to define or
highly disputed: war zones, refugee camps, pirate radio stations,
tax havens, letterbox firms, off-shore abortion clinics and smuggling
routes in border regions.
Eighty percent of the city of Caracas is illegally inhabited,
and seventy percent of Venezuelan children are born out of wedlock.
Entire districts of Rio de Janeiro are extraterritorial zones
cut off from state jurisdiction. Curiously, the same applies to
many prisons. The population of most mega-cities is not known
even to their mayors, and city maps, if they exist at all, are
outdated within a year. In the struggle to survive in the metropolises,
curious sociotopes develop in the most unlikely places: in deserted
high-rise buildings or beneath freeway bridges where, in São
Paulo for instance, craftsmen have settled in semi-nomadic conditions.
These unstable zones are characterized on the one hand by poverty
and exclusion, on the other by an astonishing degree of productivity
On the socio-political level, no-man’s-land means that
in many Third World countries the so-called informal sector comprises
over half the working population, but also that the so-called
globalization is fed by invisible financial sources and the locationless
Internet. At the same time, entire continents, such as Africa,
are being cut adrift from the rest of the world and left to their
fate. The term no-man’s-land also applies to the bankrupt
social systems and murky political conditions that hold sway in
many parts of the world. In the meantime, human relationships
have become increasingly deregulated and vague, often to the point
of desolation. Even language has wandered off into a cultural
no-man’s-land, which seems like an impoverishment to some,
an enrichment to others. The cacophony of the mass media engenders
speechlessness, and the visual inundation results in a dearth
The lack of points of contact between different
civilizations leads to a dangerous vacuum. In this way cultural
differences, which could in fact be productive, become absolute
and irreconcilable. Can Brazil, whose population embraces 143
different shades of skin color according to a recent survey, serve
as a positive model here?
Art as a power-free zone
The no-man’s-land of aesthetics begins where the normal
world ends. It designates the area in which reality and imagination
are in conflict with each other. Artists are border guards of
a realm that lies beyond the administered world, where the power
of interpretation is no longer a sovereign right of politicians
or economic gurus. While the whole world is constantly arguing
over what belongs to whom, art clarifies the ownership question
in its own way: in the realm of aesthetics everything belongs
What interests us in the context of the Bienal is whether and
how the forms of no-man’s-land described above, specifically,
the devastations of the real world and interpersonal relations,
are reflected in art. Since works of art are more than bare facts,
an artistic condensing of phenomena of reality will always be
more ambiguous and more complex than simple reporting. This rule
even applies if the artist uses photography and video, i.e., two
media regarded as being very close to reality. Although artists
are “embedded” into conflicts (to use an expression
from recent war reporting), they do not copy the world, but create
free spaces within reality. With the help of metaphors and symbols
they transform the earthly raw material into a new condition that
can be experienced by the senses. Art exists outside of causality
and must not be imprisoned in the iron casing of mundane constraints.
The purpose of a biennial cannot, therefore, be to exhibit convictions.
Every successful work of art tells a second story in addition
to what it portrays, and behind every artist stands a second,
unknown author. It was the latter principle that led the rock
musician Keith Richards, when listening to a solo recording by
Robert Johnson, the legendary blues genius, to ask the famous
question: "But who is the other one?"
The multiplicity of documentary strategies that has been observed
even at major international exhibitions over the last few years
suggests that confidence in the power of aesthetics is dwindling.
This also seems to be the case in literature, by the way, where
journalistic works, biographies and guides have displaced fiction.
Confronted with the precarious state of the world and the urgency
of its problems, artists and curators appear to be seeking their
salvation in scientific analysis, reportage and discursive treatises
on reality, flagrantly underestimating the possibilities of aesthetic
processes. The colonies of art are places of seclusion and islands
of resistance in a sea of uniformity. Art reveals those inner
layers of the world that remain hidden to the superficial gaze
of politics and sociology. There is a great deal to say in favour
of the assertion that art has taken the place of philosophy as
the interpreter of the world.
Artists create a power-free zone, a world that runs contrary
to the existing one: a land of emptiness, of silence and respite,
where the frenzy that surrounds us is brought to a standstill
for a moment. But it is also a land of enigmas, where the flood
of images surging in on us from the breeding grounds of kitsch
are encrypted. By breaking through the barriers of the material
world, the artist becomes a smuggler of images between cultures.
Art knows no hierarchy. The question of what is old or new, peripheral
or central, modern or primitive, is posed in a way entirely different
to that of economics. Art eludes the calculating ways and the
hysteria of modern society. While industry continues to furnish
the world, the prime task of contemporary art is to purify it.
Abstraction plays a privileged role in this context.
It avoids the garrulousness of the modern world and creates a
sublime counterpoint. These refuges of art, which enable the imagination
to extend beyond the everyday sphere, are in fact the corrective
to the all-consuming maelstrom of the urban drama. The no-man’s-land
of abstraction frees the world of all its ballast and makes a
purified new beginning possible. In the realm of abstraction,
says Kandinsky, every form is a citizen with equal rights. Although
art does not necessarily make us better human beings, writes Harold
Bloom in an essay on Shakespeare, it does help us to put up with
ourselves and our loneliness more easily. Art generates the desire
to be someone else and to travel along a timeline to inaccessible
The War of Pictures
The task of interpreting the world, and particularly its transformation
into pictures, attracts other, competing media into the arena
in addition to art: first and foremost the picture machines of
the mass media and design. The world is being inundated by a never-ending
flood of commercial cliché pictures, without becoming any
easier to understand as a result. Mass media and design generate
ideas and concepts that do not question real conditions or their
values, but confirm and continue them. They produce shallow pictures,
whereas art creates deep, heavy, complex ones.
Design operates on the assumption that something can ever be
finished and completed. Art, by contrast, assumes that nothing
is ever finished. Design behaves in an affirmative way vis-à-vis
society, while art is subversive. Design asserts, art asks. Design
excitedly brandishes its claim to be fashionable; art is self-sufficient
and allows itself differences from the idealized picture of the
life offered to us, for instance, by advertising. Whereas the
latter wants a convincing photographic image of the present, art
produces a picture of the future. Fundamentally it is the precise
opposite of art.
Hans Belting writes on this subject: "Classical
modern painting was sometimes only able to enforce its radiant
autonomy by driving out the pictures, in order to cleanse its
temple. It preferred to leave the pictures, which were infected
by the world, to other media. Painting, as the representative
of art, and pictures, as records of the world, declared war on
each other." 
A gun shot in the middle of a concert
We need not go as far as Stendhal, who said that politics, when
it penetrates the realm of the imagination, is like a gun shot
in the middle of a concert. Even so, expecting art to directly
change reality is simultaneously expecting too much and too little
of it: too much, because it cannot prevent a war – it can
at best ease the war raging in our own breasts – and too
little, because it can do much more than that: it can establish
a humane counter-world to an inhumane present. Although every
aesthetic experience, and the catharsis that results from it,
is something eminently subjective, in specific cases the transformation
of the individual can almost be measured empirically. Ultimately,
art is more radical than politics, because it reaches into the
spiritual levels of the individual, where the real transformation
of human society takes place.
Art stands above day-to-day events and has something fundamental
to say to them precisely for this reason. A world which has become
similar to hell and in which weltschmerz has become deeply ingrained
cannot be depicted by art as hell, because it would then lose
its essential function of standing firm, of being the counter-model.
In a successful work of art the unresolved antagonisms of the
world appear at a distance from reality. The artist creates something
different, something that is not identical to society, while nevertheless
referring to it. In this “disarrangement of the normal"
(Heidegger), the accustomed references to the world and to the
earth are transformed in such a way that a new truth opens up
in the work. Goethe already noted that "there is no more
reliable way of retreating from the world than through art, and
there is no more certain way of combining with it than through
In the last few years art has become overloaded with day-to-day
politics. Artists and their audiences are called upon to alleviate
the adversities of reality on an ad-hoc basis. Tried-and-tested
visual and sculptural strategies are suppressed in favor of pretentious
sociological discourses. Exhibitions frequently show not pictures,
but politically correct attitudes. As a result, art at best becomes
redundant and at worst is degraded to political kitsch. On the
one hand, it repeats scenes already seen elsewhere (for example
in reports and documentaries); on the other, people preach to
the converted, to an audience who are already convinced of the
just cause and may regard themselves as members of a small circle
of enlightened people. At the same time, those who are not yet
initiated turn away disappointed, since they are looking in vain
for an enigma that other, more banal pictures cannot supply, but
which is always justifiably expected from art. Nobody in his right
mind would accuse Monet, one of the pioneers of modernity, of
frivolity, because he undauntedly kept on painting water lilies
before, during and after the 1st world war.
Basically there are still two rival conceptions
of art today which can be followed through the entire 20th century
and whose most prominent representatives were Benjamin and Adorno.
The former represented an avant-garde aimed at using the potential
of committed art to revolutionize everyday life; Adorno, by contrast,
insisted on the autonomy of the work of art and its mysteriousness.
He rejected any functionalization of art, because this would involve
art giving up its transcendence, it would "descend beneath
its concept." Indeed, it would become "de-arted."
In Adorno's idealistic aesthetics, the observer encounters the
work of art with a contemplative attitude, in order to be able
to cross over into a different world. After the loss of validity
by religions, metaphysical needs survive in modern art.
The paradise just round the corner
Because of their enigmatic character, works of art force us to
continuously re-interpret and reflect, ultimately also with the
objective of getting closer to the truth. Because the work of
art cannot be unequivocally classified, it is a thorn in the flesh
of the administered world, which would like to direct everything.
This is basically where art's political function lies. More than
that: by offering an abundance of complex world-views and interpretations
– often enough contradictory ones – art tempts the
viewer to make a statement, a judgment, to be stubborn and critical.
As Friedrich Schiller said as early as 1795: "There is no
other way of making the sensitive human being reasonable than
by previously making him aesthetic." 
Every aesthetic experience is a deeply subjective process which
strengthens the individual, and this in turn is a central precondition
of democratic and modern societies. The social assignment is inherent
in art; it does not need to be told to do it. Art does not lie
down in beds that have been prepared for it, to quote Jean Dubuffet.
And, as Hegel would add, even where there is nothing good to be
done, art will at least always do a better job of taking evil´s
place than evil itself.
The fact that visual art has a more radical concept of material
than all other forms of art makes it extremely explosive in the
way it deals with the world and its re-invention. As a non-verbal
medium it is furthermore particularly suitable for intercultural
exchange. Since the theory of modernity was developed particularly
early and profoundly in the visual arts, the latter still form
an important point of reference to this day, also for the other
forms of art.
One reason why art is emancipatory and represents an attack on
reality, therefore, is that it arouses a longing for a power-free
condition, albeit without wanting to explicitly name the latter
or depict it as a picture. It is the "paradise just round
the corner" to paraphrase the title of the most recent novel
by Mario Vargas Llosa, who wandered in Paul Gauguin's footsteps
in the South Seas. As we know, the painter had sought inspiration
in Tahiti, because art had lost its vitality in Europe, where
it was controlled and manipulated by a clique of critics and gallery
It is due to this utopian idea that, as Boris Groys
put it, the briefest visit to the worst museum in the world is
a thousand times more interesting than anything you get to see
during your long life in so-called reality. Goethe's Faust also
experienced the infinite in the library, only to lose it later
in real life.
The devil is not as ugly as he is painted
In his critique of aesthetic judgement, Immanuel Kant attempts
a rating of the arts. He puts poetry in first place, since it
owes its creation almost completely to genius and is least governed
by regulations. Music comes second due to its characteristic "movement
of the soul." Next he places fine arts, within which painting
is valued most highly since it penetrates more than other arts
into the region of ideas and also expands one's field of vision.
The long arm of Immanuel Kant also seems to be giving valuable
assistance to the painters of today. For, after decades of banishment,
they are now returning to the elite of the fine arts. Artur Barrio,
laconic as always, scribbled the following on the wall in one
of his last installations: "Who determines the end of painting
is Cezanne and not M. Duchamp."
Since the 1970s, painting had become a victim of superficial
politicisation, which connected the canvas with the dominance
of male genius from Michelangelo to Picasso and found more suitable,
neutral image-carriers in new media such as video, which also
had the supposed advantage of being able to transport social and
political messages more easily. Has nonpolitical behavior therefore
returned to art with painting?
"We have not yet quite grown accustomed to
a form of painting that is again openly just painting, without
submitting to that program we usually rather thoughtlessly call
ART. The "art of painting" already existed long before
ART arrived on the scene in its abstract dignity, and that is
why it is coming back today, now that ART is losing part of its
monopoly. There must be no lies in art, only truth, even though
it is one big fiction itself, or at least an uncertain idea. It
would be a tough accusation to talk of lies in art; in painting,
however, it would be a subtle description, for it has at its disposal
beautiful and old lies, if we may use such a term to describe
its well-established mise-en-scene of perception, for which we
wait like a curious theatre audience. We perceive the world not
only in painting. But in painting we are in conversation as a
person with another person, who is the director behind the perception.
This mute dialogue makes painting full of relish and mystery.
Painting makes truths easier for us by dressing them up in "transparent"
lies. It uses lies with which one can say truths." 
Nothing but unknown masterpieces
In his studio at 311 Rua Cândido Lacerda, in Recife, Paulo
Bruscky has compiled an impressive history of art and the world
covering the last 40 years: classics of belles lettres, scientific
writings, discourses on aesthetics, treatises. Mountains of newspaper
cuttings pile up on the floor, plus letters from colleagues of
the Fluxus movement, objects and small sculptures. Neatly numbered
files with the initials of the most important art countries contain
Bruscky's correspondence with the world of art; it is almost comparable
with the Bienal de São Paulo's archive. Recife as the hub
of the universe, and the artist a scientist, as in Johannes Vermeeer's
"Geographer" of 1669. A library as a bulwark against
the world? Or is Bruscky's passion for collecting perhaps also
a mute plea to young artists to study, to investigate, to fathom
out theories, in short to educate themselves?
Ignored in a corner of the untidy studio lie a dusty easel and
several pallets with dried-up blobs of paint. The painter's tools
seem strangely out of place in view of the supremacy of the books,
objects and concepts. A symbol of the crisis of painting that
has been evoked time and again over the last few years. What can
painted images still tell us in view of the complexity of the
world and the wealth of new media, including Bruscky's Fax and
All the imaginary pictures that have not been painted during
the last generation are buried under a mass of paper in Bruscky's
treasure trove: nothing but unknown masterpieces, to use Balzac's
words. Bruscky's studio personifies two competing models of a
philosophy of life. One collects, preserves, sifts through documents,
proceeding almost scientifically. The other – the one painted
with the brush – separates itself from the torrent of information
and creates a new, parallel, sometimes even a contrary world.
Whereas the first method has an all-embracing claim on the interpretation
of the world and therefore runs the risk of becoming dogmatic,
for the second it is enough to record a fleeting instant in the
intricate network of human encounters and brighten the shadow
that has covered the world.
Painting aims at the full diversity of possible ways of understanding,
while science strives to reduce them. Works of art can be open
and ambiguous, a scientific study cannot. For this reason, good
art will continue to be bad science – and vice versa.
The Bienal will reconstruct Bruscky's studio down
to the last detail in São Paulo; in addition to its conceptual
value, it also possesses a sculpture-like attraction and a certain
melancholy poetry. Furthermore, it moves his hodgepodge of nostalgia
to one side for a moment and airs all those imaginary pictures
which he and his artist colleagues were unable to paint, indeed
not allowed to paint, over the last few years. More than ever
before, the art of today is again concerned with the power of
creating pictures and less with the ability to collect data. We
need have no hesitation in leaving that task to the scientists,
those chroniclers of the inadequacy of the real world. The mystery
of painting lies in the fact that a tiny brushstroke tears up
the veil of the ordinary and brings to light a new world whose
mysteries cannot be solved by mathematicians' statistics. "The
tiny gap that exists between the picture itself and what it means
is the source of my painting" (Luc Tuymans) . Every painting,
therefore, also has to do with the piece of no man's land that
lies where the real world ends and the canvas begins.
Dammi i Colori
In the first act of Puccini's opera "Tosca", the protagonist
Mario Cavaradossi paints the portrait of a blonde aristocratic
woman. Suddenly he stops, pulls a medallion containing the picture
of his beloved Tosca out of his waistcoat pocket, and lets his
eyes wander several times between the miniature and the painting,
which in some mysterious way unites the beauty of the two women.
The coexistence of the female rivals, which in real life would
lead to conflicts, can only be achieved peacefully by means of
art, which often enough unites the irreconcilable and lets things
that are absent be present.
Only Tosca's jealousy persuades Cavaradossi to paint over the
rival's blue eyes with black paint to make the ambivalent portrait
look more like her, Tosca. The picture's "hidden harmony"
– also the title of Cavaradossi's famous aria – is
disturbed. The painter has the power to either create or ruin
constancy by tiny interventions, to conjure up or destroy beauty.
It should not be said that beauty has long-since taken itself
off to the fashion salons and is no longer a criterion in modern
art. One of the masters of contemporary painting, Gerhard Richter,
insists on painting beautiful pictures, even if this "old-fashionable"
attitude disappoints some critics who would prefer to see more
violent scenes. Richter likes to point out that, in his case,
painting begins with a mental picture which, he says, he rarely
reaches in the execution of his work. On the road to this "model"
(Vorbild) he then systematically eliminates the more obvious,
banal details and clichés.
Abstraction in painting thus consists in this erasing of unnecessary
things, and this applies to both figurative and abstract pictures,
it should be noted. It also describes the difference between painting
and photography. Paradoxically, photography produces impure pictures
compared to painting, which creates pure pictures, because, in
the case of a photograph, small technical errors or unintended,
coincidental irregularities always creep in. Hence, the purity
of a painting consists precisely in the loss of details and the
decision to avoid overloading. Luc Tuymans likes to tell the following
anecdote in this context: at the opening of an exhibition in Brussels
in 1940, Constant Permeke was criticized by a lady who said that
his paintings were "somewhat empty," whereupon he borrowed
her lipstick and drew a few paratroopers falling from the sky
into one of his pictures. Voilà, 2 days later his country
was at war.
Why is painting, which is also prominently represented at the
Biennial, today yet again experiencing a rebirth? Why has it made
up ground in the eternal dispute of the "paragons,"
the hierarchy of the arts so popular during the Renaissance? Certainly
there is a demand for its special aura that makes things that
are close look distant, and things distant look close. Certainly
the critical tussle with the zeitgeist and lifestyle, as propagated
by the mass media and advertising, plays a role, and it certainly
has something to do with singularity and authentic craftsmanship
in view of an avalanche of technically reproduced media. The static
pictures of painting have an anchor effect in a flood of mobile,
manipulable pictures that nobody trusts any more. The quiet pictures,
which invite one to observe undisturbed, oppose the noise and
the overstimulation of the commercial world.
The principal reason, however, is probably the fact that painting
does not behave in a mimetic way toward reality, but annuls the
laws of reality to makes the things of the world appear in a prototypical
and symbolically heightened form. The painter is still hunting
for an ideal picture of humanity and the world that we have had
in our minds since primeval times.
1. Hans Belting, Über Lügen und andere
Wahrheiten der Malerei ("On Lies and other Truths in Painting",
catalog on Sigmar Polke, p. 131, Bonn 1997.
2. J.W. Goethe, Schriften zur Kunst ("Writings
on Art"), 1822. In Goethes Werke ("Goethe's Works"),
volume XII, p. 469. Hamburg 1953
3. Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische
Erziehung des Menschen ("On the Aesthetic Education of Mankind")
(1795). In Schillers Werke ("Schiller's Works"), volume
4. Frankfurt 1966
4. Hans Belting, Über Lügen und andere
Wahrheiten der Malerei, loc cit, p. 129, Bonn 1997.
5. Jan Thorn-Prikker, Luc Tuymans: Renaissance
der Malerei ("Renaissance of Painting"), Kulturchronik
no. 3. Bonn 2003
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© Copyright text: Alfons Hug, July 2004
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