Immanent transcendency in Luk Stallaert’s oeuvre
Paul Klee writes in his diary: “In immanence I am entirely intangible…” . Luk Stallaert expresses a similar idea when he claims all of his works to contain microbes. Similar to the clinical microbe, which affects its host’s health through rapid multiplication and dissemination, the microbe in a metaphoric sense disrupts a work of art because of its rapacious nature. Although the microbe is positively incorporated in the materiality of a work of art, it remains fundamentally invisible and illegible. This intangible quality, which needs to be situated within the tangible domain par excellence –the materiality of a work of art- I would like to denote as the transcendence of immanence.
However, the term transcendence implies more than that which exceeds our understanding. To transcend also means to bring to a higher level, to cut loose from a practical immediate involvement with the world. Due to this distance our insight is enlarged. One could state that transcendence in an artistic context refers to the idea within the work of art, to the references that it incorporates or to its conceptual structure.
Luk Stallaert’s early work is of a conceptual nature. One could say that in his first exhibition in Brussels transcendence had the upperhand. I think especially of the work ‘Tristan and Isolde’ in which a microficheprojector projects the narrative’s text on a screen. The work draws its force from the numerous references that are concealed in it First and foremost there is the reference to medieval courtly love in which sublimated love precludes concrete love. The knight’s concern that any form of materiality would soil his ideal love -by which the desire for sexuality is replaced by the desire for desire – resembles the artist’s reluctance to trust his ideas to matter. Stallaert breaches the romantic atmosphere, which surrounds the romance by presenting it with the aid of a microficheprojector. The position of this apparatus within the history of bureaucracy, or more generally the relation between technology and reality, ties in with the conceptual frame of this work. Before the advent of the computer the microficheprojector served as a database by means of which information could be stored in an economical fashion. The acquisition and presentation of data influences the manner in which this data is perceived. We are invited to approach ‘Tristan and Isolde’ from an exterior standpoint.
In the work ‘son seul’ matter seems to play a similarly subordinate role: a CD player plays silence. We hear silence while viewing the changing the display of an ordinary CD player. The work is driven forward by questions relating to the nature and the content of nothingness and the presentation thereof. With pricked-up ears, however, we come to realise that the recorded silence is not altogether silent: the human ear seems to present another view on reality than the ‘ear’ of the CD player. When subsequently one focuses on the display, it becomes apparent that the tracks follow no sequential order but shift from one silence into another. This is a poem of numbers. The metaphysical preoccupation, which initially dominated the work, makes place for a lighter more playful form of transcendence, which is nestled in the materiality of the work itself. On second thought the transcendence in the presentation of the Tristan and Isolde romance isn’t entirely pure either: the scratches on the index cards, the somewhat crookedly projected image and the choice of an old majestically illustrated edition throw a spanner in the works.
In his exhibition in the Netwerk Gallery in Aalst, plays more with the transcendent dynamic, which is immanent to the materiality of the work of art. In order to clarify the notion ‘transcendence of immanence’ I draw from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome and from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy.
In their book Mille Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari circumscribe rhizomatic thinking in contrast to the classic essential and dualistic western way of thinking. The latter is a fundamentally transcendent way of thinking in which abstractions are made possible by creating a distance vis-à-vis the object under examination. The act of establishing abstract corollaries and principles leads to a linearly and hierarchically constructed image of reality. This results in a homogeneous, statistical way of thinking, in which the cognitive subject seeks to understand reality in an outward fashion by fitting it into a distinct and understandable structure. The ‘outside’ is then reduced to an ‘inside’.
Rhizomatic thinking, as defined by Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand attempts to respect the ‘outside’ in its external character by following whatever disrupts a hierarchic construction. Such ‘microbes’ are called ‘lines of flight’. The notion of ‘lines of flight’ escapes the artificiality and limited nature of every construction in that it points to the limitations of such a construction. The establishment of unambiguous boundaries cuts through the ubiquitous tie with other constructions and excludes multiplicity in favour of the univocal. The establishment of boundaries is, however, indispensable; both on a conceptual and a practical level absolute chaos is intolerable to humankind.
Contrary to the engendering of constructions on the part of the subject, rhizomatic thinking can thus be presented as a self-regulating process, in which various heterogeneities converge and crystallise into structures and then explode and fall apart. Although the rhizome is still characterised by a certain form of transcendence, this transcendence does not suppose a cognitive subject, which appeals to distinct boundaries and oppositions. It seeks migrations, gradients and interactions within matter itself. Hence the transcendence lies in the immanent dynamic of matter. Furthermore the engendering constructions no longer have a clear-cut identity; they must rather be approached as temporal intensities without extension.
Since transcendence is immanent to matter itself, the transcendental outside of the rhizome can scarcely be designated as such. Yet the results of this immanent transcendence of matter exceed materiality and thus justify the application of the notion ‘outside’. Contrary to the traditional transcendence the outside can be seized. It is an outside, which loiters inside matter. Therefore it can not be approached as negativity or emptiness, but rather as a condition for any movement and creation, both on a conceptual and a material level. This immanent transcendence engenders both the construction and the falling apart of any structure.
Applied to the domain of art this implies that creation and intelligibility are not solely preserved for the mind or the subject but can be attributed to matter as well. The subject is no longer the origin of the object; it is swept away in a dynamic, which takes both the subject and the object in tow. It is no longer the artist who creates art, but art which develops in collaboration with the artist and matter. In the words of Merleau-Ponty: “What one designates as inspiration should be taken literally: there exists an inspiration and expiration of Being, a respiration in Being, an execution and an undergoing, which are so difficult to distinguish from another that one can no longer know who observes and who is observed, who paints and who is painted”.
Thus, the artist is not occupied with reconstruction but with movement and circumstance. He attempts to let the rising squirming of matter or the incarnation of Being take place within the work of art. In order to realise this he makes use of his body. Because of its capacity to observe and be observed, to feel and be felt, Merleau-Ponty views the body as an ideal path to immanent transcendence. This potential exchange and interchange creates a xenogamy between matter and that which exceeds matter. Only then can the perceptible perceive and the perceiver be perceived. To Merleau-Ponty observation is not a mono-directional activity, which originates in the subject, but a process in which bi-directional vectors involve both observation and the observed.
The body is literally and figuratively a body with apertures through which reality penetrates the body and by means of which the body is situated in reality. In between the body and the object upon which it is focused, there is no vacuity. They reach out to one another. This becomes clear when one verifies how the identity of an object is apprehended. Identification seldom feels as a conscious act: we recognise objects almost immediately without meditation. Rational, representative thinking is not involved in this process. We make use of our bodily intelligibility. Thus one does not recognise a chair because it possesses the necessary characteristics of a chair. Such criteria are impossible to render. Nor is it the functionality of the chair (the fact that we can sit on it) which shapes our understanding of the object. In order to know whether we can sit on a chair, we need to know how a human body moves, what it is to be tired or, in sum, what it is like and how it feels like to be human. The human environment, which has as a significant component the bodily environment, is the ultimate matrix for any interpretation. The understanding of the chair and the subsequent identification of objects as chairs does not, however, solely rely on the bodily ‘understanding’ of how a chair relates to a human body. It also relies on the ‘physique’ of the chair. Since man is physical he can comprehend the bodily characteristics of a chair. Mass, elasticity, size,… all represent categories, which can be understood physically. Thus the body represents a channel of communication between pure ratio and pure matter, if these would exist in a pure from. More exactly, the body is an outstanding example of an environment where matter becomes transcendent and vice versa.
It is not a coincidence that the body takes a more prominent place in Stallaert’s second exhibition. The slide presentation of the artist reading Marcel Proust’s novel L’indifférent, especially fits this approach. The spectator is invited to take a seat in the same chair the artist was seated in while reading the novel. For each page a slide is shown and through the headphones we hear how the pages of the book are turned, how a cat purrs and how a cigarette is lit. Within the context of a silent room, this creates an eerie sensation. One’s bodily presence in the same chair as the one depicted on the slide, one’s respiration which gradually follows the respiration on the soundtrack and the sound of the artist reading, all suggest the directness of an original perception, which is, however, disrupted by the clicking of the slide projector. We almost feel as if we are ourselves reading (but then who assumes the role of the spectator ?) or as if we genuinely see the artist reading. Yet, it is not the creation of an illusion that is at stake, but a playful exchange of interceding perception and immediate perception.
The sexual innuendo in the work depicting a girl on a swing is concerned with a similar preoccupation. Partly covering the floor and partly covering the wall, one observes a projection of a girl’s wafting up dress. The spectator is deceived in his anticipation that the rising swing will gradually reveal more. Thus, inherent transcendence of the erotic body is artificially constricted.
The earlier work ‘buikpluisjes’, presents a collection of framed receptacles containing navel fluff. Emanating from sweaters or T-shirts, navel fluff is a tuft of textile, which gathers in the umbilicus of some men. Once again intricate questions regarding the nature of immanent transcendence come to the fore. Who is the author of this work of art? Can one speak of an author at all in a situation where the material employed is the result of an uncontrollable interaction between a moving body and the clothing that covers it? How large a part does coincidence play in the generation of art? Can sheer coincidence forge the necessary transcendence? Does day-to-day life accommodate a certain transcendence? What is the borderline between an artist and a collector?
The microbe or the material that escapes itself need not necessarily concentrate on the body however. The microbe operates each time a (conceptual or tangible) construction can no longer be traced and an unpredictable deviation is displayed. A disturbing and striking intangibility is the sine qua non of this extra dimension. A work of art can then transcend itself and a scintillate. In Stallaert’s work on stock market quotations, the microbe is produced by a computer. It is part of what the artist calls his ‘corporate art’ and consists of a minimal artistic intervention in the company’s own structures, practices and paraphernalia. In a map a collection of prints are collected which expose remarkable graphic designs; weird white spaces interrupt the list of marks, meaningless grey stripes pop up, empty pages are included and so on. Rigidity and usefulness, the key principles of business life, seem to be taken down by the useful instrument par excellence: the computer. The apparatus designed for the processing of data, disrobes the data of its informative quality, creates apertures and makes way for ‘lines of flight’.
What I find fascinating in art, is the wriggling which takes place in, between and beyond matter. Luk Stallaert’s work has the quality to materialise this wriggling in various media without ever getting the wires crossed. Each work exists in interaction with his repertoire. More importantly, however, he allows for this wriggling to happen without disclosure or explication. There will always remain holes to be filled. If the first exhibition tended to transcendence, the second promises a capacity to handle the precarious balance, which is inherent to immanent transcendence.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Oog en Geest. Een filosofisch essay over de waarneming in de kunst, vert. R. Vlasblom, Rotterdam, Ambo, 1996, p. 74.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Oog en Geest. Een filosofisch essay over de waarneming in de kunst, vert. R. Vlasblom, Rotterdam, Ambo, 1996, p. 32.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, L’oeuil et l’esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1964. First published in Art de France Vol 1 No 1 (January 1961); also: Les Temps Modernes, no 184-185.
There is an extra dimension to the tactile sense: one can feel what being felt is like, e.g. by rubbing one hand with the other.
For a more elaborate treatise on this subject, cf. Wambacq, Judith, The Situated and Bodily Nature of Intelligence: a characterization of intelligence based on the philosophy of Manuel De Landa and Hubert Dreyfus, 2001, can be consulted at the K.U.Leuven main library.