SUFFERING INTO TRUTH
‘ – but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.’
In the eighteenth century, during the heyday of the Grand Tour, one young Englishman embarked on such a jaunt, the son of a newly wealthy Derbyshire family, found himself in Florence. Having escaped the irritatingly over-attentive bear-leader charged with his cultural improvement, this young buck decided on a visit to the Medici Venus, the statue then regarded as the most beautiful in all Italy, if not the world. As he recounts the story in his journal, a strange compulsion came over him in the presence of the Venus and, having assured himself that he was unobserved, he approached the statue and began running trembling hands over its perfect curves. With mounting excitement he started to caress the exposed right breast of the Venus until finally, losing all control and with an insouciant tweak of the nipple, he planted a long, lingering kiss on the statue’s cold, white and unyielding marble rump. In the young man’s defence we might note that the removal of the Medici Venus from Rome to Florence a century before had been sanctioned by the Pope on the grounds of its noted tendency to provoke lewd and licentious behaviour, but nonetheless his actions may strike us today as a little odd, or perhaps even wrong. Wrong in the trivial sense that they violate the fundamental rule of gallery etiquette – no touching, and certainly no copping a sneaky feel – but wrong in a deeper sense too: wrong in their conception of what a work of art is, of what the relationship between work and viewer should be, wrong in their understanding of what sort of response is appropriate or even acceptable. And we know they’re wrong because, without our even being aware of it, the gallery tells us so.
‘ And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
T S ELIOT
A traditionally hung exhibition in a traditional gallery is an ideological construct, which, like all ideological constructs, pretends to be entirely natural, passive and innocent. This is a lie: the gallery plays an active role in creating the work the viewer sees and in creating the viewer who sees it. To this end the gallery will treat all paintings, say, in exactly the same way, as if they were all exactly the same kind of thing, be they black square or religious icon. In its original context a religious icon might have existed in dialogue with a multitude of others on an iconostasis; it might have hung on the wall of a church as an object of veneration which the faithful would approach humbly and prayerfully, kissing it, crossing themselves before it, genuflecting, lighting candles; precious icons might have been paraded around churches on saints’ days and festivals, the possession and expression of an entire community; they might have been carried into battle or invoked against plague, famine or other tribulation as objects of great power. No matter: the gallery will wrench that icon out of any context and hang it at the ‘right’ height – that being the ideal height for the average Western adult male – in a white cube, or on neutral walls which make of it a thing finished, complete, entire of itself, a thing to be bought and sold. The artwork thus homogenised and commodified is also rendered open and available to the individual consciousness, or at least to the individual consciousness rightly formed. To facilitate the formation of such a consciousness the gallery will deploy a Brahminical caste of curators and commentators whose task it is to surround the artwork with a critical apparatus of wall and catalogue text (like this) which will subsume it within an already formulated abstract and theoretical discourse, accommodating the new to the old with Procrustean rigour. To learn to operate within that discourse, to learn to pose the proper and not the impertinent questions, is to enter into the charmed circle of the cognoscenti upon whom the gallery will smile. There are others, though, who feel greatly intimidated by the gallery just as there are those who feel intimidated by poetry, and for the same reason: they feel that these represent experience encrypted and that without the correct cipher they can never be enjoyed or understood. Sadly, for all that the arts may talk of outreach, inclusiveness and relevance, that view is not entirely wrong.
If the Warburton Gallery has often been complicit in this culture of control – and it has – then Austrian artist Daniel Domig is having none of it. At the centre of his new show The Heart is a Prideful Beast is a huge sculptural installation which, brash and unapologetic, claims squatters’ rights to half of the available space on the ground floor of the gallery before shooting upwards with a wilful disregard for the curves which are – or were – the building’s most obvious feature. The installation dominates and disrupts the gallery, consuming it from within like a monstrous parasite inside a helpless host; its cheerfully ramshackle structure mocks the mid-Victorian splendour and high-end finish of India Buildings, and the lurid yahoo yellow of its rough-cut timber delivers a derisive two-fingered salute to the tasteful restraint of the gallery walls. These walls themselves are for the most part bare, Domig having elected to hang his larger scale paintings and smaller collaged works on paper upon or within his installation. The status of those works within the structure is particularly hard to determine: are they immured within a prison cell, or secure behind the walls of an impregnable fortress? Other works meanwhile hang high above or down below; they are not fixed but change their aspect according to the angle from which they are seen. These works do not reveal themselves all at once to the privileged gaze of the ideal spectator, and to engage with them a simple act of intellectual apprehension will not suffice. Rather we must approach them from multiple viewpoints, must seek them out, hunt them down, explore, and the end of our exploration is indeed that which Eliot identified: to know them, and the gallery, for the first time. The Russian Formalist theorists of the 1920s proposed that a primary function of literary language was what they termed ‘ostranenie’ or ‘making strange’, the cracking of the comfortable carapace of the familiar, the stripping away of the encrustations of what we already know, so that we see each thing as a new thing with new eyes, the very opposite of the moribund aesthetic experience of Proust’s Cottards with their slavish devotion to art whose forms they had already assimilated and ‘through whose spectacles they were in the habit of seeing even the real, living people who pass them in the street’. This ‘making strange’ is above all what Daniel Domig’s spectacular installation triumphantly asserts.
‘Of shapes transformed to bodies strange I purpose to entreat.’
OVID, trans. GOLDING
Daniel Domig has often been portrayed as an artist of mental states, of interior journeys, and the results of these journeys are frequently unsettling. To look at oneself, steadily and honestly, is hard, and to look within is doubly so, for to look within is to be confronted with our past, the marks it has inscribed and the wounds inflicted. To look within is to face the irrational and uncontrolled, the part that threatens to overwhelm or undermine the whole. Little wonder then the viewer of Domig’s work so frequently experiences a tension, a sense of disquiet and unease. Domig’s paintings have been described as dreamlike, and indeed they are, but those dreams are very close to nightmares: we might usefully remember that Freud prefaced his own Interpretation of Dreams with an epigraph from the Aeneid, ‘flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo’, roughly ‘if I can’t force Heaven, I’ll raise Hell’. Even from a distance this doubleness is apparent. Many of Domig’s paintings are thrillingly beautiful, particularly in their handling of colour, and have been compared in this regard to the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals, yet those same colours can also suggest the costume of a Pied Piper or Harlequin, etymologically Hellequin, the trickster demon of French folklore.
If Daniel Domig is an artist of mental states, however, he is nonetheless one who is drawn back time and again to the body, though for Domig the body is always fluid, fractured and fragmented. Sometimes his work seems to play with our human need or desire to find faces and figures wherever we look; sometimes we are unsure whether what we see is a body at all. At other times the bodies we find feel transitory and threatened as they emerge from or merge back into some other form, with all the wonder and terror of the transformation scene which has haunted mankind from Ovid to Kafka to a thousand late night B-movies, sometimes conceived as a gentle and welcome release, as with Philemon and Baucis, but more often evoking the hispid horrors of Circe’s isle. Domig’s bodies all have breaches and inhabit the realm described by Keats, where ‘there is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music’, and Domig himself has said that each one of us is a kind of ‘grotesque collage’. Such bodies are an affront to the conscious and rational mind, which must forever ride the marches of the self, patrolling the bounds of our somatic and psychic integrity.
This ceaseless, compulsive and near paranoid assertion of the self is symptomatic of what the psychiatrist R D Laing called ‘ontological insecurity’, as is the obsession with the division between what is inside and what is outside, and the fear that ultimately there may be nothing inside at all. As Laing wrote, ‘by getting inside the outside / one remains empty because / while one is on the inside / even the inside of the outside is outside / and inside oneself there is still nothing. / There has never been anything else / and there never will be.’ Laing’s descriptions of this ontological insecurity associate it with mental illness (at least in his earlier writings – he would later come to doubt the very existence of mental illness) but a consideration of the vast range of fears and prohibitions, fetishes and taboos, which surround those activities which transgress the boundaries of inside and outside, eating, sex and the expulsion of waste, suggest it may actually form part of a ‘normal’ psychology. It certainly haunts the work of Daniel Domig, both paintings and animations, as does another characteristic identified by Laing, the fear of engulfment: in many of Domig’s works the bodies he portrays are not merely being transformed but devoured. This Laing sees as a fear of being reduced in the eyes of others to a mere object, an ‘it’ rather than an ‘I’, and he suggests that our psychic defense against this fear takes the form of a division of the self into a false self which we present to the world and an inner self which ‘spectates upon dealings between the false self and others’, which manipulates the false self but is ultimately alienated from it. These ideas maybe suggested by certain of Domig’s animations: a work like Child, for example, may initially delight as a kaleidoscope would with its seemingly endless recombinations. Domig has left his own hands in shot, however, and the sight of these manipulating the image brings a disturbing awareness that what we are seeing are bodies dispassionately broken and remade, that what we are seeing is not mere exuberant pattern-making, but something more akin to the grim and remorseless catalogue of couplings in the 120 Days of Sodom.
Though he is an artist of intellectual curiosity and psychological insight, Daniel Domig has always been reluctant to discuss his work on any abstract or theoretical level. This reluctance stems, in part at least, from a determination to stay true to his artistic practice, for in his work Domig is never seeking to represent some pre-existent scene, or to express some pre-formulated idea, or to execute some pre-conceived plan. Instead Domig begins each time with his materials and with himself, and the work he creates is the engagement between the two: it is not that his works are the results of the inward journeys he undertakes, but rather that the works themselves are those journeys. Thus conceived the act of painting becomes a ritual act, an act involving the whole being both physical and mental, rather than an expression of the intellect alone. This is not in itself an anti-intellectual stance, but it is one which would deny to the mind, to the Cartesian res cogitans, to Laing’s inner self or to the ideal viewer created by the gallery, any privileged position. As Domig himself has expressed it, ‘the head must take its place alongside the other organs of the body.’ What Daniel Domig seems to seek, and what we may find in his work, is what was, according to Aristotle, granted to the mystai at Eleusis: not ‘mathein’ learning or knowledge, but ‘pathein’, experience. These are works born of an intense and unflinching inner gaze, works whose being is their becoming, works which, to borrow a phrase from Aeschylus, ‘suffer into truth’.
Gregor Sloss, Warburton Gallery, Edinburgh
THE HEART IS A PRIDEFUL BEAST
FEB 20 - APRIL 19
1 India Buildings
ESSAY BY GREGOR SLOSS