„Hands busy washing hands”
Hello Mr Tuymans!I was supposed to write this letter a long time ago…In 1992, a student of mine from Belgium, called Boris, told me about your paintings. He told me about you and about Raul de Keyser in tones usually reserved for a source of national pride or a national treasure. I was intrigued by the manner in which he spoke, the more so as I had seen your paintings that year at the documenta in Kassel. Since then I have followed your work closely. But before I reveal the most important reason for my letter, I must recall the words of our Nobel prize winning poet, Wisława Szymborska:“there are catalogues of catalogues.There are poems about poems.There are plays about actors, played by actors.Letters about letters.Words serving to explain words.” It is a paradox that although each of your paintings is given added precision by an extremely apposite title, from the beginning, I had the impression that your paintings should be spoken about in paintings, that words are an insignificant attachment to a more autonomous and unprecedented work. The appropriateness of the title also affects the title of the poem I quoted, which is called Mutuality, and when I think about your paintings in categories of mutuality, I know that the word there is hidden and that behind each of these displays there lies an effort like that of a palimpsest.And if your painting on top of a painting ends up in words, then it reflects the breathless silence before speaking on an especially important matter, or is like the noiseless touching the lips with a finger, so as to shush someone, or order them to be silent. So, if you will allow me, I shall tell you about a conversation, which I shall stop at the point analogous to that where I had to take a deep sigh, because the contrastof the words spoken with those speaking them was similar to the contrast you so profoundly applied in your painting De Wandeling, ( The Walk) 1993. The conversation went like this:Speaker 1: So, what is the worst thing you’ve ever seen?Speaker 2: Man, of course. but from the medical point of viewSpeaker 1: from the medical point of view terrible things don’t make any senseSpeaker 2: How insignificant we are…Speaker 1: please forgive me this cognac(…) but I haven’t been able to find any Remy Martin in this barbarous place Speaker 2: of course, we’re still losing too many men. Since 1812 military medicine has progressed, only the same can be said of the methods of killingSpeaker 1: Nothing dies if something else is born in its place. Births are a debt against death.I break off the conversation in line with the rhythm of breathing, for also when I read those words, seeing the speakers in a mountainous landscape not far from Lermontov’s grave, there appeared another image, analogous, painted by you, showing two men walking towards the snowy peaks, capped with snow. The colours and the figures turned away from the viewer recalled the experience of Caspar David Friedrich. There was something intangible and unsettling in the surrounding atmosphere, a kind of alien presence contradicting its romantic provenance. It was clear that these four wanderers, both from the book and the painting, used the language of Horderlin. So, let those from the picture remain in their silent dialogue a moment, while we listen to the interrupted conversation:Speaker 2: that’s just what I like about you Hauptsturmfuhrer, a Siecherheistdienstmember who prefers to quote Tertulian to either Rosenberg or Hans Frank is truly pleasing. A propos mortality(…)are you still killing poor, defenceless people?Speaker 1: I’m only a liaison officer and that suits me fine. I observe and say nothing, an that’s how I like itSpeaker 2:then you would be a terrible doctor, observation without practice isn’t worth muchReading the book, we know who is talking with whom. It’s The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. In the case of your painting, we don’t discover this until we set our feelings and intuition in motion, which will lead us to the vicinity of Chiemsee and Berchtesgaden, to a path which Adolf Hitler and Albert Speerare walking along. To walk alongside these four figures, it is enough to search a few pages back in Littel’s book to find the main character participating in a scene of mass murder as part of anEinzelaktion, obviously in silence and “merely” observing. Jonathan Littell and you were of a similar age when the book and painting were created. However, much earlier, you had painted another picture, when you were 28 years old.Gas chamber. 1986.I know that when a young man makes the gas chamber in Auschwitzthe subject of one of his works, it affects the seriousness of all the works undertaken afterwards. You have retained and cared for that seriousness with ever greater attention. I owe you the same degree of attention, so I shall create a conceptual model – a large, empty hall, hung with my pictures. They are arranged in a manner directly related to the principles from The Way Things Go.I choose a wall in the hall, whose ceiling is sunk in darkness, and hang on it a single painting, the most important one, the one before which, once, in a gallery, I was infinitely struck by its beauty. Worshipper from 2004, showing the figure of a chaplain or master of ceremonies standing before a candelabra, half of which is cut off by the edge of the painting – a candle holder with numerous arms. The lighting and colours, more specifically their evanescence, their absence, suggest a coldness, a frozen state. It is a ghost covered in frost, frozen before the dying light. At first glance, as in the majority of your paintings, the photographic provenance is visible, and hence the concept created by Roland Barthes for use with photography might be useful. It is a punctum. The exemplary punctum in your painting is at the same time an error in the purist definition of photography. That error is the powerful, flattened shadow of the arm and the secretive gold emblemon the headwear. The shining gold and the shadow of the arm are undoubtedly an effect of the strong glare of the flash. In direct conversation with you, I discovered the secret of this photograph and the secret of this painting. I shall try to keep them. Let the unstated relationship hidden between the representation and the title, between the ultimately undecipherable association of the chaplain belong to all those who view this, and I have no hesitation in saying this, masterpiece. But before I hang this painting on the wall, I must tell you something, Mr Tuymans…In our city, right in its centre, stood an enormous synagogue. In fact you could say it still stands today. And it could be said that it survives as a building thanks to the Nazis, who instead of burning it down (as they did most synagogues) did the reverse, by filling it with water and making it into the city’s swimming pool. This is one of the terrifying pieces of evidence of erasure, evidence of, as Hannah Arendt put it, the “eloquence of the devil”. You also need to know, Mr Tuymans, that this new function for the temple filled with water remained for many years. Under its enormous dome, filled with the scent of chlorine, generations of Poznań residents bathed. Even my heels as a child levitated there where the Bimah stood and where the cantor sang the words of the Torah. And I did not know then that I was always swimming towards the Mizrah. Perhaps now that the water has been drained and the artists have been allowed to make this ominous monument to a diabolical inversion their own, a three-dimensional Worshipperin ice should stand there, held in that specific state for as long as the water displaced by those naked bodies splashed against the walls of the pool. Water and ice - the opposite of fire. This great, empty space embodies the words of Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better”.I know that this kind of voiceless articulation represented by the collective memory is particularly close to you. It was certainly not formalism that led you to hang, on the wall next to the Worshipper, the portrait of an unknown woman: Evidence, 2005.When I look at that painting, I see a face covered by a sheet of ice, showing traces of violent blows, as if someone tried with a sharp instrument to smash through the transparent surface and rescue the woman. And maybe I would maintain the viewer in this conviction up to the moment where they saw the inscription revealing what you told me about the painting: it is the anonymous victim of a serial killer from a Russian criminal chronicle, and the blows to the ice are in fact specks of dust which you photographed with your Polaroid.A false trail? I prefer your way of putting it: an authentic fake. This painted dust mediates our vulnerability to hurt. Another uncertainty which you offer to us forces us to search through the archives of the collective memory. And if in this room, between these two paintings, I placed Platonov’s shocking text, which you selected for your catalogue, this intended juxtaposition directs our attention towards the East, a holy direction, to a place where the mysterious chaplain becomes an orthodox Pope. Let them think so, for some a Pope, for others a rabbi, for yet others a shaman, I’m only amplifying the uncertainty which you created, for some signifying the universalism of resistance, for others reflecting archaic sacrificial mechanisms.Let’s go further along the path of the woman and to her right hand S. Croce 2005, the tight framing of the gothic carving painted by you from a photograph. I write this and become aware of the absurdity of this sentence. Someone could ask what sense is there in such a triple layering of media? And you could, of course, reply in a different manner, signifying the order of importance, that you are designating a new context tearing the original significance of the painting asunder. Now, from that tear emerges a cathedral, from which the sculpture comes, tainted by the mark of the masculinised hierarchy of the powerful institution which “admitted” woman into the temple through the back door, and that her presence there is similar to that of the face emerging from under the sheet of ice. I could in this connection, aided by Didi Huberman’s definition, say that through this simple gesture you have “silenced the double significance of the order of the painting”. If, though, we could measure the time and space in this enormous temple by the number of candles burned in it accompanying all the ceremonies since it was built, then that enormous pile of melted wax could be condensed by a small picture: Head, 2012, forming an ambivalence between the face of a doll and of a dead child. A distant echo of Platonov? Again that cursed ambiguity and uncertainty which, paradoxically, emerges from caution.Watchfulness in many cultures is a synonym, or condition of sympathy, whereas in the collective exchange - of empathy, which is always on the side of good.You, I am sure, carry that rare feature in Western civilisation within you. Rare in a world full of calculation and strategy, protecting the only modern desire: entertainment.Watchfulness in tribal cultures was a feature of important people in their societies, known as scouts or trackers. Survival often depended on them. Such people could read traces invisible to others. From snow knocked off a branch, from broken twigs or disturbed pine needles. You overturn that order and, holding it in your hand. head in the opposite direction, which Rene Girard defined as “old paths that the impious walked.”Your watchfulness focusses in the memory old traces, thoroughly erased and those most modern ones, reading them to reveal the hidden story of collective and individual force. These traces, long since fading in the archives, regain their colour and tone, which you achieve in a single day.I’m thinking about this property, built into the natural course of history, and about one of your first works which entered the public consciousness with renewed and doubled force. Gas chamber. I shall be as bod as to suggest that for you it might have been an irreversible step, like an animal emerging from water onto land, and that the stigma of that work for all time marked out the seriousness of your vision and demonstrated the power of the medium which you remain with – painting.Perhaps you would deny that the obvious connection between the method and the stigma, because it sounds like dogma. But the word dogma reminds me of our conversation about Van Eyck, when you said, with your usual sarcasm, that Van Eyck painted so perfectly that everyone after him became a dilettante.Your Gas chamber dulled Van Eyck’s hyperrealistic mirror.In your black mirror, now emerges the head of Ignatius of Loyola,Ignatius van Loyola, 2006, whose portrait I hang near the Worshipper. The black head shines like the skin of a dead fish or snake. It is cut off by the gloom. Another triple tautology: plaster cast – photograph – painting, set the direction for revealing the trail.It is a trail anointed with holiness and extreme asceticism for some, and with the terrifying, murky power of the Inquisition for others, and for yet others, a study in the polymorphous states of illumination and manic depression. I wrote about how it shines, but I don’t know if, when you painted this picture, you knew that one of the dominant and regularly repeating visions that Loyola experienced for over 15 years was of a beautiful, brightly-coloured sake, covered with small objects shining like eyes. But why am I writing this, after all you are not fond of coincidence. They are too misleading and tantalising, and a true tracker only uses traces which really exist, they leave sensations to the shamans. So, then, I shall leave us to consider the fact that for GustavJungconsiderations on the meaning of this archetypal vision were an important part of his essay On the Nature of Psyche.For Loyola, the snake emerged from the dark night of the soul.For you, in the inversion of the process of representation, out of the darkness emerged a shining source.Revealing that source in such intensity recalls the process that Martin Heidegger named “making manifest the truth”. The philosopher from Horderlinanalyses a poem in which the poet leaves a place close to the source.Paradoxically, this journey along a growing current, first through a canyon and then an ever less visible river valley, is a metaphor for the human condition, repeated in parallel in the infinite number of extensions of differences and repetitions. Source – canyon – valley - a geographical metaphor of turning away from the actual, original sources of meanings leads directly to the conclusion of the mimetic power of endless violence. On such a journey, the ability to read the signs is essential.If we treat the portrait of Loyoli as a sign, then directly next to it we must place the painting titled The Valley,2007, which shows the drowning head of a young boy in yellowing tones. Juxtaposition implies connection. In this case, it is the link between the bright innocence of epiphany and dark, acquired innocence. This legible contrast between the creator of Spiritual exercises and the boy, raises questions about their connection. If you will allow me, I shall answer them using your own words:The Valley is an enlargement of a young schoolboy’s head. The original black-and-white image had become yellowed, and I reproduced that effect in the painting. Later I realized that the child in the photograph looks very wide-eyed and innocent, while the one in my painting is clearly disturbed. Such a system of education which only favours the talented, can sometimes take on the form of mental abuse and molestation. ”I know from speaking to you that this is not a summation, and that every area of your scenes is stretched between the representation and the defining title, which designates many trails. The main one, in this case, leads towards the book by Jean Lacouture, Le Revenants about the decline and fall of the Jesuit order and its rebirth in the 19th Century. It must have been an important word, as you titled your exhibition in the Zeno X gallery, gallery of the year in 2007, Le Revenants. There are two paintings and two meanings of the word Le Revenant, literally “those who return” but also ghosts or spirits. Further exploration of this word, whose difficult genealogy and geography I leave to the individual’s watchfulness, though I suspect that inquisitive travellers, equipped with two source texts - from me,Michel Foucault’s Discipline and punish ,from you, the 1960 film Village of the damned, will ultimately arrive at the dark source. It is in this film that golden-haired, blue-eyed children , all strangely born on the same day, spread across the world. In your powerful play on words, it is sufficient to replace the world Villagewith Valleyto thicken the plot.This vision emerging from a valley of blond, blue-eyed children leads me again towards the building as a model of the exhibition. And, together with you, I shall usurp this same kind of discord and rage, which dictates that hanging there should be the small portrait of a man in a brown uniform without identifying marks or medals, titled Secrets, 1990.Anyone who is familiar with the iconography documenting the Nazi period will recognise it as the main architect of the III Reich- Albert Speer. Unlike the original photograph, the man has his eyes closed. The closed eyes may be hiding emotion, a secret, a crime. We all know the metaphor, “to open your eyes to something…”You open and close your eyes to the people whose portraits you do at precisely the right moment, mercilessly chasing what Girard calls the persecution instinct. Led by such an instinct, persecutors always and irrationally take a position twisting the relationship between the general situation in society and the individual crime. Girard considers that“seeing as between these two levels there exists a causal and motivating link it cannot lead from collective to individual phenomena”. And just as the persecuting mentality dictates taking the reverse direction, I head with this portrait to the towards the doors, or the entrance and to its real frame, to hang it, cruel and perversely, there where the mezuzah hung, with a prayer, that it might pinch it uncomfortably “in the back”, so that this arrangement might reveal the secret behind the closed eyes - despite the fact that every painting is a static representation of a moment, which cannot either be reversed or sped up.I, in this letter, Mr Tuymans, though, am hurrying, because I do not want to split into fragments, paint on further layers, multiply the threads. I want to intermediate in the method which you use in your painting, in one go, until you finish.When Juan Vincente Aliaga, in conversation with you states: “It’s hard to think of your paintings in terms of pleasure”Tuymans: I know. But there’s pleasure when I paint. The act of painting itself is so concentrated. There is a sort of ease when I work, a directness. Every painting is made in one day, never more than that. In long or short sessions, it depends. Four hours, eight hours…it can go up to thirteen hours or more but it has to be finished in one day.Aliaga:Why?Tuymans:I cannot work otherwise. It’s about truly focusing, and that is sexually loaded. It’s true concentration, true intensity. When I fail to reach that breakpoint it is not accurate and it never will be. That’s why it is very sexual. It’s another type of arousal.Dear Mr Tuymans, I, in order to maintain the precision I intend, must hang two more important paintings in this building. This time, the people portrayed in them gaze mutually at one another, equally sharing the area of unease and paranoia.The first, with a clear addressee in the title: Belgian Politician, 2011, shows a tightly framed face with visible beads of sweat on the forehead. His gaze avoids direct confrontation and is therefore the gaze of someone who lacks the courage to look you straight in the eyes, of someone we do not trust. This simple trick asks the question: does this radical turning of the eyes to the right symbolise his political orientation, and do the beads of sweat on the forehead suggest it is hot, or something more?In the majority of your portraits the gaze passes by the viewer, and the vagueness and anonymity takes on a kind of mimicry. But it also, each time, can reach an actual person, to simply state that once again Luc Tuymans, in our tribal society has been a tracker of the first order. I return to the pictures. There are two, and so the eyes of the politician are directed towards, hidden behind an enormous car bonnet – a man. There is a cinematic power in this picture, like in a frozen frame on hitting the pause button. The illusoriness of shelter, the delusion of safety in the supernaturally large car. Despite knowing who the man is in the painting titled Frank, 2003, the most important thing in the discussion is the moment when, on your iPhone, you showed me the black-and-white blow-up of his face. There in Antwerp, on your phone, I saw Los Disparatesby Francisco Goya, and a universal study in paranoia. The circle is closing Mr Tuymans, in my virtual model of the exhibition the quantity is being exhausted, and apart from that I must finish so as to maintain my level of concentration at the requisite level of the highest watchfulness, which is always yours. I shall finish my exhibitionmodel with the photo of you, in which you are holding a Polaroidin your hands, aimed somewhere outside the frame. Your dark silhouette and the way in which you hold the camera recalls a secret weapon. And let it remain so, may you aim that weapon at uncomfortable matters and dingy secrets. And may you reveal them through your magical and beautiful art.Most likely, everywhere you go, and hence in Poznań, too, there are gardens of local notables in which they finds shelter and cool their consciences, clipping the roses. These people, separated from us by darkened glass, get the false impression that nobody can read the traces they leave behind, as if the sphere of influence guaranteed silence and freedom from observation. And in every such place, there are net curtains drenched in light in only one direction, and behind which it is better not to look. Like these from the cover of the book, On/By Luc Tuymans,inside which there are no reproductions.There are words and “words about words”. I found there your words, radically cleansing the palimpsest of unnecessary layers:“I’m not my paintings and my paintings aren’t me and what I say is only what’s said.”In the same book Adrian Searle writes that you are, “so honest it hurts, polemical and acerbic”and further: Outspoken, polemical and acerbic, Tuymans’ conversation and his writing are all of a piece with his paintings, though he never loses sight of the fact that talking and paintings are two different things.”Today’s ceremony, awarding you the title Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Arts in Poznań is an occasion to converse, and as you like honesty, I shall say without beating around the bush that when the award was being discussed, someone asked: “why this degree and what has he done for Poznań? I am deeply convinced that you will answer that question with all your great work and that you have done more for Poznań (whose name could be explained as meaning “cognition”) and for cognition in general than any other artist. The more so, I would like to tell the inquisitive realists that it was you who provided the idea and was curator, together with Tommy Simoens, of an exhibition in Brugges in 2008, imposing in its scale and conception, which was subtitled Vision of Central Europe.In this exhibition, alongside the canonical names such as Gerhardt Richter, Sigmar Polke, Neo Rauch, Paul Thek or Andy Warhol and Tadashi Murakami, and many more, there are also the “canonical”, not only for us, Polish names: Alina Szapocznikow, Tadeusz Kantor, Bruno Schulz and Andrzej Wróblewski, or closer to our times: Mirosław Bałka, Zbigniew Rybczyński and Zbigniew Libera and if someone wanted to further “conceptualise” the links to Poznań, then it needs to be recalled that you invited into it the young graduates from Poznań’s Intermedia: Piotr Bosacki and Wojtek Bąkowski. But because I am interested in the connection with Poznań (and with its eponymous cognition) I shall use the words of Mr Pablo Sigg from the introduction to this very exhibition:“where the universe is created by the memory that Darkness has of its encounter with the Light. This is the reality of the lowest ranks, where the world begins again, is put on stage, like a remote memory, like a bad memory. Beckett had the same thought about theatrical productions and human productions: to recreate the world is to fail; to re-recreate it is to fail better."
Fail again. Fail better.The accuracy of the titles is your distinguishing feature. You named this exhibition, using the words of Tadeusz Kantor “Reality of the lowest rank.”Mr Tuymans, you have come to Poznań to receiverecognition and for our cognition at precisely the right moment.Today’s ceremony has in it something of the contrast between Beckettand Kantor,presenting a scene and the human being opposite each other.And I think that the Beckettian “Fail again. Fail better” concerns everything for which the word mutuality carries any weight.Mr Tuymans, my letter is only, as Szymborska put it, “words serving to explain words”, so, if you will allow me, I shall let her speak, although I have the impression, Mr Tuymans, that you know this…
“And may there be, perhaps, from time to timehatred of hate.For at the end of endsis the ignorance of ignoranceand hands busy washing hands.