In Lacanian psychoanalysis, art is taken up as having something to teach psychoanalysis about the unconscious and the historical structures of discourse. Art becomes a resource where science remains silent in the development of psychoanalytic concepts, and the constantly changing conditions of the clinic. I will argue here that interesting contemporary art shares traits with the analytic position because the artist—like the analyst—works to frustrate understanding, love, and identification. In other words, art hystericizes discourse by frustrating understanding and therefore stimulating the desire to know!
To begin, let’s discuss Gareth James’ engagement with a famous photograph of Louis Althusser where the linguistic inscription, “L’avenir dure longtemps”, that he is writing on the chalkboard would later become the title of his autobiography, The future lasts a long time (1994), and the image, central to James’ project. The exhibition centers on the work Lui (2009) and James’ desire for, but lack of, an ability to ‘know’ the content of the diagram that appears on a chalkboard behind Althusser, in that image. This chalkboard could be a mirror, where instead of Althusser’s reflection, there is this diagram or drawing with ‘no-known’ meaning. Here I would suggest that the blackboard points to the function of education, or more specifically knowledge, as a ‘muroir’ in discourse.1 A muroir is a neologism Lacan built with miroir (mirror) and mur (wall). On one side of the wall of language we have discourse, which Lacan reduces to four functions (S1) (S2) (a) and ($).2 The conscious emphasis is placed on the (S1)…(S2). On the other side of the wall, the sense of the (a) and the ($) becomes primary, and “the possibility of building a sense referred to the truth, the semblance, the jouissance and the surplus enjoyment (plus-de-jouir)” emerges.3
Despite the common sense idea that ‘knowledge’ is inherently ‘good’, knowledge is primarily defensive in Lacanian psychoanalysis: defensive but necessary. For Lacan the real, that thing we presuppose to know something about, only exists within the symbolic/imaginary as its negative condition, or rather their limit—and so, as such, a fictious marriage of knowledge and truth is the only way to approach the real.4 This assertion renders all human reality-making or knowledge on the level of fantasy, which psychoanalysis promotes the construction and crossing. True ‘knowledge’ (or more accurately ‘know-how’ that can affect, and produce change in the ‘economy of jouissance’), requires an intervention into the subject of desire instead of the continuous accumulation and manipulation of objective facts of empirical subjectivity.
The desire-to-know as opposed to the love of knowledge, as the desire-not-to-know anything-about unconscious desire, is central to James’ exhibition and this writing project. As James states, the artist doesn’t ‘have’ something they should have after conceptualism, which is total knowledge of the exhibition’s meaning. The meaning of the diagram was originally what James aspired to know (he interviewed everyone that Althusser knew in attempt to fix the diagram’s meaning), and his failure to know (no one living knew the meaning), becomes, I think, a productive critique of certain conceptualist pretensions. Conceptualism, or artists that know everything about their works— are at the risk of staging an ‘encounter-less’ affair with knowledge—at the expense of the real.
The desire for, and the illusion of, the signified (as the arrival at total meaning, aka. the concept) is often eclipsed by just one more signifier (S2), which defers meaning along the signifying chain ad infinitum—until the meaning is conferred retroactively through punctuation. The desire for total meaning, or knowledge never arrives: “The future”, an imagined and anticipated wholeness in meaning “lasts a long time”, because it is an endless, interminable pursuit. The other way of thinking about the title of Althusser’s book is through the lens of the death-drive. The human subject ($) is a ‘circle’ of repetition around a ‘surplus-enjoyment’ (a). The future lasts a long time because the past is always returning from it.5
Althusser infamously and sadly strangled his wife, Hélène Rytmann, during a black-out. As detailed in his autobiography, Althusser’s desire to give his account as a ‘subject’ during his trial is denied, having failed to meet the legal category of ‘subject’ because of his history of madness. As he details in his biography, Lui, was “non-lieu”, the court decided there was no ground for prosecution.6 To the detriment of the ‘legal subject’, the precise moment when a ‘subject of the unconscious’ could be accounted for, it is denied, because we don’t-actually-want-to-know anything about it. This judgement of “non-lieu”— served to confirm Althusser’s long-standing sense of non-existence and the book was Althusser’s only way to take responsibility, and stand up to the fatal destiny of his name.7
I’ve started with this aspect of Gareth James’ project in order to raise the stakes of what the desire-to-know is up against: the muroir of discourse as the ‘love’ of knowledge, which functions as a defense against the traumatic nature of the un-symbolizeable and the void. ‘Death’ or ‘death-drive’ is the prime real and metaphoric condition of our circling back to the unsymbolizeable (a) and is our chosen metaphor for how repetition, or death structures life.
For more on this topic of how language is both temporal and spatial, we will explore Blake Rayne’s exhibition DogsSkullDogs held at Miguel Abreu Gallery in 2018. If James takes up logical time or the intersubjective temporality of discourse, a thesis that undermines any notion of ‘progress’ given that man circles back rather than forward, and if ‘back’ and ‘forward’ are temporal/spatial effects of meaning production, then Blake Rayne takes up the question of space, particularly the spaces of jouissance. Jouissance is spatial because it is linked to the transgression of both fantasized and real barriers (generally of the pleasure principle). I am thinking here about Rayne’s titles where works like the anamorphic skulls, oh wait no, Neanderthal skulls are given a geographical and thus spatial significations, for example: Skull Mountain, Skull Island, Skull Ayre (2018) and Corner Stanchion (2018).
In viewing this exhibition, I cannot overlook the abundance of skulls, and similarly the skeleton, both in Ambrosius Holbein’s woodblock prints, and in his older brother, Has Holbein’s painting, Ambassadors (1533). All these works are explicitly referenced in the press release statement, along with Lacan’s work on painting. “Now paintings are skulls,” as Rayne states cheekily, not because “painting is dead” despite its repeated proclamation but because the precise moment we symbolize something, we negate or kill the real-thing—we lose the referent. Symbolization is marked by the void, emptiness or ‘death’ it brings into existence—art adorns and then reveals the void. Symbolization kills the biological thing—however, it also has the power to immortalize. For example, an artist’s name might live on well beyond the artist’s biological death.
The ‘ruin’ or ‘remainder’ is a central figure in the exhibition. Ruin is invoked by the rusty material remainders that Rayne has collected for Rastor Tin Shot (2018), the abandoned industrial sites Rayne has filmed, and the deteriorating skull’s that Rayne enjoys forcing the viewer to confront. This gesture is exaggerated both in scale and number. These material remainders are litter, similar to the traces (phonic and graphic) of the master-signifier, and thus history, as an ideal of ‘modernity’. Decline or ruin is a legitimate cultural form, given that everything is always ending only to begin again. Just as Rayne proclaims: “painting is a skull”, it insists on its own return.
James’ exhibition at Elizabeth Dee, When a Financial Institution Collapses There Is No Spectacular Outpouring of Gold / Glass Transition Temperature (2009), works with the topological nature of human subjectivity. Topology has been called “rubber math” or “rubber geometry”; and given that the rubber bike-tube is a torus, it is an efficient model for our attempt to think topologically.8 In the work, Poor neon. Rubber behaves like a one-dimensional gas. (The flower absent from all bouquets) (2009)9 the inner-tube is used as a substitute for minimalist neon. In this exhibition, the toric tube gives way to writing/drawing/looping once it is cut. This cut is similar to an analytic speech act that functions as a cut to glue or splice together speech, disrupting the muroir that the ego-erects, in order to point to a sense of something on the other side of the wall. Change only comes through repetition. When we loop back there can be an intervention or shift in the ‘looping’, which alters its course. This loop of the death-drive can be thought of as a ‘loop de loop’ where the looping back of the death drive is able to change its circuit slightly through a timely provocation.10
The flowers absent from all bouquets points to the inability for the signified or the real-flower thing—the referent—to conform to the (S1) (master signifier). The task of analytic art is to disrupt the eclipse of the master signifier by knowledge forcing the viewer to provide the knowledge. What does that mean? Well, in any of James’ works with these tubes, we see a bike-tube (S1), but we get stuck at ‘bike-tube’ because James does not provide any finality in terms of the work’s meaning (he does not provide a S2, or S3, or S4: signifying chain). In other words, interesting art isolates master signifiers, but works to avoid the folding of these signifiers back into knowledge. Because James does not provide the knowledge and or ‘meaning’, the lack of meaning might cause anxiety in the viewer. Anxiety emerges when we don’t know (our position in relation to) the desire of the Other (the artist’s meaning or intention) and this anxiety might force the viewer to provide the knowledge that is lacking, which will in turn, reveal something about the viewer’s unconscious knowledge. What follows is my free association, my knowledge, caused by the anxiety of ‘not-knowing’.
The wall of language/knowledge rejects the non-relation between ‘man’ and the ‘world’ and ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Ironically, the presumed relationality of the muroir is what denies the difference that we are striving to cultivate. There are many forms of ‘writing on the wall’ in this exhibition, which suggests a recognition of the wall of ‘non-relation’. In The fourth of three things (2009) we have the circle of ‘man’, between his ‘little-widdler’ / inflation valve, and the object petit a (a), or breast, also referenced in the shape of the tube, in this work and others, as a closed circle that excludes ‘otherness’.11
The use of equivocation, polysemy, and homophony within the analytic-artistic act, is explored explicitly in the video work of Ali Ahadi—including both The Wet (2017) and Shit Yes Academy (2018–2019). Ahadi has a long-standing interest in questions of translation: specifically, the creative possibilities inherent to mistranslation, when, for example, Goh Ballet Academy is translated into Persian as Shit Yes Academy.
To dive right in, ‘stye’ in its medical prognosis means ‘shit in the eye’. Back to the word ‘stye’ the ’ye’ sounds like ‘eye’ and ‘eye’— ‘can become ‘hi’ in the unconscious– ‘s(hi)t eye’ or ‘st-(e)ye’. The graphic inscription of the word, how it looks, substitutes with a corresponding sound (hi: eye), producing this slip of the tongue. Stye in the unconscious could be ‘s’ ‘hi’ ‘t’ ‘eye’.
To put this another way, earlier we discussed James’ work, Lui (2009), not only is this name the impersonal third person pronoun in French, it sounds like “non-li(e)u”. In saying all this, one can learn how to ‘de-idealize’ discourse or ‘meaning’ in order to read the letter of speech—and, to read the letters, correspondence to a body of jouissance: its litter. For Althusser, the prognosis of “non-lieu” that he received from the representative of the state, corresponded to his own father’s failure to grant him existence—to give him a metaphoric nomination in the symbolic/public world which left his subjectivity at the mercy of metonym–madness. Althusser lived his whole life struggling against this position in his mother’s desire as ‘dead-Louis’— “non-li(e)u”.12
We are playing with polysemy and homophony, for the way meaning is condensed and displaced through the complex web of the material letter of signifiers.13 This exploration of the constellation of meanings that exist around the part-objects, is made explicit in Ahadi’s Untitled (Petit a made general) (2018–2019), or more seductively, in Untitled (of the scatological) (2018–2019).
We have been talking about the titles of the works, but this theory applies to visual language just as readily as linguistic signs. Visual art is like the dream, where words present as images, and where master signifiers connect to other master signifiers without collapsing into knowledge. Thus, the artist’s works at the level of the dream whether in sleep or wakeful life.
Ali Ahadi’s work with lace in Shit Yes Academy (2018–2019) is something I would like to consider in more detail. From my perspective the exhibition offers a critical reflection on fetishistic and fantasy-based aspects of masculine sexuality. The scopic pleasure of looking is marked by the sexy black lace covering the fleshy, pink-coloured print. Sexual pleasure is derived from the part-object (fragmented unconscious trait)as that which causes desire from behind, not the ‘good’ object (the actual body of the other) of desire, out in front.
The sexed lace of masquerade, concerns the phallus as signifying semblance of seduction which works to repress the cause of jouissance in the part-object, through meaning. I would argue, contrary to Ahadi’s artist statement, that the reintroduction of the veil, ideal, and or meaning marks the actual separation of the master signifier and the object; rather than the other way around (he talks about the will to suspend meaning, or separate the subject and object in his statement). It does this through exaggeration. Exaggeration, for the sheer volume of the lace included in the exhibition, and for how lace literalizes the veil at the level of meaning. This over-compensation, or exaggeration of the veil, points to a lack in the function of the veil.
Despite polymorphous perversity being the central tenant of the Freudian theory of sexuality, the common feminist rebuttal, would be that this concept of sexuality (sexual enjoyment, of the subjects own, autistic part-objects), marks sexual indifference rather than sexual difference.14 This rebuttal misses the point—despite being true. The point is our presumptive access to ‘otherness’ is overestimated. Sexuality is fundamentally indifferent. Difference is what refuses to conform to the contours of our fantasy, and therefore, more traumatic than any fantasy of harmonious ‘relationality’. The part-object and or the phallus is not the other person, but rather an unconscious, signifying trait that causes desire; and the other becomes the mere support for the extraction of the object.15
I have argued here that Gareth James and Ali Ahadi mark an aspect of masculine sexuality with their explorations of the object petit a, which is both the stopper that fills the gap of the signifying order, and its hole. If we are going to discuss sexual difference not reducible to the fantasy of relationality we will introduce what Lacan formulates as the “pas-tout” or “not-all”. As feminists like Luce Irigaray have argued, women are not solely interested in the phallus, they are not-all subject to the phallic function. The phallus (Φ) in Lacan is a signifier—a signifier of whatever symbolic value is thought to be able to produce a finally satisfying merger between the subject and its object (between the subject and its lack of being, or, in other words, ‘lost-object’).
We will explore these ideas through a closer examination of Kathryn Alder’s work with the circle, or rather the hole, in reference to Francis Picabia’s La Jeune Fille (1920) which also engages both a circle and a hole in different iterations.16 The hole is the object that the ‘subject of desire’ lacks or has lost, it creates a hole in the imaginary/symbolic because there is no empirical object that will satisfy it. This hole or void of ‘non-relation’, is filled up by the subject, with their idiosyncratic fantasy, their singular mode of jouissance. In this work, the circle is cut like a snail’s shell into a flounce that she then uses in A portrait of the ‘young girl’ as an artist (2020). The hole (rather than the circle) becomes a ‘flounce’, this gesture is repeated sixteen times—a definite ‘plus’, rather than a ‘minus’ or ‘lack’. The circle here is cut, and riddled with holes, but these holes have been transformed into a pleasurable void.
There is hope for sexual indifference, difference is beyond autistic part objects and the demand for the phallus.
Matt Browning’s work Generic Blockage (2020) takes scrounged cardboard, turns it into pulp, and then throws the pulp like a spit-ball that fills the window of the Whitney ISP to block the light for the exhibition of another’s work. This is an example of a ‘trash-art’ practice that traces the place of ‘waste’, or the object, in scientific-capitalism that maintains a limit, and material specificity that I find wanting in other ‘trash-art’ practices. The work is also a funny thing—its meaning effect coming from ‘blockage’, as it pertains to our discussions of ‘shitting’, and a blockage in the production of shit, or rather the ethic of the artist as the one who produces their own shit! However, this work points to the increased tendency for art to engage the mere ‘stuff’ of the drives, the ‘remainder’, the trash without ‘meaning’ or ‘metaphor’.17 The object is no longer lost, now we can’t get rid of it!
For example, the thrown spit-ball defies the precision of the authorial hand. The repetitive gesture creates a textural skin through a re-pulped paper that fills the frame of a window and produces an opacity of vision and light. In terms of signification, the literal frame of the window comes to stand for the lack of a frame. The body is an enjoying substance not the master signifier totalized in the image framed in a painting or the muroir (S1…S2). With the decline of the master signifier, we can see the enjoyment of the part-object as a reject of the body. Empirical objects stand in for the lost object and are then used up and thrown away because they are no longer the object we seek. This dynamic produces a lot of waste and has become the material of choice of contemporary art, no longer bothering with the ‘ideal-form-of-the-body’ as masquerade but the ‘rubbish of the body’, the part-fragment-object-trash—enjoying substance—that we are. These trash-art practices literalize the death drive, and the human subject is the one who wastes. We engage in non-productive, repetitive forms of loss. The death-drive is hooked onto the siren’s song of the real beyond representation, and enacts a style of loss, of expenditure, that makes an artist singular.
These ‘shit-yes’ affirmative projects that I’ve introduced operate differently than the all-pervasive illusions of endless enjoyment with its suffocating consumer nihilism (lack of enjoyment) and segregationally orientated difference politics. They also demonstrate the transformative potential of the hysteric’s ‘desire to know’ and to the future of love, as giving to others what you don’t have.
–Leigh Tennant, March 2021