What is the relation between a sign and melancholia? (Ann Lee) by Ethel Gutmann

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“What is the relation between a sign and melancholia?� (Annlee)

“Walter Benjamin”, Dr. Roy Brand M.F.A Programme

by Ethel Gutmann, Tel Aviv, March 2014

a r e f l e x i o n o n Wa l t e r B e n j a m i n ’s t h e m e s i n c o n t e m p o r a r y a r t

In his essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud based his thinking on how melancholia and mourning converge. They are both triggered by the same phenomenon, namely loss. Although the two are closely related in their initial stage of denial, they differ in the following major point: mourning occurs after the death of a loved one, while in melancholia the lost object is an object of love and therefore is not truly dead. In the grieving process, the mourner hears the ‘call for reality’ at some stage, realising that in order to regain power and desire, he must free himself by acknowledging and detaching from the object and overcome his loss by letting go of the loved one. On the contrary, the melancholic remains sunken in the loss; in a self-destructive loyalty to the object of love, he internalises the latter to the extent of no longer being able to delimitate the borders of his own subjectivity and the existing lost object within him. Melancholic individuals know that they have lost something, but they don’t know what they have lost, for the loss is inaccessible to consciousness. Their egos are split, and this leads to dramatic consequences, characterised by an apparently unjustified loss of self-esteem. Walter Benjamin approaches loss and the mourning process from a different and challenging perspective. For Freud, the mourner detaches through concealing, thus making the lost object absent. For Benjamin, the mourner detaches through the process of expression, revealing, and precisely maintaining the object present. The philosophical work on the object open in its fullness enables it to lose its intention and to rest, at a standstill. All purposeful manifestation of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance.1 A significance that is therefore obtained 1 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections trans. by H. Zohn, ed. with intro. by Hannah Arendt, NY: Schocken, 1969


by retaining the loss and articulating its everlasting traces, rather than effacing and surmounting it; moreover, in the states of erosion, ruin or degradation, something is being exposed and ready for the critical eye. And the truth is to be found in the criticism of the material which, devoid of intention, becomes mere material. In other words, the work must be lost before it becomes readable. Understanding loss as the (pre)disposition of possibility is at the core of Benjamin’s texts. Pensiveness is characteristic above all of the mournful.2 Walter Benjamin does not view melancholy as an illness or pathology, rather as a mood or disposition towards the world. The melancholic personality, though often alienated in a solitary retreat from the world, can also manifest a manic, creative side, endowing the state of melancholia with redemptive possibilities. Indeed, the melancholic loss is a non-intentional one, and Benjamin derives from this purposelessness a specific type of object-relations, which can lead to the truth, when they are maintained with the critical object. To such an extent, facts are significant only insofar as they are represented as fragments and these representations are mediated by their relationships, creating a “historical image”3 which becomes apparent only when they are seen together, in a constellation. “It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, images is dialectics at a standstill. For a while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.” (Walter Benjamin)4 In the unfinished “Arcades Project” (1927 - 1940), Benjamin stresses the importance of this constellation relation as “dialectical images” representing history not by reproducing a true past, but by joining past and present in an eruptive momentary flash. It is then possible to imagine the present through the past in such a manner that flashes 2 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1925) pp.139-140 3 Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, 1948, pp. 2-3 4 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002)


of unexpected recognition pass between the two temporalities. Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.5 In his conference “The problematic of Time in Contemporary Art”, Nicolas Bourriaud defines a major movement of artists in the contemporary art scene who explore the world via a navigation through signs, concerned by the necessity to activate and intensify the present. Bourriaud calls this movement semionaut (from semios, sign, and nautos, navigation) and relates this artistic movement to Walter Benjamin’s thematic. According to Bourriaud, the constellation approach is the very specific form of contemporary time; indeed, and since the introduction of internet even more strongly, the current world has become a network of fluxes which are more relevant than places. Furthermore, every information is recorded and retained in a vast archive apparatus, leading one to be constantly confronted with objects from the past.6 “For Walter Benjamin the examination of history is a rescue operation. By practicing quotation, which does not interpret but, as he says, “photographs” the past, and by approaching urban fragments from their phantasmagoric coating, Benjamin means to liberate the forces contained within, in order to bring to the present the contents that have been confiscated by the conquerors. To write about history, according to Benjamin is to reveal the truth of history – it’s to activate the present in a revolutionary sense.” (Nicolas Bourriaud)7 Walter Benjamin insists that the task of the historian should operate through storytelling. By wandering, collecting and translating scattered fragments and débris of a repressed collective material, the historian frees them from their initial intention and context through the act of story-telling. His story becomes a part of the hearer’s discourse and may in turn be quoted, that is, abstracted from the contextual discourse in which it was originally embedded, and put into circulation in another’s discourse. Leaving a trace behind, the stories create a loop, in which the hearers become the tellers, and so on and so forth. This approach 5 Walter Benjamin, ibid 6 Nicolas Bourriaud, The problematic of Time in Contemporary Art, conference held at the MFA program of Bezalel Academy of Arts in December 2012 7 Nicolas Bourriaud, ibid


is even more significant nowadays as communities produce their own documentation. The old concept of the explorer who travels far-away and brings back to the centre the images from his expedition with a continental perspective and gaze, leads the place to a different type of exploration in the collection of local materials and fragmented individual and collective experiences. In addition, the speed at which one, even without leaving a place, accesses information is quasi-simultaneous. Although borders move incessantly or disappear, every fragment of the map is known and its evolution is constantly registered. Artists hence value the possible territories that this new topography forces; an exploration though time and experience. Here again, Walter Benjamin’s definition of the experience as the “object” of knowledge takes all its sense. The contemporary artist, as the Benjamin materialist historian, becomes a storyteller who collects experiences, clusters the events in constellations and activate the moments of knowledge. Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno are two major examples of contemporary artists who integrate this navigation in their works. Questioning both the role and place of the human species at the start of the third millennium, they draw bridges between art and other disciplines like science, technology, philosophy and history, producing new sets of connections that blur and hybridise the traditional categories and genres. Playing with collective cultural references, the two artists choreograph their shows via script and score: narrowing the gaps between the real things and their representation, Parreno and Huyghe push the spectator to take up consecutive positions inside faux displays and shifting time frames. Such works seem to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux.8 The art works are evolving, almost real, situations, where the image and setting generate their meta-context. Their complexity relies on the fact that these projects don’t simply reflect upon the production of the imaginary or reality, they show futhermore: how the elements (films, images, sounds, feelings) that constitute the production of the visions, empathies, and projections give shape to western culture.

8 Claire Bishop. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” October (Fall 2004, No. 110) p. 52


“I’m interested in the vital aspect of things, in the way an idea, an artefact or a language can flow into contingent, biological, mineral and physical reality. It’s not a matter of showing something to someone so much as showing someone to something.” (Pierre Huyghe)

Pierre Huyghe, video: A Journey That Wasn't , 2005

Pierre Huyghe has contributed to the redefinition of the status of the art work and the exhibition format, occasionally overlapping the two. Whether in the form of a diary, an expedition, or a calendar, the exhibition is about witnessing a living and organic dimension. Huyghe doesn’t expose the world to us, he exposes us to the world. Like Walter Benjamin who wanders in the city and collects the fragmented traces of the journey, Pierre Huyghe approaches the space as a world in itself, unplanned, living according to its own rhythms. I try to work the space like an organism: it is not so much the objects, the elements, but instead the flow, the interplay arising between the elements.9 Moving away from representing to sedimenting, Huyghe proposes a topological interacting understanding of different velocities of life that connect in a body of work. By placing territories and markers found in the body of history in culturally deprived environments, he provokes new sets of operations to happen. 9 Pierre Huyghe


The various elements – protagonists of an image in construction – interact and influence each other like fragments in a collage, with the difference that the artist doesn’t order the pieces together, favouring the organism over some kind of organisation. Huyghe’s approach takes over forms and states of presence activated by the artist. The show becomes a heterotopic space where art becomes very close to real life. His works move beyond art, flowing into reality and showing the many stages of a long journey towards a self-generating world indifferent to us. “What I’m interested in is intensifying the presence of what is, to find its own particular presentation, its own appearance and its own life, rather than subjecting it to pre-established models.” (Pierre Huyghe) It becomes readily understandable, then, why Pierre Huyghe prefers to call the audience “the witnesses”. The art viewer, never totally active or passive, witnesses the varied stages and strata of the passages that lead from life to fiction, and from fiction back into reality. Additionally, Huyghe suggests that time might be not a linear space. Referring simultaneously to the past, present and future, his works insist that rather than dealing with the time of the image, it is now more crucial

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, dOCUMENTA(13), 2011–12


to consider the image in time. In his projects, Huyghe uses serial and diachronic narratives, intensifying the present by fragmenting and dispersing different time zones. They are an alternate way of thinking about history, a “topological historicity” that deprograms (or reprograms) temporal formats; offering a model temporality in which the past, present, and future are conjoined.10 Huyghe explains, it is through the montage, the way we combine and relate images, that we can create a representation of an event that is perhaps more precise than the event itself.11 Those “connective images”, to use his words, serve as links in a chain of representation rather than as means to isolate the weight of singular moments. Here again, the influence of Walter Benjamin becomes tangible. In his description of the mosaic as an image of the philosophical idea, Benjamin writes that the latter’s particles are always glued together in a manifest manner. Events should be seen in their simultaneity rather than in continuity, favouring the resemblances over the conventions, the gesture over the statement, the images over the concepts. The moral metaphor according to Benjamin should be expelled from politics, and replaced by images – not images for contemplation, but rather images which are bound-up with action. The artist, as well, invests in places dismissed by society’s conventions. He collects the most insignificant forms or signs because he sees in them some aesthetic and ethic value. He wants to re-include elements that are excluded, on a par with Walter Benjamin, for whom the materialist historian picks up the débris, the elements which are rejected from a process. The subject of modern art, says Nicolas Bourriaud, is not that far from the subject of psychoanalysis – the unconscious which contains what is expelled from consciousness in order to maintain order –, as the topic of the “undervalued”.12 “Pierre Huyghe speaks repeatedly of the significance of deviant signs and fragile organisms: of the need for dynamic equivalences and blinking signals that cut across temporal partitions”. (Amelia Barikin)13

10 Amelia Barikin, Parallel Presents, the Art of Pierre Huyghe, MIT Press, 2012 11 Pierre Huyghe 12 Nicolas Bourriaud: What is the exform? Culture, history and rejection in the Google era RA Schools Autumn Lecture, 8 November 2013 13 Amelia Barikin, ibid


Pierre Huyghe, "The Host and the Cloud" 2009-2010

The artist is an explorer revealing signs of unconsciousness in the conscious and forcing signs of consciousness in the unconscious. Already in 1927, the aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne suggested that dreams were constituted not only with images of the past, but that they may also contain memories from the future.14 This enlightenment strongly shook the philosophical field by bringing up a new reading of the notion of temporality. Dunne proposed that our experience of time as linear was an illusion brought about by human consciousness. He argued that past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them.15 Then, it is the human mind that, when awake, pushes the subject to reject the ability to remember the future. Pierre Huyghe questions the narrow and ambiguous rapport between reality and fiction. His spaces in shattered and shifting times are indeed reminiscent of the temporality of the dream world. Deprived of chronology or direct meaning, the many elements that constitute his images challenge the witness – the audience – to speculate on possible 14 J.W. Dunne. An Experiment With Time, A & C Black Ltd. 1929 15 www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_William_Dunne


scenarios. Analysing his relationship with time, with the viewer and with the collective memory, his works play with the mechanisms of creation and production. For every project, he invents a new format and therefore a new language. The exhibition in its traditional containing form isn’t the end point of the navigation, but only the step – to start, to share, to remember, to extend later. To put it in Huyghe’s own words, can an art exhibition leak into the reality? His works constitute instances of a deeper journey which is articulated around the question of where and when does life become an art work.


“The footsteps of the walker provoke an “astounding resonance” which is fed by memory but also evokes it.” (Horward Caygyll)16

Philippe Parreno views the exhibition as a medium, redefining the exhibition experience by exploring its possibilities as a coherent “object”. Articulated in a mise-en-scène in which a series of events unfold rhythmically, the result is a de-materialised object that can be lived with over time. For his “Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World” show at the Palais de Tokyo, Parreno proposes a meticulously mastered script where the viewer is guided through the galleries by a spectral orchestration of sound, image and performance.17 Once again, he plays with the very notion of art-experiencing, turning the dynamics of the exhibition format into a gigantic automaton that generates art by sets of rules and operations. Like for Pierre Huyghe, the visitors are invited to experience evolving situations resulting from the process. His use of offline computer processing is quite challenging, as it introduces a new kind of flexibility in art production. Resonating to a world of incessant transmutation, Parreno responds to how we live now, in an open area of vast connecting links that we want out of. Constantly rewriting the story, he controls the symbols, words and sounds, in order to change the codes of perception. The exhibition building itself becomes a living organism modified by the artist’s interventions on the architecture. Thus, some walls move, the lights flicker, a door slides from side to side, outside noises come in from wall sections, the soundtrack of Merce Cunningham dancers’ steps fills the silence of the empty rotonde. 16 Howard Caygyll, Walter Benjamin. The Colour of Experience, Routledge, London and New York, 1998, p. 68 17 Palais de Tokyo, October 2013 - January 2014 - The exhibition title is a reference to the poem “Anywhere Out of the World” by Charles Baudelaire


Philippe Parreno, How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance?, 2012


Philippe Parreno, Danny La Rue, 2013


“The eclectic (aesthetic) engineer juxtaposes disparate and despised artefacts, forms and media, so as to generate an electrifying tension, an explosive illumination of elements in the present”. (Graeme Gilloch)18 The exhibition is generated by a vast mechanical apparatus and unfolds itself to the rhythms of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”. There are entractes, spaces and musical intervals. The script follows the music as the visitor wanders from work to work and space to space. Petrushka is a doll who is magically brought to life, then slain and transformed into a ghost, with the figure of the automaton looming from the start of the show on the gigantic LED screen wall, where the video “The Writer” is projected. The film shows the eighteenth-century automaton by the Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz writing by hand the following question What do you believe, your eyes or my words? For Philippe Parreno, the exhibition is a sequence of ever-changing events, installing and transporting his works and the visitor in spaces that are constantly in between fiction and reality. He uses his art as elements in a narrative that dwells on presence and absence. The notions of time and space are articulated around the pauses and insights in the vast void, giving identical weight to contrary and incompatible scenarios. For instance, in one room, phosphorescent drawings fade every minute and only become clearly visible again once they have been reloaded by light. “Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World” is haunted by images and ghosts, manifested in the smallest details. The familiar labels indicating the art works are replaced with small screens that flicker on an off, in small flashes of text. These flickering messages display factual descriptions, such as temporary walls have been built and removed, along with random thoughts, like A game is being played, which requires deciphering. The game must be played for the pleasure of playing. In response to Walter Benjamin, the following fragment flashes, You can find this kind of architecture in many cities. The building’s original function has been forgotten but it still retains a certain aura. The quasi-subliminal message No More Reality is repeated every 18 minutes on all the screens.

18 Graeme Gilloch, “Walter Benjamin, Critical Constellations” , Cambridge: Polity, 2002


Like a puppeteer, Parreno conducts the visitor’s entrances and exits on Stravinsky’s score which is automatically played on pianos placed strategically around the space. The music and the flickering lamps, coordinated with the sound, regulate the viewer’s time and experience in the depths of the building. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction and between originals and copies, the fragmented narrative comes in flashes and plays with intermittences, leaving enough time and space for the visitor to lose himself. This flunctuation, amplified by the flickering images, is in itself a sign of the flickering state of today’s reality. Indeed, the light, formerly representing scholarly, intellectual and scientific enlightenment, now reveals its other property, namely extreme velocity.19 It is therefore interesting to acknowledge a striking fact in today’s art, as Nicolas Bourriaud points out, namely that space and time are at a point of merging and even exchanging their properties (time formally associated with succession and space with simultaneity). Parreno may be one of few artists who are still developing an idea of the future. (…) It is possible, Parreno says, to activate the present from the future, beginning with anticipation from scratch.20

Philippe Parreno’s installation at the Palais de Tokyo, 2013

19 Michel Serres, in “Dialogue, Michel Serres et Bernard Stiegler” for “Philosophie” magazine, September 2012 20 Nicolas Bourriaud, The problematic of Time in Contemporary Art, ibid


But Petruschka is a puppet that feels human emotions, and the whole confusion of the show lies in this illusion. In the film “Marilyn”, Parreno questions the very notion of the double by reconstructing the image of Marilyn Monroe. The film reproduces Marilyn Monroe’s presence by means of three algorithms: the camera becomes her eyes, a computer reconstructs the prosody of her voice and a robot recreates her handwriting. The film is a ghost-portrait taking the viewer on a tour of the hotel suite where she lived in the 1950s. From one corner to the next, the image is taken from the point of view of the deceased Marilyn. Knowing that she was synesthete (to colours and sounds), Parreno explains that he dressed up the room as Marilyn’s double. I wanted to make it “sound” good : the suite, hence, has the colours of her hair, her skin and her eyes and the atmosphere, punctuated by sounds and lights, reflect her melancholic personality.21 Slowly, the perfectly looking ambiance starts to feel suffocating and the room turns into a prison: the telephone rings but stays unanswered, the rain falls on the windows, Marilyn’s voice repeats herself, the handwriting rewrites on its last lines, the fountain pen dribbles its ink down the Waldorf Astoria hotel paper. When the room’s desperate solitude reaches a crescendo, the main camera backs off, allowing a wider view, with the camera tracks and electronic equipment appearing in the frame. Gradually, the illusion becomes apparent, revealing no more than an empty Hollywood movie set on a rainy day. At the end of its projection at the Palais de Tokyo, the temperature drops down and the spots lighten the other side of the gallery space pointing at a huge snowdrift. The memory of Marilyn Monroe is prolongated on the DVD “Precognition”, distributed at the entrance to the show, but her image is, by the end, intangible. Indeed, the (ghost) disc erases itself after one play, leaving the viewer with a dilemma, rather than with an artwork.22

21 Philippe Parreno’s Public Talk at the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, March 2013 22 the DVD “Precognition” contains a variation of “Marylin” and the short movie “C.H.Z” (live image of a black garden in Portugal)


“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence-and nothing else-that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.� (Walter Benjamin)

Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936


Philippe Parreno, “Marylin”, 2012




“Knowledge comes only in lightning flashes”. (Walter Benjamin)23

In 1999, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno decide to buy the rights to the Manga figure Annlee. Annlee is a cheap model, crafted as a generic Japanese manga character with big eyes, a small mouth and no psychological background, personal history, attitudes or abilities; a prepubescent girl, whose only distinguishing characteristic is her undeveloped potential. She is an empty sign, a bare vessel available for exploitation – except that her very low complexity as a character leaves her little chances of survival in the market. It is precisely the bland features that attracted both artists to purchase her digital file and remove the character from the commercial cycle, thus liberating Annlee from an industry that would have eventually condemned her to disappear. Although she belongs to both artists, Pierre Huyghe explains that Annlee has no real author and that the idea of her appropriation is a desire to fill her empty shell with new authors. Under the project’s name “No Ghost Just a Shell”, Parreno and Huyghe offer Annlee free of charge to several artists who are commissioned to give the character an existence in their artistic work. Each of the projects realised with Annlee is a chapter in the history of a sign, and has a life in the context of the individual artists’ activities as well as in the common project. Annlee is therefore a kind of common property shared between Parreno, Huyghe and a number of other artists who animate and fill her with various virtual lives, giving her a panel of new personalities. The complex artistic project, both polyphonic and collaborative, consists of liberating a fictional character from the realm of representation. Away from the fictional market, Annlee is brought to life by a variety of voices. After an intensive artistic activity, Parreno and Huyghe finally decide to return Annlee’s copyright as a sign to her own character. This means giving up on their ownership, thus removing it from circulation 23 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project Ed. Roy Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Harvard University: Harvard UP, 1999


and economic or artistic exploitation. In addition, to prevent others to purchase rights on her image after them, a contract stipulating that artists will no longer create works with Annlee as a digital model is signed with a lawyer. The legal document transfers Annlee’s copyright to a foundation that belongs solely to her and is simultaneously her death warrant as much as her freedom. Annlee is a trace, her melancholy being the result of her inability to either fully enter the world or leave it altogether. In Philippe Parreno’s show at the Palais de Tokyo, at the end of the short film “Anywhere out of the World”, a young girl walks into the auditorium. She is a real-life Annlee, choreographed by Tino Sehgal. Annlee’s movements and voice have the strange aspect of a computer-generated doll. She came to tell her story, explaining how she used to spend time with Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno but that they have gotten “busy.” Lately I’ve been trying to hang out with Tino Sehgal, but he, too, has also become busy. Her speech is punctuated by questions to the audience. She doesn’t expect answers, but her words gradually become more hesitant as her hands move up and down her body. The performance ends with one last question, the girl pauses and asks, What is the relation between a sign and melancholia? Then she calmly turns and moves toward the exit, saying softly: OK, take care.

Annlee by Tino Sehgal, at Philippe Parreno’s show in Palais de Tokyo, 2013