Published in 2011 by Crymogea Publishers, Iceland
English & Icelandic
ARTWORK THAT CONTESTS ITSELF
Ólafur Gíslason 2010, Crymogea Publication (Guðjón Ketilsson 1990-2010). Introduction text.
Ego sum could have been the title of Guðjón Ketilsson’s self-portrait from about 1990, one of a large number of similar works that distinguish his early career: heads carved from tree trunks, with more or less effaced facial features, some blindfolded or muzzled, others eyeless, the organs of sense poorly-delineated overall. The self-portrait addressing us here is blind and noseless but open-mouthed, with a full mane and a proud thick neck. Undeniably the image begs the question: who is speaking to us in this work? Who is this ego, this subjectivity that rears up in the form of a phallic tree-trunk? What subjectivity speaks to us blindly, having no apparent connection to the surrounding world other than its open mouth, which is clearly the speech organ the primal original subjectivity first expressed in a newborn’s cry, inconsolable until it latches onto the thrumming magnanimous nipple of the soft maternal breast? What sounds come out of that mouth? What voice is that, speaking to us?
In one of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s more ingenious works, Not I (1972), the mouth of the actor is the only thing that can be seen expressing itself on stage, beyond a dimly-glimpsed black-clad “Auditor” whose role consists only of raising his or her arms when the mouth pauses in its speech. The title, Not I, underscores Beckett’s understanding that the self has somehow evaporated, or hidden itself behind the more or less incoherent rush of words that streams from this speaking mouth. These organs of speech seem to belong to a middle-aged woman who recounts her murky trials in a relentless stream of words, pausing three times while “the Auditor” raises his or her arms in despairing silence. In a fourth pause “the Auditor’s” arms sink just as the voice disappears into its own murmuring behind the falling curtain. We are left facing the classic problem of the Self, Cogito, ergo sum,I think therefore I am, posed by French philosopher René Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on Method.
This statement is often seen as the metaphysical premise of modern scientific thought, but it has also been a bone of endless contention due to its inherent contradictions. Over the years people have dealt in various ways with the inherent contradiction of a subjectivity positing itself. Sigmund Freud insisted that the Ego was not the master of its house but rather subject to the suppressed and involuntary urges of the subconscious; and Nietzsche derided Descartes’ thinking subject as follows:
“For in the past one believed in ‘the soul’ as one believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: one said ‘I’ is the condition, ‘think’ is the predicate and conditioned – thinking is an activity to which a subject must be thought of as cause. Then one tried with admirable artfulness and tenacity to fathom whether one could not get out of this net – whether the reverse was not perhaps true: ‘think’ the condition, ‘I’ conditioned; ‘I’ thus being only a synthesis producedby thinking. Kant wanted fundamentally to prove that, starting from the subject, the subject could not be proved – nor could the object: the possibility of an apparent existence of the subject, that is to say of ‘the soul’, may not always have been remote from him....
Nietzsche’s idea that our subjectivity had only “apparent existence,” was conditioned by language, and hidden by a mask, also forms the basis of the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-81). The Freudian subconscious did not, Lacan believed, derive from inherited inborn urges; rather, its structure was the same as that of language, preceding our experience and self-consciousness and independent of them. Self-consciousness was the ceaseless conversation of the self with the “Other” that dwells in all people, the unknown X, the speaking subconscious of symbols. Thus subjectivity lies in the workings of language.
Drawing support from structuralist theories of linguistics, Lacan saw subjectivity much as he saw the word-symbol itself, built from fluid connections between the signifier (concept or word) and the signified (the image the word calls to mind). We are simultaneously interpreters and speakers of language, and our self-image is determined by this interpretation, which is more or less dependent on our wishful thinking, desires, and beliefs.
This history is traced here for the light it sheds on the speaker in Guðjón Ketilsson’s self-portrait and on the new direction Ketilsson’s visual language will take in his subsequent art. That visual language is indeed a large part of what is speaking to us in the self-portrait, yet here we also see a strong symbolic allusion to a central concept in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Father-image, or what Lacan calls the Law of the Name of the Father.
The father-image that we can infer from Guðjón Ketilsson’s self-portrait would seem to be the damaged father-image, a damaged phallic symbol. This image of erect and upright posture seems to have lost its legislative power as the omnipotent signifier that sets rules for the family and society. The subjectivity that speaks to us from this work may be upright like an erect member but it has lost out in a struggle with language. It appears to be a symptom, referring back to primitive needs of the child who communicates and copes with its surroundings solely through its mouth, which opens for the nipple of its mother’s breast. As we shall see, the intermediary symbolic sphere of subjectivity will weaken and disappear in a radical way in Ketilsson’s work. Consequently our inquiry into his images will shift from subjectivity and its role as intermediary to an inquiry into language in and of itself, its locus and being.
“Language is the precinct (templum), that is, the house of Being,” Martin Heidegger says in his 1926 essay on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.Guðjón Ketilsson’s 1996 exhibition at Reykjavik’s Nordic House, which marked a turning point in Ketilsson’s artistic development, seemed to visually render this thought of Heidegger’s and to shed light on its relationship to Lacan. Here the personal display of subjectivity that we conceived from the head images has vanished, and been replaced by a play on form. Here it is the language itself that communicates, with no intermediary.
The most memorable work in the Nordic House exhibition was Village, comprising 43 pieces, all variations on the same form. That form is the simplest imaginable image of a house, in relief on unpainted wood showing a gable end, slanting roof, and one wall. All the houses have the same proportions but no two are alike, for in one the roof juts over the gable, in another the gable end protrudes; the wall may extend beyond the roof or gable, and so on down the line. This may be called “variations on a form” but I have called it “an essay on the concept ‘house’”in order to emphasize that the work hinges on its language, in the structuralist sense of the connection or lack thereof between the word and the thing to which it refers, in this case, obviously, transferred into visual language.
The work depicts the variations and interplay of three geometric forms, which we preconceive to be “houses” because they resemble a child’s first picture of a house, understandable to all regardless of nationality, language, or history. A house is a place to be born in, live in, and die in. But if mankind had, since the beginning, cultivated the making of round, spherical, or octagonal dwellings, as does the wasp, for example, then what we have here would be mere geometrical variations. What confuses the geometry in this case is the essential meaning that the house has for all people. With Lacanian theory in mind we may say that, in these works and as of this exhibition, Guðjón Ketilsson has abandoned the broken home of the despotic father-image and Signifier to launch into the uncharted waters of what Heidegger calls “the Open” and Lacan calls “nothingness.” Ketilsson is exploring language that has been parted from its object, the signified. Words no longer possess and refer to ideas but indicate the invisible, the undefined, that which can only be understood symbolically. These house images tell us nothing about houses. As the repetition and variations insist, these images are not meant to “represent” multiple likenesses of a particular house. This work announces that Guðjón Ketilsson has left the haven of subjectivity in which we are shown an image of his world. He now intends to show us the language that speaks and sings, the song for being, for its own sake, as described in one Rilke sonnet to Orpheus cited by Heidegger:
[S]ong is existence. Easy for the god. But
when do we exist?...
When we love? That's what you think when you're young;
not so, though your voice forces open your mouth,—
learn to forget how you sang. That fades.
Real singing is a different kind of breath.
A nothing-breath. A ripple in the god. A wind.
Heidegger cites this poem to tell us that the essence of being dwells in language itself. Our problem in compassing its truth is that language is not bound to any purpose or goal, but only to being itself, which is the natural dwelling-place of Orpheus but not of man. To gain the song, man must venture and brave the abyss of nothingness which gave rise to him and awaits him. The objects and metaphors of the calculating mind lord over us; our only way to escape their power is through the unshieldedness of a language that doesn’trepresentbut is. For language’s sake, if we may. This language requires a logic different from that of calculating thought, a logic of the heart, that alone can open up to us the inner worlds that the quantifiable can never compass.
Guðjón Ketilsson’s next exhibition was as surprising as his house series had been. In November 1997, at the Living Art Museum, Ketilsson exhibited shoes carved from solid wood, polished, modeled, and beautifully painted black, in pairs, all identical. In a round rack on the floor, lined up along the wall, on the wall, and also in a “rose” affixed to the wall, pairs of black shoes arranged in a circle around a black dot on a golden background. Ketilsson calls his shoes Proxies. Made in 1994-95, the shoes are in some sense a logical continuation of the house series, in that they too refer to a generality rather than an individual thing; yet they go still further. The piece is placed on the walls and floor, pairs of shoes lined up along the mouldings, as if to underscore that what we have here is neither a traditional free-standing nor wall-mounted work. Another key difference is that the shoes are all alike. Just as the house is a place to be born, live, and die in, shoes are things to stand and walk in. The title Proxieshere refers more to the absence of the body than to any actual model in a real pair of shoes.
Though it was not likely intended as such, this exhibition was like a footnote or comment on one of the most noteworthy interchanges in the twentieth century about the history of art. The interchange began in 1936 when Martin Heidegger wrote on Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoesin his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art;”this in turn provoked American art historian Meyer Schapiro’s essay “The Still Life as a Personal Object” (1968);and Jacques Derrida followed with a long and complex elucidation of this interchange, his essay “Restitutions de la vérité en pointure.”Derrida presents his essay as a debate in the voices of (n + 1) women, taking Van Gogh’s paintings and Heidegger’s and Schapiro’s writings as an occasion to stage a philosophical debate that ranges far beyond the narrow frame of the painting and the pair of shoes.
The catalyst for Meyer Schapiro’s critique of Heidegger’s essay was Heidegger’s assumption, virtually undefended, that Van Gogh’s shoes pertained to the peasant class, to a farmwife in particular, and thereby open up her world to us. Schapiro denies the assumption; clearly these are “city shoes” belonging to the painter himself. He connects Heidegger’s argument to his critique of modern technology and the pastoral romantic ideas that led him to support Nazism.
Thus the dispute centred not on the painting as a whole but on the gender and class of the feet that had used the depicted shoes. Derrida puts an entertaining spin on this by leading the discussion into the gender and possible sexual idolization of the shoes. He points out that Van Gogh’s shoes do not have an unambiguous gender, as Schapiro claims—which also applies to Guðjón Ketilsson’s shoes, neatly cobbled from a last that could be male or female and is, by itself, timeless. As Derrida points out, Schapiro hoists himself with his own petard, for his basis for argument about the shoes’ gender, that the shoes in question were the painter’s own, was no more historically grounded than Heidegger’s; moreover, the argument leads us astray. Schapiro uses the (imaginary) foot as a starting point, describing the artwork in terms of the tradition known as the aesthetics of mimesis, whereas Heidegger’s argument leads in the exactly opposite direction: It’s the painting that speaks, not the foot, in this work, and so we must trace “the truth” of the work backwards, not from the model or possible owner of the shoe but from the work to its import and origin and ultimately its being.Thus Heidegger may be said to contradict himself by starting with the assumption that the work depicts a farmwife’s shoes.
To compare Guðjón Ketilsson’s cobblings and Van Gogh’s Peasant Shoesreveals such a radical difference that it might seem to require a leap of imagination. But on closer examination, it is perhaps the very difference, and the comparison, which makes Ketilsson’s work fascinating and which can best deepen our understanding of it.
On the one hand we have an expressionist oil painting in rather dark earth tones that suggest earth, dirt, and hard labour, a kind of homage to the world of lower-class struggle. On the other hand, shoes carved from wood, perfect in their timeless and genderless form, finely sanded and polished and, in contrast to Van Gogh’s shoes, not particularly earthbound. They shuffle around, lining the walls as well as hanging on them. In the first case we have a picture conveying highly personal expression and insight, in the second a work that initially seems bent on erasing all personal expression, all authorship, and all ties to time, fashion, and gender.
Van Gogh’s image refers to a specific contained world and specific pair of shoes, whereas Ketilsson’s work refers to a generality: his shoes are a general concept, a kind of signifier, signifying all shoes regardless of gender or period. If we want to explore this difference in Heidegger’s terms, we must adopt his thinking and try to imagine the being of these shoes, of pairs of shoes, and shoes in general.
In brief, Heidegger says that Van Gogh’s painting does what all true artwork does:it engages truth (sets it into work) and makes it happen.The painting has spoken and told us the truth of the thing’s being. Neither the feet nor their owners do that. We should note here that in this essay Heidegger intends us to understand truth in a different sense than we usually encounter. Truth is when the word or statement corresponds to the things to which it refers. Thus a painting would be “true” if it corresponded in every way with its model. We know that it does not. Yet in Heidegger’s meaning the truth of the artwork has nothing to do with reproduction. That is why an argument over the ownership and gender of the depicted shoes was misleading from the start.
The traditional understanding of the correspondence of expressions to things is based on the premise that truth is timeless and that things obey the laws of logic expressed by the language of correspondence. That is the metaphysical tradition. In Heidegger’s eyes, truth is ephemeral, an historical occurrence. The work opens a new horizon to us, shows us, in the present case, the being of shoes, and unveils for us the World of which shoes, along with the rest of mankind’s equipment and craft, are a part. In the case of Van Gogh’s painting, Heidegger believes the world in question belongs to a farmwife. When the work is complete it stands on its own, independent of the artist (and his feet!). The work withdraws into itself at the same time as it shows us an image of the World. This vanishing of the work into itself, its solitariness, is what Heidegger calls the work’s relationship to Earth. This relationship requires that the author stand aside and let the work speak for itself. The event of the work, its revelation and invocation of the truth, entails mutual engagement between Earth and the World, between concealment and display. To display an image of the world entails the unveiling of being in the world:
Both Earth and the World together frame mankind’s fate of being in the world; for man, being is temporal and final. Being appears to us in the light of the nothingness that it fills. Thus a new understanding of being as an event forms the basis of all Heidegger’s thought and also the basis of his notion that artwork engages truth and makes it happen.
In order to understand Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s painting, we need to keep in mind his basic ideas of being, truth, equipment, the work, the World, and Earth. All his thought proceeds from these concepts; he moreover asserts that all aesthetics of mimesis are misguided. The beautiful in art is not a material characteristic but something that art makes happen through its working.Even if we can’t accommodate all Heidegger’s premises, his ideas of art as the source of a new experience of truth have had wide influence on all contemporary discussion about the value of art.
The parallel to Guðjón Ketilsson’s work Proxiesis close, shoes being again the subject matter, yet Ketilsson’s shoes are many, identical, and arranged rather freely, it would seem, on the floor and walls of the gallery space. To apply the same method as Heidegger, we would ask ourselves what truth Ketilsson’s Proxies tells us about shoes. One thing is certain: The work does not open up to us an individual farmwife’s world such as Heidegger saw in Van Gogh’s work. Ketilsson’s shoes seem to refer to all shoes and thus have a linguistic character as asignifier,signifying all shoes. If, however, the work is about language/visual language, that forces the question of who is the original speaker in the work. Here we arrive at the elusive word ‘subject’,for which there is no Icelandic equivalent but which can carry meanings as disparate as subject matter, primary cause, grammatical subject, entity, substance, the ego, citizen, and underling. The shoes are certainly subject matter in the literal sense, as we stand on them all day and they bind us to the earth. As ‘equipment’ (Zeug) they also enable us to lift ourselves from the earth, move, and walk. In Ketilsson’s rendering the shoes are loosely bound to earth, and lightly climb the walls, like a Signifier that has come loose from the signified. Like a proxy looking for its original, which has disappeared—the original in this case not being a specific pair of shoes but the person and body who experienced his bond to earth through his shoes.
Let’s return to how Heidegger, Schapiro, and Derrida explain Van Gogh’s painting. Schapiro’s theory was that since Van Gogh’s shoes were his own everyday shoes, the painting in reality was a self-portrait, in which the shoes were the artist’s “proxy,” some kind of image of his body and aspect. It was not possible to separate the artist from his picture. Derrida in turn points out that Schapiro has nonetheless allowed himself to imagine the shoes belonging to a farmwife; Schapiro argues that even if one grants the farmwife, Heidegger has still missed the heart of the matter, the presence of the artist in his work, whether embodied as a farmwife, or, going further, in “farmwife Van Gogh wearing her shoes,” the only thing lacking being the face and the inscription, Vincent Van Gogh fuit hic. Derrida’s method of taking this logic to the limits of absurdity is not mere entertainment: it shows us how Schapiro views the shoes as the face and aspect of Van Gogh. He doesn’t look down, at the feet, the shoes, and the dirt, rather upward, topmost. And this, Derrida points out, seems to throw Schapiro and Heidegger’s opposing views into relief; Derrida asks, “Did not MH look downward, down at earth and nothingness?”
Both Schapiro and Heidegger paint their own thought into the picture, thought that is not there to begin with. The difference, however, is that Heidegger spends his entire essay contesting such an approach, speaking of the work’s “solitariness,” its “self-subsistence,” and the “self-seclusion of earth” that shields the work from all over-interpretation and direct ties to its author and his self-image.
Perhaps this brief comment from Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” best illustrates what he sees in Van Gogh’s painting:
A painting by Van Gogh: a pair of sturdy peasant shoes, nothing else. The picture really represents nothing. [Das Bild stellt eigentlich nichts dar.] Yet you are alone at once with what is there, as if you yourself were heading homeward from the field on a late autumn evening, tired, with your hoe, as the last potato fires smolder out. What is in being here? [Was ist da seiend?] The canvas? The brushstrokes? The patches of colour?
Here MH alludes to his thought on being and nothingness, which he sees as inextricable “because being is not something given a priori, something beyond its manifestation to us in language and history, rather it is that manifestation;”so that Heidegger’s basic question about metaphysics is:
Why are there beings at all, instead of nothing? [Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts?]
We perceive being only in the light of nothingness, just as we perceive life only in the light of death. Being is an event that occurs in the face of non-being (nothingness), and that is the measurement that the language of quantifying science cannot compass. The nothingness that being cleaves is beyond the province of scientific calculation and therefore poetry alone can fill the abyss and make truth happen.
Even if we do not submit to the conceptual framework in which Heidegger places his thought, his thought is undeniably useful in understanding the difference between aesthetics of mimesis, which Derrida says that Schapiro is trapped in, and the idea that Heidegger wrestles with in his quest to shatter the conceptual framework of mimesis by starting from the work itself, its language, its setting-to-work, its being, without regard to the gender of feet that are not depicted or the image’s likeness or fidelity to its model. The aesthetics of mimesis and representation are based on a distinction between the thing depicted and subjectivity: thought preconceives the image it wishes to show us of the object. In visual art, these aesthetics gained theoretical foundations during the Renaissance. The individual eye of the artist was to guide us into a proportional and geometric frame of perspective, which was meant to transfer an image of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional picture-plane in a reliable way, corresponding to the truth. The artists of sixteenth-century Mannerism swiftly discovered the fatal flaw in these principles and tried to dissolve and transcend the boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity by emulating artistic craft but using natural appearance as an indirect reference to convey the space that comes into being between the perceived and the perceiver, spatial elements that could be not discerned unless the being of the perceiver, and hence also of the perceived, were excluded from the picture.
Ever since, art discourse has been more or less preoccupied with the aesthetics of representation and mimesis on the one hand and an aesthetics of being on the other. If we bring this discourse to bear on the Proxies of Guðjón Ketilsson’s shoes, we see that he does not concern himself with showing us particular shoes. The piece, like the house series, is about form, the form of visual language itself. It too portrays the absence of the work’s original speaker, the absence of the body that its forms stand in for. But while the house images varied in form, each shoe is exactly alike to the finest detail. The language here is the work speaking independently; like all symbols, it ultimately refers to nothing but itself, by virtue of the essential characteristic of symbols, that we cannot define their references better than they themselves do.
If the works discussed above have anything in common, it is absence: the absence of the self-portrait’s primitive subjectivity consisting of nothing but an open mouth, the absence of the idea of the house as dwelling place in the formal variations of the house series and the absence of the foot/person in the shoe images that no more fulfil their thingly role as shoes than the houses fulfilled their thingly role as dwellings. The visual language refers to itself. Equally, it evokes the absence of its original occasion or subject. What, then, can we say of Ketilsson’s work Acne, which was shown at Gallerí Sævar Karl’s year-2000 millennial exhibition, a work on medium-density fibreboard in countless hair’s-breadth layers of flesh-toned lacquer paint, sanded down to create about 2000 pimples on a 100 x 45 cm2 area?
At first glanceAcnediscomfits us. It looks like a photograph in a medical journal, illustrating symptoms of a skin disease, such as smallpox for example; yet it would be absurd to imply that the picture is meant to instruct us on the nature of skin disease. Perhaps our discomfiture stems from the very care and technical precision that Guðjón has devoted to this piece. It first seems to show us a skin problem but on closer examination it perhaps illustrates the inability of even the most painstaking artistic craft to tell us any truth about such diseases and objectivity in general. Despite all Ketilsson’s painstaking and precision we have no way of discerning what kind of body or body part this flat surface pertains to. Indeed we do see that the “break-out” is a bit sparser and sharper in the centre and slightly more crowded, lush, and diminutive on the edges, suggesting a somewhat convex surface, as the focus tends toward the centre (as if we were looking through a lense or magnifying glass). Still we are left in total uncertainty about what this ravaged skin might conceal other than the fibreboard surface of the painting. Again, we perceive the tell-tale absence of the model, a visual language referring largely to itself and to the very act of making such an image. The space that Guðjón Ketilsson creates between the surface of the picture and the reality that the surface calls to mind is also the abyss that has come into being through our loss of trust in the ability of art in general to make a reliable image of the world.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has extrapolated on Hegel’s understanding of how Greek divine images and religious art lost their vital spark during the Roman era as belief in sacred groves and temples faded: Our understanding of Greek divine images is merely superficial, since we cannot grasp the inner ethical and religious meanings they once harboured. It is like the difference between perceiving a living fruit hanging from a tree, fully grounded in its natural surroundings, and perceiving a plucked fruit, from which we must wipe the dust to gain an inkling of its possible import or meaning. Hegel uses the image of a maiden presenting a fruit, like the Roman-era Pompeiian image of a girl offering fruit to the gods; Hegel’s Pompeiian girl, Nancy says, is like an heir to the Muses, offering the dead fruits of vanished gods.
Nancy sees this Pompeiian girl as a kind of angel, leading all the divine images of antiquity to the manger in Nazareth. This ritual is not merely for defrocking the gods of their inner life; by “offering” and “displaying” her works, the maiden assumes the role of founder and protector of the museum. Once arrived in the museum, her works definitively become “works of the Muses.” Taken from their original habitat and clime, these lost fruits survive on the strength of their beauty. “The fruits are dead, because detached, but this death preserves for them an inalterable sensuousness,” says Nancy.
Further, Hegel’s Roman-era Pompeiian girl, offering plucked fruits of the past, illustrates the fate of religion (including Hegelian Christianity), which thus is opposite to that of art, and also to that of Hegelian philosophy, this philosophy having gained a full and absolute self-knowledge. Art and philosophy are both forms of the ideal, the former in objectivity, the latter in the abstract form of thought and language; but religion does not enjoy comparable freedom in its urge toward the ideal and therefore contains the seeds of its own destruction. What remains is plucked fruits that inevitably lose their value as manifestations of Divinity but instead become artworks built by the hand of man, a result of craft and poetry.
The un-conscious and in-animate exteriority of the work of art which constitutes strictly the element of beauty, is thus what remains when the gods have disappeared in this form, and this remainder, as such, is also the sustained moment, subsisting by itself, of the “in-itself” which has its mediation entirely outside itself.
In Hegel’s theory of the end of art as a religion of beauty, Nancy sees no ending. On the contrary, the ending may be seen as the beginning of an art that serves no god and no religion and therefore refers to nothing but “what remains” of the tradition, not just in form, but first and foremost in the act of presenting and revealing itself as its own truth.
Thus, in Guðjón Ketilsson’s painting Acne, we discern an image of the diseased surface that conceals nothing but the fibreboard it is painted on yet reveals and shows us the values entailed in the act of making such a work, to the glory of itself and nothing else. That is the manifestation of being that remains when the gods and our trust in the aesthetics of mimesis have yielded to being in its manifestations, above all, perhaps, in what has ever been the mainstay of good art: the trace of the hand that shapes the world’s outward material reality with care and respect.
Guðjón Ketilsson took a new approach to the question of “what remains” of art in our times in two memorable exhibitions, his 1999 exhibition Fragmentsat the ASÍ Art Museum and his 2002 work, TheWedding.
In both cases the works in question were painted wooden reliefs of fragments of familiar artworks from past centuries. In Fragments,Guðjón Ketilsson exhibited clothing that he had cut from familiar Dutch and Italian paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He transfers the clothes to wood and gives them three-dimensional form, carefully shaping, smoothing, and painting the fragments in their “original” colours. As in that flowering of European painting, no effort is spared in craftsmanship; yet the clothes, removed from their original context, seem to us to lack any visible symbolic or semantic reference. Various fragments of clothing are represented, with a special series devoted to the loincloths of the crucified Christ. A notable example is the brilliant-red mantle from Jan Van Eyck’s 1431 painting of the Virgin Mary with Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, one of the pivotal works of the Dutch Renaissance. Ketilsson titles his work simply Mary’s Clothing,without further reference to its origin, which recedes quietly like the Virgin Mother herself, no longer seeking visual realization in contemporary art.
Jean-Luc Nancy continues extrapolating on Hegel’s theory of the “death of art” in a second essay published in his 1994 collection Les Muses.As the title indicates, “The Vestige of Art” examines what remains of art when it has been thought out from top to bottom, as Marcel Duchamp put it. Nancy’s question essentially concerns what remains when the Image has withdrawn from its role as what Hegel calls the “sensuous manifestation of the Idea:” when nothing is left but withdrawal, the image has ceased to represent Divinity, and is no longer a perceptible representation of the Idea. Nancy draws an analogy from the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas, from Aquinas’ discussion of the trace God leaves behind on Earth, which he says shows us “signs of the traveller without telling us who he is.” This is how Hegel envisioned visual art abandoning its role as Image, the image that manifests the invisible. When nothing invisible is left, as the current age attests, then art has nothing to manifest but itself. Art becomes like smoke where there is no fire. It becomes smoke without fire, a trace without God, and renounces its role of manifesting the Idea. Thus Hegel envisioned the “end” of art in its role as image and the simultaneous emergence of a new art of the vestige, smoke, the absence of the Idea and God and the absolute truth and beauty that art had taken to be its subject matter. What does this mean?
Nancy says that we must think beyond this concept of vestige (remainder, signs, trace) that evokes the soles of feet, footprints, or a path in the sand. The soles of our feet are the antithesis of our faces, as the most covered-up parts of our bodies; this recalls Mantegna’s “atheological” painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in which we face the soles of the Son of Man’s feet.The bottoms of our feet, Nancy continues, bring us into “the domain of the horizontal,” with no vertical connection to our heads. The vestige is what remains of the trace, not its image: the trace is its own image. As such, the vestige is the act, yet not the work. The trace is merely incidental, a kind of advent without locus, the mere trace of a path. Nancy concludes that contemporary art is its own trace, remainder, or vestige.
The question is whether we can regard Guðjón Ketilsson’s cut-out clothing as such a trace, bearing witness to the God that has departed but left behind something important embodied in the trace itself and the act of tracing it. That act is a kind of sacrificial ritual, like the sacrificial ritual of the Pompeiian girl who offers the plucked fruits of the dead gods. In this sense Ketilsson’s clothing-series exhibition testifies to his awareness of art’s departure from its given tradition—an awareness that indeed is prerequisite to the new aesthetic experience, which in this case turns out to include traditional workmanship.
The same may be said of another astonishing Ketilsson work, The Peasant Wedding, comprised of wooden reliefs of the headwear of the guests at Pieter Brueghel’s 1568 Peasant Wedding.The headwear depicted in the work supposedly announced the profession of each guest, and indeed the painting is a remarkable source on the ways of sixteenth-century Dutch society. The beautifully-carved hats in Guðjón Ketilsson’s reliefs are mounted on the wall according to their positions in the two-dimensional painting, recalling its memory, its trace, its vestige. But to us this headwear no longer expresses anything about society or class divisions. It survives on the strength of its own form and the craft that has been devoted to it. A kind of choral work that sounds and sings for song’s sake, not for any theological or social cause or vision of the world. “Real singing is a different kind of breath,” Rilke says, “A nothing-breath. A ripple in the god. A wind.”
Guðjón Ketilsson’s tools-and-technology pieces constitute a distinct phase in his work. In 2004 Ketilsson presented an exhibition of the most singular Tools, carved from wood, sometimes with imbedded metal or rope parts. They insistently imply relationships to the human hand and body, yet we can’t see what practical purpose they might serve. These tools actually contest their own form, for clearly they are useless in all their technical perfection. Related to these tool images are Guðjón Ketilsson‘s later works based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci; these also depict tools with rather unclear applications, at least in their manifestations as carved wood.
Artwork that contests itself is indeed a common thread throughout Ketilsson’s career. We see it in all the works discussed above. What it contests is the aesthetics of mimesis based on Aristotelian truth-requirements of consistency and necessity, the separation of subject and object, of thought and perception, that are embedded in the classical art tradition. Yet this contestation also imperiously declares art’s necessity and right to exist despite its departure, its right to exist based on what remains, song for song’s sake, craft for craft’s sake, and a visual language that is valid in and of itself, without representing or proselytizing any belief, political opinion, or message but only but its own being.
Guðjón Ketilsson’s work Shell(2008) is a collection consisting of two sets of shelves filled with many works and artefacts in wood, plaster, cellulose fibreboard, sugar cubes, and paper. The work is a sort of installation, and has much in common with Ketilsson’s 2009 exhibition Role (Hlutverk) at the A.S.Í. Art Museum.The A.S.Í. exhibition was composed partly of works assembled from found wooden objects and furniture, all lined up in a logical order that did not suggest any purpose other than an aesthetic organization per se. The exhibition also included precisely-rendered drawings of half-built houses clearly conveying the ordering of space and proportion. Likewise, in Shell,Ketilsson places great emphasis on orderly arrangement and an exquisite presentation in which the order becomes an end in itself. The shelves are like a small museum,in which vestiges of the past are ordered according to an inner logic of the order itself. In and of itself, each object has no clear context and outward purpose except insofar as it replicates or refers to Ketilsson’s past work. Again, in various ways, the human body is recalled through its own absence. The shoes are back, moulded in plaster, lined up neatly. Carvings depicting stacks of folded white-painted handkerchiefs recall Ketilsson’s earlier rendering of stacks of folded towels. Fibreboard ships and containers, carved leg bones, and more lie in orderly rows, and last but not least works on paper hang on the wall, street plans from great cities of the world. Although this amounts to a real collection, a museum or house of the Muses, the shelves are more redolent of storage shelves in a hospital than a museum. From that perspective, this work as a whole contests itself much as Ketilsson’s individual works have from the outset.
These Ketilsson works once more recall Jean-Luc Nancy’s ingenious elucidation of Hegel’s ideas of the death of art (as a religion of beauty and eternal truth) and the turning point they mark in our understanding of art. In his essay “The Girl Who Succeeds the Muses,” quoted above, Nancy treats a particular chapter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spiritthat contains an unsurpassable description of this transformation:
Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished, and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone. The tables of the gods provide no spiritual food and drink, and in his games and festivals man no longer recovers the joyful consciousness of his unity with the divine. The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men. They have become what they are for us now—beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a friendly Fate has offered us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, not the tree that bore them, not the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar character, nor the cycle of the changing seasons that governed the process of their growth. So Fate does not restore their world to us along with the works of antique Art, it gives not the spring and summer of the ethical life in which they blossomed and ripened, but only the veiled recollection of that actual world. Our active enjoyment of them is therefore not an act of divine worship through which our consciousness might come to its perfect truth and fulfilment; it is an external activity—the wiping-off of some drops of rain or specks of dust from these fruits, so to speak—one which erects an intricate scaffolding of the dead elements of their outward existence—the language, the historical circumstances, etc. in place of the inner elements of the ethical life which environed, created, and inspired them. And all this we do, not in order to enter into their very life but only to possess an idea of them in our imagination. But, just as the girl who offers us the plucked fruits is more than the Nature which directly provides them—the Nature diversified into their conditions and elements, the tree, air, light, and so on—because she sums all this up in a higher mode, in the gleam of her self-conscious eye and in the gesture with which she offers them, so, too, the Spirit of the Fate that presents us with those works of art is more than the ethical life and the actual world of that nation, for it is the inwardizingin us of the Spirit which in them was still [only] outwardlymanifested; it is the Spirit of the tragic Fate which gathers all those individual gods and attributes of the [divine] substance into one pantheon, into the Spirit that is itself conscious of itself as Spirit.
Just as Hegel envisioned the death of art through the death of the Greek gods, he envisioned this girl as heiress to the Muses or goddesses of art. That girl made of divine images the artistic creation we know today, and was, Nancy states, the founder of the collection named after the Muses, the museum. Into it, the harvested fruits were carried, to their own glory. So we may view Guðjón Ketilsson’s 2008 collection Shellas: A grand presentation of the fate of art and man in an age of technology that can no longer distinguish a technical image of the world from its inner reality of vanished gods.
Nietzsche, Aphorism 54. Transl. R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Classics, London 1973, p. 62.
Martin Heidegger, Wozu dichter?(“What Are Poets For?”), 1926. In Albert Hofstadter’s translation in Martin Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Thought, New York, 1971, p. 132: “The nature of language does not exhaust itself in signifying, nor is it merely something that has the character of sign or cipher. It is because language is the house of Being, that we reach what is [German: Seiende] by constantly going through this house. When we go to the well, when we go through the woods, we are always already going through the word “well,” through the word “woods,” even if we do not speak the words or think of anything relating to language.”
Ólafur Gíslason, “Atlaga að hugtakinu hús” (“An Essay on the Concept ‘House’”),DV, 23.09.1996
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 3, translated by David Young, Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
Martin Heidegger: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, a 1935 lecture, published in the essay collection Holzwege,1950; comments based on the Italian translation of Pietro Chiodi, Sentieri interrotti, Milano, 1977.
Meyer Schapiro: “The Still Life as a Personal Object,” in The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein, New York, 1968.
Jacques Derrida: “Restitutions de la vérité en pointure,” inLa vérité en peinture (1978), comments here based on the English translation of Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, The Truth in Painting, Chicago 1987.
Latin sub + jacere, to throw, cast
Derrida, op. cit. pp. 370-1. M. Heidegger: “Einfüring in die Metaphysik,”1935; comments based on the Italian translation of Giuseppe Masi, Milan 1997, Introduzione alla metafisica, p. 46.
Martin Heidegger: Introduction to Metaphysics, transl. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, Yale Nota Bene, 2000, pp. 37-38. German text inserted by present author from MH, Einfüring in die Metaphysik, 1935.
Gianni Vattimo: Presentazione a Introduzione alla metafisica, Milan 1997.
Martin Heidegger: “Einfürhrung der Metaphysik,”1935, first sentence.
Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Girl Who Succeeds the Muses,” in The Muses, translated by Peggy Karmuf,
Stanford University Press 1996, pp. 41-56.
Ibid., p. 46.
Ibid., p. 50.
Ibid., pp. 81-102.
Ibid., p. 97.
From Article 753, G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford University Press,
1977, pp. 455-456.