Thinking of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s No Life Lost (2015), at Hauser and Wirth gallery, NYC, March, 2016

Rev., March 20, 2016.

Disclaimer: This entry includes graphs working out the disposition of art and agency in various fields. These are improv swipe sketches made on Windows Journal scenically (not codified) presented for “entertainment purposes only.” A=agent; V=viewer; C (on left)= prototype/cult; arrow =agency activated; I I I triple vertical line below= breakdown of A into surface, fictive space, support, fronted toward A in relation; ()= in relation; [] = fixation/exploitation: looping downward arrow=reagency (do-over); A with feet right=counteragency (turn away from); A with feet left=reverse agency (reverse engineer to life; ostension); letters in dotted line=depleted agency (rational, incidental); A or any letter upside down= negated agency; A upside down with box around it=kill; C-I-AP-V in diamond .relations equals agentic array (cult, intercession, apotropaic, votive); solid horizontal line= fraction relation between two agents. All other lines and labels are scenic improv of the moment (i.e. “what I came up with”), not yet codified.

Sometimes it is worth considering a clash of images, forming a complex, in a way that in former days would have caused my mind to jam, but now I seem to have the tools to work it out. This happened in consideration of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s show at Hauser and Wirth this month (March, 2016, works shipped to New York from the Venice Biennial, so one of those shows too). The main subject of this note is No Life Lost

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In this work DB works with old photos of World War I showing dead horses, which she first came across about ten years ago when doing a research project in Belgium. She saw these photos, and something about them was haunting, and weird, and it was that hauntingness that she wanted to work with. What this means is that as a contemporary agent she gazed upon old photos, with their old way of doing things, and out of context, had a vibe that was not part of the original photo. Here is the graph for a person in the contemporary time of the photo (1916) looking at this photo

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That is, a viewer, looking at a photo as an agent to show them the war, saw right through the depleted black and white, and rather likely thought the medium was new and appreciated for its transparency, but then firmly in the foreground was the soldier, and in the background might have been a dead horse, or even if a backgrounded photo of it, but, either way, the focus of the viewer of the photo was on soldiers at war, and both mid and background are as a result indexically related to the individual loved one the viewer was worrying through the picture about, and that loved one is also the personification of the reality of the war, meaning as a bit of reportage, the photo is nothing more than an agent serving the cult of the war, to report the news. But now, fast forward 100 years.

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What this means is 1) the viewer today 2) looks through the current norm of expectation for war photo category, therefore 3) an old photo looks weird and stiff, and all pulled apart in fissures (fore, mid, background) fixated-on-depletion as weird, an “old photo” syndrome, and so the artist has a weird response to an old photo. But then it cannot be denied that the old photo also has a second life contemporaneously as a photo in scholarship 4), where the old photo weirdness is reagentified 5) to represent the past in a counteragentic way 6) as a document of a lost past, often symbolizing the whole of that past 7). This counter reading of a photo as document of time in turn activates further hyper interrogation of the elements of the photos, so, for example, looking at the background 8) breaks down 9) into examining the weirdness of the photo in detail, at this point the artist engages on a counter level with the weirdness, extracting a weird background element and making it center stage, and in that 11) creates another counterreality reading of the photo in which each image is again reagentified 12) as a symbol of something, if not always anymore the war being documented itself 13), and that symbol is then brought forward by the artist to be the agent for art. It is this fourteen step process that brought de Bruyckere from old photos of dead horses in World War I

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To the idea of making a sculpture of an element of one of those photos, a dead horse. The thing is, though, the making of the photo into the counteragentic read source material of a work of art results, for the most par, in a counteragentic work of art, see graph, which then, insofar as it is turned away from its original context and the role it actually played in real life, allows the viewer to also through it turn away from actual life and adopt an ironic turned-shoulder attitude toward life. This would be mainstream picture theory practice, circa the 1980s

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And then all that was required of the work of art derived from photos in this way was to have forwarded into the art some fixated upon depleted counter element of the depth of the art and then work with that alone in a counter or symbolic way, and that was picture theory art, per se. For a time, that was all that was required of picture theory. If you could simply demonstrate by your counter reading of a photo with fissures discerned in it that had opened up due to the aging of technology and the world it depicted in the time since its taking and its new re-representation in the 1980s, that was enough, voila, picture theory painting, picture theory art, the self-reflective image, the whole bit.

And then the second bit with picture theory is that having related a work of art ironically to a picture read counter to its original reality, it would then be re-related to its source, to highlight the irony, and then that could also be included with a whole catalog of other related images that make a point about a convention of representation which is being played with. This too is the second step of picture theory analysis, compiling like sources, to create a sense of the reality of an unconscious convention, and it remains, in fact, at the bottom of my treatment of horror movies, and of culture in general.

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I in fact engaged in a bit of this in response to No Life Lost by De Bruyckere because it did remind me of other sources. One source I mentioned was by way of a second work, Lamb of God

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Which is apparently taken from Zurburan

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And then is meant to triangulate off that with thoughts of Syrian refugees, and for me that happened by way of Ai Wei Wei’s controversial icon in sympathy of the fate of the Syrian baby who died that way, the Ai Wei Wei

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But then those I also related it to the way that Roman Polanski made use of a rotting dead rabbit in Repulsion (1965) to underscore the growing repulsion at her body that Carol is suffering.

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All of this is standard picture theory, if it remains ironic and deconstructive entirely in its intent. There are lots and lots of works of art that address things in this way, it has in fact become the lingua franca of the picture theory generation, and become how “we” (liberal arts educated persons, educated between 1965 and 1990; since then, folks seem more literal) see the world, but it would appear from de Bruyckere it has also infected the younger set, she born in 1965, and even younger, and by this point has become the natural default position of consciousness vis a vis photography as appraised by the ironic eye of a contemporary artist.

But then my advancement on picture theory was that deconstruction was not enough, that is, ironic realization by an artist in an out of context and culturally superior and disconnected way that there was something weird about an old photo and that the fissures tearing up the photos weirdly made it possible to extract an element from an old photo and make use of it in an ironic way in art, it does not stop there. All of that ironic perception, that countering, takes place in the mind of the artist whose job is perceived as removing something from its literal reality context, to see it as a strange symbol, which kinda was my definition of what art was in 1989. But, then, now, something more was needed, and what was needed, from my point of view, was that the odd element surrounded by fixation-in-depletion, reagentified in the ruins of the dotted line fissures opening it out from its former context in the photo, that odd element was not just a part of a particular old photo, it was a trope in the genre of photography, and also a trope in the culture at large. That is, it was grounded in a visual culture that transcended the ironic eyeball of the artist upon it, and had, once upon a time, a basic symbolic-functional meaning (what I will call a symbolonic purpose in the ground of the reality of the time, and in the media responding to the ground of the time), and in order to make proper appraisal of where in the world one’s own ironic view of things fits, you had to address the tropes simpler life as a trope in popular visual culture. The discourse of the artist’s imagebank of images contributing to their own catalog of images (an idea rooted in Atlas and numerous other works) is one thing, a reflection of his or her mind, but all of these images also have a second life in actual culture, or other cultures, and they must be attended to

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It is also true that when you study the trope of a genre of popular culture, you are basically studying urban legends of representation in the ground of experienced reality at the time, and in that impulse there is a drive to return again to the original ironic old photos and see them for what they are, and the complexity of the life of the trope in the context of the inevitable rubiks-cubing of the image in real life, as all image are played with in time in many agentic ways. And, indeed, I pointed out, while de Bruyckere seems to want to fixate on the meaning of the dead horse as it relates to death in a pure way, in the world at large dead horses actually became duck blinds from behind which soldiers could shoot

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And then too they were such good duck blinds that the armies actually made papier mache fake dead horses to terrorize the opponent troops but exploit the trope as it clashed with the reality. (these from a cursory review of google, no research required)

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All of this would exist up in the analysis of the actual prototype culture, as in 1 in the upper left in this graph of a later stratagem

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And indeed this is where I more often find myself these days, seeking out the agency of symbolic acts in the context of the actual art-life visual-action culture of people (thus my current interest in ancient Rome). This is then beyond picture theory, but picture theory subsumed as a singular tool within the larger arsenal of agency theory.

For me then, there is discourse, where the 80s occurred, in working all that out, but it was all too artist-minded-bound, then the transdiscourse of the culture at large (CL), and then reagentified within the CL are particular subcultures which makes up popular culture today, or tabloid culture, sustained by the crawlspaces of genres, and in those too the image has grounded meaning as a trope, that representation is re-presented as trope, and, as trope, the mere ironic image floated by the artist-mind, is grounded in the actual all but unconscious connection of the genre artisan mind

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(But then there is the odd thing here that if the artist derived her idea from a fissured reading of a deconstructively perceived old photo of a real thing, and therefore saw it in a peculiar symbolic way, and then amplified the meaning and the agency of that image extracted by comparing and contrasting it with other images in a catalog of images called a discourse, if then that is the image library that fed her art, then it is also true that that discourse has root in fact in real history, and in the cult space of the actual events of the war, and in that context the image read singularly as abstract may indeed have been made use of in numerous other agentic or depleting or exploitative ways that deeply enrich and problematize the image, and then somehow by some way of migration some aspect of the meaning of the image as grounded in real cult space culture took form as a trope in horror movie culture, and then began to develop into a discourse in the confines of the genre too. But, the earthshaking aspect of this arrangement is that, previously, I thought that art discourse was one discourse and it is entirely separated from the discourse of tropes in horror movies, for example, and never the two shall overlap. And yet of late and especially in the art work of persons under 30 today I see more and more of a convergence of the two cultures, the art discourse of representation culture, and the genre horror trope culture, and the primary way in which the migration might occur is through throwback retrograde movement to the common ground of prototype reality that both discourses share, all of which means that in art what I formerly thought of unrelated art discourse and horror movie discourse are in fact cousin discourses ultimately derived from the same source, the reality of the horrors of wars or other events in historical time. This is where then my agency theory has also taken picture theory.

But with regard to discourse in art culture, in this I did in fact on FB compare de Bruyckere’s dead horse to the use of the dead horse as a motif in paintings in horror, and its use just last Monday night (March, 2016) in the second episode, season one, of Damien on A&E as when he goes to Anne Rutledge’s house, he sees his photo of a dead horse over the mantel, under a chandelier (and my thought too was that, this just mixing contexts in the moment, this reminded me of the meat being passed out by DT at Mar Lago under the chandeliers the week before)

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and so in making these associations I was being picture theory ironic, but, then, also, culture theory working out the power of the trope in the culture of the genre and in the culture at large. But then the weird thing, it would seem that de Bruyckere ironically read the horses in one way, and derived from her counter reading of old photos out of context a symbolic idea for a work of art, but at the same time the trope of the dead horse in culture at large and genre subcultures is that the dead horse seems to represent generally and unconsciously the notion that the dead horse specifically as a trope represents collateral damage, desolation, the war out of control, carnage in the abstract, a symbol of absolute famine and pestilence, and that is what it stands for both in Damien and, I believe, in de Bruyckere (though this thought is parenthesized by the fact that not having seen the real horse-skin sculpture No Life Lost in a gallery, I do not have the benefit of my body acting with a pull of sympathy to the reality of the skin, to coddle it in pity, or with revulsion to corpse skin, to back off.

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But then there is the broader issue that de Bruyckere has not simply altered a photograph to create an ironic symbol. She has not rested in the safe space of picture theory 1980s style. She has not stayed within the tidy bounds of her ironic artist-mind making sense of the world by cataloging associations over it. She actually wants to dig back through all that to recreate for the viewer an actual encounter, within the bounds of art, of the prototype reality. What this means is that, just as her founding picture theory discourse turned away from the contextual reality of the original image, to find new meaning, now she, in a second maneuver, turns away from the picture theory resolution, and seeks out of a counterreality where the image and the subject of it exist in a counterreality that then can be fed through a fixatedly dead and buried sense of the pastness of the past, the dead past of experienced time (not scholar’s history), and multiplying through that to reverse engineer into physical reality a sculpture that brings the original departed experience of a dead horse in the context into reality, but to experience as art as a double symbolic of survival of all that

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I have called de Bruyckere’s desire to dig back through the picture theory suspension of reality in representational issues itself to the reality behind the media and the representation itself, a retrogressive drive toward a prototype, and then the attempt to as it were sacrifice herself and her sanity in terms of the picture theory norm by forcing back into physical reality a trope from a picture with a certain meaning so that vis a vis a sense of the absolute goneness of the past, it comes to represent in reverse agency the idea of death survived, thus No Life Lost, this is a highly post-postmodern stratagem, definitely retrogressive, perhaps dangerously cultic, and even fascistic, if you will, but there it is, a dark art from Dark Europe.

Strange vibes with houseplants in Beach Balls (1965) and Black Klansman (1954).

Rev., March 15, 2016. byline. Houseplant: Journal of the Arts.

I am on record for arguing that in horror movies, the large houseplant in the corner of a shot is just like a suit of armor, to surreptitiously, by a fake-out, in an alibi form, suggest the presence on the mind or in the vicinity of the person in the shot, that a dangerous figure is coming. But the odd thing about the houseplant is that it is likely that it became so pervasive and everpresent that people just forgot what it was supposed to mean, and it depleted then to incidental presence. But, even so, there remains moments of salience activation, when the incidental houseplants chug to life, and emit some notion related to the story or the fears in it. A few thoughts then on a few sightings of houseplants in recent quick run-throughs of not good movies.

For example, in the awful Beach Balls (1965), which nonetheless is bookended by three fabulous cameos by the Four Seasons, The Righteous Brothers and The Supremes, the guys in their snazzy plaids sit among the houseplants of the club

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and this club is a swinging rock n roll club, as here is a houseplant set next to one of the Four Seasons, and there is also a stained floral motif on the bamboo mounted screen in back

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and this does look to be one of those 60s clubs that worked with the tiki exotic style

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All of which would seem too relate tiki, and drinking, and rock n roll, and having fun, to the jungle behavior of folks that live in houseplant heaven. But, then, there is the added attraction, which is really the whole attraction of the movie, and that is that all the girls not only appear in bikinis, but repeatedly, to accentuate the nakedness of themselves in bikinis, play peek a boo with the camera, an strip to their bikinis, this happens twice, and since it is the job of the dancing they did back then to shake their junk, and their hair, and if possible all the fringes and tassels on their suits, that relates to houseplants too

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This is, the leafage of the plant, its low-hanging fruit aspect, relates, by jungle association, to the available body of the bikini-exposing female, presumably fast in matters of sex. The notion that the body of the woman is equated with aspects of the male gaze and with natural forces is made apparent in the not too great, but not bad either title sequence, when the eyes of a binoculars zeros in on the eyes of the female body, her breasts

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And then that sort of pleated suit girls wore back then, to give a waddle to their wiggle, was immediately related, in the animation to a wave of the ocean, so the connection is made. It is also true that the male gaze is played with again when the nerdy girls show up to bring dignity back to their class

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And they are all done up in all but costumes of oldfashioned uptightedness, worst of all in their sleeping outfits, but then, of course, after they do the whole who me we’re shy bit at the beach, they turn out to have the best bodies (one of the left, very best body) on the beach, made more so by the fact that they are not proud of them, and more or less defer off any ogling

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So, a very simple point to make, but it is possible that the houseplant virus that spread through movie culture in the late modern period is attributable to tiki culture, and gain life by relating that aspect of the sexual revolution as played out on screen in the form of girls baring just about all in bikinis (and it really is rather amazing, the whole movie around the movie is truly terrible, but, what survives? The classic rock n roll of great performers, and then the bodies, not anything that comes out of their mouth, or is acted by them, but their bodies, they survive with the full charge they had back then, in the movie.

A second possible linkage of houseplant to the indoor-jungle idea as it relates to wildness is suggested, a bit more sinisterly, in Black Klansman (1954). In this one, a man of mixed parentage, who can pass for white, but is black, has a fling with a white girl in a motel, and yet the room is fairly screaming be careful, as there are not only two large landscapes spelling out trouble coming at them, but a large houseplant in the corner

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but then his night is ruined when he learns over the phone, the phone entangled in the plants, that a family member has died, killed by the klan. In this context, the plant represents the wildness on the other side of the phone, but, also, now, in him, in his rage

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his ideas trigger so quickly from his previous posture as basing his life on love, regardless of race, to being a black man again insulted by the society at large, and in a rage of triggered anger he zeros in on the woman who two seconds before was his love object, as the symbol of white power, and strangles her, in the grip of the houseplant

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and then, even better, making, here, a direct, immediate, associative visual rhyme with the houseplant fringe leaves, with his hands, backing off, appalled at himself, and his urge to violence. An association which quite clearly links the houseplant to the threat of a figure from outside the shot, and even with, in this context, a racial connotation of wildness and primitiveness, though in 54 that was pretty late in the day for that (this nice shot also includes a very rare example of a gun picture in a house)

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Then he is so shocked at himself, and upset at his news, that he has to go, and that means go back out into that jungle, and for that he pulls on his pants in between two towering houseplants, bridged by a pretty nice painting

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The painting is not the easiest thing to figure out, but it has about it a quasi-surreal but then alsoo quattrocento appearance to it, as if to depict a city in whole, and for that I guess I would have to term this a predicament painting (urban landscape subgenre), as it is a white town, in a strange place, and there is an implication of the difficulty fitting in

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and then of course when he runs off, and the woman having vacated the bed, we see the full on view of the two paintings over the bed, whose danger was momentarily blocked by her breasts

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That is, working here with an idea I developed in considering the bad movie, Lurkers (1987), that looked at from woman-first up to pictures, its double forms represent her, and a life with her, and a world of romance seen through her body, and as such they are an extension of, neutralized in their danger by her breasts below them, so breasts

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Then pictures

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But now that he is leaving, she is flushed away, out of the picture, and he concerned head on, without seeking refuge or protection in love, with the dangers of the world. And that would be a world where the danger signified by the houseplant morphs into a hard form, the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan

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and that is as far as I wish to take this note: simply that in two movies from the late 50s and early 60s it does occur to me that the houseplant serves also to whisper of the jungle wildness of both women in bikinis and African-American men who are angry at the society they live in.