WHERE THE PHILOSOPHER SPEAKS A DEAD LANGUAGE, THE ARTIST SCRIBBLES MUTED EROTICISM ON PAPER
Positioning the study within the discipline and field of artistic research
In L’expérience intérieure, French author Georges Bataille wrote of experiences that are difficult to express in words. I wish to write a philosophical dissertation to trace these intensive experiences that fall outside the discursive. I want to air the appeal imposed by Bataille on his audience in his lecture at the Collège Philosophique in 1955. He argued for a ‘certain extravagant bohemianism of thought’. I would like to attempt to address this. The title of Bataille’s lecture was Sanctity, Eroticism and Solitude. Eroticism is a solitary activity and has been surrounded by taboos over time. The philosopher may refer to his (or her) own feelings, but the erotic experience will commit us to silence. Eroticism is an extreme experience and Bataille adds the experience of sanctity to it. The saint lives as though he is dying, to achieve eternal life. He also referred to ethnographer Marcel Mauss’ then barely accepted research into the sacrificial rituals of Indians in north-western America. These occur outside of profane times and during sacred times, transgressing both the taboo on sexual licentiousness and the taboo on murder.
Bataille establishes that philosophy is increasingly becoming a specialised discipline like the other sciences. Contemporary philosophy permits experience, but how can a philosopher write about it if he (or she) is engaged more in studying than in living? The philosopher devoting himself to murder and eroticism is, therefore, doomed to failure. To admit the immediate experience, ideally Bataille would like his audience to lend a willing ear to a capricious or unexpected whim, but then the lecture would end. When I am assailed by such whims, I am generally in the vicinity of my studio my studio where I can put a scribble to paper in perfect solitude. In that environment, I am open to the foolish flashes of which Bataille speaks. As an artist, do I really have access to the extreme experiences of murder and eroticism?
It is precisely these unexpectedly-occurring, irrational thoughts or ideas that Bataille presents to the philosophically-schooled audience and that make it difficult for me as an artist to compose a disciplined plan for a doctoral project phased over four years. This collides against the laws of artistic practice and is in total contradiction of Bataille’s vision. To cite an example from my practice: a few years ago, painter Gijs Frieling, as a tutor within the context of my Artistic Research MA, visited my studio in Amsterdam, and through his influence I produced drawings depicting an extreme experience from my youth. This occurred over a long working period for which I had actually already had other plans. It is evidently difficult to look ahead in art!
In the Amsterdam studio, a former whorehouse in a depressing neighbourhood, I had access to my traumatic experiences from my youth because I was able to make my drawings in absolute seclusion without having to talk to anyone. At no time did I speak of the occurrence, and neither was it necessary for Gijs. When he first saw Burnt Home 7, he actually enunciated precisely what the drawing depicted. It later appeared that the drawing is not immediately communicative on the actual nature of the biographical account, because the drawing engendered highly varying responses.
A letter my sister wrote to me after having seen the drawing on the invitation for my New York exhibition provides a literal description of what my mother did to kill my younger brother. Although it is an extremely uncomfortable read, the deed is easy to name, because my mother was sentenced for it. Earlier, at the request of the gallery owner, I had already written a brief description for my exhibition. As an explanatory note for my drawing, I wrote the following: ‘When as a 17-year-old I sat to paint in the kitchen I heard the irrefutable fact: my mother, a murderess! Even today, this causes endless ructions with brother and sister (both my brother and sister are portrayed in Burnt Home 7), whom I avoid and no longer see. Darger’s drawings help me to represent the ‘strangling scene’. The title of my description was An uncensored talk, which some visitors to the opening read eagerly. However, without a description, the drawing could be interpreted in a variety of ways, and that felt pleasant since with that drawing I had dredged up an occurrence without actually knowing what was true and what was not.
Description of the intended results (dissertation and artistic end-product)
Murder or no murder, I would not like to pronounce an ethical judgement on my mother; I adore her and I would like to keep it that way. Through the practice of philosophy, I establish a distance from the intimate feelings and can indeed think ethically about this issue in an indirect manner. The bible tells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which is in reality a story of an attempted premeditated murder with a different ending. God allows Abraham to sacrifice a lamb instead of Isaac. According to Bataille, a sacrifice without Isaac is no longer a sacrifice, it is a fall into the void, so he writes in L’expérience intérieure. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, refers in Fear and Trembling to a paradox that turns a murder into a holy act in order to please God. Kierkegaard draws back from the consequences of Abraham’s love for God, to whom Abraham assigns the responsibility. Derrida condemns these dubious ethics that, in the name of God, can lead to the murder of individuals and peoples. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I would like to elaborate this issue by studying the influence of Kierkegaard on Bataille and by considering what ethics Bataille adhered to.
In my mother, I recognise the unstable and irrational nature expressed in her impulses, and in this respect she perfectly matched the whims Bataille revalued in his lecture. Sudden attacks of rage or fear were not unknown to her, and with this nature she fitted in with the fellow inmates of the psychiatric institution where she stayed, even though as a child I felt that ‘my dear mum’ really didn’t belong there. From this perspective, I am planning a collaborative project with artist pietsjanke fokkema, of which living in the Het Vijfde Seizoen (The Fifth Season) artists’ accommodation of the Altrecht psychiatric institution is a part. Although I feel a depressing repulsion at recalling the psychiatric history of my mother, I am looking forward with pleasure to carrying out this project that would signal the start of my doctoral studies. The title of my plan is Laughing about Hegel. In my ‘philosopher’s costume’ (on view in my recent ‘New York drawing’), I want to portray laughing about Hegel. In her book The Comedy of Philosophy, Lisa Trahair devotes a chapter to Bataille’s philosophy of laughter, which boils down to ‘Bataille’s laughter at Hegel’s phenomenology’. I don’t think laughing about a book is expressive, but what could be finer than laughing at the sight of the philosopher Hegel? Is it normal to laugh about a brilliant philosopher and to collapse into helpless guffaws? This is reminiscent of a psychosis, when an emotion is expressed that is inappropriate to a situation, such as laughing during a funeral. Residence in Het Vijfde Seizoen appears to me to be an excellent environment in which to study and draw the laughing and crying grimaces of the occupants. Indirectly, I can immerse myself in the psychiatric history of my mother. In the past, I actually clung onto the image of ‘the rational philosopher’ to be able to withdraw from the quicksand of an exceptionally sensitive family drama. Conversely, through this detour of the intellect, I now want to seek inspiration in the psychosis, to upset the equilibrium of the intellect, and to disrupt it. I believe the residents of the Vijfde-Seizoen are masters of this.
It seems to me both liberating and confrontational to be able to draw such a convulsion of laughter, while also regarding it as a reaction to the I’m too sad to tell you ‘cry-work’ in which Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader breaks out in sobs. I have infinitely admired that short film, partly because I am unable to cry myself. I would like to produce an animated film of the laughing self-portraits to be drawn, so that my head gradually begins laughing alongside the head of Hegel. In contrast to the Ader type, which has something of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, who takes on the suffering of the world, I would like to portray the Dionysian laugh of Nietzsche, who embraces life and celebrates frenetically. After this practical experiment, I would like to conduct a study into the influence Nietzsche had on Bataille’s philosophy of laughter. This could be the topic of Chapter 2 of my dissertation.
The artistic end-product will comprise the continuation of my recent series Ma Mère et Georges B. to which I would like to add a new chapter. A precondition for doing so is that I further elaborate the figures of ‘Georges B.’ and ‘Ma Mère’. I would like to have a better grasp of their facial expressions, and I regard my ‘laughing self-portraits’ series as a preliminary study. Producing a short animation of ‘Georges B.’ and ‘Ma Mère’ might also be contemplated. In terms of image material, I would like to research the archives of Bataille and Laure (Bibliotheque-Nationale, Paris). I would like to be inspired by their relationship, which was brief. She, Colette Peignot, died in 1938 after which Bataille created the literary phenomenon, Laure.
In the principal body of my dissertation, I will apply myself to the study of both the philosophic and literary works Bataille wrote after the death of Laure until 1943, including La Somme athéologique.
Brief description of the artistic and theoretical starting points, hypotheses and issues
The following inscription can be read in Dutch on the Teekenschool art school building near the Rijksmuseum (National Museum): ‘Drawing is talking and writing simultaneously’. In the summer of 2011, this statement again became reality: in the future, the Teekenschool drawing was to be done from models, and this has now taken place at the De Appel art centre. The metaphor suggests that a talented artist can do without speaking and writing. One excellent artist was Peter Vos and his head was always filled with verse. In a marathon three-hour interview with him, I inferred that my working method is similar to that of Vos. He said he learnt a trade at the Rijksakademie in the 1950s. I don’t have that, but what is notable about the interview is that he was unable to do without the written language of another, usually well-known writer. He often read the books he illustrated twice. I am not an illustrator, but in my expressive work I am likewise dependent on the written language of others and, currently, on the books of Bataille, in particular. To Peter Vos, drawing was clearly something different than writing. His most important criterion was whether a drawing had succeeded. He took pride in not using any covering white to correct a drawing. He simply threw the drawing away and started afresh! I also have these principles and to this extent, my working methods are similar to those of Vos. What’s important is not what you have to say about a drawing, but only what you have drawn and what you can see. Drawing is not talking, so I ask myself just what the inscription at the Teekenschool means, because I am inclined towards the opposite view. My claim is that drawing is not speaking and writing simultaneously. I even wish to suggest that drawing is not speaking or writing philosophically, never mind both together. Whenever I deliver a lecture I am speaking philosophically and when I am writing a dissertation, I am writing philosophically.
In the interview, Vos said nothing further about the essence of art. I, on the other hand, do feel connected with conceptual artists because of their range of thought. Joseph Kosuth wrote a purely conceptual thought in his document Art After Philosophy (1969). Conceptual art concentrates on the said after the examples of the twentieth-century analytical linguistic philosophers. Because an artist is saying that a particular work of art is art, it is a priori true that it is art. Unlike Kosuth, I associate myself with the traditional, continental philosophy occupied with the unsayable. In his lecture discussed above, Bataille pointed to the experience of intense emotions. In L’experience intérieur, Bataille touches on this type of experiences that are intrinsically difficult to express, by using ellipses. He leaves a void where heterogeneous experiences cannot be expressed in homogeneous language. Does the artist indeed have access to these heterogeneous experiences? Can an artist express ‘the unspeakable’ in his drawings? If I can answer this question in the affirmative, then the ontological status of the drawing is essential. By studying Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, I will understand the essence of the status.
The method with which the relationship is established between the artistic and discursive results of the study
With a new work, I begin from a concept in order to situate it within a context. This offers a framework in which to work, but no more than that. I must make the drawing work produce that ‘something’ that withdraws from the discursive. It goes without saying that during the work process I am open to all manner of ideas and associations. This ultimately produces an autonomous work of art. I then need to adjust my original concept, but this is separate from the drawing. When I subsequently wish to achieve a discursive result in reflection and theory, I relate this to the modified, discursive concept and never to the drawing itself. The drawing is completed, but the concept of the drawing is subject to change.
A description of the steps that have already been taken in preparation for my doctoral studies
In 2008, before my studies commenced at the University of Amsterdam, I produced my first drawing entitled Ma Mère et Georges B. on an A4 sheet with pen, ink, and coloured pencil. I achieved my Artistic Research Master’s with a thesis entitled De soeverein Darger (The Sovereign Darger), which was marked 8.5. In that thesis, I expounded Georges Bataille’s theories on the basis of the life and work of the American Henry Darger.
In 2011, I drew the first chapter of Ma Mère et Georges B. entitled L’éternel retour (1943), comprising nine large coloured drawings.