Icons in Ash: From Art Object to Art Subject
The idea that art is, or should be, subversive is so widely accepted, so weary and so reflexively invoked, as to be almost meaningless. And this subversive, or worse, “transgressive,” art is patently ineffectual in the world. The art that I love doesn’t just hint that life could be different, doesn’t just hold out a desperate resistance against the irresistible or subtly insinuate criticism of a seemingly insuperable and basically unalterable “totality,” but actually changes it now. It speaks to me, confronts and questions me. It is not merely subversive, but actually revolutionary. Standing before it, I can feel it working upon me in the shiver that runs down my spine, the heart pounding with confusion or racing with exhilaration, the involuntary tension in my throat, as if I have been seized and throttled by the work. No doubt someone observing me will think that something is wrong. And it is. Art is criticizing my life: telling me that I have not been paying attention, or making the effort that it demands, that I have abdicated something of my humanity, that I have been negligent. I see possibilities where there had been only things and situations. What had been rigidly silent is talking to me. What had been set in stone is suddenly in flux. We expect to see things a certain way, and so they cooperate: they let themselves be seen that way. But that is not what they are.
For a long time the materials that I use have been fundamental to what is happening in the art I make, and there’s a reason for this. During much of the history of art, the aesthetic object dissembled reality, first to mimic it using materials that had been extracted and refined from it (minerals, plant fibers, animal reductions, etc.), and more subtly and pertinently, to make things appear as they are not or to distract us from what they are: to falsify history, propagate myths, support systems of oppression, reinforce artificial hierarchies as if they were the will of God, and in general, to imply that the way things are is the way things must be; that we live in a realm of facts; that possibility is dead. But there are other facts, which simple materials, evidence of the world, can bring to light, and with them other possibilities.
In the several large-scale projects in which I used offal from the animal-slaughter industry to create objects and representations of objects, my intention has been to exploit the disparity between image and material, between expectation and knowledge and, ultimately, between appearance and truth, to compel my viewer to acknowledge some of the unpleasant realities on which our pleasant, smooth-functioning world is built: the ubiquitous deceit, methodical injustice, willing ignorance, and, in the end, the great mass of death in which we quietly acquiesce just in living the way we do.
On the one hand, by building in layers of distance between the viewer and the art-object, and on the other, by using “real-world” material that we generally deem problematic and which we are at pains to keep out of view, I have been working with a different kind of aesthetic object, one that first retreats from the viewer who experiences it, and then aggressively returns once her guard is down, insisting on its truth. I think of this work as thematizing a potential of the artwork that is buried in the normal perceptual and social practices of receiving it. I am trying to make art subjects instead of art objects, things that are in themselves and which demand from us something that doesn’t already exist: the response to something real. I am creating the conditions for an encounter with this reality.
When my father died, now many years ago, I was distraught. There was no one to whom I felt so connected at the very core of myself. Though we hadn’t been able to spend much time together for quite a while, and certain misunderstandings had colored our relation-ship, I always expected to fix that when time and circumstances would permit. I couldn’t believe that now I would never have the chance to make that happen. It took years before I could even think about him without collapsing inside. And then I was again taken unawares by death: one of my closest friends killed himself. In my devastation, the still unresolved pain over my father’s death angrily returned to reinforce my grief.
My art ideas usually come to me in a sudden jolt, like a revelation – the solution to a problem I didn’t quite understand was a problem. They arrive as if they had been gestating in secret and only now were emerging fully formed. I can remember that I already felt a strange calm the moment I thought: I have to make portraits out of my father’s and out of Stefan’s ashes. Of course I didn’t have their actual ashes – in Germany ashes must be buried – so I was forced to use a substitute. Nevertheless, making the portraits was both comforting and energizing in itself – I felt that it was in some way a shamanic act – and once they existed, I lived with them as if my father and Stefan themselves were there with me. I cried and I screamed at them and explained myself and talked to them and listened, and soon their ethereal presence melded into my life: my connection to the people I loved was no longer broken by death.
Since then, I have made quite a few portraits for others out of the real ashes of the deceased, for people who were suffering much as I had been or in any number of other ways, and they, too, have experienced a deep solace in communion with these potent images of their loved ones. They often tell me that having them in their lives in this way has been transformative. Some say it was not the “closure” that they had imagined they wanted, but a re-opening, or a sense of continuity that has been extremely important to them; others describe their relation to the portraits as what they imagine holy relics must have meant to the ancient Christians, a powerful, ineffable, and irreducible presence.
In Icons in Ash I want to reintegrate life and death: to touch death, work with death, to be an artist of and for death, to let it speak in its mundanity, its grandeur, its familiarity and its mystery, its uniqueness and its universality, to redeem it from oblivion, to give it its own life again. For me, this is a fundamental act of reconciliation. Though it may be commonplace to say that in the modern era we have isolated or banished death from our lives, that we cannot bear to look it in the face, as if we are embarrassed by it, the simple fact of grief makes it obvious that a different relationship is not only possible, but that it is necessary. Judith Butler observes that the phenomenon of mourning tells us that death is inherently social. If we want to be able to understand and to live with it, we have to reintegrate it into our social being. We have to remain connected to the dead and with what they have meant and still mean to us.
Banal and unworldly at the same time, let’s say tenuous, or maybe ghostly, the power of these deceptively ordinary images comes from something beyond their appearance, though that is still quite relevant to their effect, and they look the way they do for profound internal reasons. I would like to say that it comes from their substance, in a quasi-scholastic sense of the word, a notion that late modernist painting acknowledged in its own way in insisting that its images were in fact “just paint.” My images, instead, undermine this always somehow artificial-seeming and folksy ethic in being the thing they represent. The fact that you are actually looking at that person, that person who no longer exists in our usual way of thinking, achieves something that portraiture has never succeeded in doing, though this was always its impossible ideal, supplanted by the notion that “art” somehow shows the “true” person in a way that he or she could never appear in life. Our feeling that the portrait has always held a secret is embedded in the quasi-Platonic truth that the greatest of them transcends by an ineffable sorcery not only the moment, but every moment, that they are their subject: We say, “It’s you,” when the portraitist succeeds in conveying the essence of the person. But even with the advent of the pure image, with the development of the photograph, which much more so than the painted portrait is always a relic from the past and hence in a profound sense a memento mori, the image is no more than a shade, for the person depicted has already ceased to exist before the image even comes to be. In looking at vast numbers of photographic portraits, we see what is common more than what is individual. They blend into a sort of typical human being, and show us the consanguinity of the race, its common legacy and its common fate rather than its incalculable specificity. We see emptiness; we see death. If they hold a secret, it is this absence, this loss.
My portraits, by contrast genuinely embody a secret: the secret truth of life. Not that we die, not that life is merely the unfolding of death, or that in death nothing remains, but that death is the relationship in which we stand or will stand to everything that is important to us, a relationship of memory, of transformation, of reintegration, and of art, which are in fact the only modes of immortality that we know. Death is our secret, and the way we keep it, the way we are true to it, is art. Art is always created from ashes, from the ashes of our experience, of who we once were, which becomes lifeless, forgotten, anonymous, or futile, only if we fail to make something of it, to tend it, to care about it, to remember. It reminds us that death is a very particular relationship among us, that it is ours, that we are the keepers of life for the dead and of the dead for life. We each have our particular responsibility to it, and only by abdicating that responsibility does death become the sullen and intractable force as which we tend to see it today.
In these small, modest images, with which I have now lived for years, images that do not merely represent but which are their subjects, I have experienced an effect similar to what I have sometimes felt in small, dim Russian churches in the presence of subtly radiant icons, the uncanny experience that we are not alone, that our truth is a simplicity that we rarely encounter. The icon is a peculiar object. Although it does not subscribe to what we normally think of as an aesthetic, it nevertheless projects a power that even the greatest artworks seldom achieve. And I think in this respect it is similar to these portraits in ash: It does not so much try to imitate something or to point beyond what it is; as to actually be something, not merely to represent it, and that means to be essentially particular. The “veronica,” the “true image” – of course the fusion already shows that this is a paradox that will not be resolved – on the Shroud of Turin, to give an extreme and obviously problematic example, bears the trace of the actual presence of its subject. The contact that it embodies mysteriously persists. We remain within the charged field of a lost presence. In these Icons in Ash, our relationship, the profound, ineffable contact we have had with the dead, persists: and their life persists in us. This is the mystery that I wish to share.