Hieronymus Bosch: At the Border of Disorder

The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid).  Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the  Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object.  Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it.  Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer.  The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals.  The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so?  Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?

Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation.  Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory.  Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.

A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III.  A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library.  Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD).  As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image.  Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.

Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre.  First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents.  One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.

So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting?  Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today.  Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding.  He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively.  In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work.  In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers.  Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage.  Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.

Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch.  Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics.  Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany.  In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.

Carl Schmitt. Source: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/carl-schmitt%E2%80%99s-war-liberalism-12704

Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence.  The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’.  In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting.  In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’.  For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.

So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg?  His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights.  But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims.  Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg.  This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah.  The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy.  It is a classification made subjectively by a group.  Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion).   It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Adoration of the Magi”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia


Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theologyKatechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages.  Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.  He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.

The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign.  For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception.  In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’.  In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.

Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him.  Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.

Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.

This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market.  At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances.  In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit.  Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state.   He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?

Alexandre Kojeve Source: Wikipedia

Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church.  He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State.  Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.

Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.

The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU.  However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire.  Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise.  Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.

What has this to do with Bosch’s painting?  At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life.  But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer.  Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ.  This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism.  In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior.  Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.

“Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail)

Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection.  Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg.  Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it.  Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.

‘Master of the Princely Portraits’, Engelbert II, Count of Nassau, c. 1475, Rijksmuseum. Source: Wikipedia

Notes & References

1)  Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.

2) http://www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl/

3) https://www.museodelprado.es/en

4) One of the most insightful reviews: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/mystery-of-hieronymus-bosch/

5) Interpretation cannot help but be influenced by this title, a relatively modern attribution.  More likely, the work was originally untitled, while a 1593 inventory refers to the work as a painting of the madroño plant.  This fruit, visually similar to a strawberry, is essentially tasteless.  Some interpretations have centred on this fruit as metaphor, see Reindert Falkenburg, The Land of Unlikeness (Zwolle, NL: WBOOKS BV, 2011), 18-22.

6) Lynn F Jacobs, “The Triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31 No. 4 (Winter 2000),1019, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2671185, accessed 31 August 2016.

7) E. H. Gombrich, “Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), 163, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750611, accessed on 31 August 2016.

8) Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 228-232.

9) ibid 233.

10) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

11) FALKENBURG (2011), 271.

12) ibid 266-267.

13) E. H. Gombrich, “The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 30 (1967), 403-406, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750758, accessed on 31 August 2016.

14) ibid, 74.

15) FALKENBURG (2011), 268-270.

16) Once again, books may have played a significant part in Bosch’s creative process – many of the hybrid beasts in his paintings can be traced to images and marginalia of Late Medieval manuscripts.  See FALKENBURG (2011), 55, 63, 68, 81, 123, 138-139, and others.

17) Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 19-23.

18) Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Westport, CN and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 24.

19) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

20) Lars Vinx, “Carl Schmitt” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Zalta, (Spring, 2016), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/schmitt/, accessed on 31 August 2016.

21) William Alexander Hooker, “The State in the International Theory of Carl Schmitt: Meaning and Failure of an Ordering Principle” London School of Economics PhD Thesis 2008, 16.

22) Koerner’s Gombrich talk provides a supporting quotation from Schmitt.

23) JACOBS (2000), 1035.

24) Slavoj Žižek, “Are We in a War? Do We Have an Enemy?” London Review of Books, Vol. 23 No. 10 (May 2002), 3-6, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy, accessed 5 September 2016.

25) press.princeton.edu/titles/10815.html

26) The term is found in St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7)

27) HOOKER (2008), 79.

28) HOOKER (2008), 39.

29) VINX (2016).

30) Philip Golub, “The Will to Undemocratic Power” Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2006, http://mondediplo.com/2006/09/08democracy , accessed 5 September 2016.

31) For instance, the Nazi regime suspended the Weimar constitution for three successive 4-year periods, under Article 48, rather than simply repealing it.  Slavoj Zizek describes General Alfred Stroessner’s bizarre state of emergency in Paraguay: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy

32) ŽIŽEK (2002)

33) Matthew Wilks, “Theories of Multicultural Toleration: An Examination of Justice as Fairness and Political Theology“ Inquiries Journal, Vol.6 No. 3 (2014), http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/874/4/theories-of-multicultural-toleration-an-examination-of-justice-as-fairness-and-political-theology , accessed on 5 September 2016.

34) Translated/reprinted at https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/kojeve2.htm

35) ibid

36) Robert Howse, “Kojeve’s Latin Empire” Hoover Institution, August/September 2004, http://www.hoover.org/research/kojeves-latin-empire, accessed on 1 September 2016.

37) Giorgio Agamben, “The ‘Latin Empire’ Should Strike Back” VoxEurop, (26 March 2013), http://www.voxeurop.eu/en/content/article/3593961-latin-empire-should-strike-back , accessed on 5 September 2016.

38) German interview with Agamben: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/bilder-und-zeiten/giorgio-agamben-im-gespraech-die-endlose-krise-ist-ein-machtinstrument-12193816.html

39) Matthew Karnitschnig, “Welcome to a two-speed Europe” politico.EU, (18 May 2016), http://www.politico.eu/article/welcome-to-a-two-speed-europe-deal-british-voters-brussels-open-marriage/ , accessed 1 September 2016.

40) FALKENBURG (2011), 76.

Review: Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’ at Chisenhale Gallery

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy.  Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.

The show is a product of an 18-month residency which allowed Pattison to spend time in London’s tech community: the non-profit Hackspace, as well as in Second Home, a ‘co-working’ business where freelance workers, writers, graphic designers, and coders use shared desks. The room represents a “speculative live/work environment drawing influence from Modernist architecture and science fiction”.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings.  Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor.  A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.

In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy.  The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food.  On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces.  In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry.  Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars.  Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.

Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”.  Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.

The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human.  One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.

To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny.  He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment.  In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures.  He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.

Installation View, Simon Denny, ‘Products for Organising’, Serpentine Galleries, 2015/2016. Image courtesy Serpentine Galleries.

The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug).  That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity.  Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped.  Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing.  Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.

Neoliberal Lulz at Carroll / Fletcher

Carroll/Fletcher Gallery’s soon-to-shut exhibition Neoliberal Lulz takes a look at manifestations of capitalism, and specifically at the joint-stock company, a form of social organisation that is both broadly criticised and utterly indispensable.

Femke Herregraven ‘Rogue Waves’ 2015, engraved aluminium sticks. Source: Carroll / Fletcher

The press release invokes the fall of the gold standard in 1971, but the more resonant historical starting point is the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the aftermath of which we are, arguably, only halfway through.  The artists in the show intertwine a perspective on the GFC with parallel, and more than incidentally related, developments in Western consumerist society, technology and politics.  In comparison other work on similar themes out there, this is a sophisticated take, aestheticised with high production values.  It is also muted: no screeching about Late Capitalism – yet it remains an eminently political and punchy show.

Constant Dullaart, Femke Herregraven, Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion, and Jennifer Lyn Morone combined investigations into the mechanics of financial capitalism, particularly the corporation, with elements of contemporary social discourse, such as privacy in a networked world, corporate tax evasion, or the visuals of ubiquitous advertising.  From a material perspective, the exhibition was very long video and web, and short to the tune of 20,000 shares sold online to the public.  The physical stuff on display was slick – perspex, photographs, CGI video, machined aluminium, etched glass, careful ink-on-paper drawing, neon.  One could easily see in this show the genealogy of Haacke, Sekula, Klein, and the aesthetics-of-administration, albeit less explicitly applied here to the Artworld.

Herregraven’s work, I thought, took the subtlest approach – he seemed to focus on the terminology of high-frequency trading, and its emphasis on ultra-short timescales, the so-called ‘latency’ of a stock order-routing network. Machined aluminium bars both recalled a graph of pulses in a fibre-optic cable, as well as a more archaic currency: the Spartan legislator Lycurgus, perhaps to prevent the corrosive influence of ‘easy’ money in society, mandated that gold and silver coins be replaced by heavy and unwieldy iron bars.  In doing so, any usefulness of money that stemmed from its portability would be eliminated, leaving only its function as a numeraire.

In another work, Herregraven worked with Dutch technologists to make an online game of tax avoidance – players could organise the corporate structure of their (fictional) companies to minimise tax bills.  This reflects the contemporary anger about multinationals using the tax code to drastically cut their taxes.  There’s an ambiguity here that oft goes unmentioned: the companies are generally using perfectly legal means, and mostly complying with laws that democratically-elected legislators have enacted.  Thus to get angry (only) at the companies is to overlook the fact that politicians, the system, and indeed, in many cases, voters themselves, are at fault.  I recall a U.S. appellate-court judge, the brilliantly-named Learned Hand, commenting on taxation: ‘Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.’ (in Helvering vs Gregory [1934] Source: Chirelstein, Marvin A. Learned Hand’s Contribution to the Law of Tax Avoidance in Yale Law Journal Vol 77, 1968.  http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5558&context=fss_papers).

Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion ‘Untitled Sas’ 2015. Source: Carroll / Fletcher

Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion established a French company, the sole purpose of which was to be a work of art, and are selling shares in the company online (http://www.untitledsas.com/).  As a corporate shell with no debt, its value is lower-bounded by the cash it holds from share subscriptions, while the sky is the limit on the upside, and indeed the company is now worth €300,000.  In doing so, they reference and update Yves Klein’s conceptual share-certificate work Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959).  They were advised by a French legal firm, presumably to ensure regulatory compliance for share offerings – something that is not merely a technical footnote.  Although the facts are quite different, one may for illustration and amusement read about the 2015 Sand Hill Exchange case: what might happen when the ‘fun’ aspect of an online game, interacts with pedantic, boring, and ever so aggressively-enforced SEC rules (https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2015-123.html).

In another, slightly more predictable work, they ordered free samples of gold-coloured objects, which were then framed along with texts that document where and how they were produced.  The works seemed to comment on labour, production chains, and whether things described as ‘free’ or ‘costless’ really are so (thus tying in nicely with Morone below).  They also echo Christopher Williams’ practice that exposes, via attached text or books, the documentation, material, bureaucracy and geography of the banal objects he photographs, albeit without the beauty or intense staging that Williams brings to bear on the images themselves.

Jennifer Lyn Morone continued with the idea of the corporate entity, in this case, incorporating herself and selling shares.  Her specific angle relates to the contention that internet-users collectively give away an enormous amount of personal data to the companies that provide internet services.  Even if the data is aggregated and anonymised, it is still valuable as it correlates geography, consumption (eating, buying, browsing) patterns, social networks, medical anxieties (as evidenced by web searches), political allegiances, and so forth.  We give this up in exchange for free, or the perception of free, access to the internet and perhaps even consumer goods (Shoshana Zuboff wrote a great piece on this in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshana-zuboff-secrets-of-surveillance-capitalism-14103616.html).  Morone’s concept and videos, and its connections to bio-politics, are considerably more thought-provoking than her somewhat forced manufactured objects that cross consumer design and advertising: perfume-on-a-plinth or diamonds-made-from-hair.

Jennifer Lyn Morone ‘JLM Inc Promotional Video’ 2014. Source: Carroll / Fletcher

Lastly, Constant Dullaart had a number of video and image-based works that reflected on corporate design and branding, as well as the fact that companies develop technology that is used for purposes that not everyone agrees with, so-called ‘dual-use’: in this case, spyware that might have been utilised to monitor various political activities during the 2014 Arab Spring.  These works were all well-made, but other than the large photographs in the front room, they didn’t seem particularly strong aesthetically or conceptually: I didn’t discern a lot of new ideas or imaginative re-workings of old ideas.

Constant Dullaart ‘Most likely involved in sales of intrusive privacy breaching software and hardware solutions to oppressive governments during so called Arab Spring’ 2014. Source: Carroll / Fletcher

The exhibition as a whole, however, provides a different take to other relevant recent shows.  For instance, Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present (2014-2016), is a particularly comprehensive and historical look at finance and financial crises.  The academic curators have, admirably, taken on difficult topics and tried to make them somewhat accessible to a general audience.  Furtherfield’s Art Data Money (2015) programme had some overlap with the Carroll/Fletcher exhibition (Morone and Brout/Marion were shown), but with a more explicit political agenda and with much greater emphasis on social engagement/participation.  Carroll/Fletcher’s conceptual cross between corporate structure and technology, delivered as a tasteful and elegant exhibition in a major for-profit gallery points out what is really at stake here: the inherent ambiguity we face in criticising capitalism while sitting comfortably within its consumerist cocoon.

Tauba Auerbach at Paula Cooper: Sexy Glass Meets the Mathematical Sublime

What started as a review of Tauba Auerbach’s current show at Paula Cooper led to the question of how indeed a successful work of art might engage with mathematics – what might be some approaches to visualising abstract and often inaccessible concepts?

Tauba Auerbach The New Ambidextrous Universe (2014) Source: ICA

Prior to seeing the New York exhibition, I visited the artist’s 2014 show at London’s ICA, The New Ambidextrous Universe.  In London, Tauba Auerbach exhibited about 7 objects, made of plywood, glass, perspex, and powder-coated steel.  The objects, smooth-surfaced and minimal, yet elaborately turned and possibly machine-made, looked sort of like useless furniture.  Formally, they were united by a concern with chirality: some carried a right-handed orientation, others left, while (and here my memory may fail me) a glass piece demonstrated a similar idea through light-polarisation.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the show’s sophisticated intellectual premise, I found myself oddly un-moved by it – there was no punch to the gut.  All I saw was reasonably nicely-made objects on low long plinths, in designer colours – stuff that would look great at Heal’s or an expensive Knightsbridge condo, and definitely looked like what art is supposed to look like.

Tauba Auerbach The New Ambidextrous Universe (2014) Source: ICA

Reading interviews with the artist, it’s clear that she has a fascination with the idea of maths, and while that undoubtedly finds its way into the work, I felt her pieces added but little to my understanding, or even appreciation, of chirality or of the eponymous book by the late Martin Gardner.

Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: Author’s own image

Her current exhibition, Projective Instrument is also built around a book, this time by an eclectic American architect, Claude Bragdon, whose interests spanned higher-dimensional geometry through to Theosophy.  The exhibition had a number of her trademark objects, made during a glass residency, as well as woven paintings.  These, or similar, paintings unfortunately were displayed to much greater effect, alongside Charlotte Posenenske’s work, in the gorgeous rooms of Indipendenza Roma  (2015).  The Paula Cooper show also featured seductively-coloured paintings made with custom-made implements ‘inscribing patterns derived from chain-maille, fractal curves, and four-dimensional tilings into the paint’ (press release).  At the end of the day, however, they were pretty simple, inoffensive wall decorations that neither illuminated the mathematics nor particularly pushed the boundaries of artistic practice.  Auerbach’s imprint, Diagonal Press, was, if anything, more interesting, showing copies of Bragdon’s book, amongst others.  I couldn’t tell if they were for sale, or if they’re thrown in gratis if one spends (apparently) $150,000 on a painting.

Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: Paula Cooper Gallery
Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: author’s own image of ‘library’ at Paula Cooper Gallery

A second take on maths-in-art comes from Falke Pisano’s rather good show at Hollybush Gardens (London, 2015), entitled The Value in Mathematics.  Pisano’s approach was more cerebral, less apparently infatuated with maths: in fact, there was very little about maths per se.  It was more about the teaching of mathematics, and how the subject is presented in society.  The exhibition consisted of a number of flat works, sculptures, and videos.  The flat works seemed to be unified by descriptive texts or titles on the wall, while the sculptures had in common an open structure, relatively humble or light materials, and open plinths.  For me, the overwhelming aesthetic was that of Modernism, of graphic design from a pre-computer era.  However, on closer viewing, particularly of the prints, the organising principle revealed itself: the various prints described what could be characterised as systems of valuation or exchange.  What animated the exhibition were the videos which, curiously, brought a more human and less conceptual feel to what could have been a cold and information-heavy exhibition.  Only at the end did I read the press release, and worked out the political sub-text of the show: as I understand, it challenges the impression, apparently promulgated by mathematicians, that mathematics is somehow objective and ‘value-free’, whatever that means.  The exhibition proposes that the teaching of mathematics makes it inherently political, context-dependent, and hierarchical.  Whether one thinks Pisano’s particular programme is interesting or not, her handling of the material is deft, a collage of politics and the scientific, woven into a fictional system of thought, perhaps intentionally layered, obscure, even obtuse [1].  I found Pisano much more convincing than Auerbach, where the maths seems just grafted onto a high-end design practice in order, one might surmise, to lend gravitas.  At a presentational level, I liked the fact that Pisano’s show gave the impression that it could only be bought in its entirety, or even if bought piecemeal, the individual works would always be somehow connected to the installation.  Auerbach’s were as distinct art-objects as they come: almost painfully asking to be collected.

Falke Pisano The Value in Mathematics (2015) Source: Hollybush Gardens
Falke Pisano The Value in Mathematics (2015) Source: Hollybush Gardens

Having looked at two artists working with maths, I wanted to highlight the counter-example: a mathematician attuned to visual aesthetics.  Thomas Banchoff, a geometer at Brown University, pioneered the use of 3-D computer graphics to explore higher-dimensional geometries.  In the old days, mathematicians used plaster Schilling models, such as those in the Harvard, MIT, or Oxford collections, to visualise complex geometric objects.  Banchoff’s contribution was to use CGI to animate the shapes, allowing the viewer to perceive the model as it unfolds in time and thus form a mental image of what a 4-D object might look like and how it might behave.  I would argue that, by allowing manipulation of the objects, the viewer could ‘fly’ around the shape in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, and intuition could be built directly from the image, rather than being mediated through the symbolic logic of the maths, or the drudgery and expense of finding physical models.  Moreover, the physical models remain in a fixed 3-D configuration, whereas the digital allows for any 3 of the possible 4 (or higher) dimensions to be projected.

Schilling Model in Harvard’s collection of geometric models. Source: Harvard University


However, as Banchoff doesn’t reference the conventions of the Artworld, either by contextualising his images vis a vis Theory or presenting them in an arty way, perhaps he wouldn’t be thought of, nor call himself, a practicing artist [2].  Yet, I feel his works are of far greater profundity than either Auerbach’s superficial approach or Pisano’s valid and interesting, sociological critique.  They marry visual aesthetics with a potential for conceptual or perceptual access to a reality that lies beyond the mere image.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 18.37.06
Real and imaginary parts of the complex exponential function w=e^z. Source: Thomas Banchoff
Rotation of the Clifford Torus/Hopf Fibration in 4-D. Source: Thomas Banchoff

An artist whose approach parallels Banchoff, while acknowledging, and being acknowledged by, the Artworld, is Manfred Mohr.  Still producing, with recent shows in London (Cubitt Gallery [2015] and Carroll/Fletcher [2016/2014/2012]), he used some of the earliest plotters to produce works on paper, notably a series exploring views of the 4-D cube, a so-called hypercube or tesseract.  Mohr’s work visually has an affinity to Minimalism’s serial tradition, but genealogically is better placed in relation to Concrete Art, particularly artists such as Jeffrey Steele and Anthony Hill.  Mohr’s geometric focus, and a methodical exploration of all combinatorial alternatives, impacts the viewer through its sheer exhaustiveness and perceptual immersion.  Some of his pieces, even more than Banchoff’s, imply the physically-impossible and the infinite.  It is notable that he achieves this without colour, without any quasi-mystical or metaphysical twaddle, and his works are entirely governed by the internal logic of their generative rules.

Manfred Mohr P-231a (1978). Source: Manfred Mohr

The last, and potentially most interesting approach, is to view maths as an essentially performative practice.  ‘Performative’, a over-used word in art-speak, is utilised in a specific sense here: the act of drawing a picture, handling a plaster model, manipulating a digital model, are ways of understanding, visually and haptically, how a given mathematical concept, for instance a multi-valued complex function, behaves: where are the zeroes, where lie the saddles and branches?  This sense of the term ‘performative’ is taken up in the papers of Xin Wei Sha, a professor in Differential Topology who has sought to look at the practice of mathematics in light of analytical constructs used in art and critical theory.

In my view, what’s interesting about this approach is that it can be seen to break the understanding of a given mathematical problem into three levels: an intuitive grasp of the problem, let’s say the true knowledge; a symbolic quasi-linguistic analysis, such as a proof; and a graphical or haptic ‘feel for the thing’, which I equate with the performative.  The actual drawing, digital image, physical model, blackboard scribbled with equations are residues of a symbolic or performative method.  These physical residues can be put in a book, and indeed, if packaged a certain way and accepted as such by relevant competent judges, can be called art.  But if the primary content of mathematical understanding is fundamentally intuitive, lying somewhere between the visual, the symbolic, and the physical, then it’s likely that a non-mathematician may never really access that content.  Moreover, without facility with these tools, he/she is unlikely to communicate effectively with trained mathematicians operating in a network of peers [3].  The most we can do is ‘poke’ at it, try to access it by manipulating the geometric objects, or, more interestingly, engage in a Wittgenstinian project of ’drawing connections’ between the mathematical objects and the world-at-large.  To the extent these syntheses, these connections, are haunting and unexpected, we judge the success (or lack thereof) of art like Auerbach’s or Pisano’s.

Walter De Maria Silver Meters and Gold Meters (1976-1977). Source: Prufrock’s Dilemna blog

I end with an analogy to Land Art. Certain artists such as Walter De Maria were concerned with documenting an ungraspable moment in time and space, or in the case of his Dia Beacon pieces, an apparently obvious yet subtle mathematical idea.  Yet in the case of The Lightning Field, the primary aesthetic experience remained in him, and an element of it now invests the few viewers who can actually make it out to New Mexico.  Similarly, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long made their experience, their walks, often in the countryside, the apparent content of their work, accessible substantially to themselves.  The documentation is entirely secondary, from an aesthetic point of view, if not from a financial/re-sale perspective.  It is as if, knowing they can never compete with the immensity of nature, they made minimal, repetitive but exquisitely calculated sculptural gestures: Et in Arcadia ego.


1  Fiduccia, Joanna Report: Bullshit ! Calling Out Contemporary Art, MAP Magazine, 1 June 2010, http://mapmagazine.co.uk/8981/report-bullshit-calling-out/ , accessed 23/12/15.

2 See Arthur Danto’s What Art Is (2013) for an introduction to how the late Danto analysed the perennially interesting question of what art is, and the circularity in art’s definition, particularly in the age of the ready-made.

3 Subject obviously to exceptions such as M.C. Escher, and his collaboration with Lionel & Roger Penrose.


So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.


I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.


Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.