Much ado about nothing.

Most of us would reach for the dictionary to find a description for “nothing”, so here goes nothing:

1

Nothing is: nothing (pronoun) is not anything, not a thing: nothing. But is there more to it? The term nothing makes its appearance in the works of many great thinkers and philosophers. Like Socrates, for example who said, “I only know one thing: I know nothing.” In this context, nothing refers to knowledge, in other words, that which is not tangible. But isn’t nothing the intangible immaterial?

2

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nothing has no centre and it borders on the nothing”. He situates the “nothing” as an endless given. What would I do with absolutely nothing? Before “something” exists there must first be “nothing”. Could you describe this as a cause and effect reaction? In today’s society, one must be sure to do “something” to stand out. But doesn’t this great collective desire for “something” not simply heighten our desire for the “nothing”? “Although one can profit from something, we can only find that which is useful in nothing”, according to Lao-Tse3.

Tom Friedman, Erased Playboy Centrefold

Let’s get this straight. At this point, I’m convinced that “nothing” indeed, is intangible. But I do think that “nothing” becomes tangible when it is the starting point for an idea. The absence of “something”, or in other words, “nothing”, acts as a foundation, and creates the urgency to fill the space of that which is lacking substance. Does “nothing” really exist?

When I look around me, I see many concrete things, but I don’t see a sign of “nothing”. Is “nothing” not just a term that humans have devised? Maybe we created the “nothing” so that we have a word for the incomprehensible and the unfathomable, an idea translated into vocabulary. Is “nothing” simply a made-up thing that we’ve grown accustomed to?

The Nothing

The villain from the film The NeverEnding Story: a dark cloud that engulfs all.

4

Artistotles said that everything that exists within the mind has first existed within the senses. Haven’t we just talked each other into the concept of “nothing”?

For example, when I look at the sky, I ask myself if this is “nothing”. No. The air is made of particles, molecules, and these are made of atoms. Has science, then, spoiled our mystical idea of “nothing”?

The thought of a complete vacuum is exciting. But science has rationalised this concept and to told us that this is impossible.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off

So if an external “nothing” is impossible, what does this say about an internal nothing? Is it possible to not think or feel anything? These are questions that I still struggle with.

But I can share my own experience. I can’t think of “nothing”. There is always something going on in my head. If I tell myself to sit quietly and think of “nothing”, I’ll only think of the word “nothing”. Feeling “nothing” seems like even less of a possibility. “Nothing” must then also be impossible internally. But what, then, remains of “nothing”?

“Nothing” is intangible. “Nothing” can be the start of “something”. “Nothing” can become “something”. “Nothing” could be just a man made word. “Nothing” can be a thought or a feeling. “Nothing” does not really exist: simultaneously the meaning of the word itself. In the end, this text is much ado about nothing.

The Lustful Turk

13.04.2014 BY PATRIZIO DI MASSIMO

Patrizio Di Massimo, Curtain No.10 (Portrait of Emily Barlow), 2013. Triple pleat pinch,
inverted box pleats on duchess satin, tassels, trimmings, wood. 200 x 270cm.
Thanks to Peter Pilotto Fashion House.

Photo: Matthew Booth

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The Lustful Turk is a pre-Victorian erotic novel published in England in 1828, written in the form of a correspondence between the heroine, Emily Barlow, and her friend, Sylvia Carey. While sailing to India, Emily is kidnapped by Moorish pirates and is forced into the harem of Ali, dey of Algiers. Although initially resistant, Ali awakens her sexuality and she willingly indulges herself in sodomy, a great taboo in England of the time. When Ali tricks Emily’s pen pal, Sylvia, into coming to Algiers and entrapping her in his harem, a similar sexual awakening occurs. However, Slylvia refuses sodomy, resulting in her vicious dismembering of Ali’s penis. Emasculated, Ali sends the women back to England. Emily returns home carrying Ali’s amputated phallus with her, conserved in a jar of spirits.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Harem), 2012, oil on linen,152.5 x 112cm.

Raffaella and Stefano Sciarretta Collection, Nomas Foundation, Rome.

The following text is taken from a conversation between the artist Patrizio di Massimo and Robert Leckie in October 2013:

I first came across The Lustful Turk while reading Edward Said’s Orientalism – a foundational work of postcolonial theory, as you know – during my MA at Slade School of Fine Art in 2009.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk, installation view.

Edward Said makes reference to The Lustful Turk – a work of epistolary erotica published anonymously in England in 1828 – which he describes as a “black book” of Western Orientalism. Intrigued, I quickly bought a reprinted edition online. When first flicking through, I found it to be a very curious document. American academic Steven Marcus lucidly describes it as something like [paraphrasing] “a condensation of the stereotypes that the West produced about the Orient.” But its erotic, Oriental staging also fascinated me – you could say that I participated in the writer’s fascination. And I did this despite having originally encountered the book through Said, knowing therefore that it as deeply oriented in the ill-informed authority of Western “knowledge” about the Orient.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Blow), 2012, oil on paper, 30.5 x 22.9cm.

Raffaella and Stefano Sciarretta Collection, Nomas Foundation, Rome.

Photo: Matthew Booth

After discovering The Lustful Turk book, I questioned for a long while what form my engagement would take. I began roughly three years ago, while reading it, to do some drawings, which I never exhibited. I was in residence at the time at De Ateliers in Amsterdam and I remember trying to describe the project to some tutors and peers. My ideas then were admittedly very vague and while some of them found it a very intriguing prospect, others insisted that I shouldn’t pursue the subject and so I didn’t.

It wasn’t until some years later that I returned to the idea after receiving an invitation from Alessandro Rabottini to present a solo show at Villa Medici in Rome.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Cushion No.3 (Portrait of Eliza), 2013, 4 velvet cushion, 4 satin cushions,

tassel, cord, trimmings, iron. 120 x 45 x 45cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

The path leading to that exhibition was rough and frustratingly slow. Looking back, I think I had three main difficulties: how not to banalise such a loaded subject, how to translate such an interpretation into painting, and how to “follow” the text, or not.

I think that reworking the cultural production of the past can encourage us to re-think what, where and how we have been before, culturally. And although The Lustful Turk may not be of interest to some, we all continue to be influenced by the way in which Western empires deformed the relationships between countries during the colonial period. The astonishingly simplistic and dichotomous relationships between East and West, so grotesquely portrayed in the book, are still politically relevant today and the fetishisaton of the Orient also persists. For the writer of The Lustful Turk the Orient was the place to imagine a series of sexual encounters that weren’t permitted in pre-Victorian England. For us, opening a space for debate about the representation of sexual desires and practices in the Arab world is I think crucial to our understanding of that culture.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Haberdashery), 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 270cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

When I started this project thought a lot about what position I should take. I could have, for instance, proceeded with moralistic judgement and political correctness, seeing the book as nothing more than an emblem of a retrograde and “racist”” culture, or otherwise I could have reiterated the author’s highly questionable motive, weaving my work into his, unquestioningly. But neither path felt like mine, and so I eventually realised that all I wanted was to somehow bring this topic to the table and do it in my own way.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Bang Bang), 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 270cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

In this sense I don’t consider my project to be a replication or re-staging of the book – I see it more as a proposition regarding how entrenched we still are in our past cultural heritage. My referencing the book also serves primarily to emphasise the connection between the Orientalist tradition and sexual desire, which I believe remains an interesting lens through which to pick apart our relationship to the “Other” nowadays, no matter how problematic and ambiguous that relationship may be.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Cushion No.4 (Portrait of Eli, Sultan of Algeri), 2013, 10 cotton cushions,

8 velvet cushions, tassel, cord, trimmings, iron. 250 x 50 x 50cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

I didn’t want to detach the project from the illustrative tradition… I didn’t want my work to follow the narrative of the book page by page, with my images responding, secondarily, to particular passages of text. As far as I understand it, painting has always referred to literary sources historically, whether the bible or Greek myths, and my work looks for contemporary “ways in” to this kind of art-making. So that’s why I wanted to embrace illustration and to understand my work as continuing that tradition… These images are illustrative, but I also like to think that they can stand up on their own.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Curtain No.10 (Portrait of Emily Barlow), 2013. Triple pleat pinch,
inverted box pleats on duchess satin, tassels, trimmings, wood. 200 x 270cm.
Thanks to Peter Pilotto Fashion House.

Photo: Matthew Booth

Imagining the harem interior, I became particularly interested in elements of décor – cushions, curtains, tassels, candelabra—in this way, I created a sort of meta-language. There is a reconnection with language through the use of visual “figures of speech”. In the same way that you can replace language with image, I found I could replace a leg with a tassel, for example, or buttocks with a cushion.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk, installation view, Gasworks

Photo: Matthew Booth

I also think these works are unapologetically over-the-top because I don’t think there is any reason to be apologetic. Racy as it may be, I have to follow through on my decision to make a project about this thorny subject, and I think, for me, that necessitates pleasure, playfulness and enjoyment. If The Lustful Turk book is based on stereotypes and how these stereotypes condition our understanding of an “Other” world, and if I don’t want to be moralistic about these stereotypes then I must make use of them.

Somewhere

One of the greatest clichés of the art academy is that we’re taught how to think and look. This could almost be considered an insult to those who are newly admitted to the academy, as if they’re not yet able to think. But according to the great writer David Foster Wallace, we do have a choice in what occupies our thoughts, and how we can learn to use this choice in a constructive way. If he’s correct, we’ve learned to look at another way of thinking at the academy, as well how to see something that does not yet exist and find a form for it. In other words, this is the thought process that happens inside the studio. But when an artwork is placed within an exhibition we’re forced to begin our thought process anew. The placing of the work in a physical construction demands the gears of thought to start their churning once again.

Any space where art is presented has it’s own signature. In an ideal situation, it should act as a refuge—a habitat for the artist, the art, and the public alike. Presenting work is a contextual and relational matter. This is inherent in the agreement in which we build a set, a display of temporary nature in which works begin a dialogue with scale, atmosphere, and the significance of both the place and the other works within that space. We build new sentences.

Roman Signer

A space speaks to us (‘It’s a place full of known and unknown unknowns,’ as Thoreau puts it. This text will restrict itself to the presentation space, because the public space conjures wholly different questions and criteria etcetera.) Is it a dead white cube, or an eloquent, stimulating white space?

Should we begin by ‘depersonalising,’ a space? In other words, to find meaning in meaninglessness, or to neutralise the space as much as possible? Space breeds hope and future: the promise of explosions of colour on a neutral canvas! In any case, an exhibition must inhabit a space by correctly analysing it; by thinking and searching transforming it into mental architecture, and subsequently the ideal habitat for a work. By doing so, each work becomes site-relevant and in turn, becomes empowered. Something from nothing. A room as a generator of energy. A measure, a guide. It requires vision to be able to interpret a space and imagine the work within it. The space must be considered as a partner: an ideal physical relationship. Similar to love, the work comes to life only when the relationship is wrought.

Ola Vasiljeva, 2014

An ensemble of works, whether by one artist or many, creates a route within the presentation space. As the viewer walks through the space, viewing bold statements or zooming in on details, a story unfolds, or an essay is relayed. A dialogue is created between the works by their placement and the space surrounding them, and is completed by the presence of the viewer. Often, the viewer is alone, or at least needs to find their own, personal, relationship to the space so that fellow visitors might become a figure, another element to relate to. Just like an architect can only truly see his work once it’s in use, a viewer and his own subjective world of experience finalises the completion of the exhibition. Art simply does not exist without this last element. The viewer expands the significance and complexity of the works: in a similar way that the storeys of a skyscraper ultimately, when seen from a human scale, allude to imagination.

gerlach en koop

The audience uses the intentions of the works as a reference for their own findings. Through presentation we find the sole evidence of whether our intentions are visible to The Other. A text and a title offer metaphysical foundations. However, this relationship only works when the work and the written correspond. ‘Theory without practice is sterile. Practice without theory is futile,’ someone once said. I believe in tactile theory; concept must be implicit within the full picture, and not just within the A4 placed beside it. Tangible.

An exhibition touches on many matters; an explicit placing, a forceful conglomeration of works, or the meaning of silence, the experience of seeing, the logic of poetics, light and space, contextual theory, the passing of time in multimedia, but also the duration of time within motionless sculpture… In fact, and this is the beauty of it, every good exhibition includes a relevant thought on the presentation and placing of an artwork. But also: the invisible, the intangible, the non-existent, and the subdued. It can rouse an emotional response. We all seem to be afraid of this, but in fact, it’s the most beautiful of all: the emotion that is stirred within the symbiosis of theory and practice. The right thought in the right place.

There are few general statements to be made about fine art, except that her immense power is likewise her weakness. Within the contradictions that make her lies her fragility. It stands, hangs, or simply exists. Irreproducible. That’s why art has a harder time drawing a large public than cinema or music. But in essence, I find silence and inertness the greatest qualities of fine art. Dead, worthless material that can suddenly strike a chord within one person, which can explode with energy, life, and magic and incite an endless hunger for thinking and feeling. This is art’s immanent tour de fource. As soon as the newly enlightened viewer moves on, the material reverts back to lifelessness. For this reason, art needs protection. Protection that can be found in a well-constructed exhibition.

In the novel ‘The House of Leaves,’ by Mark Danielewski, a family moves to a new house. Along the way, they discover that the interior of the house is far larger than the outside. The interior keeps expanding endlessly, as though mutating, while the outside remains the same. I often think of this when I exit a good exhibition and look at the building from outside. Inside, I made a journey through dozens of hallways, rooms, colours, and ideas. The solidarity of the physical space has collapsed, but it brings new mechanisms of perception.

Thinking about how to present art is relatively new. Of course, medieval painters knew what they were doing when they painted allegoric images above the cathedral altar, but the very conscious placing of artworks as an intrinsic ensemble in a space, or the idea that art is only ‘temporary,’ are ways of thinking that have only been around since the 1950’s with the rise of the Situationists. They were the first artists that came together to reflect on concepts such as urban planning and the vague distinction between art, life, and participation. They deconstructed the society of the spectacle and introduced terms such as psycho-geography. Art became a tool with which to understand the world, and art could be anything: a newspaper or a distorted radio broadcast.

A new light was shed on culture in general, and most pertinently on the classic exhibition, because for the first time, the context of a work was given a defining importance. It was no longer just a thing in a chamber, but a means to view and alter the world. It’s these revelations and all that came as a reaction to them, that we work with and have to reinvent. Research and Destroy. From the first mega exhibitions and curators like Harald Szeeman, to where we are now; an ever expanding field where art is no longer merely something, but also somewhere.

Antwerp, December 2011

Wolf or Shepherd?

At the brink of a new century in which less is more has a bio-political connotation, paradigm shifts will dramatically alter the boundaries and limits of social, economical and media-landscapes and therefore the discourse on the opportunities and the responsibilities of the designers involved has become exceptionally urgent. It is obvious that tomorrows design-problematique demands an integral and responsible approach. No longer can the role of the designer be limited to obeying the rules of functionality and aesthetics. Although the impact of the latest rapidly evolving developments in media-usage cannot be measured in full effect yet, we now have reached a state where the best of both of social and mobile is being combined, enabling anyone to operate on a global scale, from the comfortable setting of our personal phone. New applications are being put on the market every day and new functionalities of usage are being discovered by users as well. Everyone has become a photographer, a video-artist/journalist, editor , news/content-caster and a graphic-designer.

The professional designer (or design instructor) has two options during this media-avalanche. The first is to join the masses, but maintain some leverage. This implies that the level of involvement in the new media-landscape is more or less the same as the large group of participants, but the trained eye of the professional will spot strengths and weaknesses sooner than the masses and could therefore take a leading role within this community. This person will adapt to new developments very quickly and could gain momentum by riding on the front-end of this wave. Authority will be generated by knowledge of the present, and therefore has to be maintained carefully. We will call him/her the Shepherd. 

The second role the professional could assume is that of the outsider. Standing firm in the midst of the storm, keeping a strong believe in concepts and originality. Is much more theoretical based and chooses types-of-media as they seem appropriate for the process. Will stick to outdated systems and analogue techniques if necessary. Claims that quality will always have a market (and is probably right), but misses large scale connection with the public. Will behave very critical towards the revolution, but does not theoretically oppose to the development of new media-systems. We will call this type the Wolf.

Note that both types have abandoned the notion of objective media-design. Designing without a clear and well profiled opinion on the urgent global matters is a violent and destructive act. To look or not to look is a political matter.

Miss Manhattan

“The most perfect, most versatile, most famous of American models, whose face and figure have inspired thousands of modern masterpieces of sculpture and painting.”

At the turn of the 19th century, the socialite Audrey Munson, known also as Miss Manhattan, was the muse of many and the most sought after model of all New York, becoming a ubiquitous figure on canvas, tapestries and stone. Still, her likeness graces many corners of Manhattan: from the Pulitzer fountain to the Civic Fame statue atop the Manhattan Municipal building, the city’s largest sculpted figure after the Statue of Liberty.

Civic Fame building, NYC

Her fame and popularity had grown so vast that during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition, it was her image that was cast onto nearly every work shown.

In 1915, Audrey moved to New York to California to extend her career into the brand new film industry and boarded at the house of a doctor. His wife sent Audrey away when she began to suspect that the doctor had fallen in love with her. When his wife was found murdered not long later, the doctor was convicted of murder in the first degree. He hung himself before they could take him to the electric chair.

SStill from the silent film, Inspiration

After the scandal, her reputation was destroyed and her career fell flat prompting the downwards spiral into which she would descend. She blamed “powerful forces” for the disintegration of her career, and fabricated an engagement to a certain Joseph J. Stevenson. When, according to her, the non-existent Stevenson broke off their betrothal, she ingested a solution of mercury to try and end her life.

Melvin Memorial, Massachussets

Although she recovered from her suicide attempt, her mental health would continue to deteriorate and she was placed in a mental ward at 39. Here, she would reside for the next sixty-five years, and pass away in 1996 at the age of 105.

Pulitzer Fountain, NYC

The Tranquilizer

JUST CALL ME DAD

Benjamin Rush is often referred to as “the father of American psychiatry,” and indeed his portrait still adorns the seal of the American Psychiatric Association. In 1965, the APA placed a bronze plaque by his grave at Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, affirming and consecrating his paternity.

Rush’s seminal opus, Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind nowreads like a primer for psychological torture. Suggested punishments for the misbehavior of mentally ill patients include tranquilization through the imposition of physical restraints; food modification or deprivation; cold water treatments; and prolonged shower baths.

“If all these modes of punishment should fail of their intended effects, it will be proper to resort to fear of death.”

Other fears also come in handy, as well as an acute sense of shame, though Rush asserts that because of some neurological process he fails to specify, the patient will have erased all memory of such fears, once returned to mental health. Also, we should note Rush’s deft distancing from the brutal exercise of the whip; clearly he prefers other more refined techniques.

FROM CHAPTER VI, TREATMENTS

In many cases, the line between punishments and treatments is quite flexible within the medical philosophy of Dr. Rush. Thus the tranquilizer performs a highly useful secondary role in facilitating the application of other treatments:

“The tranquilizer [chair] has several advantages over the strait waistcoat or madshirt. It opposes the impetus of the blood towards the brain, it lessens muscular action every where, it reduces the force and frequency of the pulse, it favours the application of cold water and ice to the head, and warm water to the feet, both of which I shall say are excellent remedies in this disease; it enables the physician to feel the pulse and to bleed without any trouble, or altering the erect position of the patient’s body; and lastly, it relieves him, by means of a close stool, half filled with water, over which he constantly sits, from the foetor and filth of his alvine evacuations.”

On the website of the Pennsylvania Hospital, the tranquilizer is described as “doing neither harm nor good.” The statement is made without reference to any supporting documentation or testimonials from patients or doctors:

Though Rush mentions in his book that a fully functioning tranquilizer was used by the hospital at the time of publication (1812), I have been unable to confirm its present existence as a physical object; a copy of an engraving endorsed by Rush as accurate appears on the website for the U.S. National Library of Medicine:

A small scale model of the chair on display at the Mütter Medical Museum, also in Philadelphia, shows a rather different device (purple gloves belong to Mütter curator Anna Dhody):

DISPLAY MODIFICATION

Of particular note is the absence of the “close stool”; and the innovation, apparently devised by the model maker, of the blinders. With this modification in place, the patient can neither move his head nor bear visual witness to anything happening within his environs.

It is possible that the design change was introduced by the model maker simply to make the head structure more durable, yet whatever the explanation, the modification is remarkably prescient in anticipating a key attribute of contemporary psychological torture as developed by the CIA since the 1950s: the merging of corporeal restraint with sensory deprivation and/or perceptual disorientation.

NO TOUCH TORTURE

Interestingly, the two most recent recipients of the APA’s Benjamin Rush award, together with the titles of their lectures, are:

2008

Mark S. Micale, Ph.D., Associate Professor, History of Science and Medicine at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.Psychological Trauma and the Lessons of History.

2011

Andrea Tone, Ph.D., Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Social History of Medicine, McGill University. Spies and Lies: Cold War Psychiatry and the CIA.

Nain Bébé, the Dwarf Court Jester

Nicolas Bebe

A mini-drama was nestled within a little notice in the newspaper; a great fire had destroyed the castle of Luneville in Lotharingen, also known as the small Versailles. Its extraordinary collection of porcelain is lost, and with it, the ceramic statue of Le Nain Bébé, King Stanislas Leszcinski’s court jester. After being driven out of Poland, Stanislas was appointed Duke of Lotharingen in 1737 by his son in law, King Louis IV, who granted him the castle of Lotharingen, completed in 1723.

Le Nain Bébé, or dwarf baby, was born as Nicolas Ferry in 1741 to a family of farmers. He was twenty-five centimetres tall and weighed less than five ounces. He never grew to be taller than eighty-nine centimetres. Although not directly visible, he was most likely mentally impaired. When he was brought to court, they unsuccessfully attempted to teach him how to read and write. All he really could do was dance. They described him as being stubborn, temperamental, lazy and jealous, even ‘sensual’ and also gluttonous.

He was an enormous attraction and was treated as a living doll. A miniature castle of a metre and a half tall was built for him and was fitted with furniture scaled to suit his size. If ever he became angry, he would retreat to his castle, and when Stanislas called for him, he’d open the windows and gracefully declare, ‘tell the king that I am not in.’

He had a great intolerance for noise. When the king played backgammon, Bébé would make such a whopping fuss that the king would have no choice but to stop. He’d then set him on the table, upon which Bébé would build towers from the game pieces. He also had his own miniature carriage drawn by goats that he would tend to himself in the gardens of the palace. He also enjoyed hiding under the skirts of the ladies of court, which is very likely what granted him the description of being ‘sensual.’ I believe that, because he was considered a non-person, he overheard much of the gossip, which allowed him to act as a spy for the king. Poor Bébé. He was a plaything for the nobility.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia once even tried to steal Bébé by sending an envoy. The Duchess of Humniecka, who was related to Stanislas, visited the palace in 1757 when Bébé was eighteen years old. Accompanying her was a twenty-two year old Polish dwarf who called himself Boruslawski with whom she travelled on her visits to the royal houses of Europe. He was exceptionally well developed and could even speak three languages. He ‘beamed with youth and vitality,’ while Bébé was already aging visibly. Boruslawski, who was only seventy-five centimetres tall, apologised to Bébé for being smaller than him. Bébé explained that he had been ill and had grown because of it! He was so jealous of the Pole that he tried to throw him into the fireplace (the Polish dwarf, by the way, lived to be ninety-eight years old and married a woman of normal posture at forty with whom he had four children).

Bébé rapidly declined during the last years of his life. While he was withering away, a suitable wife was found for him: Therese Vouvray, ninety centimetres tall. However, before the engagement could commence, Bébé fell terminally ill. Stanislas sent for his mother and Bébé died in her arms at twenty-two years of age on June 9th, 1764. Despite being distraught by Bébé’s death, Stanislas allowed his Swedish doctor to dissect the body from top to bottom. His skeleton was sent in a glass casing to the museum of natural history in Paris, where it still resides to this day. Even in death, the little man was poked and prodded.

Not all mementos to the little court jester are lost. His portrait hangs in the historical museum of Nancy, where he is depicted wearing a magnificent blue uniform adorned with trestles. He stares back at us with a look of defiance, while his right hand rests on the head of a large dog. In the case next to the painting, various pieces of his now deteriorating little shoes and little clothes are on display.

Admiring Caged Birds

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Jelly Reservoir), 2013. Strawberry jelly, concrete dust.

There are human instances in which we get quite close to understanding the language of materials.

There’s the hoe plunging into the soil: crumbly in its first inches, then more pliable as we reach the moist underneath, then almost solid in the fresh darkness of laborious earthworms. Tchak and the worm is two.

There’s the bundle that a wood seller makes with logs or sticks; the line-like tension of the rope that seconds ago was sleeping amorphously in his pocket.

Robert Cervera, Pink Nappe, 2013. Polyvinyl, cement.

There’s the moment in which you sillily slightly slice the skin of your hand and for a second you don’t know what the physical bill will be: a momentary white line, a surge of blood, anything in between.

There is sculpture in those things. And there is a chance those things may be in a sculpture. And the sound they make – a sound in your mind – sends us back, like a sonar, an image of the world.

Materiality and human agency talk to each other. Squeeze, slice, drench, chafe, wedge, pat. Haptic marvels. How things feel, what they make us feel.

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Theatre Bundle), 2013. Concrete, adhesive tape.

(No distinction can be made between humanity and materiality, Hegel and Bordieu would say. We humans are materials which create other materials which then redefine us. The things we make, make us.)

The unbounded nature of the universe comes into the discussion. Matter flowing, going everywhere, and us chasing it, telling it to go this or that way, to stay in line, to wait in groups of four, of sixteen, of sixty-four.

We try our best to make the uncountable countable, to mark limits and give shape. We end up frustrated and beguiled at once by its unruliness, charmed by its oozing.

Robert Cervera

(Is it possible that we contain matter in the paradoxical way some cage birds, to better admire their flight?)

I am fascinated by that and also by the unexpected occurrence, the providential blunder, which I take to be one more chapter of our ongoing dialogue with materiality.

The Institute for Unanswered Questions

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit’s visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

A 20 pixels casted shadow

Map, 2006–2010

Map, public installation, 2006-2010

dimensions: 600x350x35 cm
material: wood board, wood beams, color, wire, screws, glue, nails,

Related to the idea of Dataspace is the project ‘Map’ by German artist Aram Bartholl. It is a public space installation that questions the red map marker of location-based search engine Google Maps. “Find local businesses, view maps and get driving directions in Google Maps.” With a small graphic icon Google marks search results in the map interface. The design of the virtual map pin seems to be derived from a physical map needle. On one hand, the marker and information speech bubble next to it cast a shadow on the digital map as if they were physical objects. When the map is switched to satellite mode it seems that they become part of the city. On the other hand it is a simple 20 px graphic icon which stays always at the same size on the computer screen. The size of the life size red marker in physical space corresponds to the size of a marker in the web interface in maximal zoom factor of the map. Where is the center of a city?

Map, 2006-2010

Part of a series, ‘Map’ is set up at the exact spot where Google Maps assumes to be the center of the city. Transferred to physical space, the map marker questions the relation in which the digital information space stands to public city space, the space of everyday life. The perception of the city is increasingly influenced by geolocation services.