Published (in English and Dutch) in the catalogue of a solo-exhibition of Lukas Vandenabeele’s work at the Royal Museum for Visual Arts in Antwerps, Belgium. Text about his work, Marquis de Sade and Japanese Zen art.
O and Lukas Vandenabeele’s recent work
“…for a line to be properly composed the mind must be composed.”
” La loi, non. Le protocole, oui. Le plus livertaire des écrivains veut la Cérémonie, la Fête, le Rite, le Discours. Dans la scène sadienne, il y a quelqu’un qui ‘commande les déplacements et préside à tout l’ordre des orgies’; il y a quelg (mais rien de plus que ‘quelque’un’) qui fait le programme, trace la perspective (ordonnateur et ordinateur).”
With a deliberately casual gesture Lukas Vandenabeele throws a sealing ring on the checked paper that is lying on his desk. He takes his Rotring Art Pen extra fine, puts its point inside the elastic band and starts drawing a circle within the closed curves. When he comes at the spot where the circle should close, the beginning and the end of the lie cannot touch eachother beacause of the band’s flexibility: a new curve is started, a new circle that in its turn will not be closed. These careful lines on paper, drawn in black ink, are repeated a few times and are then -as soon as the stretchy straitjacket of the elastic band is let loose- followed by lines that are drawn with a steady hand. Lukas Vandenabeele writes: “And in order to be able to close an O one should be tyrannically exact.”
The above might lead you to believe otherwise, but the gesture with which Vandenabeele throws the elastic band on the paper is not a studied, direct gesture. Vandenabeele is not direct, not in his writings, neither in his ‘drawings’, the two means of expression which he uses alternatively on one and and the same piece of paper. His work requires a thorough preparation. In his small studio, he sits behind a desk, working in notebooks with checked paper and his Rotring Pen. These are primary production conditions, the structure required to arrave at something, defined in time and space, protected from disturbing elements. The difference between Vandenabeele and a large number of hid artistic collegeagues lies in the very explicit limitation of the movement and thinking space in which he is shaping his work: he establishes a protocol -not only before but also as part of the artistic work – in which he meticulously describes the line which his pen will draw. He establishes the rules for the actions that have to be performed. He is the θετης (thetes), the one which establishes, the name giver of the word, the command, the λογος (logos). However, he does not want to be the all-controling director of this game. He only creates space and time within a plan. His role is limited to the minimally possible. He is part of a game in whcich pen and paper are the principal characters. The work is shaped witin this tension between director of the rite, the intermediary who literally establishes the course of things (Sanskrit: rita) and the withdrawal of ‘oneself’ in the performance of the actions which he has nonetheless prescribed himeself. This production proecess forms an essential part of the way in which the final result – that which the public gets to see – is received. But how can a recipient develop some insight in this process of which he only sees the results: lines, or rather traces, and texts in checked notebooks?
How exact should one be to be able to close an O?
The direct I-form in Vandenabeele’s texts might suggest that they are spontaneous notes. Ng is further from the truth. His texts, nor his lines result from an ‘criture automatique’. Within this technique, which was actually a surrealist development, the artist tries to ‘capture’ the Unconsious by writing or drawing ‘thoughtless’ actions. However, whatever the Unconscious may be, to fit in writing or talk about it is a paradoxical act: the conversion from an object representation into a writing representation inevitably introduces the non-logical, the timeless in a discursive,logical order. Vandenabeele is moving within this discursive order, but he is also fighting it. However, this resistance does not set in by letteing the Unconsious ‘appear’, the Unconsious does not play a direct role. On the contrary, Vandenabeele tries to reduce his subject status. He reduces the artist’s creative role to a process that passes through the subject. His work does not represent the artist’s inner reality, nor does it refer to an external reality. It is a production of a proposal for ‘reality’ . The artist’s intention leaves no traces in his work: whatever remains are conscious and unconscious connotations of his subject who only appears as a product of the work.
Let us for the time being concentrate on Vandenabeele’s texts and – in the light of the above – turn to the so-called writing (écriture) of the work. The French philosopher Roland Barthes puts this term, which was borrowed from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, between the language as system – the ‘langue’ – and the autor’s personal style (of writing) -the ‘parol’. Style is seen here as a continuation of the writer’s corporality. This style presumes an opposition between content and form, it forms the upper layer and an underlying structure. The writing starts where the language becomes bottomless and where the content withdraws. According to Barthes style has a certain cohesion, aconsistency because it is felt as a personal ‘form’. The writing on the contrary only knows ‘insistencies’, it insists.
While analyzing the work of, a.o., marquis de Sade, he describes this controversial writer as a ‘Logothète’ or language creator, as the father of a new language. However, he is not talking about language in the linguistic sense of the word: it is not a comminicative language. De Sade’s language is rather an artificial language, a kind of body language, which crosses the natural language. This artificial language shows the relations of insistencies within which nucleus, weight and significance disappear. The personal style is swallowed up by writing that is not a personal signature. Barthes also calls de Sade a scenographer: someone who devides himself endlessly among the decor pieces.
It is very tempting to include Vandenabeele among the order of ‘Logothètes’. The reference in one of his works to the protocol by De Sade is therefore no longer coincidental, but a recognition of a procedure to which is being referred. However, within his scenography, the main characters are the pen and the paper, but also the’he’. They are the stakes of a game in which positions are continually shifting and are always repeated within a strictly measured universe. Just like De Sade Vandenabeelde is bound by the rite, the order of the course of things, which is however nothing but a planning. It does not refer to a certain trancendence. Yet – the order which he directs is not aimed at appropriation or self-preservation, as was not the case for De Sade either. An unconditional loss does not at all imply that the loss cannot be controlled: ” …il faut précisément que la perte soit ordonnée pour qu’elle puise devenir inconditionnelle: la vacance finale, qui est le déni de toute économie de recel, ne s’obtient elle-même que par une économie”.
It is with this exactness, this precision that the conflict and the reconciliation between the players come about in Vandenabeele’s texts. However, in spite of this precision, the conflict is not settled, there is no solution. There is only a continuous representation of this conflict, no realization of a purpose nor the arrival at a destination. In other words, the exactness transcends this language and is realized in an artificial language’s hermetic universe.
However there is more to it. Thus far we have only spoken of texts. The work in the notebooks is not limited to texts. How do the texts relate to the traces on paper, and to the protocol in which it is all brought about? Besides all that happens within the texts, there are also the rituals, the complex of rites, in short the artist’s procedure in his medium. At first my introductory description seems to be about an artist at work. It is perhaps not about a producer who is only producing his works with pen and paper. Vandenabeele’s body is also part of his work, one of the media which he ‘handles’ besides writing. What happens in his studio looks like a performance without an audience: it is a daily ritual. The public can only visualize there unwitnessed actions by reading the texts, which are therefoire no descriptions not illustrations but rather resonances of these ‘performances’. What else can be said to clarify the performance-like character of his artistic actions?
How exact must ‘one’ be to be able to close the O?
The circle (in Japanese:enso) is one of the most important symbols in Zen Buddism. As a ‘perfect appearance’, as a form without beginning or end, it represents the destruction of all contradictions in an absolute unity and expresses ‘true emptiness’. It symbolizes the formless and colourless Being-as-it-is of all things in creation. It refers to ‘original signs from birth’ , of which is said that ” even if we paint it, it is not painted”. It actually means that the most fitting sign for the understanding of ‘ the essential being’ in Zen is the empty place, that is the absense of signs.
This implies that an art which is rooted in this philosophy – Zen art – requires from the artist a quiet and a patient absorption, a pure and controlled listening to the inaudible expression. which accomodates within itself all things and refers to the absolute nothing beyond all form and colour. The paper’s empty background -symbol for the absense of form, colour or sins – is identified with the empty ground of the Being, and as ‘Satori’, the absolute thruth and the highest state of knowing. ‘Satori’ cannot be reached or learned by a theoretical method or an analytical reasoning. Both are after all dependent on language, on a written code. The intellect, the source of logic and methodology, fails completely. In Zen one searches for an ‘autononomy of words and letters’ and a ‘transference beyond writing’.
Seen in this light it becomes clear that Zen calligraphy means more than ‘beautiful writing’. The expression ‘Sho’, connected both with calligraphy and the art of painting, expresses more than that; maybe it is even the opposite: it is not a matter of a formally aesthetic product in the western sense of the word, but of a ‘condition’ which is expressed by ritual actions on paper. The action reveals the ‘truth’ which is experienced in the formal discipline of the actions.
The work of a Zen artist is impregnated with the overwhelming power (ki) of an enlightened vision. ‘Ki’, the energy of the cosmos, is always present but remains dormant if it is not cultivated. ‘Kiai’, the harmonized ‘ki’, is incorporated in the ink as ‘bokki’. ‘Bokki’ is not, as some think, the colour of the ink. It does not depend on the quality of the brush, the ink and the paper. If someone’s ‘ki’ is not present in the work, the ‘bokki’ is dead. ‘Bokki’ can not only be seen with the eyes, it can also be felt with the ‘hara’, the physical and spiritual centre of someone’s body. ‘Bokki’ reveals the degree of the calligrapher’s enlightment.
Again: how should one be or which attitude should one assume in order to be able to close the O? The experience of Zen assumes a different relation between being and appearance, between reality and its signs. In this experience the Western notion of the subject is questioned. For philosophers such as Barthes but certainly also in the analyses (based on semiotics) of subject critics such as Jean-François Lyotard, the Zen culture offers points of departure from which the self-evident Western notions of ‘truth’ or ‘subject’ can be considered again. In Des dispositifs pulsionnels, for instance, Lyotard gives a semiotic interpretation of the Japanese No-theatre. The actions of the No-actor, seen as signs or signifiers, do not refer to a deeper reality: the No-actor’s mask does not represent anything. The complete affirmation of – in Western terms – the appearance or the sign, the creative subject disappears. In this view the ‘one’ who closes the O has nothing to do with the Western autonomously acting subject who puts his lines on paper with confidence and purpose. It is rather a ‘one’ who disappears in the ritual action, a ‘one’ who disappears in de radical affirmation of the form.
Does this analysis say anything about the performance-like character of Vandenabeel’s art practise? Although there are a few striking similarities in for instance his remarks about the ‘inspired’ ink and his combinations of writing and drawing, I could, should nor would not ‘judge and appreciate’ his art as Zen art. When I asked Vandenabeele wheter he was familiar with Japanese calligraphy, he replied negatively. Yet a ‘comparison’ is instructive. Besides the structural similarities which can be found in Vandenabeele’s texts and the incorporation of ‘Sho’ in Zen Buddhism there is yet another striking similarity: the non-intentional intentionality of the action.
For instance the preparatory work – the construction of the protocol – ensures that Vandenabeele can eliminate his self-awareness in order to perfrom actions that cannot be explained on the basis of his intentions as a producing ‘artist’. Anyone could perform these actions. In his view the pen and the paper are put to work by an ‘inanimate’ body. Also the thought of the animation of the ink – the ‘bokki’ -achieves in his work a very specific quality. Once again Barthes can function as a link. In L’empire des signes, which is about Japanese writing, Barthes says that Zen cannot be translated with mediationm without calling in a subject and a god: “chase them off, and just as soon they’re turning up again , riding at us on the back of our language.”
With these words he is alluding to the problem which is made evident by the Japanese writing: as soon as we question the subject status we equally have to question the limits of language. In his work Vandenabeele is after all continually clashing with these limits. He wants to let go of the subject status, but at the same time he sees that it is impossible to do so. However it also follows from the same paradox that the ink flowing from Vandenabeele’s pen will never be able to be the same as the ‘bokki’ in Zen art. His art obtains meaning because of the actions which he performs. His attempt to free his actions from a consciousness are at odds with the always self-aware – for linguisitic – Western body. It is exactly this linguistic aspect of the body to which I refer that appears in his lines and texts. That is why I am talking of the performance-like quality in which his art is staged. Contrary with Zen artists his drawings are not animated nor embodied, nut they become lines that are animated by the struggle to free himself from a conscious body.
About how an O always becomes an
Vandenabeele ritually establishes his actions be means of literal pre-scriptions. Actions which he can then perform thoughtlessly, even though this thoughtlessness is different form the ‘écriture automatique’ and from ‘Sho’, even if at first sight his work seems to be affiliated with these. But, what is it then that happens in his work?
Let us return to the beginning of my argumentation. He puts lines on paper. Lines without meaning for the spectator, lines that can be reduced to minimal scribbles, familiar to anyone who has ever scribbled on the telehone directory while making a call. The lines are neither beautiful nor strong. They alternate with a handwriting. In the the text that is thus produced the actions of an ‘I’ are described, a pen, called Rotring Art Pen, and the lines produced by it on paper. These texts evoke something of the why of the traces, the lines that can be seen on the paper. They reveal something of the actors in a very strictly directed scene. That way the notebooks reveal an unexpectedly artificial world in which a fight is waged by someone who does not want to be present. Someone who cannot close an O.
Why can this O not be closed or, why does this person not want to close the O?
Not because he is not exact enough, he is very exact. His exactness, however, cannot be reduced to the oriental ‘true emptiness’ in order to be able to close the strokes of the pen. Neither can it be reduced to the modern Western ‘insight’ of an unambiguous subject that can manipulate its language with self-awareness and thus create a truth.
In my opinion Vandenabeele’s work -as a continuously outlining movement – is exemplary for the struggle of the contemporary Western ‘subject’ in a crisis: the experienced necessity to express ‘something’ in a language that can actually not be expressed just because it is impeded by the self-aware, coherent subject. By moving on two levels – writing and ‘performance’ – Vandenabeele can only seem to escape from himself, by always jumping from one level to the other, just at the moment when the level on which he finds himself appears to be on the point of being closed. In that sense his work remains a physical writing. While he is ‘writing’ he becomes entanled in the text and is always brushing past the possible closure of the O.