Matthew La Croix


Titanic Sinks! Kitchen Sinks

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1965 was the year in which took place the most absurd micro-revolution in history, probably the only to be justified on the grounds of the lack of air conditioning in a heat wave.

In a sweep of destruction and chaos, the Los Angeles Watts riots saw 800 wounded and 32 dead: over several days of looting gun and liquor stores, black insurgents fought with white police and wrecked over $27 million of town planning.

The flames of Watts consumed consumption in an unjustifiable social collapse towards the brink of insanity – “the theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity is the best metaphor for the lie of affluence transformed into a truth” (Debord).

After the hopes of American prosperity failed with JFK’s assassination, people looked to the west coast for spiritual renewal, thus this impulsive Californian epoch became a courageous, lucrative future of rockets to the moon, and an iconography of sun, sea and sand. These monumental signs of an ideology exhausting itself in its own spectacular construction provoked a rupture in their ‘seamlessness’.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the domestic flotsam of Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) crushes him. The model trains, telephones, TV sets, toy planes and helicopters whirring, ringing and flashing, soon play an important part as props in the coming undone of his life: the car is a vehicle for his wife and family’s flight; the malfunctioning electrics beckon the arrival of earth’s intergalactic friends; the potted plants, picket fencing, astroturf and garden ornaments turn into a psychic totem of Devil’s Mountain, calling him to the arrival destination of the Third Kind.

Which for Mark Leckey would be the point of shift from a state of ‘pure horizontality’ to a point of ‘pure verticality’. Conjuring to mind, of course, the most beautiful and catastrophic cornerstone of destruction of luxurious modernity – the ‘time travel film’ Titanic – a literal rupture in its horizontality if ever there were one.

Likewise, Pasolini’s illicit condemnation of the middle classes – Teorema (1968) – also resonates within the collapse of the signs of the bourgeoisie. The visitor (Terence Stamp) arrives as an anti-angel eschewing subsequent entropy amidst the high design, high fashion and high consumerism of the high family (factory owners). One by one the maid, son, daughter, mother and father, capitulate themselves toward their object of foundering desire. On taking away the object of desire from the subject the family are thrown out to a frenzied world of extremes, libidinal inertia, coma, and miracles, to cataclysmic fever pitch of collapse.

Watts, Close Encounters and Teorema are all salient examples of collapse bound by a certain epoch of postmodernism. They serve as a starting point for re-evaluating the casualties of such a social and cultural configuration, and re-address the evacuation of the psycho-social landscape as it recedes into the irreal; how this end-game of reality has accelerated toward a realising death-drive.

And before it arrives, comes the replaying, re-winding, fast-forwarding of the diet of apocalyptic objects blurring into one collection of changing colour gels, the bird flying into Tippi Hendron’s head as a plane collides with a tower, “panic in slow motion” (Baudrillard), or the feeling of constantly falling but never hitting the floor (Steve Wright).

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Like the diasporic narrative of Gravity’s Rainbow beneath the hypertelia of the rocket that never falls, amongst the ruins of Postmodernity Baudrillard notices a site of attraction – of Fascism, particularly of World War Two. Is it a coincidence that the period in time that Baudrillard fetishises is the point before this apparent rupture of Postmodernity took place? Freud’s idea of the fetish is an object that substitutes a traumatic discovery of loss (i.e. castration). If this were applied to the trauma of post-war society’s loss of the Real then this would explain how the point before this trauma – essentially Fascism – could be the fetishistic object.

As television, film and mass media are tools of public representation now, pre-war it was architecture, sculpture – solid stadiums and monuments of Speer’s new Germania and epic testaments to the histrionic ideologies of republics. In documentaries by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 one can witness the changing sites of spectacle from architecture, to sculpture, to film. The once spectacular vocabulary of Fascist monument, architecture and totem, now becomes mere stage scenery, prolonged by Speer’s ‘ruin effect’ style of architecture planned for prosperity now acting as a backdrop to the cinematic event.

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Recalling the delirious reversibility in Robert Longo’s work sets a good example to illustrate the extraordinary and the resurrection of the spectacle. His Gesamtwerk uses dance, sculpture, music and film but lacks narrative support, which gives a feeling of estrangement that allows the devices of these ‘spectacular’ media to become transparent in their workings.

Longo places us in relation to his work as consumer, dreamer, and over and above – passive spectator. This re-framing of the objets d’art makes us aware of one’s seduction to them. In turn, we bear witness to the operations and mechanisms of spectacle. Because of a fascination with the hyper-real and a mourning of the loss of the Real, Longo’s work provides us with the ‘perfect’ images that make us ‘whole’ at the price of submission. “We become locked in its logic because spectacle provides us with the fetishistic images necessary to deny or assuage this loss” (Hal Foster).

The paradox of spectacle here is playing two roles – a pastoral antidote to the spectacular loss of the Real, and a device to resurrect archaic forms that negate it ever happening.

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Why would the self-harmer inflict such wounds without intention of killing themselves? The self-harmer has no wish to die but to feel more real, peeling away the layers of ‘masking’ like the skins of an onion to grasp at some hard kernel of truth in identity, of real self. It could be that the impetus for every form of spectacle could be for the same reason, culminating in these extraordinary spectacles of debauchery and mutilation “and all its violence” – which is the price we pay, according to Zizek, for “peeling off the deceptive layers of reality”; so a warning from Zizek – the real may not be so pretty; as he allegories in hardcore pornography when apparently a miniscule camera is put on the end of a dildo and inserted into a vagina, where a “shift occurs”; when we get too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns “into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh”, libidinal pursuit collapses and a rupture takes place, socially, economically, aesthetically, the same shift from horizontality to verticality as in the LA Watts Riots, Teorema, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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This sort of dissolute behaviour that burgeons at moments of crisis is hardly new. At the collapse of the Third Reich amidst the oncoming Russian troops the Nazis took to orgiastic drinking and sex in the face of annihilation, as if to accelerate a realising death-drive. On biblical proportions, Berlin in April 1945 bore witness to a grim Dionysian frenzy.

These similar fleeting transgressive and transcendent desires can be tracked through their genealogy from Nietzsche’s death of God, the Marquis de Sade’s Dionysism, and Bataille’s eroticism. If the archetype of transgression were the ‘libertine in blood-drenched ecstasy’ then the ‘evangelist rapturous believer ascending to Heaven’ would be the archetype of Transcendence; both collide at the axis “where rupture spills into rapture”, where the banal and the extraordinary meet, this system in rupture of its reveries.

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The Transcendental ‘evangelist rapturous
believer ascending to Heaven’,
William Blake, Jacob’s Ladder, 1800

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The Transgressive ‘blood-drenched libertine’,
Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1600

As Bataille’s version of (transgressive) eroticism – which charges towards death not so as to kill life, but so as to kill the experience of it – draws comparisons with Baudrillard’s cynicism towards the impossibility of a nuclear holocaust – not due to political diplomacy or peace for all humankind, but the possibility of missing out on the holiest of spectacles, of Armageddon. “That’s why it won’t happen... the drive to spectacle is more powerful than the survival instinct, we can count on that.” This assertion negates a death drive in Bataille’s eroticism, Freud, Nietzsche’s nihilism, Sade’s transgression, because the ecstatic charge towards death (or the real) wouldn’t be experienced, and as Walter Benjamin states: humankind can now “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order”. As Pettman summarises: “This is the gut-wrenching moment of panic: to be caught in the headlights of history as it speeds towards oblivion.”

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Pierre Huyghe’s piece A Journey That Wasn’t (2006) began with a round-about global warming theme with some nods to Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, but Huyghe anticipated that due to the melting ice caps in Antarctica the new islands there would create mutated species – so in 2005 with a group of ten fellow artists they hired a scientific yacht and embarked on an epic expedition to uncover the mysteries of what they would find there.

The expedition group were not hopeful and the mythical creatures became an onboard joke; however, the results were astounding, as by using a flashing bright light to attract and come into contact with any species, an albino penguin came from out of the glacial landscape as if Huyghe and the penguin had planned to meet.

Then, at the Central Park ice rink in New York, Huyghe commissioned a composer to write an orchestral symphony in response to the ambitious and treacherous Antarctic mission in a spectacular extravaganza where the ice rink was transformed, with dry ice, theatrical lights and smoke, into an ethereal glacial landscape, out of which comes a large-scale animatronic albino penguin. It was like a twentieth-century real-life King Kong scenario.

Huyghe’s aim was to avoid any documentation or representation of it, instead to communicate a topological equivalent. He wanted to communicate the exotic object, or ‘exot’, not the image. He chose the spectacle as a primary site for the work to create a notion of contact and experience to equate the very real triumph and adventure of the arctic explorers by means of creating this new site.

How did Huyghe ‘realise’ the Other of the event? The third site for the work was an installation at Tate Gallery in Huyghe’s Celebration Park exhibition, 2006. The installation of the work was crucial to communicating the Real of the experience without it receding into image. Huyghe used various devices to do this.

The exhibition at large mimicked the language of various cultural forms such as community celebrations, amusement parks, and theme parks. The exhibition was festive and copied modes of social gathering commonly associated with fictional or fantastic spaces. He used the model of the park to subvert the archaic space of the museum based on the “will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes” (Foucault). Theme parks, in contrast, are “marvellous empty sites at the outskirts of cities” (Foucault) with no relationship to the accumulation of time – they are outside time. Fairgrounds and theme parks are also semi-fictional spaces, are themed or faked but nevertheless produce the mood of what they represent, they ‘do as they say’. In short, they straddle representation and experience. This is the arena in which Huyghe chooses to recreate his polar voyage. “If the world has disappeared into image – the real ‘that which is always already reproduced’ – then, indeed, image today is birthed from image” (Ng). It is this anxiety that Huyghe seeks to resist.

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La Lunette d’Approche, René Magritte, 1963

The installation was spectacular and in parts very seductive. Huyghe recreated the sense of wonder room or theme park and blurred the boundaries of inside and outside in an unreal illogical space. A large-scale white revolving door on tracks from the ceiling acted as a gateway to two rooms. One was sealed with a window aperture looking into a room containing a pavilion designed by François Roche and the animatronic penguin from the Central Park spectacular. In the other carpeted room was a large screen playing a film of the polar exhibition and the New York performance.

The film was edited in a non-linear sequence that operated in communicating the Other in two ways. Firstly, the cutting from the white polar shots to the night time Central Park shots sequentially turned the screening space of the gallery into a flashing light box to mimic the flashing light used in Antarctica to attract any mutated species, and the theatre lights in Central Park. Secondly, the three passages of film taken out of chronological order privileged none of the separate time frames, or realities, over each other, and reiterated Huyghe’s intention of equivalence between the experience, the Other, and the ‘“re”-realising’ of the event, recalling the delirious reversals present in Robert Longo’s work.

Huyghe’s intention of ‘re-realising’ such a spectacular Other in a state of equivalence, contacting the Other but not representing it, demands a spectacular gesture by installation, which reinforces Huyghe’s critical design on the work.

The vast, negative, God-shaped hole isn’t what Huyghe is trying to fill here. The notion of the Real collapsing at the epoch of Postmodernism left a symbolic void. Whilst Lacanians would see the Real situated in a symbolic sanctuary in any case, my supposition is that this rupture has created a vacuum, a sacred void: for Hegel, “in this complete void which is even called the Holy of Holies... we must fill it up with reveries, appearances, produced by consciousness itself, since even reveries are better than its own emptiness”.

What could be called for is a more sophisticated mode of cultural production, or social gathering, or critique, which resists all of these: celebration.

Celebration operates in similar ways with engaging with the world as critique and serves similar means. But celebration realises its strategy differently, as a counter-model to critique. Celebration does not negate criticism but finds positive relations to the given and could be a new site for critique in a more temporal space. It is as if, again referring back to Transcendentalism, Huyghe is trying to communicate the contact with the Other whilst not creating an image of it, and doing so by logic of Transcendentalism, he is transcending this barrier through celebration, because celebration is ‘doing’ and critique is ‘saying’. In other words critique is creating an image and celebration is an ‘oscillation between reality and the modes of its aesthetic transformation” (Von Hantelmann).

After all the symbolic efforts to grasp at a kernel of the Real by the semiotic, the archiver, the fascist, the sado-masochist, the pornographer, the self-harmer, the Dionysians, the millennial tourists, the Saints, the blood-drenched libertine and the evangelist fail, “one attempts to make up for this loss by a symbolic compensation, in keeping with the deeper meaning of such events” (Zizek) – the spectacle. As I couldn’t put it better myself, on Huyghe, Dorothea Von Hantelmann writes: “Who, after all, would want to ‘objectify’ a festive mood? It is simply there and we share in it. In this respect ‘Je ne possède pas’, (I do not own) is a way to propose that the museum become what it is: a place to celebrate the spectacle of society.”

Also published in Introducing, 'Sommerpause'