Luc Tuymans - 2005 - The Eyebrows of the Clown [EN, interview]
The Eyebrows of the Clown
Conversation with Luc Tuymans
Not so long ago, I was waiting for a train near a dozen or so elderly people on a group outing. It struck me that they all spoke at the same time, without really listening to one another, as though the meaning of their words was less important than the possibility to make sounds and gesticulate, and this within a complicated but elegant polyphony and collective dance, like a gaggle of gobbling geese. The so-called meaning of their words was obviously just a pretext for a play with forms (tone, rhythm, gesture), one that engendered a sense of familiarity, safety and security.
For whatever reason, there will always be people who cannot relate to these kinds of group theatrics. They take the words too literally, like people with autism. They don’t understand how to make a place for themselves within this type of spectacle. They quickly start to feel uncomfortable. There is something wrong with them. They imagine they will feel better if they do something exceptional. And that is why they become doers. Their actions become a mask. They become clowns.
Some clowns do it with words. They never stop talking. Their utterances might sound very logical, reasonable and attentive, but their thoughts are impersonal, insensitive and inconsiderate towards others. Their actions might mirror those of the geese, but something about them feels forced. Their speech is not a dialogue, but a compelling monologue. Their talk is discordant. Anyone who watches or listens to these clowns for long enough will experience but one emotion: fear. The fear of matter that looks at itself and falters.
Some clowns get married and have children.
Twenty-two years ago, in 1983, I was friends with the actor Johan Heestermans, who owned some paintings made by Luc Tuymans (b. 1958). When I learned in 1985 that this artist was going to show some of his works in the swimming pool of the Ostend baths, I went to the opening with Linda Dasseville. Tuymans and the poet Bob Van Ruyssevelde stood at the entrance of the pool next to a crate of beer, from which they occasionally fished out a bottle. I did not see any other visitors. Three years later, in November 1988, when I founded the magazine NOUS with Damien De Lepeleire, Tuymans was the first artist that we invited to contribute. We paid him a studio visit.
He explained that he worked extensively with photographs and gave us two prints that we could publish. Hundreds of paintings stood against the walls, some of which are now world-famous. De Lepeleire remembers, in particular, the painting with the geese. I chiefly recall the caution with which Tuymans, who exited the building with us, emptied the ashtray into a bucket of water and how, some 50 metres down the road, he turned around and stared at the place for a good two minutes. ‘What are you looking at?’ I asked. ‘I need to make sure that the building hasn’t caught fire,’ he replied.
Today, Luc Tuymans is an internationally renowned artist. Rightly so. His work is poetic and complete. He makes real paintings, which are executed quickly and directly, with beautiful areas of thinly applied paint. But besides functioning as paintings, his works also operate as images: they evoke instinctive and rational impressions and thoughts, they assume a position within the history of the image and give shape to a type of intelligence that is neither purely visual nor completely discursive, but one that sees the two approaches as indivisible. Perhaps this is why he always speaks of ‘images’ rather than ‘paintings’, even though his images are made of paint and canvas.
What strikes me most about Tuymans’ paintings, besides their weightless and often sensual textures, the temperature of their colours and the use of shadow lines, is that they give shape to unstable images. By this, I do not mean images that are just blurred or difficult to grasp, but those that, by their very form, make it seem as though every image is a fabrication and that all attempts to conceal this fact – by presenting thoughts or images as absolute – is tantamount to an abuse of power or vulgar laziness. Everyone is looking for fixed forms and stable words in which to nestle, but the artwork wishes to defy as many certainties as possible. I think Tuymans would say that he ‘iconizes’ precarious images without institutionalising them. The aim is to create images with a political, disruptive strength. His images reveal the rips and holes in the wallpaper of power. At the same time, and this is why I find them so fascinating, they also expose the holes in the wallpaper that we drape over reality.
In Luc Tuymans’ visual world we witness the encounter between a hotel room and a gas chamber. The gas chamber is built to mislead and destroy. The hotel room is furnished to convey the impression of homeliness and shelter. But this haven is an illusion. You feel that the hotel room will always exist whereas your stay, and by extension your sojourn on earth, is only temporary. The interior becomes menacing. A crack materialises. The image we have of the hotel room is just an illusion. What do we actually see? We see an image that we ourselves have projected over a collection of atoms. We see a hotel room from our memory. We see our quizzical selves. We see a painting by Hopper that is devoid of figures. We feel a sense of loss. And then, once again, we take comfort in the thought that someone has made this painting.
But how does it work? How can one create an image that transcends or disrupts visible reality and the popular, tautological use of images? Each artist creates his own precursors, as Borges said. Those who know Tuymans’ work will recognise Edward Hopper in the oblique compositions and use of hard, almost black shadows. Occasionally, his images resemble over-exposed paintings by Hopper (minus the figures, then) of which only the dark parts remain visible. Tuymans’ work is also reminiscent of Manet, about whose paintings Zola wrote that viewers were shocked, amongst other things, by the pale, stylised faces of the figures, which contrast sharply with certain black areas, such as the eyebrows. In Hopper’s work, this contrast takes the form of the black, almost protruding eyes of the woman in Morning Sun. (Tuymans told me that he once saw this work in London. He described the eyes as ‘hewn with an ice pick’.) Could it be that Manet’s paintings derive their political strength from these specific formal characteristics? I believe so. In all probability, it was not even intentional. Manet wanted to be respected and win medals at the annual Salon, yet something compelled him to keep on making the kind of images that were unbearable to most of his contemporaries.
Such a wrenching, shameful, clumsy and personal approach is inevitable. Sometimes it is triggered by technical innovations that enable new forms, the latter of which are usually based on a divergent viewpoint that seeks new ways of shaping and distinguishing itself from everything that has gone before, be it images or artworks.
I believe that every artist makes specific images and that these are not only derived from their personal viewpoint but also shape it: a matrix that filters their observations and makes their works recognisable. Since Luc Tuymans not only makes beautiful paintings but has also thought deeply about images in general, I wanted to ask what he thinks about this conviction and whether he sees it as applicable to his own oeuvre.
Talking to an artist is impossible. To use Kuhn’s paradigm concept: two scientists or artists, each of whom starts from a different paradigm, will necessarily deviate from one another, simply because the meaning of their words is dependent upon the said paradigms. The hardest part of conversing with an artist is listening. Whenever you think you recognise a word, you no longer hear what is really being said, and you digress. Actually, you can’t really listen if you don’t know what to hear. The only way to break this hermeneutic circle is to immerse yourself in the artist’s oeuvre by consistently dealing with the artworks themselves, like a form of continuous exercise, as Benjamin said somewhere.
Once listening becomes a habit, an attitude, you develop a sense of the equivalence of each paradigm. In the light of the unknowable thing-in-itself and the eternal twilight zone in which objects or facts are linked to words and sentences, the world can henceforth only be seen as a landscape of shifting languages and a series of images that, to a greater or lesser extent, awaken something in our minds. While the results are of varying practicality, they all possess an equal beauty and logic.
The absolute equivalence of the different approaches to reality does not mean, however, that there is no point in delving into them. On the contrary. The richness of our spiritual life resides precisely in these differences, which only become visible after careful examination. This is why I endeavour to respect Luc Tuymans’ use of words as far as possible in the conversation below, even if you can’t find them in dictionaries.
Tuymans speaks intensely and with great precision, using long, stacked sentences that strive to illuminate a subject from every conceivable angle at one and the same time. Because you can only render this manner of speaking by constantly placing phrases between commas, brackets or dashes, I have therefore decided to split certain sentences. You must imagine his story as an uninterrupted stream of reflections, twisting and turning like an endless snake slithering around the hollow (perhaps non-existent) tree of reality.
The clown and the carnival float
- I’ve brought a book with images of clowns for you.
Luc Tuymans: Thanks.
- In your work, the clown stands for the mask, style, aesthetics or interior design: any form of decoration or representation that can be experienced as threatening because the true world remains hidden behind a false reality, the latter of which is presented as absolute. I am thinking of the figures of death in Lynch’s films, who often wear a clown mask.
Tuymans: The candy-coloured clown from ‘Blue Velvet’.
- Or the clown in ‘Lost Highway’.
Tuymans: I’ve only made two works with the image of a clown. A drawing and a painting. They both refer to John Casey.
- A serial killer who dressed up as a clown.
- I’m not concerned with the figure of the clown as such, but with the image of a disguised and hidden reality. For example, I see a connection with your drawing of a carnival float bedecked with flowers. The exterior looks wonderful but hidden inside are the people who have to push the contraption forwards.
Tuymans: Yes, I once did that job myself. What I remember most is the contrast between the clamour of the bystanders and the silence of the people within.
- You are just as invisible in your work. It seems as though you are cutting yourself off from reality in order to create more powerful images. Like Kafka or even Proust… There are many similarities between your work and that of Proust. Firstly, there is the conviction that the true human being, if he exists at all, is hidden behind a series of social and other disguises. Then there is the liberating effect of light, which makes objects seem less rigid and evokes a world of moving images, and finally there is the timeless reality that lies behind the realm of phenomena and social intercourse. For Proust, our identity consists in the continuity between our different impressions. This continuity exists in that which is hidden. Outsiders just see the masks. Artists, however, are in direct contact with a timeless reality that they carry within themselves.
I see a connection with your work because it opposes authoritarian and rigid images. This is why it seems as though you are making wounded images, images that survive, images that seem to be born from a timeless reality and yet appear to be topical. Every image is an infringement, an offence, a gambit, a challenge that you can’t control, an impending invitation, a comforting deterrent. The oblique lines and asymmetry create images that are difficult to remember, even if they continue to haunt us. You have actually found a form that allows unstable images to become visible. Objects fade away or appear, mostly indicated by shadow lines or by the dark, often linear sections of an overexposed image. If you scrutinise these lines, you will also see that they are composed of dozens or hundreds of irregular brushstrokes, which are often applied in the transverse direction, so that the lines seem to disintegrate. Even the dabs of paint seem to fragment because of their ridges. Everything is crumbling.
Tuymans: The fact that some images are viewed from a certain angle, not an ideal one, but a seemingly random angle, is obviously connected to the theme of ‘documenting’ (because my works have never been artistic compositions, not even at the beginning), and with the fact that I only provide a framework for an image afterwards, and also because this is exactly how I think: I want to make images that keep moving (as when you look at reality) and I want to compel the viewer to always provide meaning, just as I was forced as a child to give meaning to a reality that resisted, that did not offer itself up.
- There is always a meeting between coolness and warmth in your images. This could lead one to deduce that you equate coldness with warmth, because you are familiar with it from your childhood. I’m not interested in the so-called psychological explanations. What fascinates me is how such an experience can acquire a visual structure, for example how the caress of light and the falling of shadows can lend an unreal and temporary character to objects, making them appear less definitive, less accessible and less threatening.
- I think that a child can have the crushing impression of being very transient and almost invisible compared to the surrounding decor, so that any degradation of this decor can be liberating. One could, for example, also see Guillaume Bijl’s work as a successive unmasking of decors that he experiences (or experienced) as aggressive and compelling. In your work, this could be inferred from the asymmetrical compositions, the hard framing and the uneven treatment of the different elements of a figure, as also seen in Manet’s oeuvre (for example, his portraits with the unfinished hands).
Tuymans: First of all, I would like to say something about the fragmentary nature of my work. At a certain point, I decided that I didn’t want to make fragmentary work – in the sense of images cut out of a larger, invisible reality – but images in which the so-called fragment becomes the complete image. This is an important nuance.
As far as the approach to reality is concerned, it is certainly a question of detachment. That’s true. But at the same time, there’s a kind of indifference, which is related to the statement of things themselves and the way you deal with this, as you just said. It’s elementary, because what generates things is reality itself and my experience of it; I generate comparatively little myself. In that sense, I consider myself subordinate to reality. I don’t think that even an imaginary world can exist without a certain representation of reality. My work is principally related to this: the question of authorship, as in what is original and what is not, how you appropriate, how you make things your own. Not so much in the idea of sampling, but more via the simple statement of an image that immobilises itself.
Within this immobilisation, the image assumes a completely different function, and that is the one you mentioned in relation to instability. Whether the image destabilises or stabilises is linked to how it is focused. I never paint on a stretched canvas. The image is only framed afterwards by painting white around it. Then the canvas is stretched. All of my paintings have a different format. I can focus them down to the last millimetre. Thanks to the varied formats, my paintings are fed back to the viewer in a very physical way, but despite that physical feedback – also because I never work on more than one painting at a time – you strangely enough achieve a kind of… distance. This game of distance and attraction has to do with my obsessive interest in the static image and whether or not I remember it within a certain powerlessness, what I omit, and what I want to specifically focus on.
You actually asked me if I know where this lifelong fascination for images comes from… But I personally don’t think that it’s an exceptional preoccupation. It’s an important viewpoint but only because other people find it unusual. I think it’s strange, because I strive towards a certainty in my work. You also find this in Proust: a specific logic in the way of thinking, in the way of looking and observing, in the manner of the sensory reaction and how the sensorial is activated within a kind of intelligence that, whether it transcends the individual or not, strives to assimilate within a larger totality or pattern.
Very early on in my development, I was influenced by Ernst Bloch’s publication, Ästhetik des Vorscheins, in which he talks about the relationship between the ‘not’ and the ‘nothing’. I once wrote something about it for a book that was published in Bern. Between the ‘not’ and the ‘nothing’ you have the realm of everything that either comes into being or decays. This zone, for all its banality, is the one that fascinates me the most because it acts as an incubator. Halting the process of becoming, in order to see what happens next, leads to the fragmentary and this, in principle, is presented as a whole.
The war and the child
- You often say that your fascination for images related to the -Second World War stems from the fact that your parents discussed the conflict almost every day at the dining table. I would like to relate that observation to the painting of geese that used to hang in your bedroom as a child. You have recounted your fear of the work and how you thought a day would come when the black, ovoid eye of one of the geese would swallow you up. I suppose your parents hung the painting of the geese in your bedroom to make it feel cosy, just as they wanted to make the house feel homely throughout. Yet it must have felt very threatening.
When I look at your work, I’m left with the impression that you’re trying to solve objects because of the unbearable, crushing presence they must have had during your childhood. Your parents’ conversations about the horrors of the Second World War might have been especially difficult to place because, when approached rationally, these atrocities actually did seem to merit this level of attention. However, this rational justification must have concealed that this subject is not really suited for everyday conversation in the presence of a child. Is it possible that, as a child, you felt that the war was a greater reality for your parents than your own presence? And that your existence was fragile, almost invisible perhaps?
Tuymans: Yes. (Silent.)
Tuymans: Partly also due to the overarching fact that as a child you couldn’t understand the war, because you hadn’t lived through it, and because it always returned as a point of reference in any given situation. They usually talked about it during mealtimes, which made it even harder. It made the meals more aggressive, or less peaceful, so to speak; to the extent that I couldn’t enjoy these meals.
On the other hand, this recurring subject also created a kind of phobia, fed by an extreme fascination for the subject. Not so much a preoccupation with common knowledge, or for the documentaries that we have all seen and the horrors that have all surfaced, but more with the constant, daily references to the war within a domestic context and thus, in actual fact, its trivialisation. Later, a quest emerged from all this, one that was initially unconscious but subsequently became more rational. In this respect, there is a clear line that runs throughout my entire oeuvre, one that is also directly related to the important theme of detachment.
My work focuses less on the element of time as a temporary phenomenon: daylight, moving from one place to another, how one experiences this or the after-image of the experience. With my work, you tend to get the idea of time in its actualisation and also time as a reconstruction, or the image as a reconstruction. Because all of the images that I appropriate are painted, they are, of course, processed and reconstructed. A sort of mimicry creates a kind of appropriation of the image, but at the end of the day the image is transformed into something (a painting) that doesn’t exactly fit within the reprising of the image itself.
Alongside this extreme fascination, there was also a fixation on the thing-in-itself, as a continuous element. Because unlike many Germans, for whom the Holocaust is a barbaric given that cannot be part of culture, I view that horror – and certainly after seeing a film like Hitler: ein Film aus Deutschland by the like-minded Syberberg – more as something with a normative function. I see it as something that did develop from culture. For me, it was about an ethnic cleansing that was primarily cultural in nature. So, I reached the conclusion that it was far more stimulating to somehow objectify the issue and to fetishize reality within the statement of those objects. For example, with that painting of a gas chamber in which the colour temperature and other emotional elements create an image that wrongfoots the viewer. The image begins to suffer from metonymy because it almost becomes overstated: the way the gas chamber is portrayed makes it a masked space once again, which was very necessary in my eyes, because it was already a masked space during that period.
It is precisely this extreme distrust of reality and the thing-in-itself that runs consistently throughout my work, even today. But there have been several stages. It began with emotional, semi-existential images in which the gestural played a role and there was a different use of colour. At one point, I stopped what I was doing because the distance became too narrow. I then factored in a much-needed break and experimented with film for four to five years – in a totally organic, accidental way – after which I returned to painting, but with a different ability to conceptualise, and where the distance had increased tenfold. Then I made, for example, those images of toys that begin to develop their own logic within the perception of reality, images like Wiedergutmachung (Reparations), in which I talk about things like genetic manipulation or the commercialisation of life, organic things or even life itself. Or images like Der diagnostische Blick (The Diagnostic Gaze), which are divorced from something like the Holocaust but start from a medical, clinical observation of reality. Finally, there is the current approach, in which a number of things become more actualised, but at the same time they continue to express that kind of elementary vision. Actually, it is a never-ending story that piques my curiosity, because there are so many things that I would never have painted in the past but which I would tackle today. It’s fascinating to note how an interest presents itself, what kinds of things offer themselves and how you can look beyond… In this sense, the theme you’ve mentioned is certainly vital in terms of my oeuvre, but it doesn’t mean that the images don’t evolve in countless different ways.
- I would like to repeat the question: could it be that your parents’ extreme preoccupation with this subject made you feel that you barely existed?
Tuymans: (Bitterly.) At any rate, it wasn’t pleasant.
- What interests me are not the so-called psychological conclusions that could be deduced from this fact, but how a sensitive child, in the absence of rational arguments, can develop certain visual strategies to resist a crushing appearance of reality. One of the consequences, for example, is that certain viewers might regard your paintings in the same way that you once apprehended the interior of your childhood home: as things they cannot control, and which are liable to evoke feelings and thoughts over which they have no mastery.
Tuymans: Yes, the interior is important. My work is primarily about the interior rather than the external world, even though there are now images of landscapes, as shown in my last exhibition in Berlin, for example. Look, this is one of my recent paintings.
(He shows a reproduction of Dusk, a painting of a high-rise building against a blue sky. The reflection of the golden rays of the setting sun seems to dissolve a section of the building.)
It is quite a large painting. The golden sunlight creates a kind of idyll. The most important thing is the overexposure of the image – the light is even harsher in the painting than in this reproduction –, which engenders a sense of detachment from the forms you actually see. If you look at the other works that were shown in the exhibition, it is clearly about a kind of perception of something ambiguous within the religious. It was also noticeable in the exhibition about the Passion Plays in Oberammergau, with the village actors, whom I reduced to mannequin-like, completely unreal apparitions. They were incredibly flat and, because they stand so close to the wall, the shadows once again emphasised that unreality. Through hints such as a stylised Christmas tree or the suchlike, you arrive at that fundamental question as to what you can and cannot actually believe.
- Someone pointed out that Baudouin’s right hand in the painting ‘Mwana Kitoko’ is so flaccid that it cannot be real. This reminds me of the separated hands in the painting ‘Wiedergutmachung’ ‘Reparations’ where, in contrast to the drawing of the same name, it seems as if the hands extend and originate from children beyond the picture plane. That painting reminded me of one depicting two feet, the painter’s feet perhaps…
Tuymans: The aim was to rid the king of his youthfulness. His reserved attitude betrays extreme uncertainty. The right hand is a bit weak, a bit less decisive than the hand clasping the sabre. I found that a beautiful discrepancy within the image.
- You recently made images that you never previously thought you would make, for example ‘Dusk’, but painted that office building at the very point when the image no longer functions, because so much light is reflected that you think you are looking at a swirling, melted mass. The obstacle dissolves.
Tuymans: Yes, as you said at the beginning of this conversation, it’s about extracting as much as possible from the images, in order to purify them. To perfect the image, you try, somewhere, to let it fail. This breaking point is actually the approach taken towards the image, the initial form from which the image is analysed and created. To achieve it, I work with material that is already, in principle, impure or which generates the intermediate steps.
- For example, by using old or discoloured paper for your drawings?
Tuymans: Yes, that is how it tended to be, especially at the beginning. Now a little less, but still… For example, I never work on a white canvas, always on a canvas that is primed with a coloured white, or a shade of white. I’ve also made models for a number of works and I frequently use Polaroid photos to visualise how an image evolves from very light to dark. In this way, I obtain contrasts that I can separate into different layers so that I can formulate and construct an image. These are vital intermediate steps. They are integral transitionary stages in terms of the image and how it appears and then, finally, I paint it, which changes its appearance yet again.
- The breaking point gives both you and the viewer access to the image?
Tuymans: Yes. There are many images in which you can indicate such an entrance. It’s the point that determines your initial and overriding sensation. Henceforth, your gaze will fan out over the rest of the image. That point certainly doesn’t have to be in the centre. It is the idea of an injury, of a scar, as was already apparent in Body, but on an intuitive level. The majority of images transmit this kind of rationalised scar. Every painting contains a point that is weak enough to create the possibility of an access point. My images are different, therefore, from those of the Flemish Primitives, in which every object is depicted in its entirety and with the same attention to detail, out of a kind of fixation with reality. Very admirable, of course, but it was a more perfect representation of the world, one that derives significance from a dogma that no longer exists. The contemporary artist can only work from a conscious dilettantism. In that sense, you get a different approach anyway.
- As a creator of books on contemporary art, I always look for the specific ‘form vision’ of an artist. More often than not, I can only discover this gradually, after months or even years of collaboration. I try to work as much as possible with images and materials, and from these I attempt to discover the artist’s conscious intentions. Then suddenly, while working on a book, an exhibition or a film, I begin to see it. There are times when it happens very quickly. I once had a wonderful conversation with the painter Robert Devriendt, whereby the pieces of the puzzle fell into place with untold speed.
Devriendt is always dressed in layers, he wears several layers of clothes one on top of the other. Often in shades of burgundy. When we met in 1997 at the Grand Place in Bruges, I noticed that he was wearing burgundy shoes and asked him if he could describe the colour. As a result of this question (it was Bordeaux with white, à la Jordaens) he explained that he paints in glazes, a technique in which different, semi-transparent layers are applied on top of each other. Half an hour later, he told me about an image that had affected him as a child: a cow that had been surgically opened, layer by layer, for a Caesarean section. He was impressed by the fact that this big animal only consisted of layered membranes around a carmine red cavity.
The connection between his attire, his painting technique and the story of the cow is not coincidental. Not because the latter is the origin of his work, but because the tale demonstrates that his way of looking at the world hasn’t changed: it is the same today as it was during his childhood. And this is connected to his manner of painting. His work already existed as a way of seeing. No other child would have viewed, interpreted or remembered the same Caesarean section in quite the same way as Devriendt.
Your ‘form vision’ is connected to what you term ‘irradiation’: the overexposed image that makes the object look unreal.
Tuymans: Yes, of course. The painting of Baudouin in Congo (Mwana Kitoko) and the painting of the Belgacom Tower (Dusk) are very different, but the idea of irradiation is common to both. This extreme exposure almost turns into a kind of ‘kitchification’ of reality. Yet the king’s uniform and the high-rise building were not random choices. These are objects that propagate something. They are symbols associated with the principle of power. This is important. My fascination for making images is undoubtedly related to their intrinsic power, the mistrust they generate and the destabilisation process that is inherent within them, even before they are painted.
They are mostly images that I have observed, and which only acquire a certain stratification of meaning following an analysis, the latter of which becomes obvious. By reproducing these images, I am doubling and multiplying their layers of meaning. Instead of simplifying them, I’m making them even more complex while simultaneously striving to return to an unambiguous image. In fact, it is about the image that immobilises itself. That’s not new, it’s not something I invented, but the fact that we’re dealing with a ballast of images gives us a new experience of time, one that requires new images.
Our experience of time is one of extreme loss, because we have scant control over the contemporaneity of time itself. In that sense, there is also a need to either extend time or to connect it with a certain way of looking, with a particular contemporary reaction to a virtualised world. That way of looking is a constant, and it is also linked to a person, who has some kind of continuum, who has some kind of limitation.
That limitation is reflected in the way someone looks around and how some things are validated and others not. In the early years, there were images like Die Zeit (Time) or Our New Quarters or Body or even Gaskamer (Gas Chamber). These are works with quite an immediate, graphic condition that has a direct effect within the icon and its symbolic function. Today, my work has evolved into a more complex way of looking at reality that, once again, is formulated in a painterly manner, but with the baggage and the substructure of the early period. As a result, it has become possible to contemplate things, to actualise once more, but without losing the connection with my original experience. I continuously make the link to the starting point, but I try to push my images one step further every time, also in terms of order of magnitude, in terms of scale, in terms of the skill of painting itself. These things are all interconnected.
I’m under the impression that the distance from the object being portrayed – a building, a person or whatever – has, in fact, only increased. That’s the strange thing: the older I get, the greater the detachment and the more abstract the object, especially as a motif element that you can deploy as a fetishizing moment. And that is what has interested me for a number of years now, because it gives you a degree of abstraction that starts to clash with the way in which the subject is portrayed.
Empty paintings and pornography
- When I saw the paintings from the exhibition ‘The Arena’, with those images of empty slide projections, I was forcibly struck by how they were painted. They have a sensual, concrete quality, one that is only enhanced by the reduction of the image. At the same time, I found these paintings to be unexpectedly funny, because what look like abstract images are, in reality, just empty images… projected nothingness.
Tuymans: Yes, those empty paintings were about the idea of total nothingness and also my longstanding fascination with light. These empty slides are about a total negation of the image and the materialisation of a patch of light, as well as its appearance as a construction on a construction, namely as something that is no longer cohabiting the space. Yet they are not so remote from other images, such as the still life shown in Kassel.
For me, the Slides were a contrast to the monkey paintings, which were part of the same exhibition: close to pornographic images that humanise themselves within their dehumanisation, because the bodies of those little monkeys come nearer to a human structure than those of a chimpanzee or a gorilla. The very same monkeys who were forced into those positions by a taxidermist in a Japanese museum and which appear within our inhibitions as a kind of information transfer.
- The monkeys, like children, are powerless. In this sense, these paintings speak of powerlessness, but also about the power of images. They are cruel images. Revenge images in a way… You once said that you cannot depict the sexual act, because it plays out as an eternal repetition. Do you mean that there is something within the sexual act that transcends the temporary and therefore cannot be depicted, frozen or immobilised? Something like the dream? In that sense, one could also consider the monkey paintings to be a demonstration of the impossibility of making sexual images.
Tuymans: There is also an image of a dildo with a torso. This could be the most explicit image… You certainly have the idea of the timeless nature of the act itself and its repetition. It is the same abstraction that is also implicit within pornography: that it’s not real, but an ‘image’ of the act. This makes it difficult to tackle the issue directly. In this sense, Caravaggio is something of a pornographic painter, because the chiaroscuro and the heightened reality – by showing things in a kind of decay and a type of mutilation principle – create the impression that the painting is extremely physically charged. But there is enough distance even in Caravaggio’s paintings, because without that remoteness you simply can’t visualise this kind of thing. The boundary between sexuality and pornography is also related to the borders of the private image, which is profoundly fascinating and very difficult to describe or interpret.
Soundlessness as an act
- You coax your images into being by making them appear overexposed, for which you use Polaroid photos, by removing parts of the image, by excising them and performing acts that are tantamount to violence, not just on the image, but also upon yourself, because you always cut yourself away. The image doesn’t chatter. It is silent. You can’t divine your private life…
Tuymans: … from it. Indeed, that’s very true. What matters to me is that with the images, for example with those empty projections or even with an image like Dusk – with most of my images actually – a parameter has been created that is more important than the private image. And that is the parameter of silence as an act, which is close to a political act, just as Manet first made collages of actual images and allowed them to collide with their surroundings or simply reduced the background to a monochrome, as the The Fife Player, for example. He added an abstraction to the depicted reality that not only serves to heighten it (because it makes focusing easier) but also destabilises any concept of size, atmosphere and the ramifications of the experience.
There is something authoritarian about it, in the sense that it is a compelling measure by which the painter can position himself within the image. And these things lead, amongst many others, to the idea of silence, but then silence as a weight, almost a corpus within the image, just as I also believe that the idea of depth is not something that is restricted to the Renaissance concept of ‘lines of flight’, perspective and the construction, but is essentially linked with the temperature of an image, the tones used and all the elements that take place within the different values of these tones. For me, these are not unreal objects, these are things that belong to reality, that are part of reality.
Tuymans: We find a similar physical intelligence in Lynch’s best movies, especially Eraserhead. It’s like a route, whereby a kind of world is created from matter, which first moves from a micro to a macrocosm and then perceives itself. It’s fascinating, because you can use this to physically give the world a different time frame. In my view, it’s no coincidence that Lynch started out as a painter. The painterly and cinematic act involve an identical approach to things. It’s not so much about the photographic image, or about the possibility of making countless reproductions of something, but about the way in which we – within a certain representation of the unicum – approach something, either up to a certain limit or by transgressing the boundary, so that you can determine a starting point for the visualisation process. From here, a clearly defined path can develop.
In a painting, this track is obviously less visible than it is within a film, because it is static and functions outside a narrative context. As a consequence, it also has a different concept of time. It is visible in every good painting. It is about the conviction that the physical element of the visualisation process does not turn into a kind of stupidity, but into a type of perfidious, perverse desire to prolong or stop the physical. Within this pleasure lies the pornographic aspect of every image I have ever created. It is often suggested that my images are asexual, but I don’t agree. I could refer to the toy paintings, but also to Dusk. If you look closely, you can see that there is a certain level… Especially the physical, which is something you can always extract.
My desire to realise images stems from the fact that the vast majority of things are not completely or perfectly translatable, and they reveal themselves to me after a delay, or are perceived within a delay. I want to associate both the perception and its inadequate memory with different qualities that indicate another kind of sensuality, one that is not about pure revelation.
It is about a different kind of intelligence, a different kind of approach to reality, which others sometimes experience as a dogmatic way of connoting the world as almost unchanging.
And then you have the site-specific nature of the image…. Just now, you were talking about the dream. I once read a book about the dream time of the Aborigines. These people (the most ancient of all) communicate with a language that flashes back to 50,000 years ago and returns to places that are meant to have a certain meaning, a symbolic function. Sound and music play an important role in these dreams and, through this, they become more than just images. In fact, it is like a primal film that is projected within a community, which considers dream time as real time, and reality as the dream. It leads, for example, to completely different ideas about property.
You can consider objects or images as possessions, but also as vehicles for transgression or the transmission of signals. Any intellectualised system is first and foremost about a sedentary position in relation to what one wishes to emphasise or make. The fully intellectualised world must constantly institutionalise itself, even when there is an apparent resistance to institutions. That is a fascinating fact. I’m also very interested in the fact that an image has a means of escape through its own iconization.
The contrast between the purely discursive on the one hand, and the image on the other, doesn’t add anything. I think that every image, and certainly in my own work, is conceptualised and that it has always been like this, to quote your analogy with Robert Devriendt. We are always looking for a single grid, image or measure by which we can determine a number of weights.
The archivist and the instrumentarium
- We could relate this theme to the simultaneous presence of warmth and cold in your work, with a kind of survival despite the negation. You can cut yourself away completely and still be present within that physical intelligence, in that texture, albeit without wanting to develop a signature or establish a style, because then you would fall back into a kind of representation, into an image that obscures things by presenting them in an institutionalised way?
Tuymans: The struggle to attribute a kind of reality to the images is, of course, an eternal battle, and also occurs because I work with existing images, even if they are my own drawings or preliminary studies. I represent existing images. You have to look at my paintings from the viewpoint of the copyist, the archivist of an instrumentarium who discovers that his apparatus is sadly lacking (as in Bouvard and Pécuchet by Flaubert). I then have to go one step further in terms of the specificity of my work, so that the image will function. The solution generally lies in things that are less visible, in the detail, but then – just as we said at the beginning of this conversation – not as a fragment of a larger, invisible whole, but primarily as a total image. The tiniest detail then actually becomes the total image. When you start from there, it fans out towards a different connotation, or the image acquires a different kind of relevance. This can range from something extremely small to something so huge that it might implode again, for example the large still life in Kassel – the still life is the lowliest genre within the hierarchy of painting – that interpreted a certain idyll with a twist and, due to its extreme size and ridiculousness, turned into a cerebrally inaccessible image. Dusk works differently, because the only steering factor in the painting is the light, this is all that indicates how you experience that image, or can’t credibly experience it at all, or whether you can remember it or not. The vivid blue sky and the gold of the high-rise building can never be perceived in this way. Regardless of whether or not it’s a clichéd view of reality – because that’s also a question you can ask yourself – you always get a battle between the figurability of something and not depicting things. That’s why the work is also called Dusk. Quite literally, it is about the idea of that twilight zone.
The black hole and the mask
- You once said that if you look at a face for a long time, that face sometimes becomes a black hole. Giacometti recounts that when he wanted to portray his wife, she became unrecognisable. Sometimes his drawings resemble convex constructions of the colourless swirl of atoms behind the projected image, the one that we project onto someone’s face.
Tuymans: In my case, it’s the sensation that I felt as a child when, in my mother’s bedroom, sitting at her dressing table, I stared at my own face in the mirror for a long time, without blinking. If you focus without interruption, you start to develop a peripheral image and then you effectively get that gap, the gap within that image. I found it fascinating, because wanting to explore and understand what you really are, and discovering your physical make up, degenerates into a kind of negation of your potential self. This is the most important observation that recurs throughout my oeuvre: the masking of faces and the holes that appear in all images. That was intuitively clear at an early stage. The world masks itself, but its masking simultaneously proposes a kind of validation process, and this is regardless of whether or not it is a pose. It is going to express something.
I think that the obviously archaic element of the icon as an image is perpetuated rather than terminated. But you inevitably see that the images which grow in importance, and are more crucial than ever before, are the ones that are repeated or copied from the periphery, if only because of the reminiscences they evoke. However, these images are so interwoven with reality that they cannot be burned away. In that sense, it is very difficult to exclude all kinds of symbolic functions. It is quite difficult to make a kind of excavation or to reach an opening into that material. And that is what I’m trying to do.
I’m not claiming to be able to unmask images. Aesthetic masking is inevitable. Even if you resist it, as I did, you will always create a certain form in which you push through a styling process in order to create a specific and efficient image. And within that process, you create an element in which things reach a point of stagnation – sometimes it is obvious and at other times less so –, in which they actually become absolutely immobile, and within that immobility, of course, there arises the powerlessness. That is the point at which you can’t push the cart any further and would do well to stop. But it presupposes, of course, that you must make the image even better. That is a singularly strange fact. It’s been a long time since I could limit myself to a single image. Each image, in my view, must stand alone, but the individual meanings will obviously change within certain constellations, and this happens very precisely, because the images enter into mutual relationships. But that relationship to the other images is only possible from the moment they censor themselves to the extreme.
My greatest desire is to be able to stand in front of my paintings like a complete stranger, to be just like any other viewer, in a state of total detachment, disconnected from any ambition I might once have had or might still harbour. From the very beginning, I dreamt of being able to see my images neutrally. That desire remains unchanged.
- When we look at your work, we see someone who seems to cut himself away from reality. But in actual fact, that cutting away is your means of existence.
Tuymans: Yes, that is the duality associated with life. To be able to make these paintings, I have to become an empty space.
- Are you saying that you would like to come face to face with yourself as with a stranger, just as you have shaped yourself in the temperature of your images and, equally, in a deafening silence?
Tuymans: Yes. It might be an impossible dream, but it is a clear desire to simulate one’s own vanishing point. Of course, I actually already do this in my work, for example by not basing my paintings on personal events, but I am curious to gauge the overall impression. I would like to experience the ultimate conclusion.
Montagne de Miel, 2 July 2005. Dedicated to Dirk De Vos