The ceramic installation Mare Mediterraneum (2018) at the recent Manifesta 12 in Palermo, Sicily provides an exemplary setting for discussing the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of subliminal aesthetics.
Lacanian psychoanalysis has in the past decade received major interest from academic studies in sociology, political theory, and aesthetics.
The contemporary surge of interest focusses on the later work of Lacan, following his departure from Freud’s structuralist psychoanalysis. Lacan negates psychobiography and the artist’s work as symptom of sexual repression, replacing these with sublimation.
Sublimation corroborates with reception orientated aesthetics in that it replaces the subjective gaze of the modern artist with that of the postmodernist, objective gaze. In psychoanalytic terms, the sublime work of art takes on a performative role and brings the public gaze of the viewer to the fore as analysand.
Lacan’s poststructuralist work is significant for any discussion on ethic reception of contemporary art because, as Lacan demonstrates in his seminars, psychoanalysis has affinity with popular culture, which today is pivotal for mass curated events such as international art biennials.
Mare Mediterraneum is an aesthetic production comprising a series of nine porcelain sculptures and multimedia installation by the collective AES+F. The Russian artists Tatiana Arzamascova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes form the collective.
The series of nine porcelain pieces appropriates the conventional ceramic form of 18th century rococo figurines produced at European factories such as Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.
Rococo figurines characteristically portray small groups of popular figures of ordinary people, modelled in theatrical pose and gesture, and displaying the ornamental triviality of the late Baroque era. Initially, these miniature sculptures were produced to accompany the intimate décor of trompe l’oeil frescoes for decorating the residences of the elite. Later, as the colourful enamel decoration increased together with its affordability to an expanding middle class, the figurines became popular ornaments for the everyday mantlepiece.
AES+F sculpted the series of nine figurines with a sensibility of enchantment that subtly deviates from ornamental rococo to address the curatorial context of Manifesta 12. Manifesta Palermo addresses the misery of refugees and migrants that come adrift onto the Mediterraneum shore of Sicily. This impossible tragedy has ethical implication for both the Italian residents and European holiday makers who enjoy the desirable marine conditions for aquatic pleasure seeking.
The contingency on the island of Sicily is not new; it has been ongoing since the mythical foundation of the continent when Phoenician princess Europa was brought ashore. In their statement of intent, AES+F writes, ‘The Mediterranean Sea is the reservoir of civilization – its heart has pumped people, cultures, and religions from shore to shore like blood. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians flowed north, the Romans and Crusaders south, the Genoese east, Byzantines west, the Islamic Caliphates east, west, north, and south. Sicily is right in the middle and the waves of all civilizations have splashed on her shores. This is still happening today.’
AES+F’s figurines are modelled with the same decorative finesse, and same theatrical pose and gesture as conventional rococo but deviates in theme. The sardonic theme is that of contemporary consumers seeking pleasure on aquatic mobiles, welcoming foreign strangers from the sea onto their aquatic craft. In addition, the estranged figurines gesture an awareness of misplaced, or impossible erotic love.
The porcelain pieces are juxtaposed against a large multimedia screen showing a loop of a turbulent seascape. Looking awry at the juxtaposition, the installation parodies Théodore Géricault's Raft of Medusa. The famous 1819 romantic painting depicts a raft with survivors and a pile of corpses after their naval mission had tragically gone wrong. It is well known that Raft of Medusa represents the fragility of bare life once abandoned to fate.
The installation of Mare Mediterraneum is site specific to Sala Pompeiana at Teatro Massimo in Palermo. The venue, with its established theatrical conventions – such as x stands for y, one thing stands for another, and nothing is what it is – completes the fantasy setting in which the porcelain pieces are sublimated.
The visual grammar of the fantasy setting is performative. It elevates the porcelain ornaments from common, private object to aesthetic vehicle for symbolising the blinding crisis on the Mediterraneum.
Lacan explains the sublime quality of an object not as intrinsic property but rather as an effect of the object’s position in the symbolic setting of fantasy. Here, it exerts a power of fascination that can lead to reconfiguration of subjectivity and social transformation.
Lacan negates Kant’s theory of the sublime which, for Kant, is an intellectual power embedded in privileged individuals. This romantic notion locates the sublime in the consciousness of private experience and renders it unexchangeable and static as cultural object.
In his reading of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone, Lacan demonstrates the role of the Chorus as objective function of the sublime.
At the climax of the tragedy, Antigone faces the letter of the law in Creon’s Janus-face judgement against burial rites for her brother, Polynices. After Polynices was condemned to death, Creon denies him symbolic death and orders his corpse to be dumped outside the city walls, exposed to wild animals.
Antigone resists the judgement and as a result, is also condemned to death by Creon, to be entombed alive. This uncompromising moment of incomprehensible cruelty is the impossible crisis at the climax of the drama. It is at this moment of horror that the Chorus, in a performative act, comes to the rescue. As she faces death, the Chorus unexpectedly deviates from the plot and erupts with an epic ode to erotic love. At this moment of bewildered estrangement, the Chorus radiates Antigone with sublime beauty, and in the transfixed gaze of the audience, a symbolic heroine transpires.
Lacan explains that the unrelated poetic song provides symbolic closure to where none seemed possible. In Greek tragedy, the Chorus has a function of beauty and desire to break impasse by providing new interpretation. The sublime enables the audience to gaze for an objective, ethical consideration in the face of calamity.
For analogy of sublimation outside cultural practice, one can turn to primordial earth, observing the cataclysm of a volcano eruption. When looking too closely at the geological event, one gets hurt, and is left numb and blinded. But when gazing at the volcano from a distance – looking awry, one can in the primal beauty of the orgasmic, flowing lava, thundering rumble, and delicate smoke plume, find symbolic restitution for the impossible anguish that takes place at the epicenter. In the gaze, the unconscious recalls previously observed volcanoes, knowledge of volcanoes, its objective associations, connotations, and social aftermaths. The sublime beauty of the volcano brings forth a moment of catharsis.
Similarly, when inspecting the decoration of an 18th century porcelain figurine too closely, one gets lost in the brittleness and fragility of the medium and as a result, the symbolic order of rococo and baroque culture fragments and shatters away.
Mare Mediterraneum performs an ethical intervention against bandwagon mentality of myopic complicity in xenophobia and ethnic violence.
The complicity results from a void of social recognition and lack of symbolic signification for the crisis and leads to inhuman manifestations of inhospitality to migrants and refugees.
The crisis is like a spectre, it has no recognisable figure - a signifier without signified. AES+F points to the impossible crisis by means of metaphor in their statement of intent. They describe the primal, pulsating crisis-thing as a bloodied heart that pumps waves of people onto shore.
To address the void, AES+F presents Mare Mediterraneum as an organised, imaginary order that stands in for the lack of symbolic order.
The imaginary order is organised as fantasy setting in which the porcelain figurine takes central position. Enchanted by the fantasy setting, the porcelain figurine is dislodged from its rococo symbolic of decorative trivia and distorts into an anamorphic thing.
The anamorphic, figurine-thing now stands on equal footing with the impossible, crisis thing. Both, signifiers without signified – one thing exchanges for another, and as Lacan puts it, something comes from nothing. The enigmatic porcelain figurine is sublimated and mediates as empty screen on which to reconfigure signification for the lacking symbolic.
The gaze of the viewer superimposes the anamorphic, imaginary figurine against the tragedy of The Raft of Medusa and sees the one for the other. A naval tragedy and a misery of abandonment – then and there against now and here.
Like in the beauty of Antigone’s Chorus, the sublime figurine mediates the unbearable task of self-reflection, on behalf of the audience. The sublime brings emphatic description and interpretation to the consciousness of the spectator, and cares on behalf of the viewer.
Within the cultural, safe environment of the theatrical installation, the sublime figurine embodies the burden and emotional chaos that the spectator would otherwise find too traumatic and inhuman to comprehend. The consequential aesthetic yields the trauma palpable and discernible for ethical signification.
· Berressem, Hanjo. Dali and Lacan: Painting the Imaginary Landscapes. Source: Appollon, Willy and Feldstein, Richard (eds). Lacan, Politics, Aesthetics. Albany: State University of New York Press (1996), pp. 263 – 293.
· Doane, Mary Ann. Sublimation and the Psychoanalysis of the Aesthetic. Source: Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales. New York: Routledge (1991), pp. 249-267.
· Evans, Dylan. 1996. Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge.
· McMahon, Cliff. Zizek’s Sublimicist Aesthetic of Enchanted Fantasy. Source: Marlies Kronegger, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (eds). The Aesthetics of Enchantment in the Fine Arts. Netherlands: Springer (2000), pp. 253 – 264.
· Miller, Jacques-Alain (ed). 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
· Rabate, Jean-Michel. 2001. Jacques Lacan, New York: Palgrave.
· Zizek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.
· Zizek, Slavoj. 1991. Looking awry: an introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
· Zizek, Slavoj. 2016. Antigone. London: Bloomsbury.
Pictures: artwork by AES+F, photographed by the author on site at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.