I have so carefully mapped the corners of my mind
That I am forever waking in a lost country.
Vikram Seth, Summer Requiem
Antwerp, at last. After all, this is the place where my guide-dog Frank Zappa was supposed to lead me. However, his live guitar soli on the car’s speakers had absorbed my attention so much that, while travelling from Haarlem over Rotterdam and further south, instead of taking the highway Dordrecht-Antwerp I took the junction for Utrecht which led me ninety degrees off course. Listening intently to Zappa’s music, that road almost took me to the German border. What’s in a name? All those blasted cities in this part of the Netherlands end with -trecht.
Once I had corrected Zappa’s geographical instincts, I was caught up in a traffic jam of enormous proportions. Even when finally in Antwerp town – Zappa, at least musically, still on track for the umpteen time – I took another wrong turn-off and ended up far south of the city’s centre, whereas my destination was Constitution Street, situated sort of north. In fine, only small fry as sorrow goes.
Once in the house of the painter Raymond Barion whom I had come to visit, I was in good shape again. In two hours’ time a retrospective exhibition of his work would open, twenty three canvasses mostly done with the airbrush. The majority of these were already painted in the 80’s.
In a now faraway past I had organized a show of a large part of this collection, then held in the both impressive and beautiful hall of the building of the Faculty of Architecture where, at that time, I was teaching aesthetics. On both sides of this hall were window panes, eight meters high, turning it into a transparent space where even the sky seemed to be part of its interior. Here it is, this time with a different exhibition.
One of Barion’s paintings then exhibited – AQUA – became a displaced person. The artist had it transported to my home, a gift in return for labour done. After all these years it is still transforming my bedroom into an intriguing place, almost a dystopia in which I feel somewhat estranged, psychologically verfremdet, turning me as it were into a stranger to myself.
This effect not only results from the image itself, about which more further on, it is also an effect of the dislocation of the canvas. After three weeks of having seen it as part of the exhibition in that great hall, surrounded by its soul mates, it now suddenly overfilled my room in which, for a long time, I did not feel at home.
Yet, after a long period looking at it in this bedroom, it has also become habitual. I now even need to concentrate to really see it. Over time more and more the room has become its usual context – its niche. Even if the canvas covers almost two by one and a halve meters, one’s gaze grows finally accustomed and gets dulled.
To counter this stultification of the eye, even in one’s own house the art collection must occasionally be rearranged, if only by way of exchanging just one painting or one sculpture for another, perhaps even by merely changing the position of one figurine. Thus, they re-acquire that element of shock which made you obtain such things in the first place.
Now in Antwerp, once again taken from its regular place of hanging and transported back to its place of birth into an old laundry house used as art gallery, Aqua will probably give me a renewed feeling of estrangement. Of a sudden, I shall probably miss my bedroom around the painting, the advantage however being that I may experience it once again fresh.
Apart from this feeling of estrangement as a result of this change of place, Aqua and Barion’s other paintings themselves also exemplify what Bert Brecht once coined as Verfremdungeffekt. When this is what the artist aims at, a work of art is expressly constructed in such a manner as to distance its observer, whether in the theatre or in the gallery, a reserve which allows him to reflect on what is going on in the images, or for that matter in his own mind – ideologically and/or aesthetically.
The essay I wrote for the Barion catalogue was called Machinal Metamorphoses; it analyses the special version of Verfremdung in his work as effecting a hyperventilation of our gaze.
In these paintings the observer becomes aware of things which at first are difficult to register as something specific, even as something one can name. Once eventually recognized, and then quite suddenly, one becomes aware of another object which it is also, yet not simultaneously so. The image turns out to be both objects, something which obviously cannot be true. Breathlessly the eye is gasping, changing its object and perspective over and over again.
More or less in line with Jastrow’s rabbit/duck picture, which Wittgenstein explains in his Philosophical Investigations.
In this image it is possible to discern both a little duck as well as a little rabbit. The plot is that one can never see both animals at the same time; there is a switch in perspective needed, each time one is looking for the other animal, whether duck or rabbit. Insistent metamorphosis.
Barion’s Temple is another good example.
Here we see the same mechanism of perception at work, in fact using the Gestalt function of our experience. All of our sensing is always in need of an indistinct background against which something specific is recognized in the foreground. What is involved in the duck/rabbit picture and in Temple is our continuous shifting between these two.
After the image has been registered as both a plug holder, with its little plastic flap in which the bricoleur checks the size of his plugs, and a classical temple with Doric columns, the gaze begins hyperventilating from one perspective object to the other and back again, being wrong-footed because of the incongruent sizes involved. The catalogue text once again: What is on the canvas, is seen as both colossal great and colossal small – ‘at the same time’.
In Aqua there is the effect of a space that looks like one space which, just before or immediately after this has been registered as such, is not so any longer. It turns out to be also plural space. In this case we may speak of an assault on the unequivocally perspective space. And again, the hyperventilation of our gaze sets on.
Something like this is going on when while observing the sculptures of Barion.
The catalogue text describes these airy and eerie objects as accurately designed ruins, this in contrast with buildings originally well designed and only subsequently ruined. Think of the church in Dresden, once bombed at the end of the 18th century.
In the case of Barion’s ruins the bizarre has crept in. Could that bronze, even in its wildest dreams, have imagined that the building in which it was exhibited would burn down – decades later, in the month may of the year 2008? Could it have fathomed its awesome resemblance to that bankrupt building where it first saw its public light?
Faculty of Architecture Delft, 2008
Under ordinary conditions the size of our own body is used as vantage point for our perspective and as the standard for the gauging of the size of things surrounding us – our benchmark. In this all too human perspective, a thing may be small, infinitesimally small, large or perhaps even colossal.
In our age of de-subjectivation, however, in which both philosophy and the arts do not take the opposition of subject and object, nor our perspective space for granted any longer, images confronting us may suddenly force our gaze to engage in a picture of for instance enlarged crystals and consider these to be our measure instead of man the measure. Ocean wide they suddenly are.
By the time of the fire that destroyed the building of The Faculty of Architecture, all the canvasses and sculptures had already been returned to their respective places of hanging, one of the sculptures landing in my study. What was written then has now become a daily experience, when from time to time during my siesta my gaze is turned to that sculpted ruin, it continuously makes this transformation happen, again and again. The observer becomes now small, then colossal again. One becomes conscious of the volatile nature of our own gaze and experience, of the plasticity of our senses, their capacity for hyperventilation…
And indeed, inside that Antwerp laundry turned gallery, quite open-mindedly I meet my AQUA, now surrounded once again by those other colourful and mysterious canvasses, even new ones I had not seen before. In the same manner Barrion and I meet again, old men rejuvenated by being brought back to that first exhibition in Delft: the artist, his work and the attentive observer.
All this without a trace of nostalgia, in the marvellous appreciation of that old wise saying: Ars longa, vita brevis. Those canvasses – they easily survive both of us, good art as they are, they remain much longer fresh. By now, the two of us have grown lacklustre, at least as appearances go. Perhaps, inside is yet enough resilience to go for it.
Sierksma, Antwerp, 4.4.14