The Stedelijk Museum regularly invites guestbloggers to share their experiences and thoughts. In this blog Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, professor in art history at the University of Amsterdam, compares Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations to novels of Joyce and Beuys.
Tino Sehgal’s likes and dislikes have been written about quite extensively. Today I will focus on one of the things he says he is not so interested in, novels, – and also a little on what he told me he was very taken by during our thus far one and only conversation. That exchange – at a recent party – was surprising: Sehgal is at pains to avoid the tag performance art for what he does. Speaking of Joseph Beuys then, the subject of my PhD, may have been foolhardy. However, I managed to say that “my” Beuys is the one who did not arrive with a large sculpture in Northern Ireland, but came at one of the most difficult times of the “Troubles” (in 1974) to make friends. He did bring drawings to have a starting point for the museum to host him and for people to attend what would become a 3 ½ hour public lecture and discussion. As the most enduring of his contributions, however, he identified artists who were working in important ways in that context, kept his friendships with them alive, invited them to contribute to a migration workshop at documenta 6, 1977, even asked them along to his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and eventually paid the initial rent for their performance and exhibition space. What emerged, the Art and Research Exchange, can be viewed as a branch of the Free International University for Interdisciplinary Research, which Beuys set up around that time. This legacy of artists’ self-organised initiatives in an environment that still has no commercial contemporary art galleries is alive in Northern Ireland today. Sehgal was excited to hear all this: “The first time that Beuys appeals to me”, he said.
Indeed, the centrality and longevity of impact of (strategically constructed) ephemeral human exchange in the art context was not so easy in Beuys’ time to isolate as art. There are many other aspects of Beuys’ practice that are far less subtle – and he did speak and act in rather authoritarian ways when he was in the heart of power (e.g. when speaking at the Tate Gallery in London), but his approach to a fragile, beleaguered and downright dangerous situation for artists, as he found it in Belfast, demanded different approaches, and Beuys rose to that challenge. I found it curious to work in that context when Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics book was discussed in the early 2000s. In it, Beuys is mentioned once and very little space is given to strong historical precedent. Contrary to what Bourriaud wrote, a relational focus wasn’t new in the 1990’s and he also didn’t account for the subtleties of the kind of practice that emerged following Beuys’ engagement in Northern Ireland. Today, largely probably owing to how Tino Sehgal has employed and privileged encounters in art, we may see differently the human investment that Beuys made in that situation – and recognise it as a central part of his expanded concept of art.
Rather than finding a new / old art history for Sehgal and therefore recoup him for performance art, I would like to go outside – or stay outside – of the art field proper (Sehgal studied choreography and economics) and make something else that was close to Beuys’ heart function as an approach to Sehgal’s practice. That something is the work of James Joyce. Joseph Beuys underwent a depressive crisis in the mid 1950s and claimed then in his CV and in the last multiple he made before his death that reading Joyce had had the effect of a “dynamic medicine for me”. Joyce (beside megalithic sites and Heinrich Boell’s Irish Diary) was a motivation for Beuys to go to Ireland and invest in friendships there. Joyce’s work itself is about small kindnesses in everyday life.
Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, contains 18 episodes in 18 different styles, all set on one city, Dublin, and on one day, 16 June 1904. The most intricate, and the most difficult to write, according to the author, was Oxen of the Sun. Here the two male protagonists meet in Holles Street Maternity Hospital, where Minna Purefoy gives birth to a baby. The episode is narrated as the birth of the English language from literal translations of Latinate poetry via Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton etc. to early 20th century Dublin slang. One could say that this episode of Ulysses, the towering literary accomplishment of Modernism, is a “museum” of literature and therefore belongs into the museum. Beuys responded to the contraction of time (and stretching of time in other chapters of Ulysses) with durational performance. In fact many artists have thought that Joyce’s work contained much that could be used in contemporary art practice, and I have brought such work together in an exhibition and book under the heading of Joyce in Art. But that is not the point here.
Tino Sehgal’s pièce de résistance as a dancer was Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century, 1999, where he performed naked and in chronological succession the birth and history of modern dance. Jens Hoffman, the curator and his friend, told him that this work amounted to a museum of dance and hence belonged into the museum context – or so goes the anecdote of this founding moment of Sehgal’s turn to visual art.
The museum (if one can generalise) has certainly changed a great deal since the times of chronological arrangements of artworks, the pearls on a string. What it can today give to Sehgal’s practice is the availability of attentive people, open to encounter, individuals that move and perform themselves. That earliest piece that motivated the move into art, however, did not as yet need such an audience. It’s a traditional, stage-bound dance piece that nevertheless opened up possibilities that are in nuce present in Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century.
If Sehgal went where he would find arrangements of viewers, interpreters as he calls them, Joyce built his audience around his interpreters, as Oxen of the Sun in particular can show: the literary historical references are so dense, the prose is so accomplished that it is a need and a pleasure to be the interpreter, the exegete, the person who appreciates the in-jokes. Joyce’s dictum that he put so many enigmas into his work, because he wished to keep the professors busy for centuries and that this was the only way of ensuing his immortality implies the academic context. That is true for Ulysses.
However, in Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, Joyce could no longer take for granted an educated, linguistically rooted audience. The work abounds with references to popular culture and uses around 40 languages. It is a work made for the context of emigration, where a World War – and a looming second one – had already torn readers out of standard education and was moving individuals around space, apart and together, willing to contribute their experiences and idiosyncratic knowledge, while longing for others to share the rewarding experience of an always partial construction of meaning: always trying to understand and always simultaneously reminding one another or the impossibility of fixed meaning. The Finnegans Wake reading group was born – and it lives e.g. in art, in the work of Dora Garcia, whose practice is rather close to Sehgal’s in her focus on human encounters. She is less museum-bound, however, and the ambiguities between art and life are even more developed.
Garcia has filmed the Zurich Joyce Foundation’s Finnegans Wake reading group – and extended a Joycean reading into the gallery, where Lacan’s lectures on Joyce are read by one performer, while one or more others perform gestures from modern dance. She has thus understood that Finnegans Wake is also a choreographic work. Even apart from bringing people together in an addictive, communal reading and interpreting experience (the language has to be read aloud), the body plays a leading role (as it had in Ulysses in fact, as the “epic of the body”). Joyce’s daughter Lucia was a modern dancer. Carol Loeb-Shloss has investigated the debt of the father to the passion of his gifted but disturbed, multi-lingual, migrant daughter.
Joyce and Sehgal share the move from traditional dance audience and academic interpretation respectively to unpredictable diversity of perspectives and knowledge: a privileging and valuing of people coming together, one by one or in relatively small groups.
Joyce’s intervening in his readers’ lives did not just begin with Finnegans Wake reading groups, however. His earliest literary invention was the epiphany: a snippet of a conversation or gesture picked up in everyday life, collected and made useable in the more constructed situation of his prose, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego in that book, does not practice a particular art form, but he has developed a habit of looking differently at the world, consciously and reflectively moving in it, growing (as the language matures with him) as the book progresses, and provoking unusual conversations with those he encounters.
Sehgal was, we are told in the literature, a skateboarder, who traversed the city and looked at it, used it differently. The museum is one such place in a city where using all that is around one (space, visitors, administration, prices, books) is encouraged to be used in ways that take nothing for granted. And as a writer, Joyce did not pretend that he was creating a different world: he was intervening in the existing one, using the specificities of the city of Dublin, brand names and – disturbingly – people’s characters and stories to turn what he wrote into just another thing that the life of Dublin (as a microcosm) has experienced. That is how these always incompletely narrated occurrences (open for our own puzzling together and further expansion) became urban myths. This is how the need for reading in situ and “re-enactment” arose: to celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday became an institution, where Ulysses acquires new life, is continuously performed, but also changes beyond recognition.
Sehgal’s work is conceived to be continuously performed, whenever exhibited, and it has been considered to have the quality of urban myths. Lauren Collins writes:
Sehgal’s pieces are the rare public events that can yield unscripted possibilities. This makes them seem new, even in comparison with earlier performance art, whose creators tended to perform it themselves, insuring fidelity to their vision. Sehgal’s pieces are like urban legends. They can change, become embellished, acquire patina.
Like attending a Joyce reading group, Sehgal’s works can ideally resemble an encounter of friends: here, a hiatus in the relationship eventually does not matter so much, as one can always take it up on again at the next meeting – and every encounter will be different from the last: the framework stands, but the interpretations vary. This is what Diana Taylor calls a repertoire and not an archive. A repertoire of human situations: I don’t think Joyce would have complained to have Ulysses described as such.
It is clear then that the difference cannot be that Joyce wrote everything down and Sehgal is against scripts. Joyce’s embodied knowledge of his home city made it possible for him to write Ulysses in the first place. The focus lies on what we do with the concepts that are presented to us. In that sense, it is important to stress that with both Joyce and Sehgal form is content. The Oxen of the Sun episode pioneered such a clear identification of the two and through the multiplicity of styles in Ulysses and in that episode already states that there are many different formulations possible of this underlying principle. As far as Finnegans Wake is concerned, Samuel Beckett formulated concisely: “Here form is content, content is form … [Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself”.
Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century shares these same qualities already – and is expanded into the museum setting in Sehgal’s work for the Guggenheim Museum, New York, This Progress, 2012, where a child greets the visitor and asks about his or her views on progress. An inventory (or better again repertory) of life is created when older and older interlocutors continue the conversation the higher one reaches in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral building – like in A Portrait of the Artist. That same building Joseph Beuys had incidentally in 1979 used in a similarly autobiographical arrangement of works (complete with clandestine inclusions of works by his Northern Irish friends). One does, indeed, feel time pass as one progresses up the spiral, however, a teleological or aim-focused, linear history is not what was meant by either artist. Beuys had already, earlier in the 1970s shown an autobiographical work, a kind of catalogue raisonné under the title Arena. Glass frames, mostly with photographs of works, were arranged around a room in a circle. The Guggenheim spiral then is also not a straight line and one has to return: it suggests repetition with a difference.
Sehgal’s current Amsterdam project of a retrospective exhibition, changing month-by-month and presenting sometimes more than one work, does not need to proceed chronologically. The two central chronological works in Sehgal’s oeuvre, Twenty Minutes and This Progress, in fact build a frame around such an endeavour that let it appear as a working out of that frame: different situations, “constructed situations” Sehgal would say in reference to Guy Debord, i.e. elements of peoples’ lives such as music and rhythm (This Variation, documenta 13, 2012) or popular academic discussions about the economy (This Situation, 2007). The retrospective thus has the capacity to bring together what in my tentative analogy between Joyce’s and Sehgal’s practices one would call the multi-stylistic diversity of approaches of Ulysses. May one loosely align the Sirens episode and This Variation? Aeolus and This Situation, or another work where newspaper headlines are read? It is work that encompasses the world and partakes in it.
One striking quality of Sehgal’s works, however, is the focus on the present. There is the danger, of course, in being all too contemporary to the exclusion of slower human encounters. This Is So Contemporary, 2005, then, I’m inclined to view as an ironic intervention, a critique of the fetishization of the latest thing in art and elsewhere. I think it cannot but be so, as repetitions with a difference and slower movements, more careful, meaningful encounters otherwise prevail. But there can also of course be contradictions when a diversity of situations is distilled out of the course of people’s lives – as I am attempting to show for both the episodes in Ulysses and Sehgal’s individual works.
The Kiss e.g. was shown in an empty gallery room in April and is now present in the dark in May. The moment of intimacy in the notional scheme here proposed makes me think of the Penelope episode in Ulysses, which censors in many countries found pornographic at the time. It has an important, the decisive place in that book, as human intimacy, thoughts about one another and past encounters are part of our lives. Whether this belongs into the daylight or the dark, Ulysses as the daybook or Finnegans Wake as the one of the night, the museum or the live shows a few hundred meters up the road is not a matter to be decided in a general way, but depends on situations. A retrospective such as Sehgal’s in Amsterdam and a work as diverse as Ulysses may encompass all.
The focus on the present is attempting diversity while siting us in the here and now. This is particularly noticeable in the seemingly simple, descriptive demonstrative “This”, which many of Sehgal’s titles share: This Progress, This Variation, This Situation, These Associations etc. As our interpreting is at the centre of the work, what I am encountering is only ever my (possibly repeated) situation. In repetition, however, circumstances, co-interpreters etc. change. One literally does not step into the same river twice. In that way, the “This” may just become the point when the spiral turns and we repeat again differently, as – rather similarly – James Joyce used the most inconspicuous word of the English language, the definite article “the” as that point where the end of Finnegans Wake, where the female protagonist, Anna Livia, aka the river Liffey, flows into the sea and where this end joins with the beginning anew, the re-circling and re-cycling:
Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the […] riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Joyce and Sehgal seem to share a certain outlook, a belief in the importance of choreographed situations that can (but may not) provide epiphanies for others, insight into important facts about life, key moments in a person’s development etc. Just as Joyce and Constantin Brancusi had shared their dislike of the speed of modern means of transport (fast trains then, aeroplanes now: Sehgal doesn’t fly). There is a certain ego to be noted, as well as a “problem with things”: Joyce’s initial poverty and ambulatory lifestyle didn’t allow for a great many possessions to be amassed, but waiters were tipped – in good times – as if he was royalty.
The writer, who had socialist leanings and stylized himself as an anarchist in the attic in a brief, unhappy period living in Rome, anticipated with Finnegans Wake’s “recycling” theme (structurally, but also in relation to the use of sources) a sentiment that suits Sehgal rather well. Brought up in Böblingen near Stuttgart, he claims as a motivation to follow art not politics witnessing the weaselling of politicians in pursuit of popularity and votes when it came to an infrastructure project. An overblown, vanity investment in public transport was exactly what a few years ago led to surprising and large-scale activist upsurges among the otherwise conservative middle class of Stuttgart and environs. Sehgal, who had moved to that environment as a child, seems to have understood the instability of that supposedly most solid and static of societies, where both building one’s own house and recycling are near-religions. The outsider sees more, and that may even be valid in relation to the visual art world and its institutions.
As museum pieces, many of Sehgal’s works do not strike me as particularly politically activist and the famous oral sales agreements are also not so unprecedented, while they do of course stretch museum processes. They would not stretch the imagination of drug dealers or others working in the black economy. Personally, I was relatively untouched by This Variation at documenta 13 (probably just not the right moment) and thought that the choice to focus on the economy in the contribution to the Turner Prize exhibition in Derry, Northern Ireland, 2013 did not quite take account of local specificities: Northern Ireland has for many decades had a false economy propped up by the London government as payment for past inadequacy and ransom for avoiding future violence.
On the other hand, This Situation, shown in Dublin in 2013, came just right to consider – with the help of the historically situated (dated) quotations spoken by the interpreters – the death of the Celtic tiger and art’s implication in these larger economic cycles. It is also a work that required thinking individuals as interpreters, ideally ones with principles: college graduates and artists. They are those who had invested much in their education to become critically thinking individuals and often found themselves unemployed following the IMF’s rescue of the countries’ banks, to be paid for (of course) by the general population.
The large sums spent on exhibiting Sehga’s works may very well for some be part of the “bigger and better” cultural economy of vanity. When it comes down to it, however, maybe Sehgal is redistributing funds in a way that (in order to be provided) has to play to those who fund, appreciate numbers and adore celebrity. Possibly under false pretences then, those who in art one may call the “right ones” are for once the winners: those who are so uncharacteristically paid to hold philosophical conversations in a gallery. Few places for such overtly “output”-less endeavour remain when the traditional sphere for this – and for Joyce interpretation – the university, is turning itself towards utilitarian economic concerns. We know about those things in Amsterdam.
Beuys appeared in a Japanese Whiskey ad in order to be able to afford the large-scale, ecological art project of 7000 Oaks, Kassel 1982-87, and Joyce certainly didn’t protest at having his image adorn The Time Magazine cover. What friendships were sustained, who received help to pursue principled and unpaid art or thinking work we will likely not know. That doesn’t mean, though, that if one can’t count of touch it that it’s all going to be without impact in every case.
If I can claim for Ulysses that it is not a novel, but instead a series of constructed or choreographed situations, I think I’m quite content to let Tino Sehgal continue not liking novels so much, but instead being interested in how Beuys made friends.
 Lauren Collins. ‘The Question Artist.’ The New Yorker, Vol. 88, No. 23. New York: The Condé Nast Publications, Aug. 6, 2012. p. 34: ‘One day, [Sehgal] mentioned that he’d like to know more about novels, which he normally is ‘’not that interested in.’’’
 See: Barbara Lange. “’Questions? You have questions?’ Die künstlerische Selbstdarstellung von Joseph Beuys im Fat Transformation Piece / Four Blackboards (1972)”. Joseph Beuys Symposium Kranenburg 1995. Inge Lorenz (ed). Basel, Moyland: Wiese Verlag, Förderverein Museum Schloss Moyland 1986, p. 164-171.
 See: Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Victoria Walters (eds). Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics. Series: European Culture and Politics. Münster, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, London: LIT 2011.
 For a reflection upon the (changing) definition of performance, see: Agnieszka Gratza. ‘Expanding Performance.’ PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 35, No. 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Sept. 2013. pp. 41-48. Gratza uses Seghal as an example of ‘expanding performance’.
 The text of the multiple Joyce with Sled, 1985.
 Richard Ellmann. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press 1982, p. 475.
 Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes. Joyce in Art: Visual Art Inspired by James Joyce. Foreword: Fritz Senn, envoi: James Elkins, design: Ecke Bonk. The Lilliput Press Dublin 2004. The exhibition of the same title was shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy Dublin June-August 2004. I curated smaller follow-up exhibitions at the Tolstoy Estate, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia (2010), the Museum of Art, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea (2011) and Dublin’s city space including Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (2012).
 Irit Rogoff. “Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture”. Gavin Butt (ed.) After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell 2005, pp. 117-134.
 This performance first took place in 2013/14 at Kunsthaus Bregenz; in 2014 also at the Ellen de Bruijne Gallery, Amsterdam. It is a part of Garcia’s project The Sinthome Score, 2013.
 Carol Loeb Shloss. Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003.
 Collins, Lauren. ‘The Question Artist.’ The New Yorker, Vol. 88, No. 23. New York: The Condé Nast Publications, Aug. 6, 2012. p. 34. Tino Sehgal “became a skateboarder – Airwalks and baggy pants. The landscape began to morph. ‘I think a lot of Tino’s stuff comes from skateboarders looking at railings and concrete, and thinking, How can I use that in a different way?’ Asad Raza, Sehgal’s producer, said.”
 Diana Taylor. The Archive and the Repertoire – Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke University Press 2003.
 Samuel Beckett. ‘’Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce.’’ in Sylvia Beach (ed.) Our Exagmination round his Factification of Work in Progress. London: Faber & Faber, 1929, p.14.
 Tony Hill’s contribution to the symposium “Beuys’ Legacy: Unity in Diversity” Goethe-Institut Dublin, 2006. Convened by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes.
 Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber, 1939, pp. 628, line 3.
 Collins, p. 34. “At sixteen, Sehgal spoke in favor of a public-transportation project at a city-council meeting in Stuttgart. ‘I remember seeing the minister of transportation dive and dodge,’ he told Arthur Lubow, of the Times Magazine. ‘All he could do was administer what the public opinion was, or else he would be voted out in the next election.’ Sehgal recalls this moment as an epiphany. He would register his rebuke through culture rather than politics.”
June 2015, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and its partner organizations the RKD and the University of Amsterdam, launched its Visiting Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art Program. As the inaugural guest of this new initiative, which aims at inspiring a wide community of students, professionals and art lovers, Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, gave a two-part lecture on the theme of madness in art and taught a three-day seminar at the University of Amsterdam. By Christel Vesters
Part I: Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media and Visual Culture
Professor W.J.T. Mitchell (*1942) is a renowned scholar in the interdisciplinary field of visual culture and visual studies. He has written many publications on subjects related to the meaning of images in and for contemporary culture and how to study ‘the language of images’. In his two-part lecture, based on his current research, Mitchell explored the visibility of madness, and the madness of visuality, whether in classic stereotypes, scientific classifications, theatrical spectacle, ritual performance, or cinema and new media.
The first untangling of this two-fold dilemma took place on a sunny afternoon in the Stedelijk Museum’s auditorium with the lecture Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media and Visual Culture. According to Mitchell, “madness is the most difficult aspect of humankind to come to terms with.” The theme is personal to him. Mitchell’s son, Gabriel, to whom the lecture is dedicated, suffered from schizophrenia. An artist and filmmaker in his own right, Gabriel Mitchell, devoted his work “to showing this mental illness from the inside and the outside”. (To see Gabriel Mitchell’s short film Crazy Talk, click here). Gabriel once stated that ‘having the illness imposed a double suffering: first there are the symptoms of the disease, and secondly, there is the diagnosis’, referring to the labels and the stigma society puts on those who suffer from mental illnesses. Gabriel’s remark leads us to Michel Foucault, who, in his influential study History of Madness (1961), philosophized, optimistically, that “a day will come when we no longer know what madness was”. Mitchell’s interpretation of this quotation is that “one day the stable framework that differentiates and confines madness and insanity from the presumed ‘normal’ no longer exists; instead we will understand that madness is woven into our psyche, our very existence.”
Before turning to the main focus of his research, Hollywood cinema, Mitchell retraced different representations of madness in Western human civilization: From the tragic figure of Cassandra in Greek mythology, the mad, paranoid prophet who no one believed, and her masculine counter-part, the violent madness of Hercules, who introduces a long tradition of masculine madness, to the figure of the Folly, or ‘the fool for God’ who in medieval times was at the center of a whole school of spiritual thought. Later examples, showing the ‘treatment’ of madness, include scenes of exorcism in Jesuit spiritual literature, or the famous photographic documentation by Charcot of ‘hysteria’. Late 19th century marked that historical moment when madness was first medicalized and insanity was no longer viewed as a moral issue, but as a mental disease. Charcot’s theatre of hysteria is followed by the visual documentation of case studies of Freud. Other notable examples include Franz Fanon’s analysis of the psychopathology of colonialism, the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and the psychology of torture in the Cold War fantasies of brainwashing in Hollywood cinema, as in the well-known movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Mitchell’s survey of madness in visual culture does not limit itself to visual art and cinema alone, but extends into opera, theater, music and literature, resulting in an interdisciplinary cross reading of various ‘mad scene’s’ in different media, deepening our understanding of ‘madness’ as an object of visual display. Yet the crucial question remains: “What is this fascination with madness? Why do we want to see it? And how come we are attracted to seeing madness ‘on a screen’, but shy away when we see a confused person in the streets?”
Seeing Madness: Between Invisibility and Hyper-Visibility
One of the central aims of Mitchell’s research is to put pressure on the very idea that madness can be seen at all. Can we create an image of that which according to Foucault, ‘has no intrinsic or essential nature, but is the product of knowledge power formations.’ According to Mitchell, Charcot’s theatrical demonstrations of hysteria in Le Salpêtrière showed us how madness is intricately linked with the spectacular: the fallacy being that patients started to perform the symptoms they knew the audience expected to see. And how do we distinguish between the physical expressions of extreme, but normal, human emotions, passions, and insanity? Mitchell: “The range of seeing madness goes from invisibility to hyper-visibility. On the one hand there is Hamlet’s melancholia, only noticeable in a person’s clothing, and on the other King Lear’s raging madness, highly visibly and underscored by the wild storms surrounding him.”
Questions of visibility lead to questions of vision, the sovereign sense, as it is often understood in modern philosophy. But what if the Queen of the Senses herself is mad? “Could it be that the rage for clarity in the Cartesian Meditations opens onto an abyss of doubt, verging on madness?” Mitchell continues this line of thinking, pointing to the two types of reason introduced by Kant: practical reason, and pure reason. The latter, which following Kant resides in the non-empirical, abstract realm of ideas, is the type of reason used by the logician, mathematician, or the speculative philosopher. Sovereignty, vision and pure reason are all dialectically related to madness. Another example of this dialectical link between reason and madness is psychiatry: the discipline that tries to cure madness through reason.
Movies and Madness
Returning to the theme of movies and madness, Mitchell explores what he calls “the strange genre… between Horror and Film Noir, between the spectacle of violent, raging lunacy and the quieter scenes of detective work into the etiology of madness, and madness in relation to its institutionalization.” The research hinged on this double question: What does cinema reveal about insanity that was not available to knowledge prior to its invention? And how does the portrayal of madness affect the specific character of cinema? At the center of it was a diverse selection of movies such as Hitchock’s Spellbound (1945), Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010), Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and Howards A Beautiful Mind (2001). One of the conclusions is that cinema can add to our understanding of mental illness because it can put the spectator into the subject position of delirium, simulating the chaotic state of for instance schizophrenia with technologies of audiovisual hallucination; offering a close-up encounter with madness (as opposed to the position of passive observer).
The larger context of Mitchell’s research into movies and madness is of course the ways in which society in different times and places has dealt with madness. As such, the different clips are an interesting – and at times painful – mirror of our own moral attitudes and behaviors around mental illness. But, Mitchell asks, can it be that movies with their ability to construct a ‘seeing and hearing madness from within’ will be able to close the gap between the ‘normal’ and ‘the insane’ and deliver Foucault’s assertion that ‘one day we will no longer know what madness was’.
Part 2: Method, Madness & Montage: Warburg to a Beautiful Mind
In the second of his two lectures, which took place at the RKD (the Dutch Center for Art Historical Documentation) in Den Hague, Mitchell returned to the theme of madness in movies, exploring the visual representations (and stereotypes) of mental illness in Hollywood cinema and TV.
As with his first lecture, the visual analysis of Hollywood representations of mental illness is part of a larger discourse into the meaning and the operation of images. Images are not just something that we observe and analyse, but are understood as things that talk back, that do something with us. And again, in his characteristic dialectical manner, Mitchell weaves together the idea of madness with ideas on images, vision and visuality.
One of the first hypotheses he addressed this afternoon is the idea of ‘iconomania’: the (contemporary) effort to create a total image of a situation or a body of knowledge. This form of ‘seeing madness’, with the emphasis on ‘seeing’, focuses not so much on the images or information that is collected, but on the medium or interface (such as the archive, atlas, database etc.) which aims ‘to see a complex totality at a glance.’ Amongst the many contemporary examples of ‘iconomania’, Mitchell introduces new media theorist Lev Manovich’ Selfie-City [link: http://selfiecity.net/] which collects over 3400 ‘selfies’ from five different world cities in order to reveal patterns and knowledge indicating the state of happiness. The second project he refers to is the T-Visionarium [link // http://www.icinema.unsw.edu.au/projects/t_visionarium/], an installation of countless television sets, broadcasting world events and creating a data-scape in which you become overwhelmed with a sense of vertigo: there is just too much data to take in. But the most seminal and informative example of a Bilderatlas is of course Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosysne.
Before turning to the form of the bilderatlas, Mitchell proposes that there are two fundamentally distinct ways in which image arrays are organized: the grid and the vortex. Not coincidently, these two modalities also figure at the end of Gabriel Mitchell’s film Crazy Talk, who associated the first as a product of rationality, order, therapy, treatment, and the latter as delirium, the loss of control, hallucination. The other significant distinction Mitchell makes is that between the array of images the collection of images as a ‘working arrangement’ (such as pre-selection of slides for a lecture) and the ‘artistic collage’.
Art history knows many examples of image arrays, from the Medieval Collectors’ Cabinet, Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne, Andre Malreaux Musee Imaginaire to Gerhard Richter’s Altas. But there is also the more domestic variation: the kitchen fridge collage of memorabilia. Mitchell points out that, although objects and images are collected randomly, i.e. not yet edited, they do say something about the person or the place: they provide clues, traces, evidence left there unintentionally. Like the psychoanalyst constructing a profile from the kitchen fridge memorabilia, or the forensic detective analysing the crime scene looking for traces and clues, when we look at image arrays we set out to see patterns. Quoting Agamben, Mitchell says that “the detective, like the art historian must learn to read what was never written.”
Warburg in his ambition to construct a universal panoptical of art history, which was not limited to western art alone but extended into different historical and geographical areas, selected images that ‘are neither signs nor symbols, but rather, signatures’, engrams of lived passions, symptoms, in other words, clues. In his efforts to found a nameless science Warburg created an instrument of ‘knowledge-montage’, which, according to Georges Didi-Huberman, “set art history in motion: to create knowledge montage … was to reject the matrices of intelligibility… to break through the age-old guardrails. This movement with its new ‘allure’ of knowledge, created the possibility of vertigo. The image is not a closed field of knowledge; it is a whirling, centrifugal field.” In short, different from a conforming a sequence of images to a linearly ordered discourse, Warburg sought to create a field of knowledge through a constellation of images that invites its viewers to ‘read what was never written.’
Returning to our times, Mitchell introduces various manifestations of the bilderatlas or memory atlas in current day Hollywood cinema. There is the protagonist in Nolan’s Memento, who, dealing with his short-term memory loss, tattoos all his new memories on his body, but the phenomenon of the bilderatlas increasingly seems to appear in detective movies or criminal drama’s as the wall mapping data, information and evidence related to a crime. More often the protagonists in these movies, trying to solve the crime or the mystery, suffer from some form of mental illness – a well known example is the tv-series Homeland – but rather then being portrayed as the criminally ill and a treat to society, they are presented as someone gifted with a super-normal ability, in this case the power to see things, patterns, to read what was never written.
To conclude, Mitchell argues that the pursuit of the bilderatlas, as an interface to produce total knowledge, constantly straddles “between the grid and the vortex, between symbols and symptom, between detective work and psychosis, clues and paranoid fantasies. At one extreme the atlas is a matrix for the display and interpretation of symptoms, at the other end the matrix itself becomes a symptom.”
Listening to a lecture by Tom Mitchell, and writing a report on it, is like trying to simultaneously untangle a knotted yarn ball and weave a colourful patterned tapestry with the untwined threads. In his characteristic interdisciplinary approach, Mitchell freely navigates between different epochs, disciplines, high and low culture, picking up one thread here, following it for a while, knitting it together with another one, changing directions with the next warp or weft. Yet, the complexity and wide range of the topic at hand is never fully unravelled, nor do we arrive at a definite, total image of knowledge on the subject. Resisting the same ‘iconomanic’ impulse Mitchell referred to in relation to the archive-as-knowledge, his lectures offered us a speculative and fragmentary (re)construction based on a kaleidoscopic overview of examples, suggesting an extended field rather than a closed circuit. Thinking back, I would say that Mitchells own research methods and his lectures, themselves shuttle between the mode of the vortex and the grid, leaving plenty of space for his listeners to tie things together.
Professor W.J.T. Mitchell is a renowned interdisciplinary scholar in the field of visual culture, literature and art history, and is affiliated at the University of Chicago as Professor of English and Art History. He is editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devored to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. A scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature, Mitchell is associated with the emergent fields of visual culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). He is known especially for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues. He has been recipient of numerous awards. His publications include: “The Pictorial Turn” in Artforum (1992); “What Do Pictures Want?” in October (1996); What Do Pictures Want? (2005); The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (1998); Picture Theory (1994); Art and the Public Sphere (1993); Landscape and Power (1992); Iconology (1987); The Language of Images (1980); On Narrative (1981); and The Politics of Interpretation (1984).
In its second iteration of the Global Collaborations project, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA) and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam collaborate with the American University of Beirut (AUB) Art Galleries to bring together art from Beirut and Amsterdam. Taking artistic practices from both contexts as a starting point, the exhibition explores the understanding of temporality in today’s world. Entitled This is the Time. This is the Record of the Time, the exhibition is on view from March 26 – July 25 at the AUB Byblos Bank Gallery, after showing at the SMBA last September. Co-curator Angela Harutyunyan discusses the exhibition in relation to global art, the art scene in Beirut, and the role of art today.
As part of Global Collaborations, curator Jelle Bouwhuis put together an exhibition with works from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. How Far How Near: The World in the Stedelijk looks back at the contents and origins of the collection with an eye on works from regions beyond Europe and North America, and with a plea for greater attention to art from these regions. Photography has an important role in this exhibition. Mirjam Kooiman, as a curator in training at the Stedelijk, was closely involved in the development of the exhibition. In two short essays, she looks at the role that photography has played in our perceptions of the world beyond Europe. The second essay will follow in January.
“The photographic image is a message without a code.” With this statement, the French philosopher Roland Barthes claimed that the message or meaning that a photograph conveys depends on the context in which it appears. The image that a photograph presents as an object rarely stands on its own. In other words, our relationship to and our interpretation of what we see in a photograph – our perceptions – are influenced by a series of factors: the intention of its maker, for example, the context in which the photograph is presented (as part of a report in a magazine or amongst other works in an exhibition), or our own frames of reference that we, viewers, apply to the image.
Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern), 1909, oil on canvas,
98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Painting with Houses (1909) by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is one of the most colorful paintings in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. It is also one of the most remarkable; this painting makes the sensation of Kandinsky’s first steps in his pioneering search for a freer, abstract painting almost palpable. After centuries in which painting was primarily the art of representation, what inspired Kandinsky – as one of the first – to strive for abstract, non-representational, art? He himself had several explanations.
In 1912, he described how he once entered his studio at twilight and, from the corner of his eye, glimpsed an unfamiliar, mysterious burst of color. As he drew closer, he saw that it was actually one of his own paintings, but placed on its side. The fact that a picture he at first failed to recognize held greater fascination for him proved, he felt, that realistic representation detracted from the independent action of the formal elements such as color, line, composition, and texture.
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, (Kochel – Die Brücke) 1902, oil on canvas,
30 x 45 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
An experiment for readers, inspired by Kandinsky’s experience: does the work Kochel – The Bridge rotated 90 degrees, with less recognizable motifs, hold more surprises than in its normal orientation?
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge,
rotated 90 degrees to the right.
Kandinsky believed that his task was to express spirituality through visual means. This aim correlated with his conviction that mankind was evolving to a higher spiritual level that would eventually overcome the materialism that dominated the 19th century. In many of his works, such as Watercolor No. 2 (1911-1912), Kandinsky used outlines or silhouettes of saints, trumpets, and horsemen that, without prior knowledge, are difficult or impossible to recognize. In the literature about Kandinsky, these are generally considered apocalyptic elements. Kandinsky repeatedly pointed to the decline of the “soulless material life of the 19th century,” in contrast to the “emergence of the spiritual-intellectual life of the 20th century” and the role of art in it. Encouraged by the spiritualist idea that the visible world is merely an external phenomenon, Kandinsky strove to make the invisible, visible.
Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor No. 2 (Aquarell No. 2), 1911-1912, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper,
31,6 x 47,6 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Watercolor No. 2 has been associated with the ascension of Elijah. The blue undulating shape on the lower left is sometimes referred to as the water of the Jordan River, which parts to grant passage to the prophet Elijah. In the upper right-hand corner, Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot pulled by three horses.
Art as an expression of the era
Initially, only colleagues and critics sympathetic to innovation took heed of Kandinsky’s work and theories. No wonder he doubted whether it was possible to create abstract artworks that were more than simply meaningless ornamentation. In 1912, Kandinsky wrote, “If, even today, we were to begin to dissolve completely the tie that binds us to nature […] we would create Works […] which would – to put it crudely – be like a tie, or a carpet.” Artists probably continued to pursue their experiments in the field of abstraction at least partly because of the feeling that they were charged with expressing the spirit of the times – a belief that originated in the theories of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hegel´s philosophy accelerated the emergence of non-representational art.
Hegel’s ideas about the spirit of the times became anchored in the thinking of progressive artists and their advocates. In connection with this zeitgeist, Kandinsky spoke of “inner necessity.” He was a proponent of the belief that the art of a certain era represents the primary expression of that era. This view sparked the notion that art is subject to inevitable change, and any criticism of it is clearly pointless. Furthermore, this belief in the spirit of the times implied an irrevocable notion of progress.
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 33 (Orient I), 1913, oil on canvas,
88,5 x 100,5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Music was the inspiration for Kandinsky’s visual language. Drawing on the prestige music enjoyed as abstract art due to its inherent immateriality, attention could be focused on the purely visual side of art, at the expense of the narrative element. The appeal of music lay in the ecstatic melodies, which painting could approximate by striving for the correct harmonic proportions. In his book On the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) of 1912, the earliest comprehensive publication on abstraction in painting, Kandinsky offered his initial thoughts on systemization with a musical comparison: “Color (or form) is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” The word “Improvisation” in the title of Improvisation 33 (Orient I) refers to a spontaneous musical expression.
The position of ‘Painting with Houses’ within Kandinsky’s oeuvre
There is a striking contrast between Painting with Houses and Kandinsky’s early work. Prior to 1909, the spatial effect in his paintings was always natural, with one viewpoint and a vanishing point perspective, as seen in Kochel – The Bridge (1902). In Painting with Houses, however, the left side of the image seems to fold forward, while the squatting figure with the red robe in the foreground is shown frontally. It is difficult to interpret the lower right-hand section as a wholly frontal rendering. It is impossible to say whether a number of passages in this section, which most closely resembles a terraced hillside (a motif that Kandinsky frequently used), depicts visible reality. In the past, this had always been the case in Kandinsky’s work. Here, color is used more generously, more vibrantly, and there are fewer attempts to mimic nature than in early Kandinskys. Painting with Houses is one of a series of landscapes with human, often fairytale-like figures. In this series it is one of the first with pronounced distortions and near-abstract elements.
In 1911, Kandinsky started making pairs in which the abstraction process spectacularly unfolds. These are works in which Christian motifs, such as the four horsemen and angels with trumpets of the apocalypse are continually pared down to outlines and silhouettes. The results shimmer, as in Watercolor No. 2 and Improvisation 33 (Orient I), but here the abstraction almost seems to follow a set procedure. In this respect, the reference to a musical improvisation in the title of the latter painting is a little misleading. In contrast, in Painting with Houses, the tilted, primitive looking row of houses and abstract color fields suddenly appear, apparently unplanned, their only preparation a preliminary sketch. The piece seems more closely related to the excitement of the painting on its side than to the pairs of 1911 and thereafter. Nonetheless, the motif and composition of Painting with Houses did not appear out of thin air.
Wassily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with Houses (Entwurf für Bild mit Häusern), 1909, brown ink and pencil on paper,
10,4 x 19,4 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
In Study for Painting with Houses we see three figures in long robes – two of them squatting left and right and one standing in the middle –much more recognizable than in the painting.
The Influence of Folk Art
In 1913, when reflecting on his work, Kandinsky connected his pursuit of abstraction and his early interest in decorative folk art. He described spending time in the outlying northern Russian province of Vologda in 1889 where he fell under the spell of the richly colorful peasant interiors, interiors which seemed to dissolve in a blaze of color. Even the occupants wandered about, dressed like decorated Christmas trees. That must have been spectacular because, as a Muscovite, Kandinsky was accustomed to decorative abundance.
Contemporary artists, such as the German expressionists with whom Kandinsky associated after immigrating to Munich in 1896, evoked memories of folk and non-Western or ancient art in their work. Complete with perspectival distortions.
An interesting feature of Painting with Houses is that the image can be traced to a precise source. The row of houses and streets was inspired by a votive painting (a work in honor of the Virgin Mary, who protected the donors against the plague) in a church in the southern German town of Murnau. In 1908 and 1909, Kandinsky spent quite some time in Murnau and, in 1912, reproduced this votive work in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) almanac, a book that he and his fellow artist, Franz Marc, compiled. In this book, he praises the votive painting for its “remarkable quality of compositional form” which, he asserted, was based on “modifications, interferences” and “substitutions,” necessary to make the “inner sound” of the objects perceptible. In other words, nature must be transformed and veiled in order to achieve expression or convey emotion. In actuality, the perspective in Painting with Houses is more realistic than you might think, as revealed by a picture of Murnau from the collection of Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s girlfriend at the time.
Votive painting, paint on panel, St. Nikolaus Church, Murnau
Murnau, 1909. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich
Could the picture have been a source of inspiration? Could the shadow in the lower right part of the picture have inspired Kandinsky to paint the dark squatting figure?
The Blaue Reiter was the first publication to devote equal attention to contemporary art and art from different parts of the world and different eras; the works were all illustrated and described according to what they expressed. The book set the trend for juxtaposing contemporary art with traditional folk art and non-Western art in art books and exhibitions. It was a convention that was eagerly picked up on. Also by former Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, who linked it to expression, and thus complemented the stunning collection of expressionist works he acquired for the museum. Similarly distorted figures and heads with staring eyes in both expressionist art and ancient, non-Western, and folk art contributed to the idea that they appeal to us intuitively, that we instinctively understand them.
Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich 1912,
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Psychology of expression and perception
However, the problem with expression is that an intense, immediate reaction does not guarantee communication. On the basis of perceptual psychology theory the art historian E. H. Gombrich has convincingly demonstrated that we should not consider the expressive qualities of colors or lines as absolute properties; our experience of them is subjective. If we interpret the composition lines in Painting with Houses as working to create a macabre atmosphere, we may no longer think so after seeing the votive painting that inspired it. When compared to this work, we will be unable to see Painting with Houses as macabre. Lines and colors can only correspond to a particular spectrum of feelings once they have been ascribed to a certain spectrum of possibilities. The artist can only convey a particular feeling or personal message if the viewer knows the possibilities available to the artist. In all other instances, the artist’s experience remains subjective and can only be felt by the artist. Transmission, however closely entwined with emotion, is ultimately based on knowledge. Nevertheless, there is no denying that much of that knowledge of drawing comparisons in painting is fairly obvious. Colors and lines can easily be compared in terms of scales ranging from cool to hot, sad to happy, and so on, thus infusing visual elements with a quasi-autonomous emotional value.
Thanks to our familiarity with works like Painting with Houses, in which expressiveness has a central role, we have learned to appreciate many of the expressive potentials of color and shape. Painting with Houses is both a rich composition of color fields and lines, and a fascinating cityscape with fairytale characters. The cityscape and the figures, along with the title chosen by the artist, guide our interpretation of this painting.
Painting with Houses and Improvisation 33 (Oriënt I) are displayed in gallery 0.3 at the Stedelijk Museum. Come and see it for yourself!
The Painting Restoration Department of the Stedelijk is currently examining Painting with Houses, along with the other expressionist paintings from the collection. The study includes examining any possible underpaintings and verso sides. Any new art historical information brought to light will be presented here: Click here.
Maurice Rummens is member of the Research Staff at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
– Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei, Bern 2009 (Munich 1912)
– id. en Franz Marc (eds.), Der Blaue Reiter; dokumentarische Neuausgabe von Klaus Lankheit, Munich 2006 (1912)
– Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford 
– Peg Weiss, Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years, New Haven/London 1979
– id., Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman, New Haven/London 1995
– E.H. Gombrich, Kunst und Fortschritt. Wirkung und Wandlung einer Idee, Cologne 1978
– id., Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, London/New York 1978 (London 1963)
– id., The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, London 2002
– Willem Sandberg and Hans Jaffé, exh. cat. Moderne kunst nieuw + oud, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), 1955
– Maurice Rummens, “Kandinsky’s ‘Painting with Houses’ and a votive panel at Murnau,” The Burlington Magazine 129 (1987) 1011, pp. 394-396.
Every year, fifteen young people – the Blikopeners – make the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam their own. Now, with the peer-to-peer program in its fifth year, the moment has come to look back on what the program has achieved. And to discover how taking part in the program has affected the Blikopeners, the people they know, and the museum.
As part of its multi-year Global Collaborations programme, the Stedelijk Museum invited the Ghanaian artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson as an artist in residence. Akoi-Jackson has developed a project on the themes of culture and identity, in collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum’s ‘Blikopeners’. The Blikopeners are young people, aged 15 to 19, with a fresh view of art. They have diverse backgrounds, follow different studies and come from different Amsterdam neighbourhoods. Bram Verhoef, himself an up-and-coming art professional, is following the project (his first two reports are available here and here) and gives us a report.
In this third and last report the focus is on the final episode of the project: the exhibition in the Blikopener Spot. Together with Bernard I look back at the project, taking the exhibition as a point of departure. How did the project evolve? I also spoke with two of the Blikopeners who were actively involved in the project. What were their experiences?
How Far, How Near: The World in the Stedelijk opened on September 18th, with works from the Stedelijk Museum collection and new work by Godfried Donkor and Lidwien van de Ven, created especially for this exhibition. The exhibition argues on behalf of greater attention to art from regions beyond Europe and North America. Recent acquisitions of works by African artists raise the question of why, in the past, the museum’s collection and exhibition policies have been so geographically limited? Christel Vesters, art critic and editor of ‘Global Collaborations Journal’, interviewed Jelle Bouwhuis, head curator of the exhibition, about the background to How Far, How Near.