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By Andréa Picard
“The intellect may be compared to a carver, but it has the peculiarity of imagining that the chicken always was the separate pieces into which the carving-knife divides it.”—Bertrand Russell
In Toronto in early March to put the final touches on his transplanted 2008 Secession sensation Das Auge (The Eye) at the Power Plant, the Paris-based Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn gave a public presentation meant to elucidate the themes and aesthetic crux of his soon-to-be unveiled (and somewhat reviled) exhibition. A coolly impassioned, gestural and teetering speaker, Hirschhorn—this year’s Venice Biennial representative for his native Switzerland—constantly strayed from the podium, moving beyond both spotlight and microphone to lankily hover in the darkness as he boomed his rather rudimentary presentation to a packed audience held in stupefied rapture for a thoroughly fascinating 90 minutes of monosyllabic slideshow. In broken Euro-inflected English, the dapper artist introduced his major themes in big, blocky capital letters, alongside a few supporting images: ones that inspired the exhibition and ones that actually figure into the melee, such as a phalanx of faux-blood-splashed fur coats at an animal rights protest, as well as installation views from the original Secession exhibition in Vienna. Though some of these images were visceral and disturbing, an undetermined irony pinned them to a mental supposition that Hirschhorn was playing with us, that his twisted kindergarten lecture—so simplified that it baffled the mind, complicating rational thought processes through their own negation—was in actual fact meant not to explicate but rather to enact the theoretical aspirations of the artist’s vocational process struggling to find meaning from a “new unclearness,” to use a bannered phrase hanging in the show.
Identified time and again as the “problem in need of solutions,” art-making for Hirschhorn—who was sounding more and more like a mad mathematician idiot savant poised to solve the complex equations of the world as his lecture went on—emerges from a sense of urgency and panic. As Hirschhorn’s Das Auge only sees red, a form preternaturally surfaces from experience, while an aesthetic (the “creative”) is born to non-ideal conditions. Both categorically clear and toyingly vague, this definition of the artwork was unremittingly supported by all of the Power Plant’s promotional materials, serving the mythology intrinsic to the work and the artist, who is routinely described in international art circles as maniacal and messianic in his methods. His graphic, disturbing, and hellishly immersive (read overwhelmingly crammed) sculptural installation sports a dime-store look and feel with its use of cheap quotidian materials (cardboard, Styrofoam, photocopies, cellophane, masking tape, plastic chairs and turkeys, etc…) and a cheeky twist on clichéd slogans easily identified as omniscient “signifiers” writ large. Das Auge sees what we ostensibly observe and reflects back all of the horrors in the world, the ones that we zealously create and refuse to notice, or instantly forget that we have witnessed, terror that we disavow and wilfully ignore.
As if to inveigh against all of the slaughter—wholesale and pointed, of man and animal—Das Auge predictably posits purity, in the form of whiteness, as its counterpoint. Within this dialectical equation, good and evil co-exist to form a bone-chilling, realistic Disneyland, all occluding in an artwork too vile for many to stomach in spite of its brazen artificiality. The numerous images of defilement and disemboweled victims, another of a man beheaded, are surely too sickening to bear for any sensitive and sentient being, no matter how desensitized we say we’ve become. But the desecrating and puerile shock aesthetics no doubt offer us “fuel for thought,” as one placard so obviously states, and in the end, one suspects that a profound humanism lies buried within the rampant revulsion, attempting to arouse our primordial sense of consciousness attained through mental and physical disgust. That the whole thing is de trop is of course also the point. We are duly reminded of the world’s pervasive sickness and of our being spared its reign (though, in some cases, the vegan fur-wearers among us may be paradoxical perpetrators). Can the gallery space rightfully refract and recast the loathsome and appalling images seen daily in the media, and, most importantly, if so, to what effect? These questions have been posed, argued, and variously answered innumerable times, and they are increasingly central to Hirschhorn’s ongoing project.
Yet in his talk, Hirschhorn rejected all intimations of politics, except when he suggested that the red-and-white flags in Das Auge—the colours of Switzerland (but also our native Canada, Japan, etc.)—were perhaps red because they were founded and built upon bloodshed, perhaps, consistently steering the conversation back to his building-block precepts of FORM, EXPERIENCE, MOTIF, and AESTHETIC. Obtuse but deviously clever, his couching of the work within a theoretical framework plops down the guts and intestines of a burden of responsibility onto the viewer, who is forced to decipher despicable images that we understand despite their should-be incomprehensibility. Whether they belong to the world or to the imagination becomes irrelevant and moot. Simply put, they are troubling and they exist before us; the rest is for us to do, to process, to ruminate, to bear, or to rebuff and shrug off as we head out to have lunch at St. Lawrence Market just a stone’s throw away. The artist’s straightforward emphasis rings true. As Canadians with a deep-rooted and historically conflicted stance on the barbaric tradition of seal-clubbing, fraught as it is with notions of race, culture, and colonialism, the piles of bloody adorable seals with their miniscule black coffins drifting from Styrofoam ice floes surely took on greater meaning here than in Vienna. That these cuddly martyrs belonged to the original iteration in Europe was used as fodder for Hirschhorn to convey their non-political presence within Das Auge. Perhaps this explains the conspicuous absence of Brigitte Bardot, seal-loving but risibly racist? She’s simply not part of the aesthetic.
Das Auge, while in keeping with much of Hirschhorn’s museum pieces—his messy room-filled installations or vitrines brimming with offensive collage cut-outs and recycled, punning consumerist junky materials—should best be considered in light of his early activist interventions. The installation is far less opaque than he would have us think (as he suggested in his talk, but that is the ruse of a very intelligent man unrelentingly playing a game that we also largely play) and engages on a very basic level. Hirschhorn calls into question FUNCTION, TASTE, RESPONSIBILITY, and ROLE for starters, not to mention positing the work’s intrinsic ideology (and ideas) as separate from that (and those) of the artist. Take for example, Georges Franju’s surrealist masterpiece Le sang des bêtes (1949), where the horror of slaughterhouse killing is preceded by a quiet idyll and a lover’s kiss. (An armless female mannequin in a suburban garbage heap seen in the film’s lyrical opening salvo could conceivably have found its way onto Hirschhorn’s blood-splattered fur catwalk, her feet a cellophaned Bernini version of Daphne rather than immersed in Franju’s humid, death-laden, post-WWII earth; the cycles of violence are forever clearly in motion.) The film’s much-discussed potential for internal protest lies with the viewer rather than its maker; the dispassion and distance brought to the garish and realist scenes of butchery linger in our mind’s eye, disrupting and ultimately confirming our fear of transparency. Surrealist where Hirschhorn’s work is absurdist (or an updated Dadaism), Le sang des bêtes creates poetry from the horrific, a compound nightmare that upsets more than simply the senses, excavating recent historical memory and trauma. Das Auge, while far from poetry, undoubtedly yields the potential for dissent and disgust, offering contemporary subversion as something which is equally and perhaps inexorably naïve, yet as presumptuous and as vital as ever.
Rarely seen are Hirschhorn’s performance videos from the ‘90s, all rather thrilling and anthemic in their own way. While many include the artist himself as posterboy for a cause with revving music to incite the masses (us!), one of his best videos is the more street-level vérité Fifty-Fifty à Belleville from 1992. Not unlike Louis Malle’s Place de la République (1974), which grounds the filmmaker in a working-class neighbourhood to interrogate its locals with an ethnographic but still lingering nouvelle vague Chronique d’un été (1961) ethos, Fifty-Fifty à Belleville sees Hirschhorn standing at the entrance/exit of the Belleville Metro station distributing leaflets to those coming and going. But the flyers are only proselytizing themselves; each is made-up of an original work of abstract art composed of strips of coloured masking tape, a staple in the artist’s studio. Riffing on Van Doesburg and Blinky Palermo-style abstraction, these pieces of paper are generally accepted by the commuters from the artist who is seen from a high angle, from the shoulders down, in a brown plaid wool coat holding a sizeable stack of leaflets. As the video progresses and the pile begins to dwindle, interesting and amusing interactions occur, such as passersby’s puzzled looks and queries, the huffy return of the meaningless and message-less tract, the realization that one of the works is made of red tape and a man obsessively attempting to peel it off. When a group of old ladies initially hesitates to take his offering, the artist snappily withdraws his handouts, rendering them momentarily despondent and spurned. In many ways obvious (stating art’s elitist, solipsistic, and self-important function, its peddling artist figure, etc.) Fifty-Fifty à Belleville also offers a striking ambiguity about art’s allure, and admits to its fallacy while wholeheartedly believing in its necessity. In other words, the video performance betrays some of its post-art-school veneer.
The more confrontational Das Auge does much of the same thing, but through a different “dynamic,” to use Hirschhorn’s expression. As if the final vestiges of youthful optimism have fallen away, his work has grown cruder, probing the deep recesses of the human psyche and doing so with the quasi-mystical, confident, and uncompromising style that has become his signature. With its “kaleidoscopic fragments blurring the distinction between good and evil”—as Das Auge cannot discern between the two—the general impressions resulting from the much-debated exhibition create a strange parallel to Bruno Dumont’s latest polarizing film, Hors Satan, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Much closer to his earlier films like La vie de Jésus (1997, winner of both the Camera d’Or and Jean Vigo prizes) and L’humanité (1999, Cannes Grand Prix winner) than to the more accessible and conventionally likeable Hadewijch (2009)—a film that brought him a host of new admirers despite its dubious treatment of terrorism—Hors Satan is set on the Côte d’Opale along the Atlantic Coast of northwestern France in the Pas-de-Calais, not far from where French officials recently cruelly cracked down on young migrants hoping to make it to the UK. The gorgeous and expansive dune-filled landscape magnificently stretches across the CinemaScope frame (superbly rendered by Yves Cape with focus-pulling perfection), providing Dumont with his most painterly setting yet, all sinewy and seeped in rich, dew-drenched earth tones. The film is a sight to behold with an elemental formal vocabulary mainly comprised of wide establishing shots (a strata of horizontal landscapes) and close-ups (faces and hands) that conspire in an entrancing monumental minimalism bathed in the sort of mystical crepuscular and early-morning light famously featured in Dutch genre painting. It’s his most formally precise film, his most Bressonian, and a helluva challenge to champion. Hirschhorn’s lesson in art-making comes in handy.
Scored to raw mono recordings of breath and wind recorded live, diegetically on set, Hors Satan (which sports the awkward English translation of Outside Satan) was strangely derided for being too openly interpretive (the WTF syndrome) with its disciplined (quasi-structural) de-dramatization and its nameless characters. He (David Dewaele, who played minor roles in Flandres and Hadewijch) is a rugged, impish hunter with glinting grace in his long-lashed blue eyes and She (non-actor newcomer Alexandra Lematre, who Dumont found in a local café) a skinny, spiky-haired goth girl with a translucent pallour and trembling fragility. She lusts for him, and while he consistently rebuffs her clumsy advances, he becomes her protector from the men who surround and torment her. But he’s both a guardian angel and an exterminating angel, one who kills in between meditative prayer sessions. The rugged hands of a supplicating hunter (of man and animal) are cleansed then cupped upward in an expression of faraway spiritual repose. There are incidents of brute carnality and violence, of course, and an impossibly spectacular conflagration appears out of nowhere, a Hades on earth—awesome and terrifying, and made suddenly to disappear. But as a whole, the film evinces an unusually languid and contemplative tone, wrapping the film’s intrinsic enigma in a discomfiting naturalism. What Dumont has referred to as the “incivility” of the film, its possibility of a Jesus-Satan figure (one who can presumably walk on water but forces others to instead) suggests the ultimate metaphysical battle with a subversive sense of deliverance. Bernanos and Bergson are guiding forces (maybe Zola, too), with Pialat’s controversial Palme d’Or winner Sous le soleil de satan (1987) lingering not far behind. There are exorcisms and a miraculous resurrection in Hors Satan, but Depardieu’s self-flagellating priest beset by a crippling lack of faith is here replaced by a dispossessed though thoroughly self-assured figure who embodies both good and evil, who can perform miracles without selling his soul to the Devil, as that would, simply speaking, be redundant.
Hors Satan’s elliptical nature and multiple readings are firmly beholden to the film’s form; Dumont has referred to his emphasis on “sensations” and the retrospective (instead of fleeting) meaning of images attained through careful composition and construction. With a striking refinement and reduction of his palette, and a sly sense of humour (yes, Buñuel should be added to that “B” list of influences), Dumont has reached a new level in his filmmaking. The absurd attacks launched at the film truly exist elsewhere (everywhere?) in varying degrees. In many ways the elemental to Hirschhorn’s excess, Dumont’s new film makes a strong case for art transcending dialectical logic, using the cruel contradictions that encircle us in order to reflect them back. They may be ghastly, morally reprehensible, and perversely awash in beauty. And in the case of Hors Satan, they are also intrinsically tied to its specific Northern French landscape. Franju would undoubtedly concur.