WHY OR PIECE DE RESISTANCE
Presented at the XXIst International Art History Colloquium of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM
25 - 30 September 1997 in Oaxaca, Mexico
At the X. Documenta in Kassel, all shop windows in the town center are opened to the side and the word »Why« is written on them in black paint. I wake up. »When the end nears,« wrote Cartaphilus, »no images of our memory are left; the only thing that remains are words.« Disfigured and mutilated words, the words of others as the pathetic alms the hours and centuries left us, Jorge Luis Borges commented.
Art, they say, is currently an incalculable exhaustion of ones whole energy in opposing an existence dominated by calculation. It is difficult to estimate.
Nothing is at stake and everything is. Everything seems arbitrary and nothing is arbitrary. Just as Midas' hands are said to have turned all he touched into gold, contemporary artists turn everything into art. And art is everywhere. The barber shop around the corner displays the products just as the subway stations do, bars are full of all kinds of things, the galleries as well. On the one hand. On the other hand there is a puritanical strictness, a hermeticism, an undecipherability.
Everyone just stands there watching and waiting.
C'est par l'humidité que les âmes viennent à la vie
We have disfigured nature enough, now it is time for us to bury ourselves. Manhattan razed, everything underground. Flat land. Desert. It's possible that the Indians would return. We'll fetch Mars.
Things rooted to the ground. Gripping the ground. Lights flash in the clouds, an electrical storm bursts with a hard crash. Zigzag lightning. Theater, when it really is theater, in a threatening way reconciles what is wonderful with what is emerging, and what is emerging with what is departing.
It has been called into question long ago that art moves within the triangle »work, truth and being« and that the essence of art remains determinable as the »placing of itself into the work of the truth of being«, even if this idea has been accepted again and again. Of course Heidegger does call »truth« a type of error without which a certain kind of living creature would be unable to live. The art of modernity, says Beat Wyss, expresses itself in the manner of the Cretinic Paradox which truthfully claims: »I lie«. Truth-lies: truth as an echo of falsehood. Modern signs should look the way they did on the day God sowed them, as though the scratching sounds of civilization that accompany our speaking and sculpting could suddenly stop. Modernity thinks etymologically, in the direction of the beginning and even further back. The geological processes which precede all life have, in the extreme case, never existed in anyone's consciousness at all: not in their own, because they have none, not in someone else's, because no one existed. So for lack of a subject, they had no objective existence, in other words: they did not exist. And yet they seem given as a sort of metaphorical language we don't entirely cast off, but cannot justify either. The hour of the precognitive and of signs.
We do not know what we mean when we use the word »meaning«.
Undisputed and indisputable that today's »incalculable overexpending« in the field of art is pure calculation. The market, the prices, the insinuation of particular works, the political betrayals. Peter Weibel, one of the few who address this problem in a radical manner, poses the question of the truth in a work of art as a question of power as Foucault uses the term. In his plea for a »psychotization of perception«, he assumes that institutions always mean violence, even in art. Art itself does not have the power to change anything on its own except itself, and even in this always remains an instrument of power.
We searched for the eternal in art to eternalize the illusions of the bourgeoisie, or we misused art to stabilize dictatorships. Weibel brings the issue to a head: Culture produces war. Adorno wrote »no poetry after Auschwitz«, but he should have said »no poetry before Auschwitz«. The fact that a cultural nation such as Germany had committed such crimes was not surprising, it was part of an inevitable logic. Only culture, he said, produces crimes like these.
The moving image, says Peter Weibel, not only radically contradicts the aesthetics of the picture, it also contradicts the preconditions of bourgeois society; it is »anti-art«, which is also where it gets its power. No paintings, no »eternal« figures: campaigns, demonstrations and more ephemeral things. Socio-political rioting. But neither art nor »anti-art« could carry or even bear up under the burden placed on it to continue the Enlightenment. The criticism called for could not be delivered. Both art and anti-art remained caught up in the suggestive discourse of power. In the sixties and seventies, much anti-art was integrated right from the beginning into art, and much has simply remained art. »I have a good relationship to art as well as to anti-art«, said Beuys.
So how can we change the classic triad of »work, truth and being«? The tendency towards dematerialization, so the assumption ran, replaces the idea of the work with that of the concept. The »public-ness«, the »unhiddenness of being« is socially produced; »truth« is therefore connected to the power techniques which make it possible and legitimize it.
Wild speculation, but the realization is to be expected..
Held against this the naive thesis: bodies, material, spaces can be represented by immaterial signs, replaceable, but not displaceable, especially not in art. This will produce scarce highlights and relaxed, selfabsorbed contents of the most varied old and new forms for as long as there will be human beings. Art follows our every step, floods us, angers us, and suddenly it causes wounds or prepares a feast for us. Incalculably bottomless. While thinking follows the conditions of its technically feasible forms of expression, art follows that path only conditionally and often only apparently. Our five senses do not permit a radical, final virtualization (de-realization). All sorts of possible materials (canvass, paint, textiles and music, poetry) can be mixed in, and if something towers above artistic work, in a positive sense, then it is the poetic.
The absolute end of the concrete is death, and strangely enough, what is most common here meets with what is oldest. »Where do statues come from?« asks Michel Serres. »From death. From the grave. From burial rituals. From the corpse. From carrion. From putrefaction. From that which has no name in any language. From that hole, that gap, that absence of language, from that castration of which the object is normally born...« And from where do statues come to us? »They do not come, they come back. Gods, heros or human beings, whether great or false, emerge to new life, haunt us like ghosts, les revenants, the returners...« But where do statues come from? From death, and they follow him... Existence marked by the raised stone, the boulder on a grave, the meteor.
The scandal of the virtual world is its immateriality, the affront of an existence without a body.
The powers of production are powers of destruction... The more power, the more powerlessness, the more knowledge, the more absence of knowledge. All further proclaimed movements towards the universal, general, common, whole, total come under the complete suspicion that they are excuses for the secret and sinister expansion of the monstrous, of fear. Body-thinking as athinking in bottomlessness, such as laughing and crying, such as eating and drinking, such as walking, intoxication... body-thinking is imageless and remains a dismembered body (Kamper). However and precisely for this reason: to grope and feel ones way as closely as possible to the impossible and remain a body. When I dance, the dismembered thing, the crippled thing acts, but it is my body and the bodies of others. It is hard to imagine a society which disclaims the body; still we are drifting toward exactly such a society (Virilio). If the human body is then successfully denied, disclaimed and thus removed, liquidated and dissolved in both forms, namely as the body of others and as ones own body, then one of the most important prerequisites for an orientation in the world is cancelled: the distinction between reality and illusion. Bodilessness means no longer to be able to distinguish between what exists and what people invent.
Is clinging to the body, is to insistence on a body, in whatever form, a thing of the past?
No will: no representation, no world, said Arthur Schopenhauer. »Before us, however, only nothingness remains. But that which struggles against dissolving into nothingness, our nature, is in fact nothing but the will to live, which we are ourselves, just as it is our world. The fact that we loath nothingness so much is nothing more than yet another expression of the fact that we want life so much and are nothing but this will and know nothing but precisely this will...«
The will wills, it does not submit. That makes more possible than is real.
The question Peter Weibel correctly asks, namely where the political is in art, has always articulated itself anew, whether it was intensified or pushed to the side. We forget our bloody roots, the sting remains. The intellectuals' conversion from the aesthetics of political action to a radical hermeneutics of art is symptomatic of our intellectual history. »The aesthetic experience thus becomes the church asylum of disappointed revolutionaries of the mind« (Beat Wyss). Or is there still a more or less cautious commitment? Or at least an intended inclusion of social conflicts?
The Mexican artist Helen Escobedo recently placed her work »Refugees« into a park in Hamburg where the Nazis had driven Jews together for deportation, fleeing women made of piles of grass placed onto trestles like those the farmers in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland use to dry their hay. Heavy women were created, light ones, tired, cheerful, stooped, proud women - art students built them. An impressive procession.
But why, if this image fascinated me, was I at first repulsed by it? Are we less able to bear figurative images, even when they are on the border to abstraction? Is it hard for us to endure an almost undisguised political statement in an artistic act? The fascination is there, and yet the aesthetic discourse stumbles (or, as in the case of Helen Escobedo, fails to appear at first).
Art can doubtlessly gain public attention and even something like influence, it can rescue memory, but its essential capital is its self-isolation, its refusal, its revolt, and this precisely not as a mere personal achievement of the artist. The act of doing, of outlining, the experiment is more important than the finished project. The serious painter, for example, knows that painting, even his own painting, is impossible, not realizable, unreal, and he knows he is looking for something which eludes him. He chases after non-painting the way the writer or poet chase after non-literature. What is outlined finds no comprehension in its most radical approaches and isn't even directed towards comprehension. It is primarily not even an attempt to elude the market; it is a more radical elusion, a dispersal, a dissolution, a disappearance. What is lost is not just the certainty created by rules and conventions, not only directly political or humanistic interventions seem exhausted; there is the erroneous, the excluded, the half-finished, abandoned and disappearing.
What modern art has made possible, says T. W. Adorno, is the decline of metaphysics.
- but how?
»The history of abstraction is, roughly formulated, the history of Nihilism« (Dietmar Kamper). Analyses dissolve objects. Dreams, actions, suffering, pain will end in the imaginary, at best with the hope that the real can arise anew, can be dreamt, produced, suffered anew. This is the assumption.
Beneath the stars of a different sky
In the opposite direction of the chessboard
(In the West) the ocean threw a concentric eddy
Breath drawn in smoke
Speechless speech, soundless music: amazing how happy many people are to chat when they conjure up the end of art in disappearance, in stopping and breaking off. In cascades of interpretations, nothingness is opposed to somethingness. Is it that simple? The sublime is being dismembered and look! - this act of breaking does not make anything smaller, and the dismembering shatters nothing. The leftover pieces assemble themselves, also in the black pictures of Ad Reinhardt, pictures which do not need to assemble because they trigger a fascinating movement of concentration right from the beginning.
Images can be sleepwalkers you should not awaken.
On Circular Quay in Sydney, a man sits on a grey box, his face and hands are dyed grey, grey on grey, the bottle he holds in his hand is grey, while he changes position in infinitely small increments of minimalist sounds.
A painter (Irene Hoppenberg) lets a naked lightbulb swing from the ceiling of a room painted yellow.
The two witty, clever and excitingly disguised people »Eva + Adele« who appear in a non-stop performance as »world communicative global plastic«: Wherever we are is museum! they repete to say. The overstepping both of the surface screen and of the art industry, and yet »at home« there and at home in the future.
In his »Virginal Pot«, the Indian artist N.N. Rimzom places a house-shaped slap of concrete atilt onto a half-jar shaped like a mother's belly -
- Attempt at capturing the fragile equilibrium between »Not-Yet« and »Not-Anymore«. How to find emptiness. What it triggers when you get to its perimeter. Or the silence that is total to the human ear. Or the white noise that triggers fear and terror -
- sucked in, without possibility of escape, as the normal depictions show it. To be able to retreat one step back. An assault on our senses by reflection. An assault on our reflections by theobjects. Images without qualities in which the artist does not want to recognize himself, images that live outside the artist and yet are close to him, constantly on the point of creating a real or virtual representation of something significant in the impersonal mass of relationships. Pure space, space without events -
- works which tell stories, issue orders, quote, define, agitate or which are ornaments -
(whereby the linguistic naming always alleges too much).
Zenon shows that the arrow cannot fly. The flying arrow, comments Jean-Francois Lyotard, is theoretical terror, because you are searching for a unity that runs off like a film. Possibly the limping man for whom every step is a problem, the flying manand the dancing man who have to find each movement in space, come closest to the intensity of being in suspension.
The discours that ends in the night, whose clarity fulfils itself precisely in the fact that it steps into the night (night, - that is final silence, a discours which leads thought to the border of thought, to the place where it demands the sacrifice or death of thought. George Bataille). What is at stake is survival
Back to back
(In the East) a great whirlwind of sand developed whose whiteness sealed the horizon
The whole width of night
They weren't really colors
The theater does not let go, even if it is life -
Hegel says that people would perish if they continued to taking part in the course of events. An early insight. Only: what is the course of events and who is their demiurge?
How is anyone supposed to be able to report on the last and next-to-last things when he hasn't been exposed to them?
It is arrogant to assert such prerequisites, but feeling uncertain and insulted are also at the bottom of it... The painter who paints pictures although he knows that picture really cannot exist anymore (should not exist anymore) either crashes, runs aground, or he forces out something new.
In certain circumstances the commentary can surpass and make clearer the repercussions of the catastrophe, and that not without consequences, and therefore perhaps a reason why again and again commentaries are passed off for the work itself. Although every form of deciphering and symbolizing is a limping behind, a renunciation of foolhardiness (Blumenberg); but things can be different as well. »They told the wolf so often that he had nothing of the lamb in him that in the end he decided to eat the lamb to have everything of the lamb« (Turkish saying). Itz is not a conncidence hat aesthetic discourses between artists and art critics overlap more and more is not a coincidence. Image and word, both exuberantly arbitrary and also paltry; silence and the emptiness before our eyesthey meet in the tumultuous-labyrinthine.
Joubert, the writer who wrote no books, painters who paint no pictures, musicians who set down no notes.
Since then, when has either science or literature admitted that what can barely or not at all be expressed, can also be expressed like this:
chrutschphmelanügügänglötüso o dre fas ma u di re ko miso lu put o nem
- or the same thing (best of all) sung -
And something is always at issue which has no relationship to the work, which is denied in order to get to this point. The abrupt darkness, blindness, the abrupt light. Borges says that as an idea, infinity dissolves other ideas. That, of course, goes much too far for those pragmatically oriented on the here and now. Perhaps they can just barely say: Look at the world in a different way, decipher it in a different way. Literature is familiar with this experience too, but Joyce, Proust, Becket t have not decisively prevailed because the insurrections were throttled again and again. In the visual arts it was different. While in language, reflection and experiment may go furthest, the »play« of installation and performance artists remains open and not without risk to the profession ; but for this reason as well. »The technical means of simulation are approaching their perfection at the point where we could just as well relinquish reality« (Blumenberg). But the loss of the senses also suggests the possibility of winning them back -
(the winning back of what?)
The Christian creation myth, by far not a triumphant one, was already opposed by dramatic visions of destruction, by innumerable and multifarious apocalyptic images. To try again and again to create something new which is condemned to disappear! The hope that removing and destroying what is useless and meaningless will in the end still result in something meaningful has one of its important roots here.
If literature banks more on the fact that the world exists when it is formulated, expressed im language set in language, and not only moves within a containes space , and if it is a container itself, then experimental art has successfully escaped this framework. It rotates, floats, occupies, seems to scamper into all innovations - including the technical ones - unquestioningly, innocently, overly adapted and keen on experimenting. Shadow-players, illusionists and shamans, but in the background the image that dissolves, language that falls apart, economic and social dissociations and compressions which flow intentionally and unintentionally, indifferent, arbitrary and explosive. Reeling and reductive, abusive, obtruding and disappearing. Everything begins with a vibration, says Octavio Paz, an imperceptible motion that grows stronger by the minute. Wind, long whistles, a strong hurricane, a flood of faces, forms, lines. Everything collapses, continues, rises, disappears, reappears. Dizzying dissolution and condensing. Air bubbles, air bubbles, gravel, pebbles. Boulders of gas. Lines that intersect, rivers that merge, endless ramifications, meanderings, deltas, shifting deserts. Dislocations, sinterings, crumbling...
- Let us assume one day there will be a last painter and a last poet.
- to speak without speaking about this would be a ghost-like, the final imagelessness of suicide. Or, on the contrary the filtering in again into what is open, into public discussion, without insisting on autonomy, which, if it does not exclude the political and social aspects, does only admits them under aesthetic criteria.
Leaning against a wall and drawing a line
A mirror of lights slowly into the bend
A little of a lot
Many years of silence as a sound
Before language began, colorful as though it were light
Two square meters of window, unwatched
No more shots
The end long before
Racing along with supreme slowness
Like all people who attempt this, I write and speak around the act of making and that which is made. To speak about the end is a beginning. L'Esprit en flamme... the enflaming gesture with its possibilities for gentleness and destruction. To catch fire, to set on fire. Clumsy people, stubborn, playing, bogged down people, people who straighten up, who have no choice.
I take up speaking about the destruction of art, about its end, because I can still remember what a revelation it was for me to handle pencils, colors and materials for the first time. That hasn't changed. And I still feel the turmoil that roared through me when I collided for the first time with a concentrated world of modern imagery in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The knock this shock caused has remained with me.
(Images) - How not to speak. This borderline of silence is our borderline -
In China, for example, they have a completely different conception of art.
Translation from the German: Margitt Lehbert and Irmgard Hunt
© Urs Jaeggi / Website: Universes in Universe