Mediamatic Magazine vol 4 # 1+2 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1989

Infra-Red Wahrheit moraleggiare kunstmatige BLIND

The great silence

The most inviolable requirement of contemporary art is an absolute moral freedom, demanded without consideration, for all artists in the creation of their work. Goethe’s famous Dichtungi und Wahrbeit has been accepted as the adage for artistic freedom: artists must be allowed to act as they think fit, without necessarily taking into account objective truth, or giving justification.


Infra-Red Wahrheit moraleggiare kunstmatige BLIND -

Yet this natural freedom of action which we demand for the artist must not make us blind to the often striking aspects of such a position. Therefore it seems a good idea to take a closer look at artists, who by the explicit or implicit nature of their work play upon our moral instincts, in order to investigate whether the results of this absolute freedom do not often cause great embarrassment.

If satire is absent from a present-day moral narrative and if we are not dealing with, for example, Baron Munchausen, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver, or Alice in Wonderland, but with contemporary artists laying strong moral claims on us without offsetting this with humour, then wi should be on our guard. On the one hand their w'ork seems to be of an exemplary nature, but on the other, there must be some compensation for such a heavy burden. However, we, the listeners or spectators, are excluded from that compensation. This causes suspicion. On the one hand there is a strong inclination to share personal confidences, on the other there is a desperate attempt to protect a covert identity against inquisitive stares which may discover that, w hich in a satire, would be manifested.

Irony, satire, or understatement are absent from the w'ork of these artists. They appear to be dumbfounded. The Great Silence enveloping their work seems to act like a screen, diverting our attention from less agreeable aspects. The artists discussed in this article are all artists whose work I respect and in a sense admire. That was the reason why I felt the need to explore their great silences, in search for elements that are characteristic of them; elements which these artists, however, try to keep as far away as possible from us, the spectators. A little relativisation may have saved these artists from such a dilemma. On the other hand their work could not have been made in this form if it had incorporated large doses of humour, irony or satire. The Temple of the Great Silence requires a solemn attitude, a ritual set-up in which there is no place for laughter. Laughter would destroy the temple-front, destroy the atmosphere, take everything out of context.

1. Derek Jarman: Deaf Mute Theatre

Perhaps nobody has analysed as lucidly as Derek Jarman the devastation of British culture, and especially of British art, caused by the Thatcher era. With carefully chosen words Jarman has raised in interviews the issue of the sale of Great Britain to foreign consortia. He is an activist who deserves respect for such clear-cut analyses in his struggle against Thatcher. It is curious therefore that in his films Jarman, like few other artists, exemplifies the Britishness of British art. After his War Requiem for the BBC (featuring Lawrence Olivier in a wheelchair) he has become - perhaps unintentionally - an almost official state artist.

More than anything else Jarman films the bodies of boys, that still unspoilt body which has not surrendered to woman but wltich, roaming free as an almost depersonalized object of desire seeks its salvation in objects of the same sex.

Liberated from the pressure of society, he is lost in a dream which gradually shows him in an extraterrestrial shape; a fallen angel. The Angelic Conversation is of course the most characteristic Jarman film. Boys seek each other’s company and fall into each other’s arms to enjoy the pleasures of love. Yet except when they kiss, these boys have lost their tongues. They do not speak, instead float as deaf-mutes through a postindustrial landscape, accompanied by Shakespeare’s Sonnets recorded on tape. The dream of a sensitive soul and yet more than that, because the ritual ceremonies they act out, and which eventually lead to a ritual coronation, are also an exact representation of a special aspect of British culture which has always strongly appealed to Jarman. War Requiem is a particularly wry expression of that culture.

The film is like a documentary that accompanies the music of Benjamin Britten's oratorium of the same name, which includes texts by Wilfred Owen, the poet who died in WW I, However, the soldiers in the trenches and the nurses at the front are speechless: they fight and nurse, they support each other, betray each other and kill each other, but they do not speak to each other. Just like the soldiers who really died, at the real fronts in Belgium and France, these soldiers have been silenced. Just like the generals who in their war made those boys play in their rituals of death and destruction, so the young soldiers are, in a parallel way, blood and body in Jarman’s theatre, in rituals that may be artistic in nature, but which in a psychological sense are being used in an equivalent manner. The Theatre of War, the Arcadian Resources, the Soldier Boys - Jarman uses these motives for his strongly homosexual oriented rituals. There is no distinction between the rites of the generals and those of Jarman; at the front and in the studio, the boys are in the first place marionettes used as meat - they are also willing to be used that way.

War as presented by Jarman is a seductive ritual, a titillating happening. A horrible comparison forces itself upon us: as if Jarman is actually comparing the backrooms of the seventies that resulted in the Aids-epidemic to the trenches overflowing with the blood of millions of young boys’ bodies. Jarman probably has his reasons, but why has he not drawn the consequences? The problem is that psychologically he is in the same position as the generals, because in his War Requiem he refuses to give these bodies a voice. The uniformity required in his ritualizing becomes identical to the uniformity required by the army, or the uniformity that must have reigned in the heyday of homosexual liberation. The voice of the individual goes unheard and the body must be reduced to an easily manageable uniformity. Had Jarman really been aware of this dilemma, he could never have made his film in this way. He would have given each soldier a personal voice; turned each body, which is mere fodder (for cannons - or for our voyeuristic gaze), into individuals who individualize easily, but surprisingly manipulated persons that are made almost indistinguishable by the British uniform.

His cries would then have rent that great silence which Benjamin Britten tried to exorcise in vain. In the final analysis, in War Requiem Jarman’s deaf-and-dumb theatre proves to embody the purest form of British tradition.

2. Peter Halley: Escape Routes

Not so very long ago, the visual arts still represented a world in which critical discourse was possible. Those were the days of modernism, when the art of our time was reduced to a morality that continually lost credibility, in which the straight line, the pure colour and the mot juste determined the course of a discourse that had been going on for far too long.

With the introduction of a greedy postmodernist language, this critical discourse was swept away by a babbling, challenging, provocative, prostituting, business-like jargon, which finally succeeded in silencing the language of modernism, replacing it by the topos of kitsch and self-reflection. Everything had to be possible, so long as there where no commercial restrictions whatsoever, in fact everything was possible, as long as the mechanisms of a consumer society that had gone off the rails were still working. For the managers of the black market who made enormous profits in the multinational branches of the drug empire, the modern art trade became an easy partner in the process of laundering black money.

To innocent art lovers, Peter Halley’s work may seem to be merely old wine in new bottles. Yet it is undeniable that in his paintings something is happening which is more than just a limited caricature of the European abstract painters of the thirties. Everything has been painted so kitschy, is presented in such an emphatically big and provocative- way, that one can safely assume that there’s another element present which has a disquieting effect. However, when first confronted with these day- glow canvases, not many people will suspect that this is an extremely sophisticated invitation to the nonvcaux riches who made their fortunes through Wall Street speculation. Who would believe that this target group would readily respond to Halley’s inviting gesture? Probably the day-glow is responsible for this. Nerves that are overactivated by drugs and sensitive eyes that are overstimulated by these phosphorescent colours, prove that this artist understands those extra intensities of life and work that are associated with the use of cocaine.

Yet the day-glow explains only one half of Halley’s successful intervention on the art market. Just take a look at the titles of his works. It suddenly becomes clear that it is this combined suggestion of text and image that provides his work with an added attraction. In Halley’s w'ork, the ethereal black lines which for Mondrian still represented an artistic choice have been transformed quite simply into secret rectilinear corridors and black escape routes. The network of lines and patterns that delimit the colourful areas now suggest a maze of corridors in a nineteenth-century prison, a far echo of Piranesi’s uncomfortable buildings, or the freedom-restricting structures based on the thoughts of tile French philosopher Foucault.

In this way the painter-critic Halley, who in his texts had always proved himself to be a humourless but diligent pupil of Foucault and Baudrillard (in as far as they had been translated into English) fell an easy prey to the nouveaux riches and black marketeers who seemed to under stand his w'ork better than anyone else. Halley had intended his work for Parisian intellectuals, perhaps hoping for an intensive discussion with European critics. But as soon as his work was almost openly used as a weapon in the financial set-up of the cocaine cartel. He maintained an absolute silence, and was in fact quite satisfied with his position.

3. Marina Abramovic: Chinese Roulette

It seemed that a strong wind was getting up. Yet somehow they managed to escape the dreaded tornado, and were now confronted with what turned out to be not much more than loud gusts of wind. But even then Fame remained on the alert, and from the great empire reports came trickling in about a march of love on the Great Wall that was slowly changing into a march tow ards the end. For how long had they worked together? And weren’t they the loving couple par excellence? After the initially aggressive tone, which converted every illusion that they w'ere not great lovers into provocative images, their cooperation had over the years acquired a rather dubious, increasingly superficial and sentimental character. Naturally, with hindsight we can trace how the love they had felt initially was converted into something else, into a detachment which finally caused their separation. For Ulav and Marina Abramovic, the march from two distant starting- points on the Great Chinese Wall that was intended to be a march of love, turned into a march tow'ards the end of an illusion.

For some time previously their private life could no longer be reconciled with their performance in public. Already during the preparations (including preparatory trips to China) their ways parted. For Ulay it was to become a private affair: his Chinese march would bring him a Chinese wife and child. Artistic inspiration continued to dominate Marina’s personal life. The Chinese guide who is to quench our thirst for art is of an almost unbearable beauty, beyond thedistinction between beauty and ugliness. He is the silent witness of her thoughts, the omnipresent Guardian of the Garden. He sees through her, and has tasted her kidneys; at the same he is her conscience, w hich in this walking tour (meant to be a triumph of love, yet ending as a fatal march) still revealsits presence. On 30 June 1988, Abramovic writes about Ulay in her diary: ... In the garden on the bridge we met to say farewell.

It was just a farewell meeting. But now it is her guide w'ho is important, who personifies the hardness of higher truths, and is not at all concerned witheveryday reality. He is the white, the red and the green dragon in one, escaping from the tragedy taking place here on the Chinese Wall.

A walk of many thousands of kilometers that becomes a media event oflimited scope. A love affair which must grow to sublime heights, only to hide the fact that love has disappeared. As so often love has turned into its opposite - though, by the way, the silent witness is not the cause. This is merely the medium w hom we seek to consult about the future, like the Pvthia, who can only phrase deeper truths in unintelligible riddles to be unravelled by those who listen carefully.

4. Anselm Kiefer: Library without Letters

Some books are no good. Sometimes one is annoyed by their contents, but that happens only rarely. Usually it is the design that is annoying, an obvious discrepancy between form and content that puts you off balance. In some exceptional cases, however, both form and content can make you rebellious.

We are referring to Anselm Kiefer’s books, in particular to his Zweistromland, the high priestess. A voluminous ‘library’ of two hundred folios with wrinkled leaden pages, containing photographs and dried ferns. It is one in a long series of book projects by Kiefer (this time the individual works weigh over one hundred kilos). We already know about his obsession with books; it is not his relation with the letters, but his love for the image which he has invested year after year in his big folios. They look like centuries-old books, almost falling apart and showing the ravages of time. Closer inspection shows that they have been subjected to an artificial ageing process. They are intended to be simulacra of old medieval folios. Tar, glue, and pages deliberately treated with gravel, soot, paint, water and branches are supposed to visualize the invaluable life and work of the artist.

Burnt books, books made pardy of wood, zinc or sand insert Kiefer’s biography in the tragic history of the German people. Nice pictures, strikingly visualized, in the same way as I remember my grandparents’ scrapbooks: precise and at the same time inaccurate family histories within the context of an historical era. My great-grandfather (who in fact does resemble Bismarck) posing as the dictator, followed on the next page by the statesman himself, absorbed in thought in a pathetic pose, gazing at the beautiful landscape the German Empire would seem to promise him. The slightly messy and discoloured glue make the photographs more dynamic. Until recently I had always seen Kiefer that way: a look-alike of my great-grandfather, an eccentric but sympathetic person, because both shared this rather pompous, yet harmless family tie.

To me Zweistromland, the high priestess is, however, a denouement and a disillusion. There is no suggestion anymore of a personal family history. We are supposed to understand that we are dealing here with a cultural-historical phenomenon, comparable to, say, the leaden coffins in the Bleikdler in Bremen, in which the bodies have defied the centuries, or a fantastic, alchemical find from the Middle Ages.

While in libraries the most valuable books are suffering from acidification and fall apart, Kiefer leaves to the following generations a message from his life, guaranteed against every form of environmental pollution. Scenes from German history acted out in his studio, battles of tin soldiers, battles at sea acted out in bathtubs, walks in the German forests, all the clichés I so admired in the family albums are presented to following generations by Kiefer, the result of his wet dreams packed in lead.

Kiefer’s idea of presenting a library consisting of twelve-feet- high steel bookcases filled w ith two hundred folios in lead was of course suggested by the work of Jorge Luis Borges. Yet how- impoverished a caricature of Borges’ construction. In Borges’ case the library is his life’s w'ork, an infinity of books that have been read, finally merging in one single letter, absorbing all superfluous weight and at the same time in its simplicity reflecting the universality of that library which in turn contains the whole of life and history.

Is a sheet a paper with a pencil line on it heavier than a blank sheet of paper- This question forces itself upon us when we are confronted with the ridiculous pomposity of Kiefer’s Zweistromland, the high priestess. It is a showpiece by somebody who apparently can hardly read or write, and who succeeds in compensating this by presenting himself as the prophet of a secret sect. Kiefer’s library, a cellar without letters, a hydrocephalus without a single thought.

5. Robert Mapplethorpe: White to play

Hers was the cherished body of the nineteenth century. The colour of her face was indescribable. As her sighs multiplied and her flesh was increasingly affected by consumption, her skin became more and more attractive. In her youthful decline she became an ever more attractive marble affection, vying with the most beautiful stone statues. Her life was being taken away, yet temporarily her lanpfueur put up a real struggle with the most beautiful creations of humanity. God and disease slowly took her life, yet one more time she could compete with the most beautiful human creations.

For a while a fascination with Aids victims had a certain appeal. Young boys, taken away by a disease of love, sacrificed to the highest human aspiration in an unequal struggle with an inhuman virus. The idea of serving in this way in a sacrifice of love has its appeal.

Mapplethorpe photographed bodies of black people, many of which were later destroyed by Aids, as his own body was to be. Proud until the last moment, head held high, the stick with the skull a bold symbol in his hand. In the second World War you could see them going to battle in this way, young Germans to the Russian fields.

Actually he was caught in the trap described by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. The lack of physical radiation, of physical relaxation, as exemplified by the ruling classes in the capitalist rat race is compensated by the white man in focusing on the black man, the most oppressed class, discovering a surfeit of masculinity, strength and pow'er in the supermasculine servant. The white man’s brain is looking for the black man’s penis, in a contemporary variation on the explorations of disintegrated bodies in classical times. Although Mapplethorpe’s photographs seem to be made in adulation of the black body, it is well know n that Mapplethorpe’s racism is not only to be found in these perhaps unconscious applications of worn- out clichés of the characteristics of the black body. Mapplethorpe was also in his daily life an uncomplicated racist, who could not express this in a personal way in his photographs, but who instead by the accomplished application and perfection of the old clichés described by Cleaver designed a world of beauty' supposed to express the opposite.

Against the fascination with the nineteenth-century suffering body, which with its ivory-coloured skin could still be a w ork of outstanding beauty, we are here confronted with ebonite strength, by fight and pose almost upgraded to a black marble statue. An expression of the desire for sublimation, intended to conceal inner, unspoken and contradictory emotions. Once more the absence of words from the depicted bodies is striking. The silent rhetoric which unfolds itself is only accessible for those w ho understand this secret language. There is a silent agreement between photographer and spectator. Aesthetics function as a point of contact. The black model, however, is excluded from the dynamics shared by photographer and spectator. Real admiration, hate, passion. Everything is projected on these black bodies, yet this looks like a sacrifice in a ritual from which it is itself excluded. Speechless.

translation Fokker Sluiter