Silence of the art in Silence of the Lambs (1991): a brief note.

Rev. Mar 27 2014

Posted, RIP Jonathan Demme, Apr 27, 2017.

In a recent rescreening of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, I found myself becoming a bit depressed. It was not because I identified with Clarice Starling, orphaned due to the death of her father, then a runaway because she could not bear to hear the screaming of the lambs at a Montana farm. It has to do with my critical exploitation of the movie twice, in two different contexts, in the early 1990s, as I sought at the time to inform the practice of contemporary art inside the Russian doll container of the larger popular culture around it. In it, I linked up bad art to Hannibal Lecter, and considered his cell

silamb 1in its basement lair look, a classic tabloid space: I even reproduced it for my  essay for the exhibition, Tabloid (Sally Hawkins Gallery, March, 1992)

silamb 5 1And I think I thought such a low down psycho space, which I was theorizing as a crawl space around the culture, was also a subconscious contributor to my Rock Bottom space in the Value (1991) exhibition, which I still talk about.

I think I also considered his art to be an example of psycho art, that is, overdone, sickly precocious, automatic in its mania to represent exactly. The fact that the Duomo is done entirely from memory also linked it in my mind to the model of a cathedral that the Elephant Man was said to have fashioned in his cell, imagining it from only being able to see the tower from his window. And I think in my mind, at the time, I linked this sort of bad art to psycho art and to the tabloid turned upside down mentality of the time.

At the same time, I was impressed with Kristi Zea as a set designer and art director and especially liked her set up of the temporary holding cell devised for Hannibal in a transfer point

silamb 3I compared this directly to an installation, Public Enemy, done by David Hammons as part of an early installation-focused exhibition, Dislocations, curated by Robert Storr at MOMA, and sought then, in essay form never published, to link art installations to psycho or forensic installations.

hammons 2

These ideas still persist, and the program is one I have continued. But the primary mistake I made at the time was using static formal visual similarities between spaces, especially in the case of comparing the “it looks like the same thing” sense between the above set up and Hammons installation, and left it at that. I felt that a formal similarity was enough to confirm an identity between the two. In this I ignored Lecter’s own advice to Starling, taken from Marcus Aurelius, what is the thing itself, the motive, what does he want more than anything else. In leaving my discourse at the level of formalistic similarity, and that being proof of a connection, I indulged in the kind of facile apophenia with formalist language which is part and parcel to conspiracy theorists and other seekers after secret codes, but also was working within a strict formal-static context, that is, from the perspective of the art world out. Because of this I believe that I contributed to a discourse which saw abject art as somehow an equivalent to psycho art in horror movies, and thus believed that the mad artist was an accurate depiction of the artist. Though I now criticize the fact that art world let the psycho artists schema from popular culture breach the critical firewall of the art world and flood and corrupt, for example, Mike Kelley art criticism (though I held my own on that, and got it right), it looks to me like I did not have enough theoretical dig to fully understand the differences, and why Hannibal Lecter in fact was the very opposite of an artist.

And, in a problem I have solved by this point, by my study of ritual space and how art exists in the context of ritual in it, in a sequence of events and a series of images, I can now make a better appraisal of the difference.

The picture of the Duomo in his cell, for example, later removed as Chilton is torturing him with punishment, is a property that expresses two things. First, as they discuss, and as is the basis of his deal, he wants desperately to get out of that cell, and see something of the world, even a nice seashore view would do. That is that kind of view. Second, he is working from memory only, and the level of detail is meant to be taken, as a result of that information, as an indication of his steallock brain, its capacity for fixating on details, and making use of them, deviously, dangerously, in ways other human beings cannot possibly conceive. This, the picture is a diagnostic sketch, a mad drawing, telling us that he is mad, it is not meant to be appraised as a work of art, as its relentless literalism, its searching obsessive detail, its escapism is everything that true art is not.

silamb 4Indeed, Lecter’s evil genius is in being able to take puzzles, that others cannot work out, the files on Buffalo Bill, for example, and work it out, connect the dots, put together a plan of action. It may even be said, then, that his drawings are doubly not-art, being in fact disguised blueprints for escape (and, indeed, in the sequel, Florence is made use of as the setting where he sets up his later lair). In fact, later, Starling does an autopsy on the girl drowned in West Virginia, and finds that the psycho killer himself is a manic hobbyist, exporting from afar a rare moth, the death’s head (another use of this oft used horror motif, horrific nature), inserting it far down in the throat of the victim, as if to turn the body into another cocoon

silamb 25But Lecter, forseeing that a patient of his would be causing problems, and then making use of that prognostication to form the basis for his own psycho killing, leaves a clue as to this methodology and his identity, or at least to the fact that he knows the identity of the killer, when Starling breaks into a storage place, ingeniously devised by the awkwardness of his address, Your Self, sees stored haunted house paraphernalia, the owl of mystery and murder, going back far, but certainly to Psycho )1960) itself

silamb 5Then in the set up of the car, like a Keinholz work of installation art, there is a headless manikin

silamb 6And then the head of the murder victim in a jar, with the moth stuffed down the throat, making the connection

silamb 7By this means, then, Lecter toys with the world, and with the police. He is a puzzle maker and puzzle solver, and his art is just a where’s waldo version of his puzzling mania.

But in Silence, the role that mad drawings play in communicating the particularly high performance quality of his psycho state, is best exemplified by the one he has made, in fact, of Starling

And this is nowhere better worked out than in his drawing of Clarice Starling, executed in his temporary stopover stay pen

silamb 8This drawing lays out his plan, which the cops, of course, completely miss. In this picture, buttoned up Clarice, whose “cunt” he could not in their first meeting smell, is depicted décolletage, her hair let down, in drapes, with folds and contours, she is a woman, not the uptight tomboy that she has to be in the FBI. There is little question that Lecter satisfied some masturbatory fantasy thoughts about her, in pouring over her in the way of this drawing. The fact that the lamb is let go and set down over her left breast, signifies his drawing as a kind of suckling on her. He is living vicariously, in picture sex, through her. For that, she is safe, however. He has also somehow, in a sick way, adopted her, she knows, for example, that when he escapes, he will not come after her. But more importantly, she presides over a twisted road

silamb 9And, even more importantly, and hardly incidental, but essential, as he says, there are three twists on the road, and three crosses over the road, each with a shadow. It is a kind of calgary. But he is telling them, it will start with Starling’s visit, which will humanize me and make you lower your guard. From here too I will get a something I need, to open my locks. Then, I will follow that road, in three twists. And this is where I went wrong in 1993 thinking that the cage itself done up was the primary impact of the tableaux, and that the world of the psycho was fixed. No, it is part of a sequence. It is shown that way, as an element of an elaboration of barbed wise, a twist, of many layers of security, (one notices in this shot, three loops of wire in the central of the picture, and three men departing)

silamb 11So there is the front door of the building, the getting out of the building, there is the elevator, and there is the cell and barrier. A lesser criminal would just try to break out of the cage, and perhaps it was put there for show to distract to a singular jailbreak vision of escape, so that he does not think of the layering. But Lecter knows, he knows that if he gets out of the cell, he must then also get down that elevator, and if he gets down that elevator, he must also get out of the building. There is a lot of security, and it is by three crucifixions that he does. The first is, of course, the “shot from hell,” which made such an impact at the time, the cop strung up in a crucifix form, with his belly eviscerated. The purpose of this shot is to shock, to unnerve, to frighten, to make them startle to awake, and only focus on the immediate at hand. Interestingly enough, the shot is come to in stages, in the movie. First we see it through the door, as a black bird of doom, a something gone wrong

silamb 12And then we see it in the shadows, from afar, as a what the heck is that, what am I looking at, capturing the shock, the fact that he is crucified with arms slightly upward so that in his uniform and his evisceration in red his red and blue and white also make him part of the bunting, is Lecter’s devious way to mock and make fun of the idiocy of his capture.

silamb 13And he may have got an idea to do up the dead as a kind of portrait by having to look at the lighted portraiture of city fathers all about, and then the cop at the sawhorse, taking up his post, he has transmuted that into horror, a devising from the means at hand

silamb 14Then there is the first crucifixion, as said. The second one is that the other victim is laid out on the floor, and is badly eviscerated in the face. He it is they now launch a rescue mission for, and in tending to getting him down to the ambulance, their inward focus takes their minds off security. That is the second crucifixion, laid out on the floor, then on the gurney, then in the ambulance. One wonders then if Lecter then planned that as they were taking the body down the elevator, the roof of the elevator might start to drip blood.

At that point, they are distracted again, as the body is wheeled out, and they go up to above the elevator, to spy down on the bottom of the elevator, and since the figure is dressed in white, as Lecter was, it is now assumed that this is Lecter, relieving tension from the gurneying rescue, they got him, and he is dead, because a bullet does not move him. In their minds, then, there was an escape, and then the shots, the gunfight, and Lecter lost

silamb 15This is the third crucifixion. Just like in the drawing. And it is this dead man too who will rise from the dead. After they get into the ambulance Lecter reveals himself, he was the third body, he posed as the dead, in a Ulyssean ploy, faking death, in a way, common in a way, devious in this execution, and thus came back to life, that way. This is also communicated in the drawing, as Starling is depicted as the Madonna, and she holds at her bosom the lamb of god, the symbol of Easter, of the resurrection of the lord, the crosses now vacated. But it has to be noticed that, while baby jesus in some madonnas did smile back at the audience, to say to them, you too will be saved, this smile is the sick knowing gotcha smile of Lecter himself, he is the lamb, getting so much psychic pleasure from nursing himself in her bosom, and it is he who will live again, by escape

silamb 16I also want to note that in early modern horror, the appearance of a Madonna votive on screen appearing to signify rebirth, here Frankenstein (1956) as inverted Madonna, giving birth.

silamb 17And there it is. While in 1993 I made only a static formalist visually-rhyming connection between the set up in the courthouse and David Hammons’ piece at MOMA, today I have a much better understanding of the milieu and sequence wherein the image stands, and how it works out in each milieu, and this clarifies that in the world of Hannibal Lecter art was not art but a psycho secret way of planning, a signaling, a puzzling, a toying, a devious artifact of his treatment of the whole world. And that drawing right there, it told them everything they wanted to know, and they ignored it because it was “just art,” when, in fact, no art done by a psycho is art, it is the appearance of art exploited by a psychosis.

Finally, it is an odd thing, that, eight years later, a sequel to Silence was at last made, Hannibal (2001), and its entire mis en scene ends up being based not on Lecter’s life and crime, but on his art. As if peering through his psychotic pictures of Florence, Hannibal is found improbably curating a library in the Palazza Vecchio, right out in the open, and then kills an investigator who comes his way, with many beautiful shots of Florence, and, of course the music. But he kills as part of a lecture, and a part of history. Since the inspector coming after him is a Pazzi, he lectures on the Pazzi being hung from the palace, five hundred years before, disemboweled

silamb 19And then shows him his ancestor, as he attacks him, in a shadow on the screen, a typical remediated shot

silamb 20And then he sends him out the window, disemboweled. It is a not bad sequence, it has a nice art-life nexus feel to it, it suggests, however, his taste in art to be psychotic, or rather his mania to make life into art to be so. And it also has to be said that this notion that Europeans live still on the balconies on which history happened, and in the caverns of historical places, and enact their life like operas in public on the balconies of the public city, for all to see (and then no one captures him, it just does not seem possible), is a conceit of culture psychosis almost as problematic as his murdering

silamb 21And then the movie switches back to the US, there is an entirely unsatisfying runaround Union station, but at least we make it to Ray Liotta’s country home, and there Hannibal nurses shot Clarice back to health, and, in the meantime, as changed her into a fetching low cut gown

silamb 22Which means that in addition to sewing stitches into her body, he saw her naked. Moreover, the wound was in her right shoulder/breast area, the one exposed partly in his fantasy drawing. And, then, still on morphine, she finds her way downstairs to a macabre dinner hosted by brainless Liotta, and we see much more of her breast, including sweat on her breast

silamb 23

And it is to be noted that this entire sequence is lorded over by a strange bit of taxidermy over the bed in which she was lied (one imagines that Lecter managed even that detail), and it is a lamb

silamb 24The result is a mannerist exercise, extenuating from preexisting material, highly arty, and entirely unreal, perhaps they thought to capture in full the psychotic nature of his character. Thus, while he sits and stitches Clarice closed, he gets to live, partly, his drawing: earlier, it was his blueprint for an escape: now it turns out to be one of his fantasies, especially with regard to her and his affection for her. A very odd through-the-looking-glass jump from art to life, in the progression of the series, though it does not quite work in this case.


Filming Volksgemeinschaft in Triumph of the Will (1935): magic formalism and bonding devices in the cinematography/editing.

Rev., Feb 21, 2017.

Over the years, my reaction to Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will has been mixed. At times, I subscribe to the party line, and concede it’s value as a work of visual art. At other times, I am more likely to dismiss it as boring, covering as it does the interminable formalities of a several-day Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, Germany in 1935. A few extra details were afforded by Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent (2016), namely, this documented from journals and diaries, that most party officials thought the whole event an excruciating task, then marveling at Hitler’s patience in watching over it all, but, then, for that, Ullrich praises Reifenstahl for condensing a several-day event into a compressed film, cutting and choosing as she went, and he ends up with the same conclusion: the film is a great movie, and had, as well as the rallies, a powerful impact on making Hitler more and more popular in the few years after his elevation to the Chancellorship. But, I don’t know. I thought then that I would address the movie from the point of view of the genre criticism that I make use of to study horror movies, as it could be argued that this is a kind of horror movie, no? The basic method is simple: well, right away, I see that Reifenstahl was limited to documentary posture vis a vis her subject, so there is no chance that the movie conforms to the exciting-making visual tropes developing at the time in either German expressionistic cinema or in America what I call radio pictures (King Kong and the like). At present, then, I will not undertake a detailed treatment of the layers of visuality, pronounced or effaced (though this does come up), in the movie. But, then, there are devices, motifs, tropes, in the movie, as in any movie, and either the director makes use of them, or not, and if she makes use of them effectively, to good effect, then that makes it a good movie, as a movie. Alas, on this level, there are in fact some beautifully instrumented devices, and scenes, and then they are indeed woven into effective emotional sequences, that might have, in those days, carried people away. As movie devices, the devices are more akin to the new wave cinema ethos to later reach France, and one might even say that some of the devices one sees in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night has some source in TOTW. But, for the devices.

The movie of course starts out with the aerial shots of Hitler’s plane coming in over Nuremberg. The movie has a lot of aerial work, most of it ok. By today’s standards, seeing a dinky little plane bobbing over the town, in an aerial, would not elicit must excitement (though it is true that a lot of movies still involve airplanes). Ulrich reports that Hitler’s blitzkrieg plane tours had a dramatic impact on party elections, and did I think repeat the cliché that these shots makes him seem like a god visiting the city, glorifying him.

twill 1but the real thing for me is that the plane is being shot from another plane in convoy with it, and, for that, the camera bobs up and down. As a result, sometimes we see it lowering toward the lower left, while other times the plane literally bobs up center shot even out of shot so that you only see its wheels, which are in landing gear

twill 2this bobbing effect is enhanced by the fact that it would appear, from aerial shots of parades moving across bridges, that the festivities have already begun, and he is, as planned, as part of the event, dropping down into the city, to take part, to make his appearance, in media res, it is, that is, an “entrance.” But it is also, for the bobbing up and down, and for the movement of the camera, a birdlike descent, and the bird, the eagle, is played up often, later, by Reifenstahl, she pans up the feathers of a stone eagle, the film fades out

twill 3there is, in the Nazi eagle, a mechanical aspect to its wings, and a swastikated quality to its claws

twill 4If you were at the rally for the SA or SS back then you would look up from afar and see Hitler, and then see eagles flanking him, impressing the mind with an overlapping stereoscopic identification

twill 5eagles’ wings and rippling banners, in an all but aesthetic ecstasy, are also emphasized

twill 6while in a manner of speaking it is said that an eagle attacks, and holds its prey in its talons, this negative undertone is subsumed under a triumphant view of the eagle as a triumphant bird of prey, a symbol of strength, and, for all of the aerials, the main point of the entry by air is its Valkyrie quality, it makes the Fuhrer into the chief bird of prey holding power over his nest. And, then, it all follows from this metaphor. TOTW is a consummate work of modernist formalism. It is likely that it was appreciated so much in its time because, in the modern period, formalism was ipso facto beautiful and impressive, people were easily swayed by the power of formalistic comparisons between things. They also tended more often than they might today (though I suspect a strong regression to formalism in today’s mindset),to believe that things of same form were things related, and that any formal comparison between things meant that they were really connected, form was most important. From this, it is seen that TOTW is a masterpiece of formalist propaganda but in the sense that the metaphor of the eagle as it relates to Hitler is woven deeply into what in fact is a fugue state reverie on Hitler himself, and a nation that is all and only Hitler. This all done by way of the presentation of the person of Hitler, his hands, his presence or not on camera, the hands of others, the swastika, the hands as related to flags, and to architecture, and all of it tied together in the parades of the rallies. Thus an intense constellation of reinforcing similies are enlisted to make the overriding metaphor of the movie, Hitler as fuhrer over all, imposing.

It starts with his hands, making the Heil Hitler sign, which is all pervasive, all the time. The hand is shown making the gesture, but captured at various phases of the full gesture, time and again. Here, it is all but a wave, but also an affirmation of the people’s salute. It becomes the hand of a saint or rock star, that one wants to grab hold of

twill 7then when we see some of the crowd we get it with armed crooked out, a quarter of a swastika, in silhouette

twill 8and then out in the sun it is hand back palm up and almost as if taking all of the people’s prayers for him to help into his hands

twill 9then when he comes to the spot where he will disembark, and there are people making the sign across the way, he can all but lower the salute into a weird poke which affirms but also keeps at bay the wish

twill 10up on the balcony it is more like a wave hello, than a heil

twill 11then at a large rally, it is more often given as an aside, a mere assent, to calm down, perhaps, the intensity of the mass giving of the heil to him

twill 12Finally, in one shot, at the night rally, the heil almost seems like a wing, flying out over all, taking it all in, validating by its wingspan and power, all of their devotion

twill 13In all cases, his heil is tailored in response to the heil he is getting from the crowd. Over and over again, Reifenstahl montages from him to the crowds, in a simple display of call and response, creating, filmicly, a bond between fuhrer and people, a physical symbol, conveyed by hand, of the concept of Volksgemeinschaft

twill 14this shot is important because while one does see smiling faces, and faces of intense devotion, the wave of waves also moves up and down as he goes like a wave, but in a way that, visually, formally, equates the wave of waves with all the bunting blowing on the buildings, and even the buildings themselves

twill 15in the rallies, the heils are much more formal, and businesslike

twill 17but, then, in between the two, are the heils of the military. Right away, Reifenstahl weaves in the heil of a wall of at-attention military figures, as a sign of social strength and solidarity, a classic circling the wagons effect

twill 18this is then underscored by another kind of hand gesture, and it comes from a curious pan in close-up of the uniforms of some of the soldiers guarding

twill 19and they create a solid line of support

twill 20but by grabbing onto each other’s belts and holding firm (meaning they are also holding back the crowd)

twill 21by this connection the heil is elevated to the status of social architecture, holding the world together. People are simplified and reduced to sigils in the fishbowl, mere signs solely intending to demonstrate their support, and nothing else. By this visual effect, then, the motif of the heil is elevated into a device that can speak on an architectural level. This expansion of the notion of the heil, by way of the swastika, happens by two means: architecture and flagwaving.

After the first night’s serenade, the movie fades, and then opens to this shot, a view out of a high window in a tower overlooking Nurremberg. It is the dawn of a new morning, Reifenstahl here repeating a shot that one has seen in hundreds of movies

twill 22and then there is a hand at the window, opening it, to gaze out upon the New Jerusalem, so to speak (sic)

twill 23this is a displacement device, to remove us from the mundane everyday of now, and to place us in a counterreality, a Germany that is still signified by antique towers (all of these of course destroyed by the war)

twill 24the camera wends its way through the sloped rooves and fackwerk facades, and flags fluttering lead us birdlike through, glorying in the material unity of the place, its peace and quiet, its consistency and safety

twill 25we then are given a little tour of some of the landmarks of this city cast back in time

twill 26and Reifenstahl as if to signal that she is taking us out of the everyday into an extraordinary and different world, even reflects the views in water, to indicate moving through an entoptic field, to dream

twill 27then there is, as it were, a search for the monument, the center of this world, it is not that different than the search for Canterbury Cathedral in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), made a decade later (and possibly a commentary on this film) and even Katharine Hepburn’s  search for St Mark’s in Summertime, in Venice, two decades later, it is not necessarily a Nazi motif, it is a central centralizing, looking for the center of civilization, intercessionary device common to all cities, she trails along the edges of buildings, she gazes up between the flags, she gets a glimpse of what she is after, the destination

twill 28and then….she surprises us, by cutting away to wake up time at the large encampment outside of town, where all the participants in the festivity are staying in tents! For me, the most startlingly weird image of the movie, a classic modern dissolve-montage, but with hold

twill 29why, what does it mean? it means simply, and beautifully conveys the idea by film alone, that the search for the center that used to focus on getting to the main square, or the cathedral, has, for the term of the festival, shifted to the camp, and to the festival itself, and to the out-of-norm place and time had by all in the temporary enclosure of a camp, with all of the transient pleasures of a temporary uprootedness, and, for all that, pleasant, like being on vacation, like camping. And, in this world, with the normal constraints and distancing devices of modern culture washed away, everyone are converted into enlistments in a camp, a communal space, much more communal than to be found in alienating modern culture

twill 30everybody works together, everybody washes together, lots of hands, always the hands

twill 31due to the makeshift nature of the camping, but its mass needs, they have to resort to makeshift devices for supply, and, for that, the everyday maintenance of the place also looks like a cast back in time to a preindustrial past, which is where good hard labor was performed, and people were proud of it

twill 32it cannot escape the notice of a more cynical-ironic contemporary viewer today that when they show the food preparation, the main course seems to be wieners, and they are shown on the line en masse, underlying the obvious fact that what we got here is a big sausage fest (but there is no irony here)

twill 33even when the boys fight, as boys will, as they are good, healthy, hearty, honest and true German boys, they all but wrestle each other in a semaphore where hand gestures are always approaching either a heil or even, in their pretzeling, a swastika

twill 35and, from this, you too can overcome the malaise of modern life, and be tossed high, to a new high, in the good old nazi party

twill 36This sequence of formal devices, all focused on handmadeness, as an extension of hands, and the heil, indicates that society has been reset at the level of the motif, the hand, and the connectiveness created by the hand, and then built back out into a crowd of people handily united, and then extended even further to make of Nuremberg a reverie town where it is not an actual 20th century city but a dream created from the motif up by way of hands. In the language of dream, if the hand is the main device of a flickering glass onion symbolism, then the entire movie is a reverie that takes place in the counterreality created when the gesture turns away from alienation then swings around to remake it according to the motif. This is best shown in the parade sequences on, I think, the fourth day of the event. In this, architecture and heil are one, people are in all the windows, all of them making the gesture

twill 37people on the human pyramid are up top too, remaking one’s view of the city and its pitched roofs, as, all of it, the creation of a handmade Volksgemeinschaft (again, and notice the bull and its horns, one of the movie’s most creative shots)

twill 38once again Reifenstahl retreats to the rooftops, to gaze eaglely down

twill 39to see a 20th century event through the prism of nostalgia for an old, united Germany (Hitler’s “socialist” rhetoric on a folk-based unity that banishes class)

twill 40I have to concede, the way she weaves heils, Hitler’s return, the heil by a mass, the heil by a line of soldiers, then the heil from all the buildings, and all of it soldered together as it were by the grip of the soldiers, it is well done, it means, and it is clear that Hitler must have realized this too, that she totally GOT the rather odd concept of the Volksgemeinschaft where Hitler in his socalled socialism actually believed that all he needed to unite people was patriotism, and being part of one Germany (the same rhetoric we hear out of DT this first month in office). So, by fixating on a device/motif, then instrumentalizing it, and doing so, by extending its reach (pun intended) to include mass, soldiery, and the architecture, it is an inspired use of a trope, and creates an effective mis en scene which cannot help but pull any innocent viewer (not primed to hate the movie) in. She got it.

But, then, she was faced with the added challenge of extending the special reverie space of old Germany in new Germany to the larger pageantry of the festival rallies and events, where the undeniable mass nature of them could hardly be denied. This, she did, by, on the global level, maintaining the aerial, eagle-eye venue, but, then, fed through the field of symbols of hands and salutes, she equated the mass not only as architecture, but compared the heils of hands held out to flags. Though these shots also occur in that fourth day parade sequence, the only reason Reifenstahl would take that shot, without moving the flag out of the way, was that she knew that by this point in the movie it had become a displaced heil Hitler hand, saluting too

twill 42and she swings through a whole sequence, and then comes back for another one, of the same shot

twill 41it is by the unfurling of flags, and, in sequences, in the mis en scene, the as it were furling of shots in a serpentine from one shot out to others and then back again, unconsciously as “furling” links to “fuhrer”, like in the above, that Reifenstahl escalated the level of hand-symbolism to that of the all-encompassing 20th century rally scale.

But, in order to do that, she also had to confront the other problem of an increase in scale, the increase in empty space, and the possibility that someone could become alienated in a crowd, or in watching a movie about crowds. She has, that is, to inject more oxygen, or more distance, into the scenario, so that it can breathe out deeply, to take in the whole breathtaking spectacle of the pageantry to come. And this is done by the strangest trope in the movie, and one which I wonder if Hitler did not have anything to say about, as at times it seems almost disrespectful, she makes rather casual use of Hitler, more specifically, she keeps having the camera run past Hitler, and Hitler drop off the edge of the shot. He is shown as in the distance, by glimpses as if from afar. Early on, we get a shot of the dashboard of the car, there is Hitler’s side on the right side, standing

twill 43in another shot the camera pans by the crowd, sweeping up on Hitler, but then, surprise, it keeps on sweeping by him, causing to fall off the right of the screen

twill 44before he comes out on to the balcony, we also see a glimpse of him, momentarily blocked by a windblown flag furl

twill 45very oddly, the dissolves in this movie, especially the dissolves to dark, linger a long time. After he has appeared on the balcony, the camera just fades out, leaving him in the dark, for a good long time

twill 46when he is going through a receiving line, we are not up front, but see him from a few rows back, and even as we see him upclose shake hands, we also see him disappear behind others

twill 47later in another car, we get a blurry glimpse of the back of his head

twill 48on account of which limitedness, when he turns are you catch his profile, that is a big deal

twill 49in parades, we also see him effaced by figures blocking our view

twill 50even at the rallies, as at this the last rally, there are times we cannot see him, he is blocked

twill 51and we are really blocked

twill 52and we see that some folks ‘in attendance’ will not see anything at all

twill 53What this is about is recreating the view of the man in the crowd, who is not in the front row, and who most likely only will see a limited profile of the event, from the margins. If she had made a documentary of only this sort of thing, that would marginalize Hitler and might be taken as an insult. But having already established the importance of the bird’s eye view, and that bird being the eagle and the eagle being Hitler, and then in that purview the world being made as in confabulation of perceptual images of hands, gestures, bodies, masses, buildings and flags, capturing, that is, the specific habitus of Hitler’s contemporary nostalgia, this marginalized view recreates the reality and joinedness of even the profiled view of the man far in the distance, he is still part of it, he is there. And only seeing a glimpse of him here and there, that is part of it.

I know this because at one point in my life I also was tempted to replace an excavated and empty private life with a life totally lived out in the public space of the street. I felt this almost mad energy in a reprise rally that Trump had in Melbourne, Florida, the other night, something had changed, it was as if this rally was not only a victory party but a compensation for a life lacking in solid private space or relations. In the 1980s, I explored this problem in a most physical way. Locked out of the actual doors of New York City, I had to get my social nourishment in street events, so I attended a lot of public life events on the street in the city. I purposely refused to be weighed down by my unemployment, and after doing what I could each day, I then went out onto the city to live as a “tourist everyday” in New York. I learned a lot about standing in crowds, and waiting, and waiting some more, and then only ending up getting a glimpse of the celebrity involved (it was also in this period that the Times’ Bill Cunningham became my GPS system of where to go and what to see). I learned about the expectation and the disappointment of parades too. But I also learned a few things about the existential situational perspective mania that can overcome one in a crowd. If, for example, as I did, you measure your place in society by how close to and how much of an event you can see, then getting a better view is a measure of your self-worth. If you never get off the margins, or get a good view at all, you are pretty uninvolved, either your private life is good enough so you don’t care, or you are simply not involved in the mass nature of social life, and defer. But if you work to get a better view, then you have to work your way in, and figures things out, and wait. It takes an effort. If, moreover, that stage of social life, public event life, becomes the sole platform of your life, as it was for me in my wilderness years, then a certain urgency develops to prove yourself to yourself by getting closer, and getting lucky. A certain kind of mania develops. I first felt this after waiting in the rain to see Pope John Paul come to Wall Street in 1979. I waited not far from the Custom House on lower Broadway, west side of the street, at the curve of Broadway just below the sculpture of the bull (which was not there yet), and it was a long, wet wait. But then he came, and it was, in fact, perhaps for the buildup, very exciting. It is always in the glimpse had after a long wait that one becomes transfixed by a figure, it is almost akin to love at first site, which is more often than a falling in love with an idea, the idea of finding the right person out of the mass of modern society, and it is also true that it is in this context that the urban legend as it were develops whereby one is convinced that “he looked right at me,” or, in the case of the Pope, “he blessed me.” I actually remember the moment when “he” saw “me” as electric, and attribute to it shocking me out of a prolonged bout of depression that I had fallen into after having moved to the city. But, then, I did something surprising. I had to do it again. So I went up to St Patrick’s, and did it all over again, and imagine that by seeing him closer, or seeing more of him, or getting a better view, I was getting closer to power and “reality.” And then, I did it again, and this time, coming from his residence on the upper east side, got a very good view of him, which sealed the deal, and made of that intense two days a recovery event. But, a logic of morality had developed: your attendance at an event is symbolic, the event is a sandbox, as it were, in which you get to imagine or see where you are in society by how close you can get to him physically, and what you can see of him. If you can’t, you are nowhere, if you can, then you may indeed have what it takes to make it in New York (forgetting of course that those really making it were already interning at law firms and the like). This mania took hold of me for a number of years in my lonely early 80s. I remember exulting over finding a really close up viewing spot for the fireworks for the Centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983, then we won a lottery to sit on choice bleechers on the site of the World Financial Center to see the whole of the 1986 Statue of Liberty celebration flotilla (from which I wrote LIBERTY, based entirely on that moral logic, basically, my own 1980s version of Triumph), and this all culminated with my standing on the top step of the bleechers opposite the White House in 1989 and watching the Bushes wave away the day at the end of the Inaugural Parade (by then, however, I had finally found a way to get inside doors, and my private life began to reemerge after its long hiatus). In this situation, life becomes a symbolic parallax, POV is posted at all points, and every POV, near or far, means something morally, about your place in the world. But, most importantly, if there is a view, even a glimpse, then that means that you are physically part of it, you belong, by the fact of mere physical presence. You are part of the crowd, and your small profile of it, as Sartre argued, just one slice of the big event which, for your part, you symbolically, wholly, took part in. And when all of life in its complexity is reduced to a physical event in a public space and then the working out of that event in that space is the sole measure of value or worth and it is only excitement or not in physical crowd scene that counts, that replacement of the complicated values of society with a simple rubric of physical contact in a crowd or at a festival, that too is, in fact, a kind of fascism.

The fact that Hitler was able to attract and keep the attention of large crowds without television monitors or other supporting technology is astonishing, but the most amazing thing is that Reifenstahl got it, and, for that, inserted into the mis en scene of the outing many shots where Hitler is effaced and minimized, but that one does at times only get a glimpse of him, all that wonder and excitement then all the more intense when by the magic of cameras she takes you from your distant post to upclose and in it. My claim is that this device too is a bonding device, the negative space as it were of the hand-made trope, all of it working together with intense formalist morality to create on film in the very manipulation of devices in the mis en scene a clear visual record of exactly what Hitler was getting at in his concept of the Volksgemeinschaft. For this reason, I have to give it to Reifenstahl, she understood, and was able, therefore, to make an effective movie as the expression of an idea.

In part two of this note (not yet written) I will address the use of flagwaving in the rallies depicted in Triumph of the Will.

Kadar Attia and “reconceptualism”: the fate of conceptualism in the post-globalized new essentialist world.

Rev., Jan 28, 2017.

With reference to exhibition of Kadar Attia, Lehman Maupin, New York, January, 2017l this essay includes dynamic agency graphs, see previous posts for key. .

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck….this phrasing is familiar as a general way to claim that if something looks like something, then it is that something. The only problem with this is that, no, sometimes things can look like each other, and not be each other (for example, I am a second born identical twin, so a tad sensitive to this issue). To claim similarity of things based on looks, particularly of a formal nature, is, of course, one of the lasting legacies of modernist formalism, postmodernism worked hard against it, but, in recent years, in the second decade of the 21st century, ersatz or default formalism has made a major comeback. The tendency of the internet-based mememind to make unlike things like based solely on looks is likely the primary source of the blinding glaze of ice which has formed a global cataract over the eyes of the world. But, what if, as in the case of what I am going to discuss, two things look alike, and are not alike? Recently, when I said a work of art was neoconceptualist, and not conceptualist, my respondant wanted to know what I meant. Then, more recently, this issue was raised by looking at the work of Kadar Attia, who CFV claims is having a moment in New York, with a current show at Lehman Maupin. Is his work warmed over conceptualism? Or is it neoconceptualism, or warmed over neoconceptualism? My answer is, no, it is  REconceptualism. And now I have to explain what that means.

Conceptualism, without going into the whole history, was developed at the extreme far end of a “next-step” chain of developments in contemporary art in the 50s and 60s in which artists sought to get down to the essence of art, to make a clear statement of the nature of art in the world. The famous trope moment came when Lawrence Weiner up at some college in, of course, New England, realized that though he had planned to make a work of art, maybe he didn’t have to make it, maybe the idea was enough, and that was that. The art was no longer material, it was “conceptual,” only, the concept was enough. This idea, however, can only be true inside a disciplined back-and-forth of ideas of several artists having the same conversation working on the same page moving from one point to another in stripping a work of art down to its essentials. All of this was based on a simple distinction in the modern period between the hoi polloi and artists, and artists set up as special minds with special tasks and for that reason whatever they did was art. This started, of course. with Duchamp;s reduction ad absurdum, but the cult of the artist also pervades the work of Picasso (and, in default mode, continues to hold up the egos of thousands of artists worldwide). As the cult-artists saw it their minds and eyes let them see into the facts of the existential dilemmas of life in the 20th century. They were the universal shamans who saw into the way to get past the bad ways of thinking in the modern period, to purer and truer ways. Existentialism allowed them to shave off a host of encumbrances which mentally attached them to the mainstream culture. And then with that the drop out impulse of countercultures built on that removal from the norms started the ball rolling on getting down to even more basic basics. Material, gesture, form, color and time-elements, all, at present, were enmeshed in values that did not correspond to their purifications, so the purpose of art was to purify, pare down, whittle away at impurities, separate and distill, and get down to the very basic. This resulted in the development, as if a special box to display the pure ego of the modern cult artist in, of art obsessed with getting down to minimal forms, pure aesthetics, literal space, real time (zero degree), simple one-two gestures and true concepts or basic concepts. Though Weiner originally meant for only the concept to be valued more than any other element of the work of art, everyone right away realized that was way too extreme, so it shook out that anything in material, gesture, form, color or concept that reduced itself to a singular state in literal space and real time, qualified as ‘conceptual art.’ And since this was not developed except in practice, the ramifications of Weiner’s simplification of art spread out in all directions, along vectors addressing issues of material, gesture, form, color, and concept, not to mention time, and the race was on, voila, conceptual art flourished. Thus, conceptual art is defined as a purist minimalist real-time work of art investing clearly stated and simplified materials, gestures (process), forms, colors or concepts, to explore the existential nature of life in the modern 20th century. Any work of art that is reduced to these terms, and exists in that space and time, is conceptual art.

But, then, when I came along, in the mid 1970s, and I probably felt this not only because I was raised a Catholic, so had a lot of ideas in my head which were at odds with the mainstream of American postwar culture, and then too because I was a second born identical twin, and thus had already by 20 lived a life that, I was aware, was very different, existentially, experientially, than the life of the singleton ego, in the mid 70s, everyone was suddenly like, wait a tick, all that is fine, but doesn’t it still assume that “existence,” as explored by existentialism, is modern, Western, secular, materialist, positivist, intellectual, etc etc etc (in mentioning existentialism I am revisiting my own awakening to postmodernism, when, arguing with a professor over the nature of Sartre’s in-itself, I claimed that “nausea” was fake because no person in the modern world can get down to that ground anymore). And wasn’t it true that the radicals, that is, those pushing the envelope to its very edges, were also all, if not actual WASPs, then certainly had assimilated to the point of all but being acceptable as WASPs (I also grew up in an entirely assimilating culture, as my father’s generation was an assimilation generation, after World War 2). Western Modernism was not only accepted as the assumed standard of all values, all other values, should they wish to be modern, having to assimilate to and conform to them, but Western modernism had such hubris (odd, since the modern West had done a pretty good job of all but destroying itself in two world wars) that it was also simply assumed that this way was the universal way, and anything outside of it was the lesser as culture for that. Then it was also realized, likely by women artists at the time, wait another tick, those cult artists who are declaring everything they do is art because they are the representatives of the purest thinking in Modern Western Rational culture are also all White and all Men, and, worse, than being all White and all Men, they were also all transparent, again in the sense that they simply assumed that their existential explorations of the grounds of truth in reality, in space and time, were universal and uniform for all human beings on earth. But what if women see the world in an entirely different way? and, if you were an African American artist, wouldn’t you also see the world in a completely different?  I certainly knew, as a twin, that I had existential questions, which I have still not been able to answer, which never even occurred to most of my always-singleton counterparts. Once the art world itself began to realize that the premises of conceptualism were monolithic (I remember Anna Shave writing in Arts in the mid 80s that Serra et al were basically fascists!), then the dominos began to fall (though, again, it is pretty odd that in the art world the dominos were being toppled by insider White Men too, re Tom McEvilley). And in their falling, neoconceptualism was born.

Neoconceptualism is basically conceptualism recycled, acknowledging the value and advantages of the aesthetic hygiene of the New York School it inherited, reworked by diverse populations of artists, who therefore, in order to inject themselves into the work, and demonstrate that there is a different ground at work, had to as it were cast a map of atom orbits around the space of the installation to demonstrate that while the conceptualists believed in minimalism per se, minimalism to a postmodernist exists in a suspended cultural space, while conceptualists believed in literal space, or zero degree, postmodernists understood there is no such thing, nor does getting down to zero degree alone mean it is art, most humans live in suspense in space at maybe 90 degrees, and so the neoconceptualist installation had to have a much more buoyant space, and then with regard to real time, again, just as straight photography was poo-poohed by postmodernists, for its assumption that photography was truth, the postmodernist neoconceptualist simply no longer believed in real time, and sought to place art in a much more complicated time zone. For all that, conceptualist art, though it inherited strategies of material, gesture, form, color and conceptual manipulation, that the art world had more or less decided on as making good art, ie the singular, simplified, minimalist language, was that, but neoconceptualsit art was this. As a result, and I also have to say that a good many people who looked at neoconceptual art simply did not get this, and very often would say, oh, they are just doing conceptual art over again, while in conceptual art you were breathing the serene art of the unexamined premises of universalized Western White Male privilege, and maybe dreaming of being so grounded in the real that you could also actually share in their existential pain, in neoconceptual art you had to thrash through the conflicted and biased and cantilvered and vectored space, through the atom orbit forms of cultural migration and movement, as they invested an installation with culturally varied and changing meaning. I got this immediately, in Mike Kelley, in Karen Kliminick, in Kiki Smith, in Matthew Barney, in Kara Walker, but it seems that maybe people have forgot.

The complicating factor in understanding the neoconceptual moment, and why it was so important, is that, in recent years, all the intellectual work of postmodernism, to relativize and culturize all values, to the point where few universal values are valued, has been rolled back as the culture at large seems to have returned to a new essentialism, a new literalism, a new formalism, a new real-timeism, and a new clinical, bureaucratic, realist view of the world. The results have been devastating to the postmodern critique, it is almost as if postmodernism is fading into history, and all of the work it did to tear down the assumed primacy of the master narratives of Western values has been erased.

My response to all this was to take postmodernism even further, moving on into agency, where it is ONLY the agency relations of the elements of the scenario in an installation that gives an installation meaning, with the aesthetics, even, being irrelevant (except they are not). This has lead me by way of the undercurrent culture of modern life, horror movies, which always attacked the assumed pieties of the rationalist in thousands of movies, by way of my long term interest in mythology, to a view of the world where everything is culture, the apparatus of modern life is pretty much entirely a lie and an exxploitation, and we all are, as a result of the stress of it, basically reduced to being peasants again, superstitiously seeking meaning in an incomprehensible world through what I call New Magic art (again, these ideas were first proposed by Deleuze and Guattari some time ago, see their little book on Kafka). Everything is perceptual, biases based on a particular standpoint, all is POV, there is no universal, even if it seems that way, no one walks into a zero degree literal real-time space, they bring with them all the stuff inside their head, all building up an imaginative confabulation of ideas and views, a full personal mythology of values, to populate their world in an enactive way fusing subject and object. The only way to ever understand a work of art from another culture is to imbue oneself with the values of the other culture, or undermine the rationalist categorical belief in “other cultures” by acknowledging that while all traditional cultures share common values, they are nonetheless worked out in thousands of different ways, simply liking it from a standpoint in western secularism will not get you there, simply taking western formalism or conceptualism on the road to find it in a different colony will not get you there. This, of course, puts me profoundly at odds with the culture at large, but still in league with scholars working in art history for whom cultural context and the habitus of what goes on inside the heads of persons in a particular culture is the only way to explain a work of art. All of this returns in New Magic art by way of agency theory to argue that it is possible to discern these alterations if one accepts that a brain filled with certain ideas will place and manipulate an idea in such and such a different way, akin to ancient magic, to express their cultural values in the placement. This is reinforced by the belief of agency theory that art exists only inside ritual and social life and involves either setting something up as a cult, seeking intercession, making an offering, or warding off evil, among many other compound, counter, reversed, negated and other manipulations possible in the agentified conceptualist space. I guess then I would have to say that since I have broken through to a whole new world of thought, with agency theory, that my words about neoconceptualism at the time only sought to explain things, but probably ultimately failed, because I was still primarily using a formalist language, only ever getting to the truth by way of what I adopted from Deleuze and Guattari. Now, however, I look for entirely different range of issues, involving agency as derived from culture, and have no interest, really, in describing the basic aesthetic and existential dimensions of the art.

This all brings me to the work of Kadar Attia. His work looks like conceptual art. The fear is that his work is more ersatz internationalized conceptual art, done by artists all over the world over the past 60 years, basically forgoing their local traditions, thinking it necessary to enter the modern global world, based on Western secular values, and therefore they can do conceptual art too, but with a spin, the spin being culture. I have to concede, by this point, global conceptualism, which I supported (I did the PR for Jane Farver’s groundbreaking show of this at the Queens Museum in the late 90s), while once quite thrilling, and precise, and nuanced, and ahead of its time, because New York was thinking everyone had to be like the conceptualists in New York, has become a tired cliché, the ersatz production values of the biennale now held in every town in every country in the world. Most of the time you, or at least I do, as I appreciate cultural difference, especially as traditional values help one get back to the obscured and effaced agency of art and art objects, rendered as “just art” in the modern world, you often find yourself wishing, I wish they would have done something with their local thoughts, and not just gone to New York then brought everything they learned about conceptualism back home and did that. I wish for a conceptualism that is grounded in locality, at the time of the artist’s own original conceptualism, but understood from day one that culture means difference, a truly global conceptualism. Most such art is very good indeed, the real deal. But then I will call the ersatz anyone-can-do-it conceptualism what is now routinely produced all over the world in imitation of New York, biennale conceptualism, or festivalism as Schejldahl called it.

And certainly Attia could be read in this way. But, then, I noticed, that reading does not quite work. So, what is going on here? I am going to posit a different model, and argue that Attia is engaging in REconceptualism.

So, the question, where in the universe does Kadar Attia’s art exist. It consists of an apparently original, ie actual Dogon mask or head, with figure on top, mounted on a pole, and then inserted inside the eyes some Muslim prayer beads. On the surface, we just take the mask as “an African mask” and then the beads as “beads” and since the beads are coming out of the eyes and raining down the face either they are tears, so the mask is crying, or worse, so the eyes are emptying out. I suppose on this schematic level, it could be read as a new icon of Africa in pain, the Dogon lands now beset by religious warfare caused by Muslim extremism; or you could reverse it, in the fishbowl of dichotomies easy to do, and it is a benign statement that Islam weeps for Africa, or the like. But either reading simply sees it as an image, then reproduced on line, or by Instagram, and, for that, it is entirely depleted, and no better than, in fact, a meme. And yet it seems to not be entirely satisfied with either reading. What, then, is going on?

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The press release says that in the West “we” value ability and physical perfection so much, and devalue infirmity, that it blinds us to the beauty of some less than healthy states, while in Islam and elsewhere some value still accrues to living a life in a disabled state. At least this is what the dichotomy lays out. But as most press releases, this only helps us decide which way to read the shuttlecock for the image factory, and not get to the meaning of the piece. How about we try agency theory?

In the West, the African mask is still valued in an entirely aesthetic and abstract way as a form and shape that represents authentic experience. 100 years after Picasso decided to jettison verisimilitude in art to get down to the structural heart of things, and felt that African art had that, using it as his model, there are still many people who continue to simply view the African mask as the ultimate in modern abstractness and formal sharpness, and like it for that reason, for their enhanced, deep-down, structural expressiveness. Just today I saw on artist on FB post some pictures of African masks, and the presumption was, this is beautiful and radical and deep and authentic, and we should love it because it is the ultimate expression of expressionism, by authentic people living before the laxity of civilized life. In this regard, then, in modern art, the artist wanted to escape dependence on the modelled subject, and the mandate to capture reality behind it, and insist that he, his mind, was the ultimate reality, and to get there he had to reject verisimilitude and seek out a means to represent the inner vectors of his mind, and so made use of African art as a model

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this was an act of reagency, in which the artist changed the terms of the cult of art, and asserted that heretofore the cult of art centers on him, and his inner psyche, represented expressionistically. Thus, African masks were appropriated to help the Western artist assert the hegemony of his inner self, and thus was enlisted to serve cult art, and the cult of the artist (today again, with rad language making a comeback, it would be said he “colonized” the art). This was generally, throughout the modern period, seen as a positive thing, a quest for authenticity. Only during the 1984 Primitive show at MOMA did some critics (Tom McEvilley–I was not in print then, but saw the show, and sure had serious questions about it) question if this is what African art was really all about.

There are still art collectors and artists who hold fast to this belief. But it is also possible that the belief survived the postmodern age because there was a countertradition in popular culture, whereby African masks meant something else, and something more closely linked to their original purpose. If you see African masks of any sort in any British or American, or influenced, horror movie from 1930 almost to the present, that means that there is trouble on the way, or something evil brewing in the house. It evidences the attraction of the resident of the house to the wild and crazy, and suggests that he might be mad too. Thus, as one views a dwelling place of a man, in a movie, one sees African art on the walls, this alerts one, which, as it were, opens up the agentic array, to make one try to figure it out, and what it attaches to is the apotropaic, which, applied to them in the context of a house in a movie, negates them, and makes them warning signals of trouble to come.

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Thus, there is a positive high culture and a negative popular culture derivation of African art, with the latter at least having the distinction of not purely aesthetisizing them, remembering that they were wrest from a ritual context, and existed in a pre-Benjaminian state (though at this point I believe all authentic art exists in a pre-Benjaminian state), with the unfortunate conclusion since that context was voodoo and voodoo was evil, they were evil and threatening.

But these are still both discourses of interpretation based on the meaning of the masks as aesthetic images, and not as actual artifacts of a culture. As artifacts, all African art fits neatly into agentic arrays, as all of it is made for cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic reasons. They are beautiful because they express ideas which intensify any of these agencies. I do not know what this Dogon mask meant, but the figure on top suggests a hereditary expression, meaning this could be a mask of a cult person, a claim to hegemony, or could be a mask of a shaman claiming for himself intercessional power to talk to the god. Since masks were likely also worn in respect to the god, to protect oneself from the glare of godliness (same idea in Greek art), I would tend, off the top of my head, to say all masks had a cult reality, but, specifically, an intercessionary purpose, but with a self-protective second purpose

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For Attia to place an intercessional mask, seeking audience with the god, in a cult context, abstracts, but keeps, the trajectory and purpose of the dance, in approaching the god, for solicitation of some need. Thus, it could be said, if read this way, to be agentic, and intercessionary. But then the question comes up, what, in that agentic context, could the beads mean? Well, any affixation of additional devices to a mask were usually of a fetishistic nature, but in the nature of a voodoo doll, that make the spell on the person to which the image refers stronger, or more specific or targeted. This addition suggests that that sort of creativity is afoot, changing the agency

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that is, if the beads were added as a bargaining chip, to enhance the powers of solicitation, then it is an intercessional addition; if, however, the beads were added as an extra offering, to bring more to the table, to offer the cult, then it is votive. If they were added in the context of voodoo, to direct a spell at a particular person, whose personal object this was, then they sharpen apotropaic-reversing offense. My sense is…..intercessional, intensifying the already intercessional nature of a mask.

But, then, just as I decide upon that, the beads seem to make the abstract nature of its installation come into play. Why is the mask on a stake, and not on a face? To read this literally, the mask has been set aside, and then additions have been made to it to add value to it, but in what way? This, I think, is the way it works out

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in this model, the mask is moved, taking things literally, from dance to post, on a post it is a mask set aside, without intercessional power, meaning that its wearer is absent, likely deceased, this then makes the post a votive place making an offering of a trophy of a person, but to what end. In this way the beads attached to the eyes come into play to bespeak mourning for, perhaps, the person who wore the mask, and had the power, and so the beads enhance and intensify a mourning motive, attached, now, more directly to a negated cult, that is, the cult of the dead. Thus, in this reading, the mask is arrayed as it is, and added onto as it is, in order to enhance its status as a mask offered in death as a sign of devotion to its deceased wearer, the cult figure. If this is so, then Attia is speaking of the death of African culture, and Islam’s complicity in that death; that, or Islam’s capacity to by its own rituals ecumenically enhance a rite of mourning by adding something to it.

The death notion would be further enhanced by the two Ritual mirrors with drapes on in the gallery too.

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Off the top of my head, in most traditional cultures, with body-soul beliefs, and a whole economy of beliefs about soul-jumping upon death, especially if the person who died is young and vital, it was necessary to remove all graven images, images of men, or especially any image of the person or any of his relatives, to prevent the soul from jumping into the picture or the mirror. A mirror then was especially forbidden, as a place to jump to (even though I now also realize mirrors were used apotropaically in Muslim folk culture to fend off evil spirits too, the glare chases them away). By, possibly, I am not saying that Attia had these ideas in mind when he made the piece, but only that if he was thinking of the interaction of Islam and Africa such ideas might have entered his mind, this piece is not an easy subversion of the African mask as an image in the West, but a deep cultural comment about how a specific cultural interaction is not going too well, indeed, it could be seen as a mourning image for the erstwhile Arab Spring, which is now ancient history. This is simply my assertion that when I look at African masks today, I no longer look at them as pure aesthetic images, I no longer think of Picasso at all, I do not believe that primitive culture has any more authentic values than any other culture, I see them for their agency, try to ferret out their specific ritual purpose, insert them back into that ritual, and rediscover them as agentic works of art with specific ritual and cultural purpose, a goal supported by the absolute disbelief that any of Western culture’s tauted rationalism is really any more non-agentic than it.. If Attia is thinking along these lines, then my reading might apply to the work.

But, then, the question comes up, so why present this idea in such a minimalist, understated, abstract, obtuse and symbolic way? The answer is that it remains true, it has to remain true that Attia is still playing with the expectations of the West about African masks, and with the conventions of conceptual art. In both discourses, an African mask symbolizes or rather embodies the authentic, it is the ground, just as abstraction, minimal form, literal space and real time are grounds of truth and reality. In this context, for him to add a cultural element from another culture would be to compromise its authenticity, destroy the expressionistic value (or even, by bringing it out more, like a graffiti on a magazine page, or a meme, is he memeing African masks?) make fun of its pretentions to authenticity. So, he IS critiquing conceptual art, but in a manner that mimics conceptual art

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again, an African mask exists, in a white cube, as an emblem of the conceptualist hegemony, it is pure, it exists as an authentic object, bespeaking all the values of the cult art as discussed above, and then he comes in with some Muslim beads and messes the whole thing up, and makes it culturally mixed and impure. This is NOT a work of neoconceptual art, spelling out the orbits of culture around a biased reading of an object, this is a work of REconceptual art, in which, in the chosen object in the art, used emblematically as a symbol of the conceptual establishment, imagined in the modern form, his additions and affixations thumb his nose up at the purity of the establishment, but in the language of it, simple, singular, minimal, literal, real. Neoconceptualism engaged conceptual art with a strong sense of purpose, hoping, seriously, to deconstruct its monolithic mastery of space, with a strong dose of cultural relativism. Persons looking at art my age, tend to think that much progress was made. But the new artists coming along, they are not so sure. They look around and see that the conceptual hegemony is very strong, and hangs on tough, so they have had to go back, end-arounding and ignoring the progress in deconstruction made by the neoconceptuals, and go back to the source and, in a more dualistic, defensive, literalist, and essentialist manner, in a critique that I do not happen to think is strong enough to overcome the hegemony, beat their heads against conceptual art again, again by mock mimicry of it.

In this reading, one is free to look through Kadar Attia’s appropriation of the Dogon mask, and read it as a Dogon mask, with its agency intact, or altered as specified above. But then one is also forced to consider why it is there, why it is situated as it is, and why he had added Muslim prayer beads in a way that seems to evoke tears. This reading retains its cult art, but then brings a critique around to comment on the cult status of conceptual art, and then while suggesting votive offering, in fact, I suggest, engages in a subtle form of cultural pollution that to the cultists would be equivalent to iconoclasm and blasphemy (aesthetically speaking). This is what I have done. And, for that, while on the surface, and in the checkerboard thinking world of the dualists, this is a cheap meme, in actuality, considering the real objects, and their presentation in a weird way, it is very likely that they mean much more, and in fact make a not bad reconceptual art comment on the willful blindness of the conceptual art legacy as if has spread out over the world (remembering too that Attia took a hammer to many glass vitrines at the last Bienniale).

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