|Either the hunter or the hunted – there’s no other option |
Alise Tīfentāle, Art Historian
Exhibition Chasing Napoleon
15.10.2009.–17.01.2010. Palais de Tokyo, Paris
|The Swiss director of the Palais de Tokyo Art Centre and curator of the exhibition Chasing Napoleon, Marc-Olivier Wahler (b. 1964), has addressed both the process of hunting down and the “Napoleon syndrome” in works of art.1 Featuring as one of the contemporary hunted “Napoleons” is the controversial 20th century legend Theodore Kaczynski (b. 1942), known as ‘Unabomber’ (‘University and airline bomber’). Once a respected and admired American professor of mathematics, he abandoned civilised society in 1971 and voluntarily began a hermit’s life in a forest cabin with no amenities.2 Protesting against the destruction and devastation of nature in the name of technological development and the comfort of the consumer society,3 between 1978 and 1995 he carried out several acts of terrorism, sending out letter bombs. At that point, he was an invisible and dangerous “hunter”, but soon the roles were reversed, and he became “the hunted”. In the USA, the hunt turned into a media show. The victim of this collective hunt – “the mad professor”, enemy of social progress – was captured in 1996 and received a life sentence.|
Micol Assael. Vorkuta. Installation. 2001
|The hunt for Kaczynski has inspired the creation of several of the works shown in Chasing Napoleon. Thus, for example, a re-drawn photofit portrait of Kaczynski has been used by Norwegian artist Gardar Eide Einarsson (b. 1976) in his work Untitled (Portrait) (2005). The Swedish artist Ola Pehrson (1964–2006), in his last work The Hunt for the Unabomber (2005), makes use of photographs, newspaper clippings and other visual material that was utilised in a 1998 documentary film with the same title, one that “underscores the process of dehumanization and the making of an urban legend.”4 Kaczynski’s personal library has been reconstructed, using data from the FBI, by the artist Dora Winter in her installation The Unabomber’s Library (2008–2009). |
The installation Unacabin (2008), by Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski (b. 1973), must be regarded as one of the central works in the exhibition: this is a life-size reconstruction of the small and humble abode inhabited by Professor Kaczynski in the middle of the forest. Here we may contemplate the principles and elements of vernacular architecture from a functional and aesthetic perspective (i.e. as witnesses to an alternative existence, forgotten in mainstream history, but certainly no less significant5), and just as valuable is an insight into the fate of the structure in question. It turns out that after Kaczynski’s arrest, his forest hut was torn down and slated for destruction, but by some miracle was saved and is now on show at the Newseum Museum of Journalism in Washington, D.C. (Kaczynski himself has apparently sent a letter protesting at the public exhibition of his cabin.) What was private and entirely secret has become part of public entertainment, and the persona of the hunted and vanquished “Napoleon” has become the subject of unremitting attention (motivated by fear of a strong opponent, curiosity and a sense of power over the captured enemy).
A contemporary “Napoleon”, chased down in a similar manner (a hunter who became the hunted), is the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) – in our perception not a real individual, a person, but instead a caricatured and grotesque incarnation of evil, the ultimate “enemy”. The spectacular hunt, discovery, trial and punishment of Hussein became one long, tragicomic media farce. Hussein’s rudimentary, desperate hiding place was triumphantly demonstrated by the Western media precisely in the same way as in earlier times tribal war chiefs demonstrated to their own people the heads of their enemies, whom they had just decapitated (the intention being one and the same: total and absolute humiliation of the enemy). This story of disrespect and humiliation ends most effectively with the publication of a video recording of the execution – one more proof of humanity’s abiding bloodthirstiness, wickedness and vengefulness, which the 21st century has not succeeded in containing and civilising. (Here we may add that in our midst, too, there may still be present living witnesses to public executions, namely the hanging – relatively quite recent – of seven German generals in Riga on 3 February, 1946.6) At this point, the demonised image of Hussein actually did take on a human face, and the story of his trial and punishment in some ways turned against the people trying him, leaving a sense of embarrassment (that the Western world, built on Christian foundations, had given vent to a barbaric lust for revenge, rejecting the plea to “love thy neighbour” (Luke 6:27)).
Paul Laffoley. The Omega Point. Oil, acrylic on canvas. 187x187cm. 1997. Photo: Zenta Dzividzinska
|The installation Spider Hole (2006), by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel (b. 1966), presents a life-size (300x265x190 cm) mock-up of Hussein’s subterranean hideout, as if it had literally been lifted out of the ground and made visible to all. Possible strategies for “escape” (concealment, disguise and deception) are suggested by a drain-hole in the wall (Drain, 1989), by American artist Robert Gober (b. 1954), and the “concealed” ventilation shaft in the work Square Tubes Series D (1967), by German minimalist artist Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985)7. The latter is completely inconspicuous, because elements of this kind are often left openly visible in contemporary interiors, and would arouse no suspicions were the viewer to see them in some corner of the exhibition space. A different kind of escape scenario is developed in the humorous work Fuck it, Free Yourself! (2009), by American artist Tony Matelli (b. 1971) – an eternal flame kept alive with 500 euro banknotes. |
A secretive parallel, alternative existence, as a possibility of avoiding the ancient role game of the “hunter and the hunted”, is examined in various “languages” in other works of art shown at this exhibition. There is an absolutely enigmatic and mysterious rhomboid object of bronze, the work For V.T. (1969) by American minimalist classic Tony Smith (1912–1980), reminiscent of the amazing “something” that fell from the sky and turned apes into men in ‘A Space Odyssey’.
Just as intriguingly silent is the installation Nathaniel Knows (2003–2009), by British artist Ryan Gander (b. 1976): a darkened room with a ventilation grille on one side, and on the other a small hole in the wall, through which one can look into a splendid garden “on the other side”. The work Vorkuta (2001), by Micol Assaël (b. 1979), invites us literally to “enter” a different reality: this scene, arranged in a freezer room, is reminiscent of an abandoned laboratory as seen in a disaster movie: broken apparatuses spark, and a short-circuit is imminent, to be followed by complete destruction. Also illustrating an entry into a different reality is a work by American film director David Fincher (b. 1962), where flashes of fragments from the film about Benjamin Button,8 depicting the protagonist’s reminiscences of being struck by lightning, are alternately demonstrated on six screens.
The greatest masters of complete disappearance and concealment9 in this exhibition are American artist Tom Friedman (b. 1965) and British artist Dave Allen (1963). Dave Allen’s work For the Dogs. Satie’s Véritables Préludes Flasques (pour un chien), 1912, rendered at tone frequencies above 18kHz (2002) is a sound installation. A sound system arranged on the floor plays a recording, all the lights are flashing, but you can’t hear it. This is because the artist is playing Erik Satie’s work at frequencies beyond the limits of human hearing, but apparently audible to dogs. And it is to the dogs that Satie has dedicated this work, so it’s all fair and square. Tom Friedman has taken human perception to its limits in his work Untitled (A Curse) (1992): placed in the exhibition room, itself a typical “white cube”, is a small pediment (likewise a white box). Our experience of previous art exhibitions tells us that there should be an exhibit here. Since I believe what the artists say, there is indeed a work of art on this pediment: a witch’s curse obtained by the artist.
Christoph Buchel. Spider Hole. Installation. 300x265x190cm. 2006
|An artistic alternative to the individualism of Unabomber is the re-creation of the world by American artist and architect Paul Laffoley (b. 1940). These large format paintings (for example, 174x174 cm), created from the 1960s onwards in a workshop of fifteen square metres, with a visual scheme and a verbal commentary on the decorative arrangements (often reminiscent of mandalas), reveal truths that appeared to the artist in the fifth dimension (which he succeeded in entering after electroshock therapy in 1961). Each of Laffoley’s works covers occult and esoteric knowledge, concepts from philosophy and ethics, and a universe of historical facts and interpretations. In contrast to the largely supernatural character of the content, the works are rationally structured. Mental structures, visualised in detail, are presented cloaked in symbolic and for the most part symmetrical compositions, they are accompanied by a wordy commentary referring to concepts at various levels of intelligibility: real past philosophers, teachers of occult knowledge and their teachings, and information of extraterrestrial origin. Esoteric knowledge coexists with scientifically proven fact, thus the scheme for the Solitron10 perpetual motion machine appears just as credible as the structural depiction of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. But this time, “catching Napoleon” will prove quite impossible. All pursuers stop at the boundaries of the fifth dimension. I’d like to think that every artist has their own fifth dimension – their own secret refuge, “their own room” or hut in the middle of the forest, which does not have to be laid bare or explained to everyone expressing an interest (“the hunters”). And the messages sent from this “Unacabin” don’t necessarily have to be intelligible – in this way one can hold out for longer without becoming “the hunted”.|
The exhibition Chasing Napoleon concluded the curator’s series of thematic exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, exploring the invisible, the unknowable and the intangible in art. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to see the previous exhibitions in the series: Gakona (12 February–3 May 2009) and Spy Numbers (28 May–20 September 2009), so I can only assume that the idea behind this thematic series of exhibitions can be fully appreciated if one has seen the whole triptych.
(1) The exhibition Chasing Napoleon concluded the curator’s series of thematic exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, exploring the invisible, the unknowable and the intangible in art. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to see the previous exhibitions in the series: Gakona (12 February–3 May 2009) and Spy Numbers (28 May–20 September 2009), so I can only assume that the idea behind this thematic series of exhibitions can be fully appreciated if one has seen the whole triptych.
(2) This is nothing new: Theodore Kaczynski cites the experience of 19th century American free-thinker Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who spent two years, two months and two days in similar conditions in the middle of the forest. Kaczynski had in his personal library a copy of Thoreau’s book, which gives an idealised account of this “simple life” (‘Walden, or, Life in the Woods’, 1854).
(3) Such ideas are not limited to the 20th century: philosophers in all ages have written from various standpoints on the “return to nature” and on the controversial issues behind technological development, the most popular of these figures, essential in this context, being the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
(4) Palais, Nr. 10, fall 2009, p. 82.
(5) An example is the series of photographs Servitude (2002–2007) by Zenta Dzividzinska, included in the exhibition Private. Contemporary Latvian fine art photography. This is part of the documentation of a long-lasting performance (still continuing), which focuses on the construction and life of a garden shed designed by the artist, located on a property subject to servitudes. The work includes the artist herself, the object she has created and the living environment around it. Regularly improving the shed and photographing it has already become a kind of ritual, to be undertaken away from the public eye.
(6) C. f.: Grūtups, A. Ešafots. Rīga: Atēna, 2007.
(7) There is a surprising coincidence, in terms of the means of expression, with the work Escape Attempt by Armands Zelčs from a solo exhibition under the same title (2009).
(8) The 2008 film ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, directed by David Fincher, is based on the novel by Francis Scott Fitzgerald.
(9) The themes of disappearance and concealment are also addressed in works by Evelīna Deičmane (Breathing is forbidden, 2006) and Agnese Zeltiņa (How to disappear completely, 2007), where in photos and in differing ways they seek to locate the delicate boundary between light and dark, and between the visible and invisible.
(10) One of the inscriptions on the painting The Solitron by Paul Laffoley (1997): “The Solitron is an alchemical-psychotronic device for the purpose of inducing both perpetual motion and perpetual stillness as long as the infrastructure is not breached. It makes use of a consciousness mass energy quantum that exists between the formful and the formless, which is readily available from the nature with or without human mediation.”
/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/