Nick Cave, Thomas Houseago, and Brad Pitt at Sara Hildén Art Museum, Tampere, Finland: 18.9.2022 – 15.1.2023
While star-studded actor Brad Pitt had been seduced by the lure of recreational ceramics for some time, this is the first time internationally famed musician Nick Cave exhibits his porcelain. The self-taught duo was invited by their friend Thomas Houseago, a world-renowned artist who had recently discovered painting, to exhibit at the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Finland. They compiled an artist statement titled WE, published in the Museum press release.
The statement declares their intent to transcend the limit of self in popular culture by inventing a new way of art making that moves away from ego-driven modes of thinking to the profound realisation:
“I am not an I. I’m a WE.”
Their aim to abandon the ego, once considered the driving force behind creativity, transcends the traditional concept of self. The centuries-old logic of personality was that one must delve deep into one’s true self to discover the innermost spiritual substance of collective being. In exchange for the inner, solitary ego, the artists hope to locate an external collective being.
The artist statement knocks on the door of Lacanian psychoanalyses, which is known for not treating individuals, but rather, analysis of our collective compulsive neurosis. In popular culture, we suffer from this neurotic fear for being non-existent. This desire for recognition affects us all, even celebrities. The proverbial therapist’s advice may go something like this: Abandon the self-centered image of your adolescent ego because a merge is impossible. Instead, exchange your desire for symbolic recognition; at least, unlike the ego’s delusion of true self, here you can sustain your desire by playing your symbolic role within a collective fiction. In this context, the collective order would be the symbolic logic of fantasy in the subliminal world of art.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in his seminar The Logic of Fantasy, has something more philosophical in mind about the self and the ego when he famously asserts: “Either I do not think or I am not.” Going up here against Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” Lacan explains that I never “am” where “I think.” He means that it is only the unconscious that literally thinks, and the unconscious is inaccessibly split from the ego.
The innate ego can be traced back to infancy – a sense of being one with all the surrounding partial objects, such as that of the nurturer’s body parts, and desire for recognition beyond need. The unconscious, on the other hand, is a later psychical supplement socially nurtured when the adolescent is submerged into the symbolic order of language. Structured like language, the unconscious represents the self as manifest of our collective symbolic world.
Thus, following Lacan, my ‘true’ ‘self,’ is not inside here where “I am,” linguistically speaking. Instead, the unconscious logic of the self is located out there in the symbolic world, severed from the real organism. Because of this lack, the subject, which is an effect of language, aims at recreating that lost unity.
For psychoanalyses, disputing Descartes’ idea of an autonomous being, the human subject is a lacking, split being forever desiring unity with the real world. There is no other entry for the subject into the real than fantasy, and fantasy, Lacan tells us, is found in very distinct neurotic structures, such as the cultural conventions of science, religion and art.
The structure of aesthetic fantasy has a particular setting, such as that of the conventional theatre or art gallery. This is a performative space where innovative objects (signifiers) are juggled or sublimated for signified unity with other signifiers, bringing about a scenario of enchantment (signification). The fantasy scenario is reliant on a receptive audience being fascinated by the innovative objects and with the expectation of consequential contemplation, or catharsis. This convention dates back not only to ancient Greek theatre or prehistoric ritual, but to the very founding of symbolic language. While sublimation (an object elevated to the dignity of a Real Thing – Lacan’s definition; or simply, where one object stands in for another) keeps us at a safe distance from the Real Thing, protecting us from possible trauma, the fantasy scenario sustains our desire by making us imagine we are facing the Real Thing. In other words, fantasy coordinates desire for unity with the Real Thing.
The human subject sways between two psychical poles, neurosis and psychosis. Neurosis registers as the normal state where the subject retains sanity and normal functioning in society. Here, the structure of fantasy procures form and consistency to our social reality. Psychosis, on the other hand, registers as a delusional state where the symbolic order of language dissolves – here, the performative function of fantasy is utterly subverted.
In his book, For They Know Not What They Do, the psychoanalyst Zizek explains defective fantasy. The proverbial egotist, he tells us, would dismiss, and belittle the conventional play of fantasy precisely because he finds there no ‘true’ self-image, and no competing ego. The egotist presupposes cultural fantasy is literally ‘out there,’ publicly recognised by ‘naïve’ others who believe it has real existence. Similarly, ‘cutters’ find the anxiety of perceiving themselves as non-existent so unbearable, they harm themselves with razors until blood flows from their veins, thereby grounding the ego in the reality of the body. By contrast, Zizek tells us, the inscription of tattoos on the body is a form of sublimation that grounds symbolic relations with others in the same fetish order.
Modernists such as Picasso and Kandinsky followed a strategy of aesthetic sublimation when they ousted traditional art, a century ago. By exchanging the image of a well-rounded organic Whole upon which the permanence of traditional representation rested for an abstraction void of social status and value, they created something from nothing – ex nihilo. From point-zero, they invented a novel phantasm (a new history of art) cloaked around the nothingness of color pigment – the Real Thing.
With these new coordinates of fantasy conventionalised, no artist after Picasso and Kandinsky could innocently go back and paint in the old figurative way without being labelled nostalgic fake. Innovative sublimation, Zizek tells us, is central to the structural development of fantasy, allowing us not only how to maintain desire against our neurotic impulse, but also, “the creation ex nihilo of a new (sublime) Man, delivered from the corruption of previous history.”
Houseago, a disciple of Duchamp, believes artistic creativity is common to all people. The idea that everyone is an artist has its foundation in industrialisation and the founding of leisure time, which made way for recreational activities and choice of profession. In pre-capitalist society, it would have been anachronistic to think of artist, priest, nobleman or serf as profession of choice, selected from an arbitrary list of options. Along with recreational art came the inventory of artistic styles – it would be as anachronistic to speak about classical or medieval style in the pre-industrialised world, Zizek tells us. Both recreational art and selection of style are means to care for the self and shape individual character for functional participation in the fantasy of social reality.
Many of the works on exhibition reference ego and sense of self, the press statement informs us. Cave produced a series of glazed ceramic sculptures titled The Devil – A Life. Produced in the style of Victorian Staffordshire Flatback figurines, the work tells the life story of the devil. Cave told the Finnish broadcaster YLE that his work is a very personal choice, “about the idea of forgiveness or the need to be forgiven.” “I wanted to do a devil because it was red. And I like the colour of red glaze,” he said.
Pitt’s work developed from taking account of where he may have erred in the past, “a radical inventory of self, getting really, cruelly honest with me,” he comments. One of his sculptures made of clear silicone shows bullets trapped in suspension after being shot at various trajectories, freezing the destructive power of different styles of ammunition. He told the Finnish broadcaster YLE: "To me it's all about self-reflection. it's about, you know, where have I gone wrong in my relationships? where have I messed up?”
Houseago, who graduation at London’s Saint Martin College of Art and Design, references desire for the real in his painting title, Soul Visit – Dead Self & Before Birth. He utilises personalised content alongside selected artistic styles appropriated from traditional European landscape painting. In addition, following the Museum press-release, his new paintings respond to work in the collection of the Sara Hildén Foundation, Alberto Giacometti’s (1901–1966) sculpture Woman on a Chariot (1943, 1962).
THE exhibition ends 15 January 2023.
Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. For They Know Not What They Do: enjoyment as political factor. London: Verso.
Jacques Lacan’s Summery of the Seminar of 1966-1967 [The Logic of Fantasy]; in, Yearbook of the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes (unpublished). Translated by Cormac Gallagher.
Johannes Scott, an independent artist and writer, graduated at UNISA with a BA degree in theory of literature and postgraduate studies in narratology, theory of drama, and critical theory with specialisation in Derridean deconstruction and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.