ZEN AND BAROQUE: THE IMMATERIAL, THE VERTIGINOUS
THE LIFE OF THE HERMIT & LA DOLCE VITA
THE DANCING MOVEMENTS OF THE BAROQUE
THE TOMB OF CARDINAL BARBERINI & THE MAUSOLEUM OF JULIUS II
HERE, IN THE ABSOLUTE PRESENT
LAZARUS, VENI FORAS
TO MAKE DISAPPEARANCE DISAPPEAR IN THE IMAGE OF DISAPPEARANCE
REVELATION: THE INVISIBLE BECOME APPEARANCE
BODONI BLOWN-GLASS LETTERS THE SIZE OF MY FACE
WHEN THERE IS NOTHING AND NOTHING CANNOT BE DENIED
THE HAPPY GAME OF CONCEALMENT CONCEALING ITSELF
LIKE THE CORPSE, THE FIXED IMAGE IS WITHOUT REPOSE
THE ERROR OF OUR DEATH
SINCE I AM NOT THE ONE I SHOW
THE EMPTY & UNFILLABLE CENTRE OF THE DESIRE TO SEE
ZEN AND BAROQUE: THE IMMATERIAL, THE VERTIGINOUS
Is there something like a specificity of Western art, a singularity that would define it in an absolute sense in relation to Japanese art? I believe1 that if such a specificity means anything, then it is most effectively expressed in Baroque art. Japan is an island, as we all know, but we do not realise the extent to which that insular culture is impermeable to the very idea of the Baroque, to the permanent vital impulsion of the Seicento and to the issues informing the visual language of the Counter-Reformation. I myself would certainly never have discovered the value of the Baroque sensibility if I had not come to live in Europe.
How can a Japanese woman living in a Buddhist culture—a reserved, formalist culture—imagine this art of seduction, of profusion and dizziness? The exaltation of caprice and exception, the ornamental prodigality, the theatrical sumptuousness, the ostentatious eloquence, the shimmer and splendour of hyperbole, the decorative overabundance, the heroic emphasis, the voluptuousness of tumult, scattering, discontinuity—this Baroque imaginary is literally unimaginable for a Tokyoite. How, when one is in Tokyo, can one understand the monumental surging, the illusions of infinity, ellipse and instability, the frenzy, the oscillation, the swooning, the emotion, the disquiet that dazzle, disconcert, disorient and destabilise?
All the more so since, in these brilliant meanings of the culture of the image promoted by a triumphant Catholicism, nothing could be more radically opposed to the Shinto aesthetic of withdrawal and silence, to the concise minimalism of Zen Buddhism, to the strict formalism of the Way of emptiness and detachment. It is clear that there is nothing in the invention of the Baroque that comes close to this Japanese taste for fragile beauty and incompleteness, this quest for pared-down form and subtraction, this ascetic will to self-renunciation and effacement, this aptitude for inner illumination and letting go.
And so, inevitably, the discovery of the Catholic image stuns, the enchantment of Baroque profusion reaches deep down. The intact splendour of Rome captivates, that of Venice dazzles, the fabulous formal boldness, the continuous visual epiphanies, the volutes and voids that fill space mark a point of no return. Everyone is spontaneously swept away by these powerful cathedrals where everything is radiant—the frescoes, the sculptures, the paintings, the altars, the baldacchinos, the candelabras, the columns. The golds and the virtuosities culminate in the splendour of a visual feast to bespeak the greatest glory of God invisible. The curves, the countercurves, the broken lines, the folded and unfolded volumes, the holes and spirals cover with their vertiginousness this silent God, but throw over his silence a shadow in which speech remains without signs and without power—and I see in these cathedrals where everything is resplendent what they continue to be and what was the first thing they were, the resting place of the absence of God. Baroque art, in the vertigo that it provokes and for which it was conceived, speaks the mutism of the oracles, the dissimulation of an ineffable God, His disappearance, and speaks both of the object of its glory and of its glory without object. The Baroque church, which is the word of the God of glory, is the word of the absence of God. It is no doubt this ambiguity that compels me in these monuments of excess and dazzlement, the structuring of their golds and their principle of profusion that raised ambiguity to the highest ranks in the perfection of seduction.
This vertiginous compulsion of the Baroque, which surprises and seduces, is no less active in my art than the minimalist orientation of Zen and Shinto: an assured, constant minimalism, tautly formalist. This formalism that Western fantasies spontaneously associate with Japanese culture is very much a reality in every aspect of life. Indeed, it is there, at the meeting place of two cultures, that an aesthetic is invented, in a thinking that analyses and introduces into a dialectical relation minimalism and Baroquism: subtraction against saturation, effacement against profusion, spareness against seduction—the immaterial plus sensuality, emptiness plus the inessential, lack plus splendour. In what conditions might the ‘will to instability’ of the Baroque become tied to the ‘not-seeking-to-grasp’ of Zen? Art indeed is the only real enactment of this impossible knot. The work is that very knot, is that transformation that is invented only in emancipation from that which never ceases to be not written.
The almost-nothing plus vertigo, this is the gulf on which my work rests, and that which depends on it alone and belongs only to it, is being able to discover the absence that is its cause, to show the fault that it ekes out within, the gap where it is constituted, as if the image could suddenly be nothing, nothing but its own absence, the affirmation of the very absence that makes it exist. In my work, this fragility that makes the figure weakened, as if annulled, this obliteration that reveals the image to itself in its obscurity, leads to an art of clarity, to a luminous experience where absence is no longer privation, but affirmation. Privation, disappearance, effacement or absence are now no longer a failing of the image or a lack in the image, but the affirmation of the ever de-completed and sometimes threatening meaning of the image.
As for what immediately concerns us, that is to say, the meanings of this seventeenth century of glory and splendour, it seems to me that we are quick to forget the enthusiasm with which the Counter-Reformation promoted a frantic taste for the macabre, the continuous questing for the morbid, in an unexpected movement that seems strangely contradictory of Baroque elevation and triumph. Between 1620 and 1690, the exaltation of the funereal is general, the indulgence of the spectacularly funereal becomes universal and everywhere the mortuary theatre constantly staged the deathly, the deleterious, the lethal. André Chastel gathered all this funereal theatricality together under the heading of ‘Baroque death’: ‘It hardly seems excessive to say that the ‘Baroque’ sensibility manifested itself especially in a violent, unaccustomed and very striking deployment of ‘funerary artifice’.2 Paradoxical and provocative, this funerary artifice finds expression in the form of a typically Baroque oxymoron, which is simply a brazen modesty, an inverted ostentation: negative pomp. What we see through all this funereal strangeness is proud pomp engaging in a theatricalised form of grandiloquent austerity, arrogant asceticism, triumphant modesty, so apt for the expression of the Catholic faith. The new Baroque style, in a continuous explosion of Requiems and Leçons des Ténèbres, seeks only to present the spectacle of death in mortuary sculpture that deploys itself throughout with an irresistible magnitude. On the tombs and monumental catafalques, the dead are endlessly hailing eternity with heroic poses. The saints of Zurbaran, Caravaggio, Vélazquez and Philippe de Champaigne acquire the habit of meditating on death with a skull in their hand.
But the living themselves strike poses from beyond the tomb in funereal settings, meticulously affecting to soon be dead. Death is organised as an ordinary setting, constantly conforming to the arrangements of the Spiritual Exercises (1522-1544) of Ignatius de Loyola, that the Jesuits spread throughout Europe: ‘Consider myself on the point of death… Picture myself on my deathbed, crucifix in hand, candle lit, the assistants praying for me’. The same exhortations punctuate Les Délices de la mort (1631) by the Frenchman Puget de La Serre: ‘Think at all times on your funeral… Think at all times of what you will think at this final hour.’
In Rome, the pomp of the Vatican annexed the emblems of the Vanitas, in an ostentatious deployment of lugubrious symbols that had hitherto seemed the privilege of Protestant painting. No doubt meditation on death, in the Huguenot and Lutheran faiths, is more theological in nature, more reasoning, less literary, less concrete than in the Church of Rome. If the Jesuits and Papists, following the Baroque penchant of a delicious meditation on Salvation, multiplied the insignia of death, if they fed the dreams of the century with representations of death both cruel or feigned, lugubrious or joyous, they still did so to dazzle, to stimulate emphasis, simulate vertigo, shake up certitudes, insinuate illusion and uncertainty throughout. Is life anything more than a dream, than death in disguise?
Thus, in the audience chamber at the Vatican, Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) always received visitors surrounded by skulls, next to an open coffin. He replaced his silver with earthenware dishes on which skulls were painted, and under his bed he kept another coffin. Just like his predecessor, the Pope commissioned from the great Bernini (1598-1680) the imposing funerary monument (1671-1678) that would be built for him in the basilica. On it we see the figure of the pontiff praying above his own sepulchre, covered with a marble shroud from which, in a perfectly Baroque dramatic tension, there springs forth a bronze skeleton brandishing an hourglass. The funerary spectacle spread throughout Europe. It was omnipresent at the Vatican and governed pontifical pomp throughout the century.
But the Pope was not the only Roman who fled the deathly pomp of the world into another inverted splendour, the vertigo of the memento mori. The Capuchins themselves now prayed only in theatrical, macabre chapels. Beneath the church of Santa Maria dell’Immmacolata Concezione, in a crypt adjoining the convent of the Capuchin friars, lies the incredible scenography of six clay chapels, completely covered with the bones of some four thousand Capuchins and Barberini princes. Skeletons hanging everywhere, raised up in niches, stacked on the floor, hanging from the ceiling like girandoles, walls covered with scapulas, altars standing on accumulations of skulls, bones piled high to form columns and crowns, lamps and garlands formed by a composition of femurs and vertebrae, false stucco and false rocaille formed by clavicles and tibias. ‘Baroque death’ at its most extremely emphatic. The maximal, deathly theatre of funereal pomp.
But that is not the truly decisive point. Above the Capuchin crypt, in the church itself, we find the very austere tomb of Cardinal Antonio Barberini. This tomb, because it immediately banishes all trace of Baroque theatricality, establishes itself as the most eloquent negative monument of the paradoxical pomp of these very proud funeral orations. It is the exact emblem of insolent ostentation in macabre devotion, modesty, asceticism and renunciation. It is the radical absolute of all tombs.
THE LIFE OF THE HERMIT & LA DOLCE VITA
Antonio Barberini was born in 1549 into a glorious Roman family whose powerful patronage lifted Bernini to the forefront of artists by giving him his first opportunity to fully express his intentions as an artist. And no doubt the Barberinis’ greatest claim to glory remains the fact that they made Bernini’s architecture and sculpture and name inseparable from the invention of the Baroque.
Antonio’s younger brother, Matteo Barberini, born in 1568, became pope in 1623. He reigned through to 1644, under the name of Urban VIII, as an absolute monarch, amassing a considerable personal fortune. His power and his wealth far exceeded what were then considered the acceptable limits for a sovereign pontiff. As the worthy head of an ambitious family, this pope had no qualms about annexing the fortunes of his rivals, nor about indulging in nepotism. He raised to the dignity of cardinal not only his elder brother, Antonio, but also two nephews (the brothers Francesco Barberini and the younger Antonio Barberini) and a brother-in-law (Lorenzo Magalotti). A third nephew, Taddeo Barberini, brother of Francesco and the young Antonio, became the supreme commander of the pontifical armies, the Prince of Palestrina, prefect of Rome and one of the greatest fortunes in all Italy.
As for Antonio, he was made Cardinal of Sant’Onofrio in 1624. For his convent, he ordered the construction of the first Roman church to be dedicated to ‘God in honour of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. The building work lasted from 1626 to 1630. It was in this church that he chose to be buried. He died in 1646.
Now, this cardinal was first and foremost a Capuchin monk. This is significant, for, in the hierarchy of religious orders within the Roman Church, the Capuchins saw themselves as the paragons of humility. In the sixteenth century the first ‘minor brothers of the hermit’s life’ caused a schism in the Franciscan congregation when, inspired by the fanatical Matteo de Basci, who preached observance of the primitive Franciscan rules, they went about reinstating the original principles of absolute poverty, even in their dress. In 1528, Pope Clement VII approved their initiative, and Paul V granted them full autonomy in 1619.
Urban VIII naturally had a taste for ostentation that overtly contradicted the austere practices of the Capuchins. But this did not prevent him from playing a major role in the construction of Santa Maria dell’Immacolata Concezione. He blessed the foundation stone on 4 October 1626 and, in order to compel the monks to accept his generosity, the sovereign pontiff even promulgated a special derogation exempting them from the rules of simplicity governing the decoration of Capuchin churches. And he commissioned from Guido Reni a painting of The Archangel Michael Trampling the Devil Underfoot. One of the artist’s finest works, it can be seen in the first chapel on the right. Four years later, the first Mass was celebrated in the new church.
Standing next to the Capuchin convent, the church occupies an exceptional setting, at 27 Via Vittorio Veneto, an address that has been synonymous with La Dolce Vita ever since Fellini used it as the location for the film that made him world-famous in 1960. Against its background of erotic obsession, anti-religious persiflage and a critique of the micro-society of the paparazzi (the film actually coined the term when referring to the photographers of the Via Veneto), La Dolce Vita presents a bold meditation—and this was a first in the movies — on the flight of Time and the ineluctable fatum of death. The film was successful on every front, and in impeccable order: condemnation by the Vatican, honoured with the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
THE DANCING MOVEMENTS OF THE BAROQUE
At the corner of the Via Veneto and the Piazza Barberini, just down from the church on the same side of the street, stands a strange fountain by Bernini, the Fontana delle Api (1644), whose gigantic marble bees are established emblems of Divine Providence. (Originally, the fountain was located a few metres further along, on the corner of the piazza and of the Via Sistina: it was moved here in 1915.) But what explains the presence of the bees is the fact that there are three of them in the coat of arms of the Barberini, those powerful princes and patrons who commissioned monuments that proclaimed to the world the prestige of Rome and were designed to counter the rise of Protestantism with images, and to materially erase the memory of the outrages perpetrated by the Lutheran lansquenets when the city was sacked in 1527. For the feverish building of the Baroque popes must be seen as in part the consequence of the sacrilege, profanations and exactions committed during the terrible Sack of Rome, which disfigured the city by depriving it of its paintings, its sculptures and many of its churches and monuments.3
In his response to these public commissions that would make him a rich man, Bernini, who under the previous pontificate had produced only small busts and decorative sculpture, would make a resounding contribution to the advent of the Baroque and acquire an authority that would dominate the century. In the basilica of Saint Peter, we find more of these buzzing bees. Along with other emblems of the Barberinis, the suns and laurels, they are present all over the twisted columns and bronze volutes that adorn the cornice of the gigantic Baldacchino. This marvellous monument, which Bernini built between 1626 and 1627 on the tomb of Saint Peter, along the central axis, under the dome of the basilica, was a spectacular statement of this new and triumphal Baroque style that inaugurated a pontifical reign of exceptional longevity—twenty-one years—whose theological and aesthetic foundations marked a key turning point in Western art. In 1627—in the early years after his accession, therefore—the pope and patron commissioned Bernini to design for him a tomb: the imposing bronze effigy rises above a black marble sarcophagus on which there sits a bronze skeleton representing Winged Death writing the name of Urban. This grandiose memorial to the glory of the new pontiff was built during his lifetime and was visible to all, dominating the tribune of Saint Peter in an unprecedented act of self-celebration. We know that one of the successors of Urban VIII, Alexander VII, similarly wished to benefit from the authority of this theatrical funerary art, and commissioned from Bernini his own monumental tomb, a spectacular mausoleum that would also be built in the basilica.
Regarding our subject here and the urban environment of Santa Maria dell’Immacolata Concezione (also known as the Chiesa dei Cappuccini), the burial place of Cardinal Barberini, we must observe one more detail. At the end of the Via Veneto, at the centre of the Piazza Barberini, there is an imposing fountain, complete with the Barberini tiara and coat of arms, built by Bernini between 1642 and 1643 at the request of Urban VIII. This very virtuoso Fontana del Tritone encapsulates all the Baroque rhythms—movements that are enchanted, restless, twirling, vertiginous, tormented and tumultuous, the movements that make the Baroque style a dancing style. Surging, rising, collapsing, reaching and failing, leaping, flowing, unstable metamorphoses, scattering, eddying, rolling, dispersed in spray, drawn to the side, irregular reflections, overflowing, bursting cascades, enveloping spirals, sinuosities, twists, volutes, interlacings, turbulences, diverging vanishing lines, continuous spinning, sudden breaks…
THE TOMB OF CARDINAL BARBERINI & THE MAUSOLEUM OF JULIUS II
Inside the Capuchin church, we come to the tomb of Cardinal Barberini. On the floor, in front of the high altar, a very modest, very austere tombstone in grey marble. On this monument to asceticism there is no effigy or allegorical statue, no escutcheon or coat of arms, not even a name, not even a date, but simply this:
In these laconic words Barberini comments on his own death. The story begins with its end, in a gesture that is even more ascetic, even more iconoclastic than the Protestant asceticism and iconoclasm that all through his life he helped to drown out in the torrent of images and glories of the Counter-Reformation. Therein lies the troubling truth of this tomb: from the first, all images of glory have gone, the tomb is forever empty and the name buries itself under its own ashes. Thus, at the moment of death, the cardinal chose—as we can appreciate—the path of the greatest modesty, which, it goes without saying, is the greatest immodesty. The die is cast and all History’s agitation is absolved. The night of the image has been restored, the absence of all things is consummated, the silence of vanities is pure.
And so everything has come to an end. Everything that the end must make manifest, everything that Barberini sought to create by renouncing his name is given in advance and becomes like the condition of this disappearance, its anticipated appearance, its eternal image. A strange bend backwards in the curve of Time. It is not the cardinal who disappears into death and makes his name disappear into silence, but the absolute presence of this disappearance, the paradoxical shimmering of that which is absent in its place that enables him to remain the master of chance and necessity, that usher him into impersonality in full light, into the neutrality where nothing is accomplished, the empty omnipotence that is eternally self-consuming. As if language were accommodating him, restoring him to himself at the very moment when it yet deprives him of his innermost being.
And this ‘and nothing’ whose supererogatory humility resounds through the marble with the dark and threatening modesty thrown back into the proud excess of the Baroque. This ‘and nothing’ that carries this monument of negative glory, this monument of paroxystic Christian humility, into the most emphatic arrogance of the Counter-Reformation. ‘And nothing’, meaning, quite the opposite: neither ashes nor dust, but an indestructible monument in the memory of men, in the century of centuries. Here (hic), extreme modesty meets extreme arrogance.
In this ultimate transformation, the name identified with the ashes becomes at last the shadow whereby light is radiant. Seeing this very discreet yet unforgettable tomb in the floor of this little Roman church, what I saw at work was subtraction; I found the clear form of obliteration, the immaterial that embraces the whole horizon of my art, of all art. Before this tomb, I sensed the work of absence from which all things begin, I grasped within it a presence, a power, as if the immaterial had a strange power of affirmation. I saw in that inscription a prodigious piece of language capable of uttering to the very end that supreme and silent voiding of the night where infinitely thunders the challenge that all things may not exist (Leibniz). That is why art, the trying and hearing of what lacks, must not be understood as anything other than poetic experience.
However, in this prodigious piece of language taking as its support a piece of marble that is itself nothing less than dust or ashes, I again saw that nothing, in language or in the image, is capable of representing the nihil of death or the void of jouissance.
Before this slab of funerary marble, this affirmation of paradoxical pure absence, an absence that in its affirmation eludes itself and yet makes itself present, I thought of the mausoleum of Julius II (also in Rome), under the imposing form of Michelangelo’s colossal Moses, which was originally meant to consist of three tiers of forty monumental statues. In Carrara, where he spent eight months choosing the huge blocks of marble from which this monument of monuments was to burst forth, Michelangelo dreamed of sculpting the mountain itself into one gigantic statue…
HERE, IN THE ABSOLUTE PRESENT
In L’Espace littéraire, Maurice Blanchot dwells on the incomprehensible meaning of mortal remains, its illocalisation : ‘What we call the mortal remains evades the usual categories: something is there before us that is neither the living person himself nor any sort of reality, neither the same as the one who was alive nor another, nor another thing. What is there, in the absolute calm of that which has found its place, does not however achieve the truth of being fully there. Death suspends the relation to the place, even though death leans heavily on it as if it were its only remaining base. But this place is, precisely, absent. The place is lacking, the corpse is not in its place. Where is it? It is not here and yet it is not elsewhere. Nowhere? But in that case nowhere is here. The cadaverous presence establishes a relation between here and nowhere.’4
The here is not accessible to one who dies, but one who dies is forever identified with here. The here he becomes is so literal and so appalling that it tries to pass itself off as a ‘beyond’. The deceased is one of whom we say he is no longer of this world, because he no longer has a now, because his now is an absolute present detached from everything, because his here is that of the ‘here lies’—his here is literally here. He is no longer in this world, because he is no more than a here that is forever here. He has become only this deictic ‘here’. The here of the deceased is identified with an unnameable this. ‘Here lies something that was someone.’
The ‘here lies’ of any epitaph is invariably followed by the affirmation of an identity that wrests the here from indeterminacy. It introduces the naming able to singularise this deictics that designates the undecidable this. The tomb, the place par excellence of the indistinct, the anonymous and the impersonal, is always filled with names and dates, as if, in the vain appearance of a presumption about surviving everything, the infinite wear of the end, the infinite weight of a constant crumbling were at work erasing the singularity of all places and making it equal to the monotonous neutrality of a present forever without duration.
It is precisely against this impalpable and perpetual disaster of Time promoted by the funerary tradition, against the gradual sliding of the name towards obscurity, against its slow disappearance into the indefinite substance of eternity, that this epitaph asserts itself and lights up the vain vacancy of nothingness:
Everything has already happened here in the indifferent distancing of nothingness. Barberini pushes the images far away from the ‘here lies’ of his remains, as if seeking in a beyond-death, in a more-than-death, the transfigured total state in the peaceful paradise of Time regained, where the real annihilation of being, the symbolic erasure of the name, the imaginary perishing of the body no longer count because they have forever already occurred. This arrogance in the extension of the domain of annihilation concentrates all the paradoxes of Baroque vertiginousness, by inventing a paradoxical exaltation of mortification, an extreme will to withdrawal, a deep decision to erase all profusion and all decorum. This arrogant affirmation of Catholic asceticism, beyond the infinite inhibition of the Reformation, overturns all the presuppositions of the Counter-Reformation that, in their lifetime, the Barberinis, with Bernini, managed to assert over and against Protestant austerity.
Through thought, Barberini reaches that absolute, secret heart of the image that is, indeed, absence, the intimacy of absence and silence. The disappearance of vanities: it is here that we can hear the true presence in which there remains only the substance of nothing—dust, ashes and nothing. This conjuring of the void, this paradoxical folding of Time, this absolute de-realising of the power of the visible as it becomes invisible potential, this lightening of the weight of universal conventions—this is in reality the centre of the Baroque image, of Baroque sculpture and architecture, in which the true heroes are emptiness, the virtual and the immaterial, disguised in the form of profusion.
LAZARUS, VENI FORAS
Thus Barberini seeks to be the absolute master of the impersonality of death by dying in the certitude of the name made eternal in the pure dream of a present that has itself disappeared, the dream of a present absolutely lacking where nothing of forgetting is accomplished, where the omnipotence of silence is abolished.
By erasing his name at the moment of disappearing, Barberini conquers, as if in that peaceful night, access to a totally transfigured, unfindable present. By erasing the dates of his birth and his death, the cardinal ensures that he will remain forever in the memory of men, there where nothing of forgetting is ever again accomplished. His name has already disappeared, everything is already accomplished, the end has already occurred in the indifferent morning of Time, at the time when forgetting has already been restored to itself, where absence is consummated and silence is pure.
Barberini thus approaches the depth of forgetting that is created when we die, he approaches the silence that forms when we disappear. By the effacement of his name, which is as if unpronounceable, he makes that name forever impossible to efface, rather than ineffable. The disappearance of the name is what in truth enables him to ward off the disappearance of the name.
By creating in negative this fabulous Baroque memorial, this negative monument of the Counter-Reformation whose silence overflows into the visual aphasia of the Reformation, the cardinal purifies nothingness by moving forward into the negative of the negative and transfigures the very meaning of the exile of death. His refusal to perish in the great indecision of immortality makes his own obliteration the promise of an unlimited future in the constant genesis of a perpetual blossoming.
By being the creator of his own nothingness and by obtaining, within the effacement of the self, the certainty of raising himself once again to the peak of his self, Barberini affirms in death what death claims to deny. By abandoning himself absolutely to absolute abandon, by giving himself over to the dispossession of dust, ashes and nothing, he denies by that very dispossession the devastation of death and chooses to enter into what Hegel calls the ‘life of the Spirit’. He engages in a struggle and masters the chaos into which he was about to disappear and, in order to elude the immobile burial promised by the glory of Time, renders indispensable the name that he has just erased with such gravitas.
I see, in the ceremony of anonymity whereby Barberini invents a way of raising his own disappearance to the dignity of a timeless neutrality and impersonality, this kind of supreme manifestness wherein art manages to render itself eternally in the register of unanimity, of universality. This experience of chosen insignificance is worth meditating.
Blanchot : ‘Anonymous is the one who dies, and anonymity is the appearance in which the ungraspable, the non-limited, the non-located most dangerously affirm themselves to us. Whoever experiences them, experiences an anonymous, impersonal power, that of an event which, being the dissolution of any event, is not only now, but its beginning is always beginning again, and under its horizon everything that occurs recurs. From the moment when “one dies”, the moment is revoked; when one dies—“when” does not designate a date, but any date, just as there is a level of that experience where death reveals its nature by appearing not as the decease of a given, determinate person, nor as death in general, but in this neutral form: the death of someone. The dead person is always nondescript.’5
Barberini, now a nondescript corpse in the anonymous crowd of nondescript corpses, is not only sent back to the impersonal and modest violence of anonymity. He becomes a presence without a name, and by his transparent affirmation he ceases to be that passive, interchangeable, insignificant corpse kept for him by death. On his own, with an infinitesimal writing, much more modest than would be the page of a book, he does what neither the wind nor the sea nor the sand can undo. His presence without a name becomes a present cut free in space, a piece of vertical Time, a vertical fragment fallen from the sky, without a past, without a future, an infinite spacing in duration, an obliteration of the moment that eludes disappearance and oblivion. The fact of having lived an ephemeral life and being dead remains an eternal fact and the name that is absent on the stone remains unerased in the unwork of Time—the power without content of the nihil is exhausted here before the universal power of the symbol.
The gaze seeks to thin and make transparent the stone of this tomb and dissolve it in a desire to see that leaps beyond. I want to see that which yet has no image, nor even a name, and it is in that which eludes the gaze that the desire to see is sustained. It is indeed in that with which it admits it is not satisfied that the gaze discovers the cause of its desire. It is because this stone and this tomb constitute the presence, that is yet hidden, of that which must appear, in the call to its liberating signification: a Lazarus, veni foras. This Lazarus three days dead, this cardinal dead perhaps since forever, this presence without a name answers us and speaks to us, to the very heart of our selves, like the appeasing silence that is in the eye of the storm.
TO MAKE DISAPPEARANCE DISAPPEAR IN THE IMAGE OF DISAPPEARANCE
Thus, where nothing appears but where dissimulation becomes appearance, Revelation springs from the torn intimacy of the Baroque Age’s antagonisms—measure and measurelessness, form and the infinite, decision and instability—which are both irreconcilable and inseparable; a Revelation that is set forth in a disappearance that is also a presence. It is through this Revelation that the meaning present at all times in the Baroque experience is communicated: where lightness is not lacking, there we are given depth.
He who declares he has no more hope save in the depth of the void created in death is the greatest affirmer of the present; he is wagering on the absolute instant, the only one that will absolutely triumph over the future; he is wagering on the apotheosis of the instant that will not pass and will not be exceeded. Barberini’s absolute instant is the spark of the proper name, which retains that exceptional power of affirmation, escapes debasement, and surpasses the premeditation of obliteration and oblivion. The sovereign clarity of such an abnegation of the self is akin to the Hegelian balance, which sees in death a possibility of purifying emptiness, and finds in extreme negativity the measure of the absolutely positive. Such, again, is the meaning of art for Kafka, ‘a breath of cheerfulness lent to the emptiness’.6
For me art represents the possibility of a lived experience of excess, of a place beyond limits that only means the unperceived loss of death that has already occurred. Art brings with it the ambiguity, the duplicity that enables one to extricate oneself ‘out of the charnel house of birth’ (Heredia), to escape mind-destroying nihilism, to free oneself from the exhausting standstill of death. It enables one to survive oneself thanks to a disappearance that disappears in the image of disappearance, to live again in an infinitely forgotten oblivion.
What I know about images is that even though they depict the living, they speak of death. They draw their ambiguity from that, from being a reflection only, a thin limit near the emptiness. Because there is something inflexible and compact in a reflection, the image covers the undefined that being’s caput mortuum advances. The imaginary reflection of the living reveals the obscurity of their fate, the image gives up being to its shadow essence. Its meaning is inevitably Vanity.
First there is real presence, then the image comes, that is, the absence of the real thing. The real thing must be made more remote, must disappear to allow itself to be grasped anew as a shade or reflection. The thing collapses into its image where the present is absolutely lacking, it has reunited with that root powerlessness where everything stops: still life7.
REVELATION: THE INVISIBLE BECOME APPEARANCE
In my Self-portraits,7 it is dissimulation first of all that tends to appear in what I point out as images of disappearance. When the face fades beneath the uniform colour, it appears as the depth of the disappearance in which it is hidden as something that is lacking. When the obliteration appears, the obliteration, now become appearance, makes everything disappear, but what has disappeared is still an appearance. What has disappeared still has the appearance of what has disappeared.
What one calls revelation is that: the invisible become appearance. Revelation says precisely that when everything has disappeared and everything is lacking, the lack shows that something is still there. It makes clear that the essence of being is to continue to be where it is lacking, to be there as something concealed. When everything is concealed, the image finds its condition there though it tends to disappear. The image presupposes the absence and disappearance of what it represents; it is identified with the remainder that subsists in the absence. What makes the image possible is the limit where it disappears. That is the ambiguity it displays and conceals, the ambiguity that is the foundation on which it continues to assert things in their disappearance, it shows what remains when there is nothing.
To depict oneself through self-portraiture is to enter the affirmation of the negation where disappearance threatens. It means to surrender to the risk of disappearance, where anonymity reigns. To depict myself is to disappear beneath an image and, in that manner, to enter into contact with absence becoming image. To disappear in a single colour is to arrange things so that the colour that alludes to a figure becomes an allusion to what is without figure. The image, which is that form drawn on absence then becomes the formless presence of that absence. The single colour becomes the opaque opening to what is when there is nothing more than the void.
Why would depicting have anything to do with that essential absence, that absence that is such that in it alone disappearance appears? It happens that an image captivates us when it concentrates in itself the blinding inexhaustible radiance of what it is lacking, that ontological lack that is present in every image and which sparks the desire to see, the catching of the gaze, fascination. When the gaze is captivated, what it sees in the image isn’t what it looks at; what takes hold of it, fascinates it isn’t in the image it looks at but rather in what it lacks and what fixes the cause of the fascination in a place beyond what the image displays.
Fascination is fundamentally linked to the neutral contourless presence of an indeterminate figureless opacity within the figure. When it is caught by the gaze, that absence produces a kind of anxiety and attraction, provokes the desire to see. One senses then that with the aspiration to disappear in the sole colour, absence becomes visible, the invisible becomes appearance and it is that revealed absence that eroticises the gaze, in the endless search for what is missing from the image. There we see how the image is always at fault vis-à-vis itself—and that is indeed why one looks at it.
What gives the image its value is indeed what it is lacking, what gives it all its value is that it leaves the gaze unsatisfied. By its essence the image leaves something to be desired. There, in that essential failure, lies the impasse where all my experience as an artist runs up against a difficulty—and it is there, in that essential failure, that the work of art is realised. The image does indeed have the power to make beings disappear, to make them appear as something lost, to make them appear in their absence, to lend them an appearance that is that of a disappearance only, appearance of a presence that speaks only of absence. From the first my Self-portraits show that the image, having the power to summon appearance and absence, also has the power to disappear there itself, to fade away amidst what it accomplishes, to annul itself there while proclaiming the fullness of what it endlessly shows and obliterates.
BODONI BLOWN-GLASS LETTERS THE SIZE OF MY FACE
I’m not overlooking the fact that the celebration of the dead is in the history of humanity the foundation of any and all artmaking - the funeral ritual is the origine of art. I recognise in the radical epitaph of Cardinal Barberini the original meaning, the basis of any and all artistic experience, a paradoxical affirmation of immortality, an essential wrenching from death that is brought about with an inverted will to obliterate, a will to obliterate that survives itself and survives all obliteration:
It seems to me that reprising this inscription engraved on a tombstone during the Baroque Age offers the perfect platform for reflecting on art’s presuppositions, on my art’s presuppositions; the perfect platform for imagining the meanings of disappearance and revelation, dissolution and epiphany, which form the presuppositions of my art.
When it came time to record the engraved words of Barberini’s epitaph, I chose to lighten the asceticism of the funerary text with the fragile delicacy of blown-glass letters, to re-enchant the formal minimalism of my project with the grace of Murano glass. By choosing to borrow this sovereign epitaph, I decided to turn to the most dreadful affirmation of obliteration and oblivion. With this Tombeau8, I am pursuing the reflection I began through a series of my earlier Self-portraits (2000-2006) and L’Instance de la lettre (2003-2005),9 an in-depth reflection on obliteration and disappearance of the figure, on the revelation of the figure beyond its obliteration in colour.
The letters, which I designed in a size that matches my own face (21 cm) after characters engraved by Giambattista Bodoni in Parma between 1771 and 1788, were fashioned from blown glass by Pino Signoretto, master glass-blower in Murano.10 These letters speak of the fragility of being—they articulate that through both the text (pulvis, cinis: ‘dust, ashes’) that they form and the glass forming them, which surrounds a central inner void (et nihil, ‘and nothing’). Dust that covers the caput mortuum of being, ashes that covers the fire, provoking the fusion of the simple sand which it transforms into glass, and nothing, where the central void at the heart of the glass letter condenses. As for the glass’s deep red, a colour containing gold that has made a name for Murano for ten centuries, it is for Venetian glass-blowers a challenging colour, the colour of maximum difficulty, the most instable colour, which varies so much that it is almost impossible to guarantee that you will find the same red the next day.
An ostentatious colour, red is an imperial insignia, an attribute of force and courage. It’s associated first of all with the colour of fire—which Leon Battista Alberti doesn’t fail to point out in De Pictura (1436). In Western iconography, it is the blood of Christ’s passion and the torment of martyrs. Red, the colour of blood, is essentially seen as the colour of life, the colour that is supposed to ward off death.11
We know that the Latin coloratus has two meanings, both ‘red’ and ‘coloured’. In Latin, then, the word for ‘colour’ is ‘red’ and red is understood as a synonym of ‘colour’: it is the colour of colours. In fact, ‘red’ also means life (blood, fire) and death (blood of the martyr, the flames of Hell). The symbolism is ambivalent, divided; its value is inverted: the regenerative value of red (the blood shed by Christ brings with it redemption and eternal life, the tongues of fire of Pentecost transmit the power of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and mark the beginning of their evangelical mission) is inverted in a deadly meaning (crimes of blood, the flames of Satan that consume and destroy).
Furthermore, in the seventeenth century red was the colour of Papists. Beginning in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, popes and cardinals adopted this colour, meaning that they were willing to shed their blood for Christ. For the Protestant Reformers, however, red was a call for condemnation. It is the sign of damnation, immorality, the colour that had to be driven out of the temple, because in the Apocalypse, the colour red is the one worn by the great whore of Babylon ridden by a beast from the sea… The ever impeccable clear-sightedness of Protestants when it came to interpreting what went into the Vatican’s power and justifying a contrario the Papists’ artistic undertakings: one quickly catches on to the dramatic, tragic and epic scope of a colour that is so erotic, satanic, infernal… Since then, red has remained associated with eroticism and passion, celebrations and luxury, spectacle and revolution. It has also continued to be the symbol of power since the Roman Empire.
WHEN THERE IS NOTHING AND NOTHING CANNOT BE DENIED
With their material—fragile—and colour—ostentatious—the eighteen blown-glass letters that make up the Tomb of Glass wrap in an altogether Baroque sensuality and charm words that nevertheless give voice to terror and anguish.
Besides the Tomb of Glass I have created a photographic Tombeau. Self-portrait.12 These photographs form a series of eighteen red self-portraits—which I printed out for the first time on a 1:1 scale (28 cm x 28 cm), in other words an exact life-size reproduction of my face. Each glass letter becomes the tombstone that literally subjects my face to the ‘instance of the letter’. With decisive emphasis Jacques Lacan stresses ‘the fateful exchange by which the letter comes to take the very place from which desire withdraws.’13 The psychoanalyst rigorously formulates the letter’s function in its lethal import, ‘The signifier lets the meaning of death in. The letter kills but we learn that from the letter itself. It is that by which every impulse is virtually a death impulse.’
The epitaph taken from Barberini’s tombstone becomes the epitaph of a tomb where, beneath the blown-glass letters, pure absence is asserted (I am dead); an absence that, by slipping away from itself (this is not a corpse), is still rendered present in the form of a presence hidden in the image that is not abolished (hic jacet).
Concealment is a negation (I am not here) in which an assertion (I is another) is nevertheless concealed. My work, through concealment (beneath the letter), transformation (as corpse), obliteration (in the colour), asserts that there is something that is nothing that may want to substitute itself for negation. When there is nothing and nothing can be denied, nothing remains and, remaining, still asserts something like the lack-of-being, the idleness of the gaze, the obliteration of the visible in a place beyond the image. The power of not being seen is of course the very essence of the visible. By connecting with the purity of the negation, the work of art can in turn assert itself in the certainty of its original lack-of-being.
In this new series of self-portraits, in which I am seen lying on the ground with eyes closed, the meaning is literally that of the final disappearance. It is a fact that here, as in my preceding works, my art, the whole of my art depends on a connection with death; it has meaning only in an essential relationship with the meaning of death. Tombeau: death is there, present, its appearance is brought to the fore, this absence is asserted with greater authority than in any of my earlier works.
The connection where the artistic experience is tied to the meanings of death is exactly formulated by Blanchot, ‘To read the word death without negation is to remove from it the capacity to settle a decision and the power to deny, to cut oneself off from possibility and truth, but it is also to cut oneself off from death as a true event, to surrender to the indistinct and the indeterminate, the empty here and now where the end has the weight of the beginning. This is the experience of art.’
My experience of art lies directly in this perspective of the work of art as a withdraw from its own dissolution, the withdraw of death that advances in a light in which it draws back. Art then becomes the silent opening onto the silence of the gaze, the affirmation of what denies negation. The image is not only the refusal, the distancing, the transposition of what is lacking, it is also the lack, the absence, the silence making it up, because it is always from the lack that the work of art is fulfilled, but what it fulfils is that lack that it cannot fill. That point where absence cannot be reduced, where the image coincides with nothing, puts us in touch with the infinite.
THE HAPPY GAME OF CONCEALMENT CONCEALING ITSELF
The images of my Tombeau. Self-portrait are a purification of absence, an attempt to make that absence possible and draw from it the very possibility to create art. I have gone forward in this work lucidly, outside of myself, I perceived myself disappearing and appearing to myself in the mirage of this disappearance in order to look like myself in that future death, the thought of which is the very life of consciousness and that the image attains at the same time it is extinguished there.
Tombeau. Self-portrait makes what disappears in representation appear. This figure of disappearance doesn’t only tend toward the disappearance of the figure, it is still that from which the figure, making an image, becomes the depth of the rift on which this image opens and yet is closed. The image shrouds this absence on which it has to close and which it must preserve in a way, as if the lack, the disappearance were its profound truth, the meaning under which it is up to the image to make itself present to itself in its own form.
Death, which is the silent intimacy of the living, the death impulse that Freud was the first to be able to see as being the radical intimacy of desire, must be put to the account of the libido itself, must be identified as the sure heart of the life impulse until death, so that death for an instant lets itself be grasped as the unavoidable present of presence, becomes an accepted, desired presence as an incessant present. The mortal presence of this absolute present, far from being a suspension of the future, an alteration of what is to be, is the unbroken, living umbilical cord of Time, the overflow of all duration, ‘since death is the supreme future and the future of all futures’16. The continuous present of death is the necessary heart of the living, for ‘our life is nothing but an eternal death’.
The central point of my art is this loss as cause, the loss one cannot reach, the only one that is worth reaching, the one that is in the direct aim of the image. This central point is ambiguity, the sovereign requirement, that which one cannot really approach through the realisation of any work of art but whose very approach constitutes the work of art.
This duplicity in art cannot be foiled. It is deeply felt here as a happy game that invites one to a concealment that is itself concealed. The concealment that relinquishes all sacrifice and all pathos opens onto the negation of the negative. Art is essentially determined by this measure of duplicity where everything lapses once again when the impossible is attenuated. The experience of that vague and vain disaster is affirmed in plenitude, in the instantaneous balance in which the lack becomes a work of art, where the disappearance becomes revelation.
LIKE THE CORPSE, THE FIXED IMAGE IS WITHOUT REPOSE
In the image, the living grazes this lack-of-being that it had to refute in order to be, this lack against which it was built up and defined. But now that the living sees its meaning suspended in the artifice of art, now that it abandons itself to the uncurrent and withdraws from reality, the truth in it retreats, the negative demands it, a subtraction that enriches and consecrates it like an image. Like any image, the self-portrait is the figure of the unique becoming anyone. I see in my self-portrait the image of an impersonal being, distant and inaccessible, which resemblance draws toward the shadows.
The image of me, however, so absolutely myself that it is as if I am doubled by me, is united with the solemn impersonality of the self through resemblance and the image. This image of a living being borne until then by the inflexible weight of its presence impresses us like an apparition in the distance passing judgement at Doomsday. Through its pose subjected to the letter, its transformation in colour, it probably recalls the image of a corpse. In my image as in my corpse, I resemble myself. The corpse is in my image, it is my best image. In my image I am my own ghost. The image is the reflection of this shadow that accompanies the living into its night. Far from separating me from this reflection, the image transforms me entirely into dust, ashes, and nothing.
Maurice Blanchot once again: ‘The corpse is the reflection rendering itself master of the reflected life, absorbing it, substantially identifying itself with it by shifting it from its value in use and truth to something incredible—unusual and neutral. And if the corpse is so true to life, it is because at a certain moment it is resemblance par excellence, altogether resemblance, and it is also nothing more. It is the similar, similar to an absolute degree, quite moving and marvellous. But what does it resemble? Nothing.’
Resemblance is that supreme disguise that raises uncertainty of the self to its highest point. It is the absolute abandoning to the imagination, behind which there is only the impossible to represent, the unrepresentable. Such are mortal remains, which, far from reposing, are entirely handed over to the endless tread of what never stops not being written. Like the corpse, the fixed image is without repose. Yet, at first glance, the image doesn’t resemble the corpse. But we see that the cadaverous fixedness is indeed the fixedness of the image.
Behind the face it represents, the image presents the disappearance of that face and its subsistence in its disappearance. The powerlessness to be figured is surmounted in the work itself that declares it. When we look at it, the image can indeed represent our face disappearing in a formal obliteration (red monochrome); it is hand and glove with the meaning of the disappearance (Vanity). The elementary materiality of the disappearance is asserted with the obliteration of the face disappearing in the monochrome ground, before plunging into the obscurity of the image restored to its essence, which is to transform what it represents into a shadow.
THE ERROR OF OUR DEATH
But the obliteration that my Tombeau. Self-portrait depicts, the fading of the figure, its belonging to what is lacking, doesn’t indicate the mere stopping of a changing being that remains nonetheless identical to itself. The obliteration and distancing here lie at the heart of being, which the image has instantaneously rendered unattainable, impassive, irrelevant. Here I am then, in my self-portraits, not identical to myself; yet here I am, myself, in these images of me as obliteration and exile, absent in my presence, my unattained presence because it is never attainable, suffering only from my impassiveness, appearing as missing, a strange empty heart of a distant living thing that is moving further off.
The disappearance at work in my images—the image of disappearance, the image as a locus of disappearance—offers up for discovery a more essential obliteration. My Self-portrait consciously excludes pain and complacency, narcissism, the romantic and sentimental doxa. No doubt—and above all—because I indeed chose exile to be able to create. However, by creating images, I verify that to create is to be in exile still. He who creates in exile when he creates is exiled from the work when the work is created. Yet he who is exiled by creating misjudges his exile and not knowing is what allows him to persevere. What I do is an image, and what I do in making an image I destroy or begin all over in another image. It is fundamentally an infinite that is expressed in the closed locus of the finished work of art. The work of art is inevitably that transient condensation where being is endlessly perpetuated in the form of obliteration, absence, what never ceases not to be written. It is indeed an infinite that is expressed in that powerlessness of the work of art to pronounce the end that is lacking in that obscurity where Time is doomed to the standstill of repetition.
The blinding simulacra of a glass epitaph points to a merciless lightness, but it does so in order to immediately restore the presence that is lacking, which makes up the deep truth of the image. Art is nothing if it doesn’t reach the symbolic pact that links the work with death, repetition, and failure. Freud stressed in all its lethal import the function of repetition, when he discovered that success is identified with failure. The success of the experience—the jouissance the neurotic symptom, the pleasure in the sexual act, the sublimation in artistic creation—is precisely what calls for it to be begun again, and there, in the success, lies the basis of failure. One could say along with Freud that repetition is, with commemoration, the living sign of death. The endless negation of death has no more the peremptory character of a limit or cessation than the celebration of the absent. For the symbol—tombs or effigies, pyramids or cathedrals, burial, religious or artistic rites—fully and without end affirms the death that it denies, the oblivion it commemorates, the absence it reiterates. Such is the meaning of the violence of the negative that is at work in the symbol.
Blanchot analyses this dialectic, in which repetition is linked with death: ‘Freud, surprised by the tendency for repetition, the powerful appeal of what is past, had already recognised there the very appeal of death. But perhaps that has to eventually appear: he who seeks to clarify repetition with death is also led to shatter death as a possibility, shut it up in the magic spell of repetition. Yes, we are linked to disaster, but when the failure returns, we must understand that failure is in fact that return. A fresh beginning, as a power that is prior to the beginning, is precisely that, the error of our death.’
SINCE I AM NOT THE ONE I SHOW
The image, which is itself but the appearance of what has disappeared, brings about a destructive act that is wholly similar to death, which replaces the living being with a corpse that looks like him—this is the main point. My art has always been associated with disappearance; I’ve always wanted to disappear into my images, into the ultimate meaning of the image. My Self-portraits are images of disappearance where the figure lends the work its meaning by disappearing. Death is formalised in images that are apt to get the figure of the body across, make it disappear by obliterating it in colour.
When the image sets itself the task of grasping in its essence the meaning of the unrepresentable, the impossible to represent, the work of art is only realised in that original adherence to what is lacking. What is peculiar to the lack is to be forever veiled by what it is it is lacking, which endlessly leads the work of art in its search for art outside of art to confront what can be rightly called the dread of having to realise the unrealisable.
What the Tombeau. Self-portrait clearly states is that art belongs to semblance because the work of art is itself what eludes the criteria of truth. By some aspect or another, the image always dismisses the true, slips away from its meaning, pointing first to that region where nothing is verified, where what begins anew has never yet begun, where what exists nevertheless does not exist, a place of ambiguity from which nothing arises save in the form of an outer shadow, where every meaning is put to the proof of what the true must deny to become possibility and reveal the ‘error of our death’.
Disappearance appears in a kind of sovereign casualness, an alliance with the revelation of the invisible to exclude the visible, a pact with the inverted negative. This will to advance without pathos towards the disappearance of my own figure corresponds to the unreality of the ego, its multiplicity and division. ‘I’ always seems, in the fullness of its unity, in a position to act supremely and attain itself by itself, and yet the one that is represented disappears, is no longer me, is another, such that when ‘I’ represents me, I must needs disappear since I am not the one I show. In a way, the work comes to settle in that vacancy. Whence there arises an appeal that draws it towards what puts it absolutely to the test, an essential instability, where identity is no longer identical to itself, where nothingness slips away, where everything is played out on the right to fade away, the possibility to disappear, the power to die.
My Self-portraits represent the attempt to render representation possible by seizing it at the point where what is present is the invisible absence at the heart of the image, that absence that the image makes a point of honour of making visible. The state of invisibility isn’t the point where I put myself on display, it is the point that I put on display. The state of invisibility I put on display is connected with the radical demand of art; it is neither a mere deprivation of visibility nor a psychological state that is peculiar to me.
THE EMPTY & UNFILLABLE CENTRE OF THE DESIRE TO SEE
The work of art can be monumental or infrathin, Baroque or minimalist, what it has to say is immaterial, an invisible immateriality. Nevertheless, the work names the immaterial as unnameable, it expresses the invisible in it, and that is wrapped, hidden in the semblance of the work itself, which the immaterial is shown as the mainspring of the visible. Thus, the work of art is the semblance that renders the immaterial visible and it renders it visible with both the semblance and dissembling. The work then fades away before the invisible that it names, it is the silence that leads the immateriality that speaks within it towards speech. Being the invisible and the indistinct, the immaterial is what is shown as a work of art while remaining hidden all the while.
My Tombeau. Self-portrait is thus both a work of art that is hidden in the profoundly silent presence of the invisible, and a work that is present and visible through the absence and obscurity of the immaterial. It is both the cause and division of its own lack-of-being, and what it shows by lending form to the immaterial and giving it a name (dust, ashes—and nothing) is the fight against the shadow and the silence becoming the guardians of that which slips away from the gaze and shuts itself off from the image. By giving the immaterial (the immaterial as the unnamed) an image in a series of portraits and letters, the work of art represents what is invisible in a figure, its immateriality, before figuring itself as a figure of disappearance.
With this Tombeau. Self-portrait, I have approached art as a beginning that has been turned around to the native lack, an invaginated beginning, turned inside out towards what is impossible to represent where it is liable to disappear. My Self-portrait is the language in which disappearance is expressed and where that disappearance itself ceases to appear. This suspension of the disappearance, this overlooking of the lack is all that is displayed from now on. That is the radical inversion where that which is at work in death and which, perpetuating being in the form of nothingness, makes absence a fascination, obliteration an illumination, disappearance an image, and the gaze the empty centre of the unfillable of desire.
Art is what opens a free space for the play of Time and simplifies the depthless intimacy of absence. Art is the absence of a response to what is lacking and the artist here is the one who, through travesty, dissimulation and inauthenticity, keeps open in her work the question of separation, disappearance, and distress. Without the lack and the distress, the absence and the oblivion, would something like art exist?
1 - This text is based on the author’s conversations with the artist, who speaks here in the first person.
2 - André CHASTEL, ‘Le baroque et la mort’, Fables, Formes, Figures, Paris: Flammarion, 1978, p. 205.
3 - Cf. CHASTEL’s conclusions in Le Sac de Rome, 1527, Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
4 - Maurice BLANCHOT, L’Espace littéraire, Paris: Gallimard, 1955, Folio, p. 344.
5 - Ibid.
6 - Franz KAFKA, Diaries, 6 December 1921.
7 - It is not insignificant that for the lighting in all of my self-portraits, my technical choice goes to two simple 500-watt tungsten light bulbs, which are usually reserved for still-life photography.
8 - Cf. Kimiko YOSHIDA, Marry Me !, Arles: Actes Sud, 2003 ; - All That’s Not Me, Arles: Actes Sud, 2006.
9 - Tombeau comprises two distinct installations: a sculpture presented on the floor, Tomb of Glass, consisting of 18 letters in Murano blown glass and a transparent acryl box, 35 x 90 x 180 cm; and Tombeau. Self-Portrait, consisting of a series of 18 photographs, 28 x 28 cm each.
10 - Cf. Jean-Michel RIBETTES, D’une image qui ne serait pas du semblant, Passage de Retz/Paris-Audiovisuel, 2004, p. 178-181. This is of course a reference to Jacques LACAN, ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud’ (1957), in Ecrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966. (Trans. Bruce Fink, Norton ,2005).
11 - The specialist historians of glass that I subsequently consulted (Pierre Studenmeyer, Mouvements modernes, Paris ; Liliane Fawcett, Themes & Variations, London) tend to suggest that these letters are unique. Never before, it seems, was there an alphabet in blown glass; no blower had ever made such letters. I checked this with the major glassworks in Murano. All replied that it was impossible to blow such letters. Only Pino Signoretto, who is esteemed by all his peers for his extreme dexterity, was able to meet the technical and artistic challenge represented by this project. Having met the challenge, the master insisted on co-signing with me each of these letters that I had drawn on the same scale as my face. Of course, my subsequent discovery that this text in blown glass is unique, gave support to this strange initiative of mine of having my own Tomb made and, in doing so, confronting the meaning of dread and distress.
12 - It is remarkable that in Hebrew the name of the first ‘man’ (Adam—adam is in fact the generic word for all men) and the colour ‘red’ (adom) have a common etymological root which is closely linked to ‘earth’ (adama) and ‘blood’ (dam).
13 - This series of photos, for which I always used the same white light as in my previous self-portraits (two 500W tungsten bulbs) was the first I made with a digital reflex camera, the Olympus E-1.
14 - Jacques LACAN, ‘The Youth of Gide, or the Letter and Desire’, Ecrits, op. cit., p. 762.
15 - Jacques LACAN, ‘Position of the Unconscious’, Ecrits, op. cit., p. 848.
16 - Maurice BLANCHOT, op. cit., p. 325-326.
17 - Vladimir Jankélévitch, La Mort, Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
18 - The irrevocable alexandrine is by CHASSIGNET, a French poet who published in 1594 a volume of five hundred funereal sonnets entitled Le Mépris de la vie et Consolation de la mort (”Contempt for Life and the Consolation of Death”).
19 - Maurice BLANCHOT, op. cit. p. 347.
20 - Id., p. 327.