Jan Andriesse, lecture at the Institut de Carton, Brussels, 21 December 2013
The subject matter of the painting by Torrentius is temperance. When I saw Jan's film however I thought the issue was exuberance.
The pleasure the narrator takes in telling the life story of Torrentius is obvious. The grain of the voice, the rounded, sonorous way of pronouncing those outrageous things. It is a story of rule-breaking, luxury, suffering, resurrection, repeated downfall, oblivion and final, grotesque rediscovery. Be it only for a lack of sufficient information, this painter's fate appears as an exemplary human fate – or maybe just as fate – and his name seems significant: Torrentius, the violent current. Is he the violent current himself or is he the one who is caught in the current, thrown here and there and pulled away from any firm ground? It is the narrator's pleasure to tell the story of a person of exception, a person, one may imagine, who has faced the abyss – actually neither the English nor the French language offer an appropriate word for the German “Abgrund” or the Dutch “afgrond” or the Italian “sfondamento”: the sheer lack of any ground, any base or support, any original and reliable level of reference.
At first the film is showing nothing or close to nothing. Or even more correctly: it is showing complete darkness (or rather a darkness that is as complete as a video projection allows). I want to remind you at this point that the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has mentioned that darkness is not just an effect of the absence of light, but a state of things that is perceived by activating specific darkness receptors in the eye. You have to see darkness. Darkness corresponding to a tiny spot at the centre of the painting of Torrentius fills the screen to its edges and merges with the darkness of the projection room, until the camera slowly starts to zoom out. It continues to zoom out until all of the circular painting including its octagonal, black-brown and glossy frame is seen to fill the screen. Soon after the start of the zooming a few bright specks, a few grains of luminous dust can be noticed to interrupt the darkness. Slowly slowly more spots manifest themselves... rather violently, unexpectedly and seemingly out of place a larger bright shape intrudes. Different readings are possible. The most compelling one refers to the universe, to light traveling from stars that may have ceased to exist thousands of years ago, disembodied light. Light on the edge of being lost in the overwhelming darkness, making darkness darker, letting a vast emptiness emerge.
At one point of the slow movement of the zoom that matches the relentless advancing of the narration – that is what I seem to remember – at one point the typical shape of a window's cross bar can be distinguished. The movement continues from the universe to the space of a domestic interior. A smooth movement that covers the most incredible distance between outside and inside. The passage from inside to outside, from outside to inside: a specifically Dutch theme, Pieter de Hooch. Finally the objects of the still life become identifiable, two pitchers framing a glass, a bridle, two pipes turned down, a music score. Only the allegoric subtext of the painting of Torrentius legitimizes this crazy composition.
Visible are the elements of a painting from the 17th century carved out by light that enters from an unrevealed source – curved shiny surfaces collecting light that otherwise would remain invisible. The presence of light illuminating several objects that are crowding a domestic space however has obscured the cosmic light sources. Now the light is brighter, the objects are exposing their identity beyond doubt, but the origin of the light has been lost. More light, more visibility, the increasing concreteness of objects create a continuous growth of invisibility. One wishes in vain to return to the first moments of nascent light and the initial punctuation of the bleak emptiness of the screen.
The filming of the allegorical painting creates itself an allegorical condition. Including a cosmic dimension it seems even richer and more challenging that the dimension of the original allegory. Was this intended? Was Jan aware that he would initiate such a revelation? Maybe not. Maybe revelation is here nothing but the unintended effect of a mechanical practice. But he must have known or assumed something. I guess that Jan was attracted to the analogy of the circular painting to the shape and the function of the camera lens and ultimately the human eye. Should one say that the movement of the zoom represents the opening of the eye, the growth of the power of identification, the loss of the intimate connection to cosmic space with its precarious illumination that has been our home for ages on end – our lost home that one can maybe only remember when facing the existential abyss?
Rare in Piet Mondrian's oeuvre are paintings with coloured stripes. In this case they are yellow. They are not black as usual. The black stripes counterbalance the blank fields of white paint. Darkness as a counterweight to lightness, none taking predominance over the other. Yve-Alain Bois names this effect the exemplary deconstruction of the symbolic order of painting. The historic end of painting is worked through by working away its possibility to function like a language. As far as I can see the function of the stripes of yellow paint traversing the white field is different: the yellow makes the white visible, it works as an intensification of the expanse of white paint. It makes the paint into a colour, the colour of light. This recalls the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals: the white light is the totality of light and as a totality it is associated to God – therefore ungraspable by the human eye. The white light needed to be refracted, split up in different wavelengths that resulted in the multiple colours we consider beautiful. Remember Jan's rainbow paintings. Aren't they a reenactment of the natural spectacle that makes light visible? Aren't they a systematized form of the medieval glass windows? I would like to see the Mondrian paintings not so much as an appropriation of the work of an admired artist from the past, but rather as a tougher and maybe more intense version of the rainbow paintings.
Why did Jan choose one of Mondrian's diamond paintings – a square standing on one of its corners? The diamond works belong to Mondrian's most radical paintings. These paintings are more obviously disembodied than others, freed from the physical support, the object. The painting – the colour, the light – is filling the picture plane and floating in the space. There is something also which may be just a coincidence, but I'd like to take it as the welcome confirmation of a suspicion: the edges of the diamond painting together with the yellow bands form an octagon – the octagon that is already familiar from the work of Torrentius, this curious, unexplained shape that reorients the circular painting in all directions. I would associate the intensified zone of brightness in the Mondrian paintings, the zones of brightly coloured light, of visible light that is as close as possible to the totality of white light, to the initial specks of light punctuating the cosmic darkness that occupies the screen at the beginning of the Torrentius film.
And now the camera obscura. I assume everyone listening today has been inside the closed room, waited for those frail shapes to appear, everyone has searched for the small hole that connects to the outside, just one intense spot of light, everyone has finally left again – having seen hardly anything. That room might at first appear as the demonstration of a curious physical effect the discovery and control of which has had decisive consequences for the evolution of the image. As everyone knows the control of this effect is closely related to the invention of photography – photography to be translated as “drawing with light”. The book on photography however which probably everyone here has read is called La Chambre claire, camera lucida. Why has this book received that name? In any case the camera obscura is the dark chamber, not the bright, lucid one – remember a dark blue painting by René Daniels called De donkere kamer with two rectangular red and white elements, shutters in the double sense of the word: the shutter of the camera and the window shutter.
The camera obscura in this exhibition is really a dark chamber. A chamber to produce darkness, to make darkness visible. Indeed there is a little light, actually light that gets stronger towards midday and then dwindles again. I think this light never dispels the darkness. On the contrary: while it is increasing during the day it is already on its way to decrease. The light that enters the closed room through one single little hole – this hole filled with light, more intense than anything else – is reminiscent of the first bright specks in the Torrentius film. This light however darkens the darkness of the camera obscura and expands it to cosmic darkness. It does this in a way similar but contrary and complementary to the way the yellow bands of the Mondrian painting make the totality of white light visible – the visible implementation of light and darkness – each time by compromising the absolute state of things.
The chain addresses the corporeal side, the register of pitchers, glass, bridle, empty pipes and musical score. Remember the chain that was stretched across the Golden Horn in order to block the passage of the Ottoman battle ships – without success. Or think of recent works by Harald Klingelhöller. So many different ways to use a chain in art and in life. Under the spell of gravity Jan's chains form perfect curves. I am not sure if these curves might be part of an ellipse, but it would please me if that were the case. The ellipse as a geometric figure with two focal points, de-centring the circle, the figure of the absolute. The shape of the surface of some wine in a tilted glass that can be seen in one of Jan's drawings seems to support my expectation. Of course it is the glass from the painting of Torrentius. And part of the bridle is a free-hanging chain. And the curve of the hanging chain inverts the curve of the rainbow. It is a curve made by natural forces just like the curves produced by the waves of light or the ripples of water – compare the water studies by Ma Yuan. The curved chain, manifesting the force of gravity, belongs to the register of the objects in the painting of Torrentius that reflect and bend the light. The mundane reality of these things is corporeally experienced when walking up and down the stairs. Then the chain moves continuously down towards the lower part of the body in order then to rise again towards its upper part. Nothing of temperance.
Allowing myself not to draw a conclusion, not to tie together the loose ends of my reflection of a few elements of this expansive constellation of works, I might nevertheless say that the light appears here as something – I am trying to avoid the term medium – something promoting a relation between the very far and the very close, cosmic origin and domestic objectification, shining totality, total darkness and the visibility of a work of art, body experience and aesthetic vision. However, I am not constructing a symmetry between the terms I tried to pair and I don't think Jan's work is suggesting such a symmetry. The works rather show how precarious the presence is of what cannot be seen, to what degree the invisible risks to be overcast by visibility. It has been a brilliant move to subject the materialism of the Torrentius painting to a completely mechanical procedure revealing something that is obscured by the painting, the remote light of total darkness.
A chain, a camera obscura, three Mondrian paintings (or four, if one counts all pieces Jan made), a film zooming out from a minuscule spot in a picture from the 17th century, some other things I don't consider now to focus my argument: each time picking up and reenacting elements that are already there, artworks, objects. Things that are difficult to reconcile in many different perspectives such as genre, style, material, date, etc., that are however fit to enter into the field of a specific commitment, the commitment to different forms of the appearance and perception of light. The shift in the working method from a laboriously painted rainbow for instance to the adopting of preexisting items signifies a shift from production to consumption. An artist who traded making for musing. This attitude has something untimely, it is far from the codified attitude of appropriation that has led to more, not less production and circulation of aesthetic commodities. The works in Jan's case are rather evidence of a train of thought, they amount to an experimental set-up. A musing artist – amusing artist. To recall René Daniels again: “That is what amusement means to me; undressing the muse.” La Muse vénale. She is for sale. No reason to rely on her generous support of the original creator. It is time for the artist to find different ways to navigate. Probably it is Jan's pleasure to deny crucial elements of contemporary art making and read against the grain some things he encounters. He reinvents art as an art of contemplation.