Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
16th June 2013

On Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis

An Essay by John David Ebert

Horses

In Paleolithic art, the magic of the paint which touched the surface of the rock walls of the cave had the effect of symbolically dissolving the walls so that they could become transparent to the presence of another world, composed of grazing animal herds, which could be seen as actually coming through the liquefied rock like a portal to another dimension. Thus, the walls of one world were eroded in order to make the reality of another world present.[1]

In like manner, Jannis Kounellis’s famous 1969 Untitled,[2] (shown above) in which he placed twelve live horses inside the space of a gallery in Rome, had the effect of dissolving the boundaries of one world in order to make tangible the presence of another. Kounellis’s horses were materializations into the museum space from another world — not, in his case, from a parallel reality — but a world from the past: the equestrian world of stables and horses, meadows and fields, barns and ranches. A world, in other words, of specific places with connotations for human Existenz of meaning and significance conferred on life lived in those agrarian places.

But in the world configured by technological globalization, it is precisely the significance of such places that ceases to matter, for in the global ecumene, as Heidegger pointed out, one place is ontologically no different from any other, since the far is made near and the near made far. The result is distanceless nihilism.[3] Specific places – this or that bridge, barn or hilltop – with their historically acquired meanings and significances, are effaced and erased as they are overcoded by the value-neutral grid of electronic pulse signals and GPS maps which have the effect of rendering one place just the same as all other places. This or that hilltop where a god, perhaps, once made its presence known, or where a historical battle was fought, is rendered meaningless.

Kounellis’s horses, then, are part of a worlding process that is now taking place inside the the space of the museum, as also happened, once upon a time, in the Paleolithic. In dissolving the walls of the museum as a space set aside for art objects and recoding it as a place for the materialization of entire worlds, Kounellis is, of course, also dissolving the partition that separates the traditional art museum from the natural history museum, which is also a space set aside for the construction of worlds. Both types of museum, created as separate entities in the nineteenth century, are now colliding together, losing and effacing their own significances as separate spaces.

But Kounellis’s horses are only fragments of another world: they are living entities torn from their agrarian world horizon which, like the figures in a Chinese landscape painting, have had all the syntactical connections removed, requiring “fill in” on the part of the viewer, who must now supply the missing world-ground to the figures. With his horses, the gallery space is transformed before the viewer’s eyes into a portal to another world in which the viewer must supply the missing trees and barn, the meadows and hills. One is, thus, not just looking at twelve live horses, but looking into another space and another time. Another space and another time, that is, which has lost its significance in the distanceless world of late capitalism.

Gigantic Humans

In his 1975 work, Civil Tragedy,[4] Kounellis highlights this loss of significance even further. In this work, a single, lonely coat rack with a hat and coat upon it stands morosely before a wall that is entirely covered in gold leaf. An illuminated oil lamp burns on the adjacent wall, casting a dim and viscous light upon the scene.

The obvious point to make, of course, is that the gold leaf is an allusion to the Byzantine icon paintings of the Middle Ages, when gold backgrounds prevailed as the cosmic frame surrounding the images of the saints and heroes of the Christian cosmos. But notice that, once again, the viewer must supply the missing world – in this case, the figures, since the ground has already been provided — to the fragment from a larger universe that Kounellis gives him here, for it is precisely the absence of saints and heroes which matters in Kounellis’s image. In the age of Byzantine icon painting which lasted from the sixth century until about the time of Giotto (who substituted the blue sky for the traditional gold background), the human being was a figure of cosmic importance, scaled up and gigantified to the level of a Christ with piercing eyes that followed the viewer wherever he went. This was an age of giant humans magnified onto the walls of churches at places like Ravenna and Thessaloniki, where figures like Christ Pantocrator or St. George or the Emperor Constantine stared down upon the viewer from out of the faintly gleaming gold walls of the murky cavernous recesses of these buildings. In other words, the human being in those days mattered, for the cosmos was an artifact constructed by anthropogenic gods using anthropotechnic means.

The other thing about these old icons is that they were essentially two-dimensional: not only were they perspectivally flat, but they were ontologically flattened, as well, since an icon is a hieroglyphic version of a human being simplified to the level of a cosmic stencil.

But with the presence of the coat rack, with its single hat and coat standing in for the traces of an absent human, we have a signifier from the present day world, for Kounellis specifically modeled the coat rack on those found in Viennese coffee houses.[5] The hat and coat are of a kind that might have been worn by a Kafka character (one of Kounellis’s favorite authors) and so it is, perhaps, an oblique reference to the labyrinthine landscapes of Kafka’s fiction, in which the human being is a cosmic entity no longer, but has been shrunken down to the level of a mouse running a maze.

As in the contrast between the Mycenaean heroes and the Greeks of the sixth century BC who regarded themselves as but diminished shadows of those mighty warriors – Herodotus writes of the Spartans finding the bones of Orestes, which were those of a ten foot tall skeleton[6] – so too, in our modern civilization there has been a loss and a diminishment of the status of the human being, ontologically speaking. The Byzantine icons have shrunk, while the gold background of a universe animated by magical powers has disappeared, and the cosmos itself has enlarged to incredibly vast proportions which have all but dissolved the human entity into a mere speck of dust.

The contemporary human being may be a three-dimensional subjectivity by comparison with the hollow icons of the Byzantines, but he has suffered a corresponding diminution in his ability to inscribe a mark – in Derrida’s sense — on the cosmos. (In Derrida’s cosmology, he can only inscribe marks on texts since, for Derrida, there is no cosmos, ontologically speaking, structured by transcendental signifieds any longer). The various projects and projecting(s) of the sciences has sundered him from any kind of integration into a cosmic whole, and he now stands on his own – like the coat rack — as a fragment torn from a once mighty but now murky and obscured world picture. He is like Rudolf Steiner’s historical human being, who has differentiated himself as a subject, but has lost all contact with spiritual powers in the process.

As in the essays of Heidegger, the human being in Kounellis is at home in the universe no longer, but finds himself rather in an un-homed situation.[7]

Two Worlds

Another work which performs a similar contrast between worlds is Kounellis’s Untitled of 1991 (above)[8] in which, in a museum in Naples, he exhibited a collection of traditional Mediterranean peasant amphorae, all compressed tightly together in a rectangular shape on the museum floor, and in which all the vases but one contained seawater, while the remaining one contained blood. Aligned at eye level along the wall was a series of steel plates (Kounellis’s preferred “canvas”) upon each of which had been mounted, in pairs, a sack of coal with a bent metal rod protruding from it.

For Kounellis, coal always signifies the industrial capitalist imaginary: the coal that was used to power the steam engines, for instance, of the various railroads that constructed the early phases of industrial capitalism as a world ecumene. The phase of commercial capitalism which preceded industrial capitalism was, of course, largely a Mediterranean invention of sea-faring merchant ships criss-crossing the world’s various oceans from Venice and Genoa to ports in India and China. As Fernand Braudel has described it in his three volume opus, Civilization and Capitalism, this was an affair not of the manufacture of new goods, but rather of the trading of already extant ones such as spices, metals, tobacco and textiles, coffee and liquors, etc.[9]

The world configured by the various amphorae gathered onto the museum floor, however, is a much, much older world than that of the capitalist imaginary in either one of its early phases, for the amphorae signify the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans, of a much earlier commerce of exporting olive oils and wine from the Greek islands all over the Mediterranean. Kounellis’s amphorae are not of the painted type, but rather traditional vases of the kind used by the Greek peasant in the countryside for hauling wine and water and grains. They stand metonymically as part for the whole of a very ancient way of Greek and Roman village life.

But the fact that the vases are full of seawater, while one of them is filled with blood, suggests the contrast of something living vs. something dead, and the implied notion of death thus evokes the ancient Greek cult of the dead, which also centered on amphorae. The Greeks burned their dead, and they placed the ashes of the dead body inside amphorae which they then set into graves such as at the Kerameikos cemetery at Athens which, as the name suggests, revolved around this whole custom. Nearly the entirety of Greek art, furthermore, came out of this funerary cult: the custom of Geometric vase painting and the early, sixth century BC cult of the Kouros statue which functioned as the prototype for the later statuary of the fifth century BC, for instance. In placing these vases inside the museum in Naples, Kounellis, as with his horses, is once again placing an entire world on the inside of a museum, although it is only a fragment of that world, which must be completed by the viewer.

And it is a world that is now in fragments precisely because it has been enframed and encircled by the capitalist imaginary of industrialization which surrounds and engulfs it like the sacks of coal along the wall of Kounellis’s installation. The industrial world was a coal powered one, a world of steam ships and locomotives, of factories and soot-blackening mill towns that saturated the atmosphere with a brown patina of CO2, which now today is creating the heat dome over the planet that is causing its sea levels to rise, a sea level rise that will, one fine day, swallow up many of the Greek islands.

As though they had never even existed.

Falling Bodies

As Stephen Bann rightly points out in his monograph on Kounellis, there is a certain weight and gravitas about Kounellis’s work.[10] All the vectors of his art point decidedly downwards, for it is the earth archetype itself that is the dominant structuring feature of his works. It is almost as though Kounellis, as an Italian artist, had rediscovered Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies all over again, for whether we are thinking of the various rocks and stones that he has hung suspended from the ceilings of various buildings,[11] or the rows of furniture hanging by cords along the inside gallery of a piazza in Naples (above);[12] or the wall composed entirely out of chiseled stones at a gallery in Naples;[13] or the various scales weighed down by coffee grounds that he has hung at several locations (below);[14] it is all very weighty and heavy, very solid and very material.

Galileo’s discovery of the Law of Falling Bodies supplied Western science with its visionary frame of a material world governed by material forces that could be enslaved and manipulated by trapping them into heat engines and various combustion machines. From Leonardo to Galileo and Torricelli, it is a world that was first unveiled by the Mediterranean imagination, in which the most important motif of the Christian imaginary is that of the Deposition of Christ, where the accent is placed upon the weight and heaviness of Christ’s body as it is taken down from the cross in the various imaginings of this event from Fra Angelico in 1432 (below) to Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross in 1633 (precisely the time in which the inertial laws of physics are being worked out from Leonardo to Newton).  It is the depleted body of Christ which becomes the iconographic prototype of Western science and medicine, as depicted, for example, in Arnold Bocklin’s 1868 Mary Magdalene Lamenting the Body of Christ, an object that has become bereft of life and as a result, can be dismembered and taken apart by the processual analysis of the scientific scalpels of reason.

The dead body of Christ has been carved and cut into pieces – like the Egyptian Osiris – and has disappeared into the various works of Kounellis torn and scattered into the various stones and rocks and walls of his constructions. It is this body of the dead Christ, not the descent of the Living Spirit, that forms the (implicit) subject matter of Kounellis’s material cosmos, with all its ancient gravitas. This becomes momentarily explicit in his Untitled of 1972,[15] which features only the bottom part of the cross with the structure known as the suppedaneum upon which Christ’s feet rest, signified in the image by a golden pair of child’s shoes. The emphasis of this rather unique image of the Crucifixion (characteristically, only a fragment that must be filled in by the viewer for completion) is upon the feet resting on the ledge that supports them. But the Deposition is also indicated more directly in works like the one in the Teatro Margherita in Bari, 2010 (below),[16] in which a symbolic cross is configured by two intersecting girders tilting towards, as well as touching, the ground.

Kounellis’s semiotics are, in this sense, diametrically opposed to those of Damien Hirst, whose world is a capturing of the transcendentalist imagery of late hyper-global capitalism, with all its ontologically deworlded entities that have no relationship to being-in-a-world of any kind. Hirst’s luminous butterfly windows, for instance, form a decided contrast to Kounellis’s rock walls (or wooden boards) that are frequently placed inside of window frames to block out, rather than facilitate, the flow of light (an example shown below).[17] And Kounellis’s entities, like his museum horses, are never deworlded, but are always embedded in a specific world from a specific earthly place, although it is a world that must be supplied by the viewer in order to complete the (syncopated) image.

Fire

But there is a principle of luminosity in Kounellis’s work: that of fire, although it is not the fire of the tongues of flame of Pentecost that signifies the ability to communicate and disperse the power of the Word through media that eventually become electronic and self-luminous; it is rather fire understood in the sense of the old alchemical use of fire to melt down and transform matter in order to use it to shape new materials, which process later became the basis for production of new materials through chemistry and industrial design.

In the Untitled of 1985, for instance, in which the walls of a gallery space in Milan are lined with a horizontal row of steel plates across which propane gas torches are arranged like arrows moving from left to right, a series of these arrows is aimed directly at the fragmented Crucifix which Kounellis had used in the earlier 1972 Crucifix with child’s shoes.[18] These are the fires of Western industrial transformation that melted the cross down as a signifier and traded out the Christian imaginary for the industrial capitalist imaginary. But this meltdown of Christian signifiers left a series of semiotic vacancies in the fabric of the Western cosmos, and it is precisely these vacancies which Kounellis depicts in works like his Untitled of 1984 in which 32 steel shelves are arranged in rows along the gallery wall, each with traces of burn marks where previously oil lanterns had been lit.[19] The lanterns have been removed (see below), and Kounellis’s emphasis here is on what remains: the scars of semiotic vacancies which once used to be filled with meaning. It is a portrait of a cosmos of depleted signifiers where the flames of transformation have all long since disappeared. It is not a universe that communicates to us any longer, but only a realm of shadows where forms once used to reside.

Art as a Singularity

Kounellis’s later works have a tendency to monumentalize and apotheosize his earlier works. A good example of this is the exhibition held in 2010 at Ambika p3 at the University of Westminster: the centerpiece of this exhibition is a series of eleven steel bins raised on benches elevated slightly above the floor, with coal deposits at the top of each bin. The bins form the shape of the letter “K,” and many of the sides of these bins feature rows of empty glass bottles, as though to allude to Warhol’s rows of Coke bottles. (below)[20]

Seriality and repetition of the bottles suggests capitalist mass production, which is also signified by the coal; but most of the cases feature a black or a white muslin cloth that has been tied across the center of the composition (shown below) in such a way as to suggest the crossing out or effacing of this principle of mass production which Kounellis sees as inimical to the work of art. For him, mass production of the glass bottle or the beer can, as he has elsewhere stated the matter,[21] is part of the capitalist consumer imaginary which is completely opposed to the work of art that functions as a singularity designed to rupture and neutralize this commodification process. Hence, the black muslin cloths are Kounellis’s way of crossing out the effects of capitalist consumerism with the singularity of the unique, and never to be repeated, phenomenon of the work of art as a whole.

In an adjacent corner of this exhibition space (shown below), Kounellis has created a little alcove which features workers’ jackets hanging at intervals along the wall. Cases of serialized bottles are arranged on the wall above them, together with their black muslin cloths which have been wrapped around them.

The coal bins which have been arranged into the “K” shape not only refer to Kounellis’s last name, but also to “Kafka,” one of Kounellis’s favorites. The labyrinthine design of the exhibition refers us to the labyrinthine corridors of the topologies of Kafka’s novels, in which various office clerks are swallowed up into the bureaucratic machinery. The character of Joseph K. in The Trial is engulfed by the machinery of the judicial system which swallows him alive, never to be heard from again.

Thus, Kounellis’s world here – the same space also features the hat and coat rack of Civil Tragedy – is a return to that 1975 work on a higher turn of the spiral: for now the hat and coat signify not the Viennese coffee houses that were earlier contrasted with Byzantine civilization, but the industrial factory world of capitalist mass production and its transformation of the human individual into a mere servant of the hive. The shrinkage in stature of the human being across the centuries reaches here its final phase: from the gigantified human of the Byzantine icons to the Medieval grail quester, and then down to the silly antics of Don Quixote and onward to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in which the human being becomes ontologically no more significant than a bug on the floor, the gradual dismantling of human autonomy as the result of the diminishment of the human presence in the cosmos has resulted in the waste land of fragmented meanings from broken cosmologies that now surrounds the human being today.

The human world that was once a humanistic world has now become a world of factories and automation in which the human presence is negligible at best, and serves only to keep the machines running.

Kounellis’s overall vision, then, is one of fragmentation and loss: throughout the entirety of his works, he has striven to piece together from the collapsed midden heap of European civilization the once mighty age of what Fernand Braudel has called “Memory and the Mediterranean”:[22] a world of ships and ports, of the transportation of coffee beans and lentils; of Homeric voyages and discoveries; of buildings made out of stone and wood, and quiet little peasant villages and towns tied to specific places and spots of the earth that once conferred meaning and significance upon those places. Places in which, as Heidegger put it, things thinged and worlds worlded precisely because they integrated concrete objects – buildings, bridges, jugs – into the ordered cosmic fourfold of earth and sky, mortals and divinities. The global capitalist world order, on the other hand, is what ruptures such connections by effacing place and rendering locality obsolete.

It is as though Kounellis’s Mediterranean cosmos were a lost world that he, like an archaeologist, were trying to reassemble bit by bit: some scraps in a museum here; some horses in a gallery there; broken stones negentropically arranged into various meaningful patterns in various places. A world that is today shattered and lies in ruins, but from which, Kounellis insists, meaning can still be found through the patient processes of reconstruction.

Thus, the resurfacing of a submerged civilization that has been paved over by the freeways and shopping malls of hypercapitalist consumerism has been the main thrust of Kounellis’s project as a contemporary artist of place and space, memory and meaning.

It is not a world that is indifferent to place, or in which distance is meaningless: but rather a world of specific spaces and places that requires journeys and travels in order to get to them.

In the process, the museum and the gallery are reterritorialized by Kounellis for becoming portals of entry, at various access points, to this one single (largely hidden) world that he is busy unearthing. Each exhibition and each installation opens up a different window onto this lost cosmos: an age of boats and ships powered by wind, water and wood and later, railroads and factories powered by steam and coal.

It is art as Earth used to build up a World and to set it forth in classic Heideggerian fashion.


Notes

[1] See David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (UK: Thames & Hudson, 2004).

[2] Mary Jane Jacob, Jannis Kounellis (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986), pl. 36, 58-59.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper Perennial, 1981), 161-62.

[4] Mary Jane Jacobs, Jannis Kounellis, ibid., pl. 73, 104-05.

[5] Ibid. See the article by Thomas McEvilley in this volume, “Mute Prophecies,” 101.

[6] Herodotus, The Persian Wars (NY: The Modern Library, 1942), 36.

[7] See Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” in Martin Heidegger, The Basic Writings (NY: Harper Perennial, 1993).

[8] Jannis Kounellis, Kounellis (Milano, Italy: Edizio Charta, 2002), 122.

[9] Fernand Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism, Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life (NY: Harper Perennial, 1985).

[10] Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis (London: Reaktion Books, 2003), 147-58.

[11] Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1958-2000 (Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2002), 224-226.

[12] Mary Jane Jacobs, Kounellis, ibid., 134.

[13] Jannis Kounellis, Kounellis, ibid. 80-81.

[14] Mary Jane Jacobs, Kounellis, ibid., 111-13.

[15] Ibid., Pl. 71, 102.

[16] Bruno Cora, Jannis Kounellis (Milano, Italy: Silvana Editoriale, 2010), 60-61.

[17] Mary Jane Jacobs, Kounellis, ibid., pl. 65, 94-95.

[18] Ibid., pl. 117, 162.

[19] Ibid., pl. 59, 86.

[20] Bruno Cora, Jannis Kounellis, ibid., 102-03.

[21] See “Project for Artforum” in Jannis Kounellis: Echoes in the Darkness, Writings and Interviews 1966 – 2002 (Great Britain, Trolley Books, 2002), 57-59.

[22] Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).

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24th May 2013

On Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst

An Essay by John David Ebert

The Artist as Metaphysician

The thing about Damien Hirst is that he is not, strictly speaking, an artist; he is, rather, a metaphysician. The vast majority of his work, as is well known, is delegated to others for their realization, since Hirst cannot paint, draw, sculpt, carve, shape or make anything. He simply visualizes the ideas, draws a quick sketch, and then gets busy on the phone. He is not, in short, a craftsman, for the artist as skilled craftsman is one who is concerned with the efficient and material causes of a work of art. Hirst deals only with the formal and final causes that visualize the works as singularities brought into being through the processes of Difference and Genesis.

It was the seventeenth century British philosopher Francis Bacon who separated out the formal and final causes of a thing as belonging to metaphysics, whereas the efficient and material causes were the domain exclusively of science, that is to say, of physics proper. The natural scientist was therefore a physician, properly speaking; the philosopher, in Bacon’s view, a metaphysician. Hence, Hirst is the artist as a metaphysician, one, that is, who deals only with the Platonic Ideas of the work and delegates the realization of those Ideas into specific material substrates by skilled (and largely anonymous) craftsmen. This enables him to work with a vast profusion of media, and to convey the illusion that he is master of them all. This is one of the reasons why he says that at the beginning of his career, he was torn between being an artist and being a curator of exhibitions. Hirst is a master of arrangements; hence, his early facility with collages.[1]

Artists, of course, have always delegated tasks to assistants and pupils; this is nothing new. What is new with Hirst is the scale and degree of the delegation, since it is there from Day One. Warhol, in his factory, may have had other artists do projects for him, but Warhol began, and always remained, as a craftsman: as one who could, if sufficiently motivated, do things. This was never the case with Hirst.

And so, Hirst represents something new in art, the ontological crisis of the status of the artist as an artist. There has been a slippage between the artist and the material construction of his works that, with Hirst, is almost complete, a near total divorce of mind from matter. Of course, this has been the case with the architect since about the year 1800 or so when, with the rise of new kinds of architectural materials like iron and glass and steel-framed skeletons, the engineer came into being as a separate phenomenon from the architect, and upon whose skills the architect has had to rely ever since in order to realize the formal causes of his visions in specific material substrates. For the past two centuries, the architect, too, has been almost exclusively a metaphysician. And as a metaphysician, the architect can get into the deep ontology of a civilization in ways that are difficult for the average artist: indeed, the architect can define the entire ontology for a civilization, in just the way that ours has been defined by the architecture of Nowhere: shopping malls, airports, office parks and other forms of corporate architecture.

And so, Hirst as a metaphysician has likewise been privileged to a deep access to the ontology of our civilization. He is not an example of McLuhan’s dictum that the artist is a creator of a counter-environment to the prevailing technological environment of a civilization, in the way, say, that the Romantic poet was retrieving ancient agrarian myths to create a counter-world to the Industrial environment. Hirst as an artist-metaphysician, rather, is performing a sort of X-ray analysis for us of the prevailing global world order of our civilization, revealing, as it were, the transcendental (a priori) skeleton of that civilization.

Hirst, in other words, is the Immanuel Kant of globalization.

Deworlded Entities

Let’s begin with something as banal and apparently trivial as the spot paintings, the first few examples of which in 1986 and 1988 were painted by Hirst himself.[2] These are simply white canvases upon which Hirst or his many assistants paint rows and rows of multi-colored spots arranged into a grid. But in commenting on these paintings, Hirst has this to say: “Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They’re all connected.”[3]

When Hirst says “every time I do a painting, a square is cut out,” he might just as well be talking about every work of art he ever does, especially the vitrines, which are, after all, just squares and rectangles cut out of this grid and in which other entities or elements are substituted for the spots. The spots are actually semiotic place-holders, then, for which one can substitute absolutely any entity: rows of cigarette butts, say, or serialized fish all swimming in the same direction. It doesn’t matter so much what the particular entity is that is plugged into Hirst’s semiotic grid of place-holders, for what matters is the fact that anything plugged into this grid immediately takes on the ontological status of Seriality and Repetition. It is the repetition of the entity, as with Warhol’s Coke bottles or Campbell’s Soup cans, that is the point.

In plugging various entities into this grid, which acts as a kind of phase space underlying all of Hirst’s work as its transcendental schema, the entities themselves, in being reiterated to infinity, have changed their status. They are no longer singularities that belong to specific lifeworld contexts. In Heideggerian terms, they have become ontologically deworlded entities. They are pure Figures minus all Grounds.

In today’s global hypercapitalist world order, we are all ontologically deworlded entities, pure Figures minus Grounds, pure entities minus the conditions of our originating Worlds. And once the conditions of an originating World are subtracted from an entity, one can do certain things to that entity that could not have been done when the entity was embedded in the context of its lifeworld.

One can, for instance, serialize it. But one can also treat it as an entity unto itself, capable of infinite modulation. The entity can also be cloned. It can be hybridized, modified, cut open, rearranged, altered, spliced, diced and otherwise interfered with. Lacking dependency for its existence upon the conditions of its originating World – the breathability of an atmosphere, say, or the nutrients from the earth taken into the body to heal it from illness – the entity now becomes dependent instead upon management by large and impersonal scientific institutions, such as hospitals, genetics labs, pharmaceutical industries and the like, which have to provide the circumstances of its life conditions for it. Artificial conditions are provided for the entity, which has now become merely a prosthesis of a scientific establishment that regards it as capable of Infinite Operability and Modification.

And so, it is not just Hirst’s formaldehyde animals that have become the new objects of the Gaze of this global deworlding operation, but each and every one of us. We are all deworlded entities in the eyes of Big Science, capable of endless modification: the human body, in such a world order, is composed of a series of modules, each of which, and any of which, can be moved around, subtracted, replaced, substituted and altered, for whatever reason any of these institutions sees fit, whether they are hospitals, pharmaceutical laboratories or genetic engineering firms.

Hirst’s art, then, is an art for capturing the age of the ontologically deworlded entity.

Medicine Cabinets

Hirst’s first two medicine cabinets, entitled Sinner and Enemy,[4] were actually built by himself in 1988. The first one, Sinner (shown above) is the prototype – and in many ways, serves as the overture to all the rest of his work – and features his grandmother’s medicines, arranged into rows on six shelves. Instead of serialized spots, we now have rows of medicine bottles plugged into the grid and contained in a rectangular box that will later evolve into his rectangular vitrines. In the left corner (uniquely amongst all his medicine cabinets) Hirst has placed a small anatomical model such as might be assembled by a child, as a signifier for the object of all these medicines: the human body, or rather, the pathologized human body. Each medicine in each bottle corresponds to one or another organ of the diseased human body which, in the global world order, has components which can be removed and switched out, just like the little plastic pieces of the anatomical body. Everything is modular in this transcendental schema: no piece has its own authenticity or singularity, and each can be simply traded out for another, or else its mechanized equivalent (such as a mechanical heart or a metal-jointed hip).

Hirst’s medicine cabinets are like one of those distant stars studied by astrophysicists who infer the existence of the invisible planets orbiting them by studying the gravitational wobbles of the stars: the cabinets, in other words, function as a sign that something is missing, for the very existence of these drugs implies an invisible order of sick human beings orbiting about them. Not only does their existence imply the corresponding reality of a society of the sick and the infirm as a norm, but they also imply that the illnesses managed by the producers of these drugs are seen in a certain way: that is to say, in a one to one correspondence between each symptom and each drug. The symptoms, like the diseased organs that can be swapped out, can be traded out for each other: each drug will eliminate each symptom, but will cause many more symptoms to appear that guarantee the existence of the other drugs to manage them. The symptoms themselves are infinitely operable and can be switched out like the components of an anatomical model.

But the drugs arranged in the rows on the shelves can also be regarded as elements in a set, as in the case of mathematical set theory, in which brackets are drawn around a finite (or perhaps infinite) number of elements that are then set off in order to be mathematized. This analogy becomes even more clear in the vitrines, to which Hirst, in 1990, then turned. (The grid of spots is still in operation; in the vitrines, the grid has simply become three-dimensionalized, and its elements reduced).

In his first great vitrine, A Thousand Years,[5] (shown above) Hirst isolates just a few elements from the infinity of possible elements that form the continuum of the real world: in the first, smaller scale version, A Hundred Years,[6] this consisted simply of two glass cubes connected together (like mathematical brackets) isolating the set of elements composed of an Insectocutor, flies, a smaller white box which hatched the larvae, and some dishes of sugar cubes. The flies are the entity taken from the physical world that now stand in for the spots (in an interview Hirst called them simply “black dots”),[7] and it is the function of their life cycle, of their birth in the white cube and their death by the Insectocutor, that is now isolated in the brackets formed by the vitrine. The smaller virtine of A Hundred Years even becomes a subset of the larger vitrine A Thousand Years, since the latter contains all the elements of the former, with the addition of one more element: the severed cow’s head which the flies can feed upon or lay their eggs in.

The vitrine thus functions as a mathematical bracket, or a slice of the spot grid that has been three-dimensionalized, inside which entities, any entities, can be removed from the conditions of their lifeworld and studied, isolated and analyzed. It is like the artistic equivalent of a scientific experiment. The larger implication, of course, is that we are all flies bracketed and studied, isolated into the grid of the scientific world order that has subtracted us from the conditions of our locality in a specific place and a specific time.

Formaldehyde Bestiary

In 1991, Hirst had a kind of creative explosion, in which vitrines now began routinely swimming forth from his imagination. The most famous of these is, of course, the formaldehyde shark, which Hirst entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.[8] (shown above) Whereas with the flies, he had extracted an entity from its lifeworld in order to study the conditions of its life cycle while alive, now Hirst proceeds to extract an animal, a very dangerous one, from the conditions of its lifeworld in order to freeze and arrest it into a state of permanent suspension, as though one had simply pressed the “pause” button on one of these creatures just as it was about to take a bite out of someone. By capturing the animal and suspending its processes of decomposition with formaldehyde, Hirst is essentially demonstrating the ability of science to arrest the laws of nature as they would normally operate. It is, indeed, the physical impossibility of the death of the animal, since the formaldehyde suspends its natural decomposition process.

In ancient Egypt, the organs of the body were removed and placed into canopic jars with various kinds of salts and other chemicals to dry them out so that they would cease to decay. In mummifying the body, the Egyptians were trying to arrest the natural processes of decomposition for religious reasons, namely to extract the body from “nature” and to displace it into a “supernatural” order of eternality. By contrast, the animal that is captured and preserved in formaldehyde by science is chemically mummified, but not for religious reasons; it is, rather, to demonstrate the power of science over nature, of its ability to seize and capture all natural flows of any, and every, kind. Suspending the animal’s decay rate with chemicals is a way of placing it inside the phase space of the scientific anti-world, which removes all entities from the circumstances of their local environments, in which they are embedded in, and governed by, temporal metabolisms. It is the triumph of science over the organism, over Nature, and over environmental circumstances of all kinds. The animal, in other words, is an animal no longer: it is, rather, a thing, transcendental object x, whose properties can be studied and mapped objectively. It is not the animal painted by the Paleolithic artist on the walls of his cave, which is captured into a magical order of timeless Platonic essences, but the animal as scientific object, flayed, splayed and transformed into a timeless function in a bracketed set of equations. And whereas the Paleolithic Animal Form could, through proper use of the rites of regeneration, become the template from which endless physical copies could be made, so too, the scientifically deworlded animal can become the template from which, through the processes of cloning and genetic engineering, an endless procession of serialized forms can be made.

And indeed, Hirst proceeds to serialize his shark by miniaturizing it, scaling it down and multiplying it into a grid of small fish for his two vitrines entitled Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding[9] (shown above). These two vitrines, one oriented to the right and one to the left, are composed of six rows of fish all aligned like spots on one of his grids (or bottles in the medicine cabinets). They, too, are deworlded entities, cloned, replicated and plugged into a bivalent ontology of pure Platonic Left and pure Platonic Right. Like Kant’s problem of the identity of indiscernibles, in which the left hand cannot be mapped onto the right hand no matter which way you turn them, entities in a bivalent ontology must be oriented along symmetrical axes that govern, in a priori fashion, their manifestation in time and space.

Human and Animal

In the 1994 vitrines, Still,[10] Naked[11] and Doubt,[12] which are composed of glass encased cabinets with glittering arrays of stainless steel surgical instruments, all laid out into rows, we are treated to a vision of the fate of the body in the scientific world order. These vitrines, of course, are an outgrowth of the medicine cabinets, but whereas those imagine the body as composed out of an infinite assemblage of chemical compounds (capable of endless deconstruction and reconstruction, like Lego blocks) the surgical vitrines present the body as a mechanical assemblage of moveable parts: if an organ is diseased, you simply cut open the body and remove it. If a limb is wrong, you hack it off. If a tumor is present, you cut it out. The body is a machine composed of parts which can be switched out at will. It is capable of infinite analysis and breakdown by the scientific gaze.

Likewise, with the apotheosis of his formaldehyde vitrines, Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.[13] Here, a cow and a bull have been sliced into a series of pieces, and each vitrine contains one slice, interfiled with the others. The animal here, too, is modular: it can be carved up and analyzed; pulled apart and catalogued, inventoried and assembled. In other words, in the global scientific world order, there is no ontological difference whatsoever between the human and the animal. Forget Heidegger’s insistence on the “abyss of difference” between them: in this world order, the human being is just as much composed of a modular array of parts, like moving units in a Japanese house, as an animal, and both are susceptible of modifying, packaging and assembling like parts in a factory. The human being, in this flattening world order which crushes all hierarchies down onto a single plane of horizontal homogeneity, is just a displaced animal. He, too, can be captured like the formaldehyde shark, and placed into aeternal phase space where he is transformed from an ontological singularity into a mathematical function.

Hence, with the other apotheosis of his formaldehyde animals, the series of 12 vitrines, each of which contains a sheep’s skull floating in formaldehyde and entitled XII Disciples,[14] (one of which is shown above) each one given the name of one of the Apostles, it follows that, since there is no difference ontologically speaking in this global world order between humans and animals, the Apostles may just as well be represented as animals. This “scientific” civilization, in other words, has reversed thousands of years of careful religious evolution, in which the human was gradually extracted ontologically from his animal substrate. With the Sphinx of Giza, a human head sits on an animal body, but with the Greek centaur, half the body is a horse and the other half a human. By the time of the Apostles of Christ’s days, the animal-headed Egyptian gods were regarded as a religious atavism, a holdover from the days of the pagans, all of which imagery was anathematized in the fourth century AD by Theodosius the Great.

But with the collapse of this difference in the evolution of science from its “humanist” Renaissance backdrop, the Apostles in the art of Damien Hirst can just as well be pictured as sheep, since there is no longer any difference between them ontologically speaking. Their only differences nowadays are biological and anatomical, but not metaphysical. Both are simply kinds of entities that can be plugged into the grid, where all entities are the same and equally capable of infinite iterability.

Hirst Phase II

Long about 1997-98, Hirst’s career as an artist began to falter. He bought a restaurant, which he called Pharmacy (named after his 1992 installation), and tried to run it for a time, while his art began to flicker and slowly, to fade out. By then he was very nearly the most famous artist alive, and interviews conducted with Gordon Burn at this time show him wrestling with the problems of fame and what to do with himself as an artist. He wasn’t sure.[15]

So this period neatly divides Hirst’s career (like one of his vitrines) in half: there is the Hirst of Phase I and the Hirst of Phase II, and they are actually very different artists. They continue, however, with the same project of excavating the ontological structures of globalization, but they do so from different angles and begin to bring in new media (such as painting).

The key work that marks the rebirth of Hirst’s art, and inaugurates Hirst Phase II, is a 1999 vitrine entitled Adam and Eve (Banished from the Garden).[16] (shown above) This is actually composed of two connected vitrines, inside each of which a corpse covered by a sheet (one male and one female, apparently) rests upon a mortuary gurney. They are arranged end to end, rather than side by side.

By splicing together the visual signifiers of these two corpses with the linguistic signifiers “Adam” and “Eve,” Hirst in a certain sense revisits the Life and Death thematic of his very first vitrine A Thousand Years. Adam and Eve are the first two seeds, as it were, of the human species; they are the seeds which, when planted, result in the germination of the swarms of human beings that follow them throughout the millennia. They are like the fly larvae planted in the cow’s head: in Zoroastrian mythology, the first man, Gayomart is killed at the same time as the first bull, the Cosmic Ox. From the bull’s semen come all the world’s animals; from its spinal marrow, all the plants, while from the bones of the dead man come all the world’s metals and minerals. According to the same mythology, at the end of Time, Gayomart will be the first man resurrected, and the fact that, in Hirst’s vitrine, we are also confronted by a pair of corpses obliquely suggests the resurrection of the dead at the end of history during the Last Judgment, in which Adam and Eve would be the first to crawl forth from their graves (like flies from the cow’s skull) to begin the process of Apocalypse.

Thus, by cross-splicing religious signifiers now into his vitrines, Hirst’s work begins to open up a new hyperdimensional phase space around his earlier flattened ontology of a grid of semiotic place holders. That ontology had been the ontology of the scientific world order in which entities could be removed from the conditions of their lifeworld contexts and simply treated as Derridean units of iterability. This was a flat, horizontal and two-dimensional world view, and it was a world view, moreover, directed entirely and exclusively at the physical body. The subtle, or metaphysical body, and the dimensions of the spirit world, were left out of account.

But now, Hirst, in his second phase as an artist, and increasingly more and more often, begins to genetically modify his works by cross-splicing them with religious signifiers that begin to open a new “vertical” dimension of meaning that “crosses” in an almost perpendicular manner the horizontal plane of his grid of deworlded entities.

The religious signifiers, at first, begin to crowd in only through the titles, as in the case of Adam and Eve (Banished from the Garden), or two other important works from this period, Hymn (1999)[17] and Trinity: Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000).[18] Hymn (shown above) is simply a twenty foot tall bronze monumentalization of the anatomical model from his first medicine cabinet, Sinner, although both its title (which suggests a religious hymnbook) and its scale (which suggests something like Michelangelo’s David) have religious connotations. And Trinity, (shown below) which is a series of three vitrines jammed full of anatomical models of various bodily organs and parts, provides us with the missing half of the medicine cabinets, for Hirst is here displaying all the organs that each of the pills in the medicine bottles on the shelves of those vitrines were designed to treat as remedies. So, in a way, Hirst rebegins his art by returning on the spiral in a classic Hegelian Aufhebung, back to his first works and recoding them: scaling them up, multiplying them, miniaturizing them, providing their missing halves, etc. The process, however, is not just one of repeating himself, as many of his critics has accused him; rather, the second half of his work consists in recoding the earlier works by genetically modifying them with religious signifiers in an effort to create entirely new signifieds.

Hymn, for example, becomes the template for a number of religiously themed works of this period. His Virgin Mother (shown below) of 2005 is essentially Degas’s sculpture of a fourteen year old dancer combined with the anatomical cut away of Hymn and cross-spliced with the motif of the Virgin who is about to give birth to a god. The same thing applies to his 2008 sculpture, Anatomy of an Angel (shown at the top of this article),[19] half of whose body is an anatomical cut away, and to his recent 2010 and 2011 sculptures, Myth and Legend, which are visions of a unicorn and a Pegasus horse with half of their bodies anatomically cut away.

But soon, the religious linguistic signifiers begin to give way to religious images which infect the actual works themselves which, by 2005, have been almost completely overcoded by religious themes. The Inescapable Truth, (shown below) for example, is a vitrine containing a dove hovering above the top of a human skull, in an oblique reference to the baptism of Christ. In The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Hirst gives us a bull’s heart inside a vitrine that has been lacerated with pins and needles like a displaced image of Saint Sebastian, while In the Name of the Father gives us a sheep in place of the crucified Christ. In 2007, he even creates a series of statues of Saint Bartholomew complete with flayed skin and scissors and knife.

In her essay on Hirst’s work, Marina Warner dismisses these images as “obvious” and not worth a second glance, but they are worth a second thought, especially by comparison with the works he was doing in the first half of his career.[20] In cross-splicing religious signifiers (in both linguistic and imagistic form) into his works, Hirst is not only creating a second, vertical order (of religion) to cross (over) the horizontal plane of his earlier flattened ontology of science, but the religious signifiers themselves, it is important to note, have been deworlded just like the entities of the first vitrines and spot paintings. The religious signifiers, that is to say, like the formaldehyde animals, have been ontologically removed from the circumstances of their lifeworlds, although not the lifeworlds in the physical environmental sense, but their religious lifeworlds. Hirst’s religious signifiers have been extracted from the Catholic tradition that he grew up in and placed into the ontological phase space of his grid, just like the animals, the flies, the spots and all the other entities of the earlier vitrines. Once inside this phase space, where they have been cut free from the Abgrund of their lifeworld tradition, they can now be genetically cross-spliced with the other signifiers. The signifier of the Virgin Mother, let’s say, can now be hybridized with an anatomical model; or the signifiers of the arrows that killed Saint Sebastian can be spliced together with a bull’s heart; or the dove of the Annunciation removed from the life conditions of its traditional painting where it is shown descending toward Christ’s head, and placed on the inside of a scientific vitrine that mathematically brackets it and cuts it off from all traditional systems of meaning whatsoever.

These signifiers, in other words, decontextualized from the grounds of all their traditional religious worlds, no longer mean what they did in those traditions. They have become floating signifiers in the capitalist phase space, where they point to the meta-processes of the conditions that make that very phase space possible in the first place: splicing, hybridizing, modifying and creating the equivalent of religious GMOs. These genetically modified images have altogether different meanings on the inside of this global phase space than what they had before. These meanings, furthermore, are not specified or predetermined in advance, but left up to the art viewer to decide for himself. Hirst, in these religious GMOs, provides the viewer with the signifiers, but it is the viewer who must now assemble them to create new signifieds.

For instance, the descent of the dove toward the skull in the vitrine called The Inescapable Truth no longer signifies the descent of the Holy Spirit into Christ at the moment of his baptism by John. Christ, for one thing, was never signified by a mere skull (that signifier usually referred to Adam). So what does the dove’s descent refer to?

Who knows? That’s up to the art viewer to decide for himself. The artist doesn’t know, either, for in the age of contemporary art, it is now up to the viewer to create his own Truth Event.

The needles piercing the bull’s heart in The Sacred Heart of Jesus (shown above) no longer refer to Saint Sebastian, who didn’t have a bull’s heart. What, then, do they refer to? The signified is missing, and has to be constructed by the viewer.

So, Hirst’s religious works, I think, do deserve a second, more thoughtful glance, since they are essentially syncopated images left incomplete in order to invite the viewer to fill in the missing dimensions of meaning. (In this sense, they are equivalent to Lacan’s variable sessions, in which he would terminate the session when the patient was mid-sentence, or when a silence had fallen, in order to invite the “fill in” on the part of the patient’s unconscious.)

In the global capitalist phase space, all the signifiers have come uprooted from the earth and are floating in the air, along with all the other entities, in strange new configurations that might, or might not, amount to anything meaningful. They cannot simply be dismissed, however, and taking an attitude of superiority toward such works of art will only succeed in underestimating their imagination-stimulating properties.

In the Middle Ages (and even in the Renaissance), we were force fed meaning. The meanings of the images were prefabricated and they left no room for the viewer’s imagination to interact with them. An image of the Baptism of Christ or the Last Supper was simply that: the Baptism of Christ and the Last Supper, whose meanings had already been fixed and worked out in the various Christian councils over the centuries.

Even in Modernist Art, the meanings of the images – though considerably more fluid than in Medieval or Renaissance art – were still largely fixed by the processes of what Modernist Art, taken as a whole, was doing: creating a multiperspectival phase space, for instance, or updating Jungian mythic archetypes.

This is no longer the case in contemporary art, in which the meanings are as fresh as whatever the viewer brings to the art works. There is no fixed meaning associated with them: only hermeneutical constructions that incarnate each specific work as a Truth Event (a descent of the dove, perhaps?) that is recreated for each viewer in that viewer’s intimate interaction with the work.

Such is the fate of meaning in the age of post-historic civilization.


Notes

[1] See the collages in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (United Kingdom: Booth-Clibborn, 1997), 69-73.

[2] Ann Gallagher, Damien Hirst (London, UK: Tate Publishing, 2012), 30-31; 40-41.

[3] Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, 248-49.

[4] Damien Hirst, The Complete Medicine Cabinets (New York: Other Criteria, L&M Arts, 2010), 61-67.

[5] Gallagher, Damien Hirst, 44-45.

[6] Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, 28.

[7] Gallagher, Damien Hirst, 95.

[8] Ibid., 72-75.

[9] Ibid., 46-47.

[10] Ibid., 128.

[11] Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, 97.

[12] Gallagher, Damien Hirst, 130.

[13] Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, 310-13.

[14] Ibid., 318-25.

[15] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (NY: Universe Publishing, 2002).

[16] Gallagher, Damien Hirst, fig. 16, 28.

[17] Ibid., 152-53.

[18] Ibid., 138-39.

[19] Ibid., 150-51.

[20] Marina Warner, “Once a Catholic…” London Review of Books, July 5, 2012. Found online at: www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n13/marina-warner/once-a-catholic

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24th April 2013

On Zdzislaw Beksinski

On a Painting by Zdzislaw Beksinski

by John David Ebert

Master Signifier

In 1975, the great Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski created a painting that I wish to consider here as a sort of master signifier, or key to understanding his work as a whole. The painting is untitled, as in fact, were all of Beksinski’s paintings since, like the untitled chapters of Finnegans Wake, Beksinski did not wish to confer on his images any specific meanings. “Meaning is meaningless to me,” he is famous for saying, but then, Beksinski’s profession was not that of a semiotician. His paintings most certainly do have meaning in them, if one knows where, and how, to look at them.

The painting in question shows an image of a sort of man-creature crawling along the ground on all fours while apparently fleeing from the ruins of a burning city behind him. The man-thing’s head is completely wrapped in white gauze bandages, which are marked with a crimson stain precisely where his facial features would be, so it does not appear that he could see very well. And this is perhaps why he is using his right hand as a sort of blind man’s cane for palpating the ground in front of him, using fingertips as though reading Braille. The man-thing’s body is dark and possibly furry: in any event, his legs and arms resemble those of a quadruped. In the background, flames light up the windows of the tall buildings like thousands of burning candles. Rubble and wreckage are strewn everywhere. The colors are infernal, as though we were peering down into a crack in the earth which had opened up to reveal streams of molten lava flowing with orange, red and yellow incandescence through the earth’s interior.

Thus, the image.

Now, the question: namely, whence comes this mysterious figure crawling its way along the ground in search of who knows what? The figure itself vaguely resembles a question mark turned over onto its side, with the bandaged head serving as punctuation point.

The bandaged head recalls Grunewald’s 1504 depiction of The Mocking of Christ, in which Christ is shown being humiliated on his way to the cross, the top half of his head covered by a white bandage. Indeed, Francis Bacon alluded to this painting in his 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. And, as it turns out, the image of the crucifix is one of the master signifiers of Beksinski’s art, reiterated over and over again from about 1968 all the way down to the late 1990s.

In one of his early crucifixion studies, furthermore, dating from 1969 (shown above), Beksinski painted an image of the crucified Christ with a crumbling, dessicated body that is falling apart. The body has separated away from one of the arms, which remains dangling on its own from the cross, while the rotting carcass is angled so that the head is turned away from the viewer. But when one takes a closer look at the legs of this figure, one notices that they are not those of a human being: they are far too long for that, and indeed are articulated in such a way as to resemble those of a bird’s. In fact, these legs are sufficiently similar to the quadruped legs of the crawling figure in the 1975 composition that we could even say, without sounding too rash, that the crawling figure is Beksinski’s half-human, half-animal Christ-being who has slid down from his perch at the center of the Western tradition, and gone scurrying away in search of clues to its fate.

The 1969 crucifixion is a kind of Lacanian point de capiton, that is to say, a stitch point in his theory of the psyche that marks a stable intersection of a signifier and its signified. A sufficient number of such stitch points, where signifiers are anchored firmly to their signifieds, is necessary, in Lacanian theory, for mental health and confers stability on the patient’s world view. But when one of these stitch points comes undone, the signifiers come unattached from their signifieds and begin to slide around in the psyche, where they become floating signifiers looking for new signifieds to attach to them. Beksinski’s 1969 crucifixion, then, is equivalent to a Lacanian point de capiton that has come undone, for the image of the crucifix was, of course, the great master signifier of Western civilization that anchored meaning and gave form and purpose to the entire society. It was a signifier that was attached to a transcendental signified, namely, the Idea of the Descent of God to earth.

But in the posthistoric civilization which we now inhabit, all such transcendental signifieds have been deconstructed and dismantled. They no longer function as they once did, as master signifiers to organize an entire civilization. The metaphysical age, as Beksinski shows in his 1975 painting, has gone up in flames all around us.

Posthistoric Civilization

Our present civilization is not so much postmodern, as it is posthistoric. As Vilem Flusser has pointed out, history proper began with texts (in the sense of textiles as weaves that held and stitched the signifiers of Western civilization together with their signifieds). Writing, especially in its alphabetic phase, originated as a criticism of the images of the mythical consciousness structure, for both Plato and the Hebrew prophets have in common a shared antipathy to images. Writing is a criticism of such images, a criticism that flattens out the two-dimensional surfaces of mythic icons into the one dimensional lines of written texts. But with the advent of the techno-images of the Vision Machine that began with photography in the nineteenth century, and which has accelerated since then into the dizzying unfolding of ever more and more elaborate Vision Machines, it is the two-dimensional image surfaces of the mass media that have come to displace writing and hence, along with it, historical consciousness. Writing creates history. To live in a civilization in which writing becomes secondary, or even tertiary, to images, is to live in a posthistoric civilization. Thus Vilem Flusser.

In a posthistoric civilization, the texts that once acted as weaves stitching together signifiers with their signifieds have all come undone, and so now we are faced with a proliferation of free floating signifiers looking for new signifieds. The signifiers have come sliding free, just as in Lacanian theory when a Borromean knot that weds the three orders of the imaginary, the symbolic and the real together comes unraveled, the result is semiotic chaos, and hence, a psychosis. We are now living in the midst of a civilizational psychosis.

Hence, the creature in Beksinski’s 1975 painting, who palpates the ground with his right hand — the hand that once upon a time wielded the pen — as though searching amongst the midden heap that surrounds him for some new signified to which this formerly transcendent crucified man could reattach himself. He is Flusser’s posthistoric man, desubjectivized and destratified; unplugged, that is, from all previous sign regimes. Deleuze and Guattari’s signifying and post-signifying sign regimes (as discussed in A Thousand Plateaus), which together constructed Western civilization, have ceased to function for posthistoric man, who has been desubjectivized and stripped clean of his signifying identity. In fact, he has been destratified from the sign regimes into which he had once been firmly locked in place on the plane of organization, and has now come disattached, a floating signifier drifting out onto the (horizontal) plane of consistency, where all previous forms of signification liquefy into an asignifying plane. (Hence, when Beksinski says, “meaning has no meaning for me,” it is precisely because his central figures have come unplugged from all previous sign regimes, especially the signifying sign regime that locked them into systems of transcendent meaning. The signifying (paranoid) and post-signifying (or subjectifying) sign regimes which Deleuze and Guattari discuss in A Thousand Plateaus are equivalent, more or less, to Jean Gebser’s mental consciousness structure and to Heidegger’s metaphysical age. All such ages, together with their accompanying sign regimes, have now collapsed).

The ruins of the burning buildings in the background of Beksinski’s painting have not only folded into them Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden (the planetary war in which all systems of meaning and their grand metanarratives were melted down into the posthistoric slag heap), but also the backgrounds of the burning buildings in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, especially in works like The Temptations of Saint Anthony (above), the Hell panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights and Tondal’s Vision. These works were painted in the middle of the sixteenth century, and they too, signify a time of collapse and disintegration, for they are stress reaction images of the meltdown of the Medieval macrosphere and its shift into what was then a new age, the age, namely. of Heidegger’s World Picture and Spengler’s Infinite Space into which the Medieval iconotypes, with their naive and quaint view of man as God’s gardener on earth, dissolved into perspectival space.

File:Geertgen tot Sint Jans 002.jpg

At that time, as Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, the media were shifting from orality and illuminated manuscripts to the new kind of literacy configured by the printing press, a kind of literacy in which visual space was favored, and the sense of sight stepped up at the expense of the other senses, especially those of hearing and touch. The collapse of the Medieval sensorium, with its highly tactile and involving nature, was registered by painters like Bosch and Bruegel, and literary artists like Shakespeare and Cervantes, as a catastrophe. Hence, Bruegel’s Triumph of Death as the triumph of visual, three-dimensional space inside which objects exist, as opposed to the Medieval order where they glow with their own self-luminous energies like the newborn infant Christ in Geertgen Sin Jans’s 1490 Birth of Jesus (shown above). But ever since the nineteenth century, and coinciding both with the rise of Paul Virilio’s Vision Machine and the twilight of Flusser’s historic mentality, the sense of sight has been gradually stepped down to allow the senses of touch and hearing to configure acoustic space, which is spherical rather than box-like, while melting down visual space, as reflected in the shift from three dimensional painting to aperspectival Modern Art.

File:Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. 025.jpg

Beksinski’s mysterious creature reminds us of this shift, too, for he cannot see: that is to say, his sense of sight has been stepped down as the world of visuality dissolves into ruins behind him, while he uses the sense of touch to palpate his way along like the blind men in Bruegel’s painting The Blind Leading the Blind. We must feel our way, nowadays, through the ruins of the midden heap, using other senses than that of the merely visual, to orientate ourselves in posthistoric society. The sense of touch is discontinuous rather than linear, while acoustic space is spherical and, as it were, all-at-once. Surrounding the planet with electromagnetic pulse signals melts down visual space and configures an all-round space of simultaneity, enabling everyone to be everywhere, and anywhere, at all times via iconic and electronic avatars. Point of view, which presupposes location on a Cartesian grid with precise coordinates in space and time, simply vanishes under such conditions.

The crawling figure who feels his way through the ruins of the midden heap is in quest of new signs that will make sense out of his essentially a-signifying existence. He is Christ, the master signifier of the metaphysical age, recoded as the desubjectivized entity each one of us has now become in posthistoric society, who is on his own and must sift through the ruins of the imploded metaphysical age that now lies behind us, where systems of meaning had been preestablished and fixed for us in advance, like the discourse of Lacan’s Big Other. Now, with the liquefaction of all semiotic systems and sign regimes, each of us is washed ashore on his own world island where he must act as a bricoleur to retrieve from the midden heap whatever signifiers will make sense out of the path he must create for himself as he lays it out. Private, as opposed to public, semiotics, in other words.

Indeed, in Beksinski’s art as a whole, the theme of the midden heap is a recurring motif. In painting after painting, his image of the crucifix presides over a ruined heap of broken forms, as in the 1983 painting (shown above) which displays the cross with a pile of bones in place of Christ upon it, standing atop a heap of wreckage: discarded bottles, broken chairs, ruined furniture, empty washbasins, etc. A ladder extends from the midden heap to the cross, as though to suggest the construction of a subject out of whatever signs lay ready to hand, like the Lacanian Subject that is constructed out of scraps of signifiers from the discourse of the Other. This once mighty master signifier that shaped and built the metaphysical age has formative power no more. It has come unglued from all sign regimes and now remains only as the ghost of a vanished world, presiding over ruins.

The midden heap, though, is precisely what each civilization inherits from the previous one. The Renaissance, for instance, was built out of a negentropic reversal and retrieval of scraps from the midden heap of antiquity, in which discarded archetypes and signifiers, such as the statue of the Laocoon group, were recovered almost daily and used to build a new humanist civilization. As McLuhan, in his book From Cliche to Archetype has remarked, the artist retrieves discarded archetypes that become new cliches to function as depth probes for new environments. Each  new environment that is configured by a new technology or a new medium scraps the one before it onto the midden heap of all previous technological and cultural environments. Milton, for instance, in his Paradise Lost, scraps all the pagan divinities by tossing them into the midden heap of his Hell, from whence they are retrieved by the Romantic poets and painters of the nineteenth century who use them to construct a counter environment of pagan divinities against the industrialized world of factories and machines. Arnold Bocklin or Franz von Stuck as against Courbet or Manet. Modernist Art, likewise, is built out of the scrap heap of all the signifieds from the world’s pre-signifying sign regimes: African art, Oceanic Art, Native American art, etc.

And so, the cross today can preside only over the midden heap of the collapsed metaphysical age, where all its archetypes, signifiers, signifieds, metanarratives and machinic assemblages have been tossed into the rubble to be found by some future civilization which will retrieve from it the various bits and pieces which they will use, during some far distant Volkerwanderung, to construct a new society.

That is precisely what the palpating right hand of Beksinski’s creature is looking for: signifieds from the midden heap of the collapsed metaphysical age that will recode it and plug it into a new assemblage of enunciation. But that future assemblage, whatever it will be, remains too far off for us to see what its lineaments might look like. Each individual today must become his own semiotic machine who constructs his own personal assemblages.

Civilization as an Anthropogenic container, to borrow a term from Peter Sloterdijk, is a thing of the past, for now each individual is stranded upon his or her own semiotic world island, like the various colonies of isolated people sitting around camp fires in one of Beksinski’s 1975 paintings (shown below) each gathered atop a kind of geological precipice that is separate from all the others.

Subhuman Christ

So, in Beksinski’s untitled 1975 painting, we have seen how his sub-human Christ figure has come down from its formerly exalted place on the cross, where it once formed a point de capiton to hold meaning in place, to crawl upon the surface of the earth in quest of new significance. Thus, the Christ image that was once held up toward the sky to signify the descent of God to earth has shifted to a more chthonic, earth bound image, of a sub-human and bestial Christ figure that has demorphosized and destratified to the status of a becoming-animal. Note that in Deleuze and Guattari’s pre-signifying regime of signs (or, if you prefer, Gebser’s magical consciousness structure), the destratification of the human into a becoming-animal was regarded as a positive thing, indicating the ability of shamans to slip in and out of communion with pre-human animal spirits and totemic beings. But Beksinski’s image of the Last Man at the End of History is more troubling: its devolved and dismantled humaneity, if we may put it that way, indicates the ontological status of the human being after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The human being, that is to say, has become a posthuman, bestial creature who has lost his once exalted status. In the age of humanism, Christ on the cross was the great symbol of a drawing upward of the gaze of the human spirit towards a higher ideal, that namely, of the Man-God who had descended to earth to lead the human entity to the heavens. In the posthistoric age configured in Beksinski’s painting, however, the sub-human Christ-creature crawling pathetically on the ground like some wild beast is a devolution and descent toward something much more pathetic and disreputable: the type of human capable of loading millions of people into gas chambers and thus reifying them as desubjectivized things to be transformed into ash heaps.

But the production of technologies for reducing humans to ash heaps on a mass scale was one of the major industries of World War II: for the degree to which technology could be pushed toward recreating eschatology on earth was one of its main projects. The nomenclature of World War II technologies all have a faintly apocalyptic ring to them: Vergeltungswaffe, the Final Solution, the atom bomb, etc. These are eschatological technologies produced by human beings attempting to appropriate the powers of the gods, but not to nobler purpose, rather for more and more efficient ways of wiping out larger and larger populations. And these are the kinds of technologies that segue us effortlessly into Foucault’s and Agamben’s Biopolitical Age, in which the concentration camp becomes what the prison, the hospital, the clinic, the school and the factory had been for the previous Institutional Age.

For the first time, during World War II it became possible to actualize the Last Judgment using technological systems of mass extermination. And hence, the human being, viewed through the lens of such technologies, shrinks precipitously to the level of an insect, precisely in the manner, and from the vantage point in the heavens, from which a God might view him. The ontological status of such a creature is no longer human at all, but rather sub-human.

And so, Beksinski’s demorphosized Christ-creature becomes for those of us living at the threshold of the 21st century an image of the Last Man at the End of History, the posthuman being of Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, whose humanistic tradition of dictating to Being has led to apocalypse and mass atrocity. Humanism, as Heidegger pointed out in that essay, has failed us, leading only to the brink of an abyss from which we might not be able to turn back. Using technology to dictate to Being, instead of listening to its shepherd-like call, has led to the meltdown of our cities and of our properly human status, once celebrated so nobly by Pico della Mirandola in his essay Oration on the Dignity of Man.

In that essay, written during the height of the Renaissance, Pico placed the human on an ontological scale between the angels up above and the beasts down below. But in Beksinski’s painting, the posthistoric human now exists somewhere between the insects and the beasts. His is a being that crawls upon the ground and who studies it for signs. Its axial orientation is horizontal, like that of an animal, and it can only look down (insofar, that is, as it can see anything at all) at the earth, never up. Few characteristics, other than the palpating right hand, remain to differentiate such an entity from the beasts. The hand now reads the ground, as it once read the stars. The image icon appropriate to such an age (and the very icon that appears on the cross of a 1978 Beksinski crucifixion [below] where it has displaced the signifier of the human Christ with that of a spider-like insect) is rather that of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa lying in his bed on his back unable to right himself while squirming his many insectile legs. Kafka’s image, take note,  is essentially that of a horizontal crucifixion in which the signifier of Christ has slid away from its signified anchor as “man-God” and been replaced by the signifier of a giant man-bug.

Thus, Beksinski’s image of the crawling, devolved man-creature has traded the heaven archetype out for the earth archetype, for in almost exact proportion to the degree to which, with ever mightier and more astonishing technologies man has raised himself to the status of the ancient gods, technologizing their powers, he has lowered himself ontologically to the status of a posthuman creature of a Biopolitical Age in which, as Agamben has pointed out, the concentration camp is the emblematic institution.

Indeed, Beksinski’s creature has been, like Agamben’s homo sacer, desubjectivized: that is to say, unplugged from the signifying and post-signifying sign regimes (in which, as D&G pointed out, he was configured as a passional subject) and stripped clean of all individuality. (In the post-signifying regime initiated by the Hebrews, who did away with human sacrifice at the precise time in history in which they punctuated, in Lacan’s sense, the creation of the human being as a Subject, Moses becomes the first Subject; later, with Descartes, who inherits and combines the post-signifying with the paranoid signifiying regime, the point of subjectification becomes the cogito).

Hence, the significance of the bandages that defacialize and effectively wipe the slate of the face clean, for where the bandages of Grunewald’s Christ serve to highlight his humiliation and underscore his humanity as a suffering subject, the completely covered face of Beksinski’s Christ-creature has been defacialized, its human visage effaced and removed so that no trace of its subjectivity remains. It is a thing, in other words, not a three-dimensional human individual. And the defacialization,  which Beksinski, from his earliest work in photography had been concerned with all along, serves to reduce the visage to a posthuman prosthesis and blank slate awaiting the inscription upon its surface of new codes and new signifiers. The defacialized man, with which twentieth century art has been so preoccupied, is essentially inhuman, a visage created not by the process of what Peter Sloterdijk calls “protraction,” in which the human visage has been, through interfacial relationships between humans over millenia, extracted from its animal origins as a snout with fangs, but rather “detraction,” in which the portrait becomes a detrait and the face dismantled. This is not the face of the metaphysical age in which, as in Lacan’s mirror stage, the image staring back at the infant essentially humanized it and created the fiction of its ego in response, but rather, the face staring into computer monitors, security cameras and other electronic apparatuses that rob and disinvest the facial visage, conferring on it an apathetic and indifferent countenance. The posthuman face, in other words, created not by looking and interacting with other human beings, but by interacting with dehumanizing machines.

The posthistoric human is a-signifying: numbers, as at Auschwitz, are more appropriate designations for him than names derived from humanist and mythical narratives. This is a type of being who has been stripped of all protections of the juridical macrosphere that once guaranteed and gave him his rights and reduced to the status of a homo sacer who can be killed with impunity precisely because he has no rights.

But these posthistoric humans of Agamben’s Biopolitical Age are precisely what Beksinski is foreseeing here: his creature crawling along the ground, from which all protective civilizational macrospheres have been stripped away, is precisely Agamben’s homo sacer who presently inhabits all the refugee camps of the world in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Serbia, etc.

Beksinski, as all great artists do, clearly foresaw what lay ahead for us, the posthistoric human being, now polarized into Fukuyama’s Last Man at the End of History and Hobbes’s First Man of prehistory. The Last Man is the human being as ubiquitous consumer, capable of participating in global free trade agreeements and the endless circulation and proliferation of free floating signifiers and signs; and Hobbes’s First Man, whose life is nasty, brutish and short, that is to say, the life of the Third World human being who is slowly proliferating around the planet and may even, as Hurricane Katrina showed us, soon irrupt into the civilizational fabric of our world cities everywhere.

As Heiner Muhlmann pointed out, the Roman gladiatorial arenas were essentially zones of exception, of maximal stress, that is, that were demarcated on the inside of zones of cooperation (i.e. cities), so that the brute struggle of zoological existence walled onto the outside of cities as eternal zones of stress and conflict could be carefully caged and staged on the inside of city life as zoological exhibits. But nowadays, such zones of exception, of stress and conflict, are constituted not by gladiatorial arenas but by refugee camps that are slowly emerging within zones of cooperation and juridical order everywhere, as posthuman fabrications of purely zoological human beings who have no rights because they have no cities.

Beksinski’s art, therefore, is an art that captures the revised ontological status of the posthumanist being of the Biopolitical Age. It is a being for whom all systems of signification have disintegrated and who sits atop the midden heap of the metaphysical age, picking through the discarded signs and wondering what they must once have been used for.


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13th December 2012

On Peter Sloterdijk’s The Art of Philosophy

The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice

by Peter Sloterdijk

Reviewed by John David Ebert

The new Sloterdijk translation, put out by Columbia University Press and originally published in German in 2010, is something of an appendix to his monumental recent book You Must Change Your Life! (due out in English next year). It is, as usual with Sloterdijk, a brilliant piece of philosophical / historical analysis: in this case, a cultural history of the so-called contemplative thinker.

The book’s English translation is somewhat misleading, however, sounding like a banal pop psychology title, when in fact the book is nothing of the kind. Its original title in German was Suspended Animation in Thought, which distills much more exactly the book’s primary theme, a cultural analysis of the archetype of the thinker since Socrates and Plato as the one who is “dead to the world.”

Sloterdijk begins by borrowing some of the terminology of Husserl, especially the term that Husserl adapted from the tradition of Greek skepsis, epoche, or the bracketing of the so-called  “natural attitude.” The thinker is precisely one who is made fit for epoche, or bracketing — that is, setting aside the natural attitude of lived experience — or taking a position on specific affairs in the world in favor of creating a purely contemplative and theoretical vision of the world. This is, of course, precisely the attitude that Heidegger inverted by insisting that the theoretical attitude is not primary but rather our careful and concerned dealings with existence in a real and concrete way.

But Sloterdijk sees the origins of the thinker who is dead to the world, i.e. who is capable of setting Life aside so that he may think about it — the thinker is always one who is mentally Elsewhere — with the disintegration of the polis in fourth century Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato. In 387 BC Plato set aside his own heterotopia for thinkers in the creation of his Academy as a space located on the fringes of the city specifically set aside as a utopic colony for thinkers who created themselves by shunning society, and indeed, Life itself, in order to build a career out of thinking about it. Plato’s eventual contempt for politics was a side effect of growing up during the period of the wars between Athens and Sparta which had the effect of ravaging those city states in a fratricidal conflict. From henceforth, the thinker was the man of pure contemplation who did not deign to bother with worldly affairs, especially of the political kind, and who exchanged membership in a polis with the larger membership in a purely theoretical polisphere, the brotherhood of those inclined to theoretical contemplation.

Indeed, Sloterdijk has hit on one of the basic structural features of the great philosophers of the Axial Age that extends from about the year 1000 BC throughout the subsequent millenium: with the disintegration of cities into incessant warfare all over the globe, a new species of thinker emerged during this period, a thinker who was concerned not with following the religions or philosophical orthodoxies of the city state, but rather with thought systems of self-salvation in which the individual was given the tools to save himself by entering the Eternal City of the True World. Hence, Lao Tzu’s contempt for the city in China runs in parallel with the Buddha’s in India, who also turns his back on the city; while in Greece, Pythagoras and Plato establish separate colonies, or zoological exospheres, for contemplative spirits. (Indeed, this generation of thinkers was foreshadowed by the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first character in literature to leave the city behind in search of a larger communion with the cosmos, on the one hand, and with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who left Thebes behind to build the world’s first utopian city, on the other).

The thinker, as we have come to know him throughout the metaphysical age that unfolded from Plato to Husserl, was shaped largely on this basic archetype as the man who, though an apparent loser in the arenas of life, was yet a victor in the realm of the mind. Socrates was the first to set the pattern of turning an apparent loss into a victory precisely by affirming his defeat and claiming on his deathbed that he owed a cock to Asclepius, implying that the god of healing had finally, through death, healed him of the sickness of life.

But it was in the beginnings of the disintegration of the metaphysical age during the nineteenth century, according to Sloterdijk, that this archetype of the thinker dead to the world, locked into a kind of state of suspended animation, was assassinated. (Sloterdijk illuminates the metaphysical age here as anchored in, and made possible by, the invention of the thinker as we know him during the Axial Age of circa 1000 BC, thus clearly showing [as Braudel said of Europe vis a vis Asia] that the metaphysical age was merely a chronotopic peninsula of the Axial Age).

The assassination of the thinker as subject of suspended animation was accomplished by blows from ten assassins, according to Sloterdjik, beginning with Karl Marx, who was the first to redefine the thinker as someone involved in the political and revolutionary project of moving history forward by helping to dissolve capitalism. The thinker is not at all dead to the world, but one who is always, in some way, involved in the ongoing revolution. Nietzsche, next in line, in announcing the death of the metaphysical True World, showed that there was no longer a True World for the thinker to escape to, and that he was much better off anchored in the world inside his own skin. Heidegger, of course, in overturning Husserl’s thinker fit for epoche, helped to dissolve and dismantle this transcendental subject. Other assassins, including feminism, science and even cognitive science, followed.

Thus, the three thousand year old archetype of the thinker as one who is dead to the world, is now itself dead. The thinker is today seen as one who is both active and involved in the world through various political and sociological projects that have debased and undermined the building of transcendent castles in the air.

Sloterdijk doesn’t tell us much about the consequences of this death of the subject of suspended animation, but the implication from the text is that it accounts for the decline of philosophy in the twentieth century and its lack of ability to remain relevant to the civilizational project as a whole. In losing his theoretical distance, the thinker is now always biased in some way, and so suspect nowadays of ulterior motivations. He can no longer be trusted as a bearer of pure truths from a glittering realm of Platonic Essences brought down by him and given birth in the physical world.

Sloterdijk’s book is scarcely one hundred pages in length, but he packs more insight into it than most thinkers who write scores of such books. It is beautifully written, lucid, and an absolute gem. It is also a good place to start if you have never read any of Sloterdijk’s other magnificent texts.

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12th September 2012

On the Art of Joseph Beuys

The Damaged Cosmology of Joseph Beuys

By John David Ebert

The Crisis of Meaning

Whenever an Age collapses — whether by natural catastrophe, barbarian invasion or gigantic war makes no difference — the collapse itself generates a crisis of meaning.  Things, that is to say, in a broken age, no longer mean what they used to mean. A piano, for instance, in the Classical Age, was an instrument, especially in the hands of a Beethoven, for sounding out the cosmic architecture of the Creator’s infinite spaces. In the art of a post-metaphysical age, however, it becomes a suspect instrument, an object of rupture and communication breakdown, a sign that objects are withdrawing from each other into their own innermost recesses as each fractures away from the other into its own private world of silence. Hence, a felt-wrapped piano in a post-metaphysical age is an object that has been reterritorialized to perform a different function within a different age.

Inside a functioning macrosphere things have meaning that is ascribed to them by transcendental signifieds that give them their place in the cosmic order and prevent them from sliding along the Chain of Being, coming loose and bumping into objects that may, or may not, have any relevance to them. The problem of an age when a functioning macrosphere no longer exists — as, for instance, has been the case since World War II — is that the meaning of things is now uncertain; indeed, a creeping suspicion begins to dawn that they might not have any meaning anymore at all. Another larger, more ominous suspicion, too, begins to arise, namely, that the artist might no longer even matter, since it was with the bricks of his very Ideas that the entire edifice of the metaphysical macrosphere had been built in the first place. What need, then, for his Ideas, in an age when all macrospheres have broken down, and society seems to function on its own as a machine outside of all Worlds whatsoever? Is he, indeed, necessary at all anymore to the functioning of such a society?

Hence, the crisis of contemporary art, a crisis which no artist epitomizes more than Joseph Beuys. In a post-metaphysical age, the job of the artist is an entirely different one than it had been before, when his Ideas were used to construct the actual fabric of the functioning cosmology. Now, his job is not to build the cosmology of a macrosphere, but rather to reterritorialize once familiar objects, to recode them so that they perform strange and new functions that rupture all traditional categories once ascribed to them. In doing so, a new cosmology does not — indeed, cannot — any longer come into being. Instead, what happens is that the objects reveal strange new abysses of meaning hitherto never before suspected, abysses that bring into question the very idea of meaning itself.

What does it mean for this or that object to signify? It means that it has been given a function to perform by an artist, one that the population of a given society may take and accept as a whole (in a functional Age) or may not. In the latter case, we arrive at the situation today, in which artists can no longer construct macrospheres for the society as a whole, but instead create private microspheres for their ever smaller, and more remote, cults of the elite, those who, as in the various Mystery cults that flourished in the ruins of the Hellenistic Age, must be initiated into its private mysteries.

Nowadays, the artist is closer in function to the priest of a private mystery cult into which one must be initiated, but art no longer functions in a way that builds up an entire World for an entire population. It is a broken world now, and each artist has become the priest of his own mysteries.

How to Reterritorialize an Object

But then, what does it mean, precisely, to reterritorialize something?

Deleuze and Guattari have, in their various books together, introduced us to this idea, especially in A Thousand Plateaus, in which they say that the hand, for instance, is a deterritorialized paw; the human face, likewise, a deterritorialized snout; but more specifically, lips, teeth and tongue have been deterritorialized from their original function as organs of nourishment and then reterritorialized to their Anthropogenic function of building language as the House of Being. A reterritorialized organ is an organ that has been recoded to perform a function that is altogther different from what it was originally designed to do. The human being, Deleuze and Guattari point out, is the animal of reterritorialization par excellence.

But with art we are dealing with signifiers and their relationship to various signifieds. If the signifieds — especially the transcendental ones like God or the soul or Heaven — have broken down, then the signifiers have to be recoded to refer to different, and perhaps even, brand new signifieds invented by the artist himself. Conversely, however, it may be the case that the artist wants to retain the old signifieds, but has to invent entirely new signifiers as fresh clothing with which to reincarnate them, as it were. This is precisely the case with Beuys, who differs from most other contemporary artists in this respect (Warhol, by contrast, invents entirely new signifiers and new signifieds to go along with them).

Take Beuys’ Virgin of 1952 (shown above), one of his early works, as an example: here the ancient signified of the goddess as an archetype has been retained, not scrapped. However, the outer vestments of her signifiers have been completely redrawn, for in Beuys’ scultpture, she appears in schematic form (as in the ancient Neolithic) in which her legs have been spread apart to reveal her world-generating vagina. But the form, strangely, has been wrapped in gauze bandages and it has been given to us on a dirty, used pillow. The bandages signify that the situation with this ancient archetype has now taken on the status of a medical emergency: something urgent is involved. And the dirty pillow indicates that the grand formality of a previous age has passed, and now all that is left with which to present Her is this pillow salvaged from the ruins of some catastrophe or other. In other words, She has been reterritorialized to suit the vestments of a post-catastrophic society, a society that is locked into a post-traumatic stress mode in which it is still recovering from the prior disaster that has wrecked its macrosphere.

This, then, is the premise from which Beuys begins his work: all the traditional signifieds are recovering from war wounds and exist now in damaged form. Beuys, then, is working with a damaged cosmology, a cosmology in which the form-generating aesthetic fields are no longer functioning properly and so can only produce broken, frayed, warped, torn or otherwise damaged aesthetic objects. All of Beuys’ work, without exception, is painted and sculpted, inscribed, that is, on damaged surfaces: water-stained canvases; used sheets of notebook paper; broken, non-functional machinery, etc. All this implies that the form producing field of Western art has itself been damaged by the catastrophe. It is no longer capable of producing clean, symmetrical and beautiful forms. It can only produced mangled forms, just as though genetic defects had interfered with the morphic field of an organism, enabling it to actualize itself in space-time only as a deformed organism.

The entirety of Beuys’ work, then, taken as a whole, tells us that the morphic field of Western art can only produce damaged forms. The Catastrophe, in other words, was so profound, that it actually affected the West all the way down into its ontological recesses where art forms themselves are shaped and produced.

Cosmology A

The first phase of Beuys’ work, which extends from about 1948 to 1960, has its own quite distinct structural features which demarcate it like a geological epoch from the epoch which follows it beginning in 1960 (and which itself lasts until somewhere in the mid 70s). Long about 1960, his cosmology will undergo a complete restructuring into another, second, and very different cosmology from the one with which he started out.

That first cosmology is one in which Beuys hangs on to the basic signifieds of Modernism, drawing his inspiration, as is well-known, from shamanism and the cosmology of Rudolf Steiner. In the various plant and animal drawings from 1947-48, and the goddess sculptures of 1949, Beuys operates out of an essentially Modernist and mythically-inspired worldview: plants, animals, goddesses, and a fascination with the Steinerian etheric and astral forces which animate such phenomena. A masterpiece such as the 1949 “Sheep’s Skeleton” (shown below) or the bronze sculpture “Animal Woman” (below that) with its clear Paleolithic inspiration, are emblematic of this epoch.

But the primary Image of this epoch, its Ur-symbol, as it were, is that of the human body, specifically in its mode as that of Cosmic Man, or Woman since, in his case, it is the ancient signified of the Goddess that he is most concerned with at this time. A great deal of the art of this period is devoted to tracking the transformations of Goethe’s Ewige Weibliche: she is plugged into various cosmic circuits (Three Women of 1948); shuttled back and forth between the human and animal strata (Frau of 1957, where she is in the mode of the Queen Bee, or the various interactions with the Swan from this period); and inserted into diverse social personae, as well (such as Aktrice of 1956 [shown below] or Judith of 1957). She is the central figure, the surface of inscription, as it were, for all his musings.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Actress’ 1956

The human body, too, taken as a whole, is involved with all of this, especially in its spiritualized Steinerian form as etheric and astral bodies open to cosmic influences, such as the drawing from 1957, Girl astronaut, in which the top of her skull is left uncompleted in order to signify her receptivity to cosmic influences. Even the various bee sculptures and paintings from this time are but analogues of the human body, for Beuys directly analogized the bees a la Steiner to human blood cells building the honeycomb-like vortices of the bones just the way bees build their hives. The human body, during this period, is the constant preoccupation of Beuys and everything in the cosmos is, in some way, always referred back to it. The human figure is rarely absent from his art, either sculpted or painted, of this early period.

Thus, woman, man (the brilliant sculpture Deadman of 1955, of clay lumps wrapped in bandages, is the counterpart to his 1952 Virgin) and their various becomings-animal as they interact with goats, cows, swans and bees, form the basic cosmos of Beuys Cosmology A. It is not too dissimilar, in this respect, from the early Modernist cosmology of Jackson Pollock, which was also concerned with the Goddess, the Shaman and their becomings-animal before he liquefied them into his abstract canvases.

But: long about 1958 or so, this cosmology begins to disintegrate. It was, significantly enough, in that very year that Beuys constructed his Auschwitz installation, the harbinger of which was the 1957 painting Death and the Maiden (shown below) which depicts the shadows of two skeletons in an intimate embrace upon the back of a manila envelope stamped ominously with the address of “Auschwitz.”

This painting foreshadows the transformation of his goddess muse into a figure of disgust and repulsion, for in the paintings of 1958, she turns up almost exclusively in the mode of what Marija Gimbutas once called “the stiff nude death goddess” of the Neolithic. She is already there in the 1957 painting Madchen, in which the bony body of his muse now has band-aids in place of legs; and in various other paintings of 1957, such as Untitled in which she appears in the form of a repulsive spidery creature; or the bony figure of Salamander II (1958); or the reworking of his Virgin sculpture as a line drawing in the 1958 Frauenakt in which the vaginal orifice reappears as a creepy, well-shaped hole. The fire-spewing females of Hexen Feuer of 1959 are of the essence of this transformation.

In the Auschwitz installation, however, we notice that the human body is conspicuous precisely by its absence. In these vitrines, (shown below), there are blocks of fat on warming plates; decayed rolls of sausage; a mummified rat on a bed of straw; chunks of rusting metal; disused string; and other such objects. Nowhere do we find the human body, but only the traces which it has left behind in the wake of its disappearance into the ovens and gas chambers. For the Holocaust was tantamount to an eschatology of the human body, a vast and sinister apocalypse of the human being as incarnational vessel which could be disarranged, pulled apart and disarticulated like the processing of pigs and cattle in slaughterhouses. The Holocaust is, in essence, the anathema of the human form, an assault on the very ontological conditions of its presence in the world and a vision of the systematic liquidation of its structure and form.

But it is precisely the human body which, after 1958, begins to disappear from the art of Joseph Beuys. Instead, the paintings of 1959 are almost abstract expressionist in their deliberate disintegration of Form. In place of the human body, or indeed, of anything definitively formal at all, we see the brown rectangle of Battery (1959) [shown below]; the brown and gray smears of Hubert Troost (1959); the earth-like strata of Was Hirschhorn gerschah (1959); or the notebook page covered with black paint and a small square of red smears in the left corner of Gulo Borealis (1959). The paintings of this year are the closest that Beuys ever came to Abstract Expressionism, but, as with the multiforms of Rothko, they signify a similar kind of meltdown and dissolution of the artist’s previous cosmology.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Battery’ 1959

When the cosmology begins to recrystallize in 1960, what emerges in such sculptural works as Bathtub, Horns or Eisbar is a world that is void of human presence and which, like the haunting piles of clothing and suitcases and teeth left behind by the victims of the gas chambers, signify only the traces of a once present human being who is now conspicuous precisely by his absence.

Cosmology B

Art, after Auschwitz, must now become post-humanist. Just as Heidegger, in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism” argued that it was precisely the humanistic tradition as such that led to the atrocities of the twentieth century, and that a post-humanist vision would be one that would be attentive to Being, so too, with Beuys’ middle period — the grand apogee of his art — the human being has vanished into an impersonal cosmos in which the primary protagonists (as hinted at by the above Battery) are now physico-chemical forces rather than human beings themselves.

The key work that signifies the shift into Beuys’ Cosmology B is the 1960 sculpture entitled simply Bathtub. This work is the gateway, as it were, by means of which the new cosmology is born (indeed, Beuys says it was the bathtub in which he was born from his mother). In this work, the human being has been replaced by a trace of his once functioning world, a world in which this displaced object once made a certain kind of sense but has now been reterritorialized by Beuys in a post-catastrophic world to make another kind of sense altogether. For Beuys, the bathtub is an object of renewal and rebirth, no longer merely a place for washing the now non-existent human physical body. It is a displaced object, like an organ without a body, torn from the anatomy of the world inside which it had once functioned.

In the same year, his sculpture Horns (shown above) represents the fate of his earlier animal protagonists, for they, too, have now vanished (at least temporarily) and left behind only these traces of their presence, a pair of horns connected to tubes through which hare’s blood has been sent circulating. Beuys has said that it is a vision of the mystery of the circulation of the blood through the animal that produces its horns on an annual basis, but it is precisely the animal itself as a Figure that is now missing. It is a syncopated image: the viewer has to fill in the rest of the animal on his own, just as with Bathtub, he had had to supply the entirety of the missing human world inside which the tub had once functioned.

Beuys’ famous Fat Chair of 1964 is even more to the point, for in this case we have a signifier that is left behind by the vanished human being int he form of yet another trace, in this case of a chair, but a chair that is no longer occupied by a human being. In its former use, in another world (the metaphysical age of Van Gogh, for instance), it would have provided the human being with a place to sit, but now the object has been reterritorialized to perform an altogether different function, namely, to illustrate a metaphysical process of morphogenesis, for the slab of fat on the chair represents the principle of the Indeterminate which has now been given Form by placing it into the chair’s right angle, thus conferring on unshaped matter a metabolic Form. Thus, the chair has been reterritorialized to perform a metaphysical and distinctly non-human process that now becomes of the essence of Beuysian cosmology.

The Pack, too, (shown above), from 1969, illustrates the features of this new cosmology, for neither human, nor even animal is anywhere to be found, but instead only their traces and stand-ins: for the image of all the sleds being disgorged from the back of the VW van is itself a deliberate reversal of the traditional image of the single sled being pulled by a pack of dogs. Now the dogs are gone and a multitude of sleds stands in for them, but each sled contains an emergency survival kit — a hunk of fat, a flashlight and a roll of felt — designed for the survival of the now ontologically “homeless” human being. The human being who, today, finds himself in exile from Being, as Heidegger put it, finds himself washed ashore like Crusoe with no macrosphere to protect him, and so Beuys provides such a nomadic human with an emergency kit for survival in a post-catastrophic Age.

When the human form does turn up at all in this new cosmology, it has been pulled apart and destructured: its various astral, etheric and physical sheaths have been pulled away from each other, and Beuys illustrates one or the other of them, but never the human being himself. For example, in Grauballe Man of 1962, Beuys has substituted for the human form a cosmic process illustrating him: the work is composed of a series of concentric circular copper tubes, for just as copper conducts electricity, so the human ether body, a la Steiner, conducts spiritual forces. The actual human is nowhere to be found here in this mock grave, but only the signifier of his etheric body, an impersonal and cosmic force. The human being as human being is no longer involved, for he has been swallowed up into a larger cosmic picture.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Wooden Virgin’ 1958

This process was already clearly foreshadowed in a drawing entitled Nude from 1957, in which the body of a naked human female has blurred and blended into a landscape, becoming identical with it. Thus, in sculptural works like the 1961 Virgin (the painted version of which is shown above) and the Mountain King (shown below) of the same year, the sculpted forms become visually identical with entire landscapes: the body of the Virgin is made from a chopped up log of teak wood, while the sculpted Mountain

King represents the actual physical landscape itself (like HCE in Finnegans Wake), with the central hollow tube where his spinal column would have beeen now a metaphor for the human processes of mining and the digging of tunnels into the earth.

The human body has now, in Cosmology B, become absorbed into the cosmos, as in Eastern myth and mysticism. Cosmic forces, that is, as in Cosmology A, no longer illustrate the operations of the human body, but rather the other way round: the human body is now but a localized illustration of vast cosmic forces that have absorbed it.

This is an evolutionary cosmology, though, as it was inspired by and based upon some of Steiner’s core ideas, for Beuys’ new fascination in Cosmology B with substances such as fat and felt, copper and iron, wax and wood, are meant to be illustrative of spiritual processes of human transformation and potential. However, the problem is the same as with that of Eastern mysticism: the cosmic forces have now won out, and they have swallowed up the human being who has now become enmeshed within them as a helpless prisoner of processes that are vast and ancient, and impossible for him to harness or control.

Thus, in the great cosmology of Beuys’ middle period, the human being disappears into the processual matrix, having become its prisoner, and it is doubtful whether Beuys can ever rescue him from his precipitous fall into these abstract networks of self-organizing forces that have gobbled him up.

An Opposed Tendency

But now another tendency, or rather structural feature, of this second cosmology begins to become evident from as early as 1962, when he produced a series of sculptures called Silent Gramophones (shown below).

These are images of LP records that are sometimes coated in red paint and stuck up vertically or horizontally with, in place of a needle, an animal bone. These are examples of ruptured objects, in which the normal function of the object has not only been reterritorialized but also ruptured so that it is completely inoperative. These gramophones are silent precisely because they can no longer give forth any kind of sound at all. They are therefore illustrations of an opposed cosmological tendency in this second epoch of Beuys’ work, namely, an entropic tendency in which objects recede, break down or cease to function.

This middle period is also, of course, the great period of Beuys’ famous Actions, which first began in 1963 when he associated with the so-called Fluxus Group. These actions continued all through the 1960s and on into the mid 70s, and despite their bewildering diversity and puzzling content, they all have precisely one theme in common: communication breakdown. They are like four-dimensional realizations of his ruptured objects (indeed, Beuys’ art in its broad strokes had moved from two dimensions, with his early paintings, to three dimensions with his sculptures and to the fourth dimension of Time with his Actions).

In December of 1964, for instance, Beuys performed an Action entitled “The Chief,” in which he wrapped himself in a felt blanket and lay on the floor for nine hours croaking primeval animal sounds into a microphone that he kept inside the felt blanket with him. At either end of him lay a dead hare, and a speaker on the wall amplified his animal croakings. By way of explanation, Beuys tells us that he was trying to rupture his own species’ range of semantics in order to open up forms of communication with other animal species. But this, then, is precisely the theme of another Action, this one performed in November of 1965, entitled “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” [shown below] in which Beuys sat in a chair in a booth behind glass with a dead hare on his lap and whispered explanations to it of various drawings that he had hung on the walls around him. His head was covered with honey and gold leaf like a mask, and one foot was anchored with an iron sole, while the other was insulated with a felt sole. Beneath his chair lay a primitive “radio,” namely, an animal bone with electrical wire wrapped around it. The anxiety here is precisely that of opening up portals between the human and animal worlds, and between human thinking and earlier, more archaic forms of instinctual, intuitive thought.

In the February, 1967 Action entitled “Eurasian Staff Action,” Beuys performed the ritual of erecting four felt-wrapped metal pillars inside of a large room. Then he took the “Eurasian staff,” a long copper pole bent back on itself in a U-shape and used it to touch the ceiling as a means of conducting spiritual energy into the room. The square shape made by the four pillars was left open in order to receive these spiritual energies. Beuys himself was, once again, anchored by an iron sole and insulated by a felt sole.

In the famous “Coyote” Action of 1974 — which more or less wraps up this epoch of Actions — he spent a few days with a live coyote in a room in a building in New York, trying to open up portals of connection in shamanic fashion with the animal, a now forgotten mode of conversing with the animals, obscured and paved over, like Heidegger’s Being, by modern scientific – industrial rational thinking.

Thus, the theme of the Actions is always communication breakdown of one sort of another: either between the human and the animal worlds; or between and amongst Objects themselves. The famous felt-wrapped piano, for instance, (shown below) was a relic of a 1966 Action entitled “Infiltration-Homogen for grand piano, the great contemporary composer is the thalidomide child.” Felt, in the Beuysian cosmology, always signifies insulation, warmth and isolation. The piano that is completely wrapped in felt can, of course, no longer emit sound and so its traditional function is thereby ruptured. It has withdrawn away from the universe of Other Things into a private space of broken lines of communication along with all the other ruptured objects that Beuys produced in this period as examples of the Entropic counter theme of his evolutionary cosmology: the various silent gramophones, the tuning fork on a felt pad; the half-crosses made of felt (the missing half being the ruptured completion of a traditional cross), etc. etc.

The Actions feed back into his cosmology, where they reinforce the production of these felt-suffocated objects and illustrate the opposed cosmic force which gives to the cosmology of his great period all its tension: that namely between Evolution and Entropy, precisely as Teilhard de Chardin described it in his Phenomenon of Man. In Beuysian cosmology, copper, with its electricity-conducting potential, and fat, with its form-receptive potential, are the opposed double articulation of his Evolutionary theme (for whereas, according to Beuys, electricity is associated with the cold, mineralogical principle, fat is associated with the warm and organic pole); while felt, with its suffocating but insulating properties tends to be associated with his various Entropic objects, such as the felt suit that he  made which has no buttons or zippers and so cannot function properly.

In Cosmology B, then, objects either illustrate vast spiritual energies that are at work in processes of formation and transformation, such as the various copper batteries that he built in his “Fond” series; or they are objects that have broken off from all cosmologies whatsoever into their own private spaces, such as the Silent Gramophones and Felt Pianos, which illustrate a decaying universe of ruptured and fragmented lines of communication in which objects can no longer organize and gather to form a World anymore precisely because they lack the force of the necessary cosmic reciprocity (as in Kant) that would make them intercommunicate and therefore render the cosmology functional.

It is as though Beuys’ cosmology were working at cross-purposes with itself, and it is this basic conflict at the core of Cosmology B which gives his work such a fragmented, broken and semiotically bewildering array of meanings to the puzzled viewer who stands before it. It is, in other words, a cosmology struggling to be born, but which, since it cannot eject the necessary entropy to enable it to function as a dissipative structure, cannot manage to come into being and cohere into a stable world Image.

Beuys’ cosmology, then, is a damaged cosmology, one that never really emerges into full and clear view.

The Victory of the Mineralogical

In Beuysian cosmology, then, as we have said, copper is normally linked with the evolutionary forces, whereas felt tends to be associated with entropic ones. (Snowfall, a 1965 sculpture [shown below], perfectly illustrates this latter tendency, with its image of three bare tree branches suffocated by layers of felt as stand ins for snow).

But in the various “batteries” that Beuys began to produce in the latter years of this middle cosmology, such as Fond II of 1965 or Site of 1967, the two substances, and hence also, the two cosmic forces, tend to merge and interpenetrate. In Site, for instance, a flat sheet of copper is laid on the floor to represent the “site” of some unspecified future event, while it is surrounded by scraps of felt. But by the time of the great “batteries” of spiritual energy with Fond III of 1979 [shown below], the felt and the copper have been mutually interpenetrated, for this large sculpture is made of interleaved rectangles of felt and copper sheets in nine large stacks. It is a battery of spiritual energy for social transformation, a battery which grows larger with Fond IV and eventually in 1985 reaches monumental proportions with Fond VII.

In Beuys’ third and final period, which extends from about 1975 to 1985, entropic objects and tendencies are, for the most part, noticeably absent (with a few exceptions, of course, such as Plight of 1985). The Actions, during this period, have also largely ceased and given way instead to ever larger and more comprehensive installations and environments which tend to surround and engulf the viewer with a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk totality. But the absence of the entropic tendency in the art cause the brilliance of the art to lose much of its tension and as a result, Beuys’ Late Period is a typical example of the Late Period of any great artist, for it is mostly concerned with monumentalizing previous works and repeating his earlier themes.

The huge Tallow, for instance [shown above], of 1977, represents Beuys’ monumentalization of his earlier brilliant “Fat corners” from the 1960s [shown below]. The point of creating triangle-shaped corners of fat in rooms was a means of neutralizing the right-angularity of Western masculinist scientific thinking with the soft and organic contours of fat. Indeed, Beuys often began his Actions by creating such fat corners as a means of reterritorializing rectangular rooms, and rounding off their corners, as it were, to introduce more warming, organic and feminine-spiritual geometries. But Tallow is a huge sculpture made of fat that was used to fill in a mold taken from a pedestrian underpass in the city of Munster. It was, in other words, a means of extracting a tooth, as Caroline Tisdall puts it, to show its decay, in this case, the sterility and ennui of the kinds of concrete gigantism that have blighted our cities. But this is not a new point in Beuys, merely a monumental version of his fat corners.

The 1985 environment Plight [shown below] is one of the few entropic works from this later period: it is a series of rooms in which the walls have been soundproofed with huge rolls of felt while a piano stands by itself in the middle of the room.

The piano’s capacity to produce sound has therefore been ruptured by the fact that the felt will absorb it all, and so what we have is merely a monumentalized version of Beuys’ earlier brilliant felt-wrapped pianos. It makes precisely the same point as the previous scultpures.

Honey Pump at the Workplace from 1977, in which a machine connected to tubes filled with honey as stand-in for blood travel up and down a stairwell of the Museum Fridericianum, re-makes the same point as his 1960 Horns, only it substitutes its syncopated imagery for the human body instead of animal anatomy.

The gigantification of art is a tendency that is universally characteristic of decadaent periods, such as for example in the case of New Kingdom Egypt when, under Rameses II, its art underwent a scaling up to truly inhuman proportions with his various tombs. The enormous ziggurats from the time of Ur-Nammu in Mesopotamia are, of course, the largest ever built and come in at the end of that civilization as it is reaching its twilight. And the same goes for the gigantic Forums and gladiatorial arenas of the Roman Empire.

Colossification is a sign that something in the art is beginning to disappear, and so the art must insist upon itself with ever larger and more grandiose gestures in order to have any effect upon the viewer at all. The point is the same, but now it is made on a scale that is designed to intimidate the viewer by capturing him in the shadow cast by all-encompassing and totalitarian forms.

Thus, when the entropic theme largely, though not entirely, disappeared from the art of Beuys’ third period, something else went out of the art, too, for it lost much of its brilliance and inventiveness and descendend into a repetition of a fixed stock of forms. And the stark grandeur of his vast and impersonal cosmology, in which there was no longer any room for the human being as such, tended to cancel out much of its point, namely, that these forces are available to the human being to use them for personal and social transformation.

But, of course, they cannot be used when they are inaccessible and impersonal, too gigantic and cosmic to reach, and so no longer access the central warmth aspect, as Beuys would put it, at the heart of the human being. Thus, the very cold principle of the stiffening and rigidification of form that had been symbolized in many of Beuys’ earlier works — such as the brilliant bronze landscape sculpture Val of 1961 — and which he had opposed to his “warming” principles of fat and felt and wax (themselves privileged over the cold pole of his cosmic dichotomy) eventually won the field in his art, which, in the end, petrified and stiffened up, while the warmth principle faded out altogether.

One of his final environments, The End of the Twentieth Century of 1985 [below], says it all: a museum room filled with a pile of overturned and featureless basalt blocks.

The complete triumph of the stiffened mineralogical principle.

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