The Substance of Emptiness
By Trond Borgen
Orpheus turns to his Eurydice, but she vanishes back into the land of the dead – and all Orpheus can perceive is the emptiness after, his longing for, and the loss of his beloved.
He is the archetypal artist: through his delightful lyre playing and singing, Orpheus possesses the ability to master all things, humans and animals. He is even allowed to enter Hades, the land of the dead, to fetch Eurydice back to life after she was bitten in the heel by a snake and died. But the condition is that he walks in front of Eurydice when they ascend from the land of the dead; he must not turn around and look at her. When he violates this prohibition by turning around, Eurydice vanishes back into total darkness.
Maurice Blanchot interprets this myth as an image of the artistic act of creation (in his 1955 essay "The Gaze of Orpheus"); Eurydice is a symbol of death, disappearance, loss, absence – which Orpheus is barred from seeing face to face. By doing this anyway, he destroys his work of art (Eurydice being brought into daylight). In this total loss and emptiness lies the true origin of art, because Orpheus must, as an artist, comply with the demand of art, namely that the artist should sacrifice his work of art for the ability to see the emptiness and darkness at the core of existence. In this way, art can lead us ever deeper into the unseen, into darkness – into existential realisation; it is the artist who can see, and make us see, this emptiness.
Melancholy is the key here; it originates precisely in a sense of loss, longing, absence. "There is no imagination which is not, overtly or secretly, melancholy," says Julia Kristeva in her book Black Sun (1994). She associates melancholy with art, arguing that art can conquer death. "Only sublimation withstands death." By sublimation she means the human capacity to transcend basic urges and overcome fundamental losses, not least through symbolic representation; and through sublimation art is created.
This idea, which is so central to Kristeva's work, that aesthetic creativity is always an imaginary representation of the individual's fight against the collapse of the symbolic – i.e. that the melancholic, through artistic creation, transcends his sense of loss and his longing to simply give in to melancholy in resigned silence, and that he fights this longing precisely to create art, which will encompass symbolic aspects and thus prevent the collapse of the symbolic – is very fruitful in our encounter with Per Christian Brown's photographs. He made his debut in 2000, as a wanderer in the dark of night: photo shoots in deserted parks in the middle of the night, artificial lighting yanking trees and bushes out of the rational, day-clear light and into the domain of dreams and longings, made art into a product of the deeds of darkness, and a bearer of the silent emptiness of melancholy. By giving this emptiness, this absence, a physical shape, Brown was able to transcend melancholy and give it symbolic force. He would develop these themes further during the years to follow.
Art history abounds with depictions of constructed, or staged, scenery – from the Renaissance via the Baroque and Neo-Classicism, to Romanticism painting tradition is full of images of the ideal landscape, of the dream of Arcadia. In his photographs of deserted parks, Brown alludes to this monumental landscape tradition. However, he presents a kind of distorted version of it. Brown's landscape is far from Arcadian, Utopian, harmonious, ideal – on the contrary, it appears dead and lifeless, abandoned. Indeed, through Brown's small interventions, his gentle staging of the photographs, which includes the use of balloons, glitter and toilet paper draped over the branches of the trees, this landscape takes on a disturbing and unpredictable nature. The dream of Arcadia long since shattered, Brown's world is totally different from that of the grand tradition of art history – which emerges in his pictures as shadows of the past in the form of allusions and distorted quotes from traditional landscape painting – and melancholy finds new forms of expression. One of the photographs shows old Christmas decorations in a tree, above a dirty heap of snow. The dream of Arcadia is no longer possible; it has been tarnished. The party is over; everyone has left. What we see is the emptiness afterwards. Only the longing, the desire, for human contact and warmth – physical and emotional – remains. In the eye of the photographer. And the longing, the absence of this contact, in the melancholy sensitivity of the photographer.
It is as if Brown, like Orpheus, is turning to the forbidden, which evaporates and vanishes in that same moment. This emptiness he is able to transform into art, by heightening it – he seeks the night-black darkness of emptiness in order to better see as an artist.
Brown’s different series of park landscapes are nocturnes without people, but laden with emotional atmosphere. He gives them titles which clearly colour the way we see them: Love Scenes, Sexualised Landscapes, Abandoned Scenes, From a Dream and Power and Pain. It is obvious that something has happened, there is evidence of human activity, but also evidence of something which has not happened, evidence of dreaming and desire. Here is an imagination which eroticises the subject, the landscape itself, and the nocturnal atmosphere. It is as if these subjects are turning into fetishes; they become the focal points of a desire which demands everything. Thus, parks at night are places of mystery in Brown's pictures – they are enigmatic, mysterious scenes only those initiated can fully appreciate. He has provided a key to understanding these images; when they were exhibited in 2000, he wrote: "The park is the scene where dramatic events and forbidden erotic encounters between men are acted out. I view the elements of the landscape as symbols of the longing and desire which must exist to draw people to the parks at night." So, at one level, these nocturnes represent gay cruising spots. At a different level, they are sufficiently universalised to hold a human longing to transcend, a desire linked to the emptiness of loss and yearning through melancholy. Brown is Orpheus: turning to his Eurydice, through the absence of the object of his desire, he is able to create art stemming from a melancholy which it also transcends.
Then this may chiefly be about maximising this sense of emptiness and absence – about condensing the emotional opportunities inherent in an image where absence itself is so obvious. When man is thus present through his absence, the following paradox becomes the key in this part of Brown’s artistic production: absence turns into presence – the absence is intensified by the presence of the pictorial desire for desire – the artist is striving for the substance of emptiness.
When I look at many of his nocturnal park scenes as a whole, especially in rapid succession, I am struck precisely by this accumulated effect of emptiness. It eventually attains its substance, its saturation, through the muted crying absence which exists in every single picture. Brown transforms the existential sense of emptiness of man’s course on earth into a symbolic representation of how absence and longing for something else are saturated into a creative force which is at the same time erotic and purely spiritual. Sexuality, as expressed through the hunt for a casual partner in gay cruising spots, is sublimated into an imagery which transcends man’s basic urge, and thus death. Human nature is projected onto our natural surroundings; as it takes on a physical shape, it is transformed into culture. Through its substance, emptiness breaks out of its own state, and the meaningless becomes meaningful. Thus, Brown positions himself at the point of intersection which Camilla Paglia thinks is so fundamental in art. In her book Sexual Personae (1992), she says that "sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture..... Art is a form struggling to wake from the nightmare of nature."
The nocturnal wanderer is lonesome in his dreams and his desire. He looks and looks, but can find nothing but his own desire, which is projected on the motif. So the light in these pictures is of a dual nature, and doubly artificial – we see the lamppost light of the park as well as man’s inner light of desire. On the surface, transcendence does not take place, not in real life out there in the black night. Yet it does take place in the staged world of art. The power of imagination is truly melancholy, as Kristeva says, and in Brown’s photographs the creative artistic force transcends the resigned silence of melancholy, defying the collapse of the symbolic by giving us the substance of emptiness.
When Brown proceeds to introduce people in his pictures, it is not simply to chase this emptiness away; on the contrary, he wants to accentuate it. Half-naked young men live in their own, confined worlds in the series Autoerotic Scenes, exhibited in Stavanger, Norway, in 2001 at a show Brown called Lost At a Dead End. Emptiness has become a dead end – but how do you find your way out of it?
To Per Christian Brown, the road ahead leads through the back door of art history. First, he stages himself as an extremely decadent poseur through the history of art. He appropriates various examples of recognisable subjects and styles – St Sebastian, sickly bohemian artist, student at Cambridge, German 1880s decadent gentleman – subjects Brown raises as empty clichés, asking: can I give these clichés new meaning and substance? Is my personality great and strong enough to be effaced in these derived subjects, to re-emerge in the middle of the art history I cannot escape, no matter what? Art is not just a form struggling to awake from the nightmare of nature, as Paglia holds. "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake", wrote James Joyce in his novel Ulysses as early as 1922. But instead of trying to awake, which he obviously sees as futile, Brown lets himself be swallowed raw by this history. In this way, his artistic project gradually turns into subversively winning the history of art from the inside, not through groundbreaking originality, but by the appropriation and unrestrained use of certain art historical devices. He reconstructs, with considerable irony, an imaginary past, his own, while sinking into a greater past, that of art. He allows himself be effaced to be able to create. He lets his work of art disappear, because he turns and looks back, like Orpheus, at what he cannot reach, what he cannot hold on to, in order to be able to see more deeply into absolute darkness. In order to be able to work through his melancholy, his great grief, and give it a visual form.
In this sense, Brown avails himself of the concept of death which lies inscribed in every photograph. "A photograph is a prophecy in reverse," says Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida (1980), because it tells us about that which has been – it has no future and is filled with melancholy. Barthes says: "I shudder ... over a catastrophe which has already occurred....Each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death." When Brown stages himself in subjects from the past – from the Renaissance, Romanticism, Decadence, etc. – it is as if he inscribes death into his photographs, as if he is already mourning his own death, through art.
But his pictures also seem to mourn the death of art: Brown is starting to take an interest in what was and what no longer is, in the powerful play between darkness and light of the Baroque era, its chiaroscuro effects, as they were used as symbolic vehicles of emotional and existential states. This follows from his interest in staged photographs, which invariably portray reality as fiction, a product of the artist’s imagination rather than his immediate relationship to the world. It is the theatrical that will come to totally dominate his pictures. Brown’s staging of his subjects becomes ever more apparent, so does his emphasis of the notion that the photographic medium is neither pure nor untarnished, but highly influenced by other art forms, by art history and popular culture. All these elements are now combined in Brown’s pictures. There are elements from the exclusive world of painting and the images of consumption in the mass media, from the metaphysical-dramatic tableaux of the Baroque to pornography’s focus on the body and pieces of clothing, with subject-matters ranging from existential struggle to pure fetishist desire.
He is trying out the visual relationship between the human form and candlelight in a chiaroscuro technique taken from the Baroque, in the 2003 series Dreaming of Angels and To See Through Someone Else’s Eyes. He borrows a style which was in that era intended to maximise the emotional expression of art, but which cannot today be readily revitalised or reused, and which for Brown becomes a step on the searching road towards a clearer artistic relevance for art in our time. He makes strides on that road the following year, in a series called Shadow Lesson. Here is a strange relationship between man as a subject and his perception of the other – the one outside the picture frame, stretching his hand or foot towards the main character of the pictures, ambiguous as to form and content. Is it to assist and support, or to inflict force or a threat?
This existential ambivalence, the relationship between protection and force, reaches its climax, as yet, in his exhibition at Hå gamle prestegard at Jæren, Norway in the autumn 2005. Here Brown combines them with plain kitsch elements. In three of his staged photographs, called Nocturnal Vision, we see a half-naked young man lying on a bed with a swan hanging above him in the dark of night. Like stills from a movie, the pictures practically form a cinematic sequence – yet without telling a story with a beginning and an end; there is no narrative climax. Instead, it is as if this is an action which is repeated over and over again, each time in a slightly different way, an obsessive action which the boy on the bed cannot escape. The contrast between the illuminated subject and the deep darkness surrounding it is striking. We may be witnessing a nightmare. Yet the swan with its spread wings resembles an angel, as we see it in Baroque paintings where people are reacting to the celestial messenger with dramatic gestures as dramatised in the chiaroscuro technique. Caravaggio and his successors are typical examples; so are Carlo Saraceni’s paintings of St Cecilia and the Angel and the extremely exaggerated poses in the paintings of Allesandro Turchi.
Also the erotically charged figure of the angel is highly present in the Baroque. I am particularly thinking of the angel in Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of St Theresa (1652) in Rome’s S. Maria della Vittoria church, and of Giovanni Baglione’s Sacred and Profane Love (1602), a painting Brown quite clearly draws his inspiration from in his photographs, which balance the double excess: erotic desire and spiritual longing for something greater than man himself. Eroticism finds a distorted mythological expression in the form of another popular subject through the history of art, Leda and the Swan, which is alluded to in Brown’s pictures. It is as if the young boy dreams of being raped by Zeus in the shape of a swan, because his sexual identity deviates from the norm. Thus, the swan/angel is ambiguous – it suggests protection as well as violence.
Brown’s play with the artistic devices of the Baroque era in a homoerotic camp fashion involves an obvious voyeuristic fetishizing of the male body, through a staging of the subjects which is not least about controlling our gaze and imagination. This recurs in Brown’s latest photographs, and we recognize it in the video Reveries of Endlessness. This video deals with the relationship between two men dressed in underwear and choreographed in a masculine dance which is in part presented as an aggressive fight, in part as a caressing approach. Mahler’s late romantic, sweet and melancholy music flows and swells from this video, filling the room. When it was shown at Hå, the video coloured our perception of a large swan installation at the opposite end of the showroom, which is the loft of an old barn – a swan song, the moment before art totally vanishes into a world where a champ turns camp.
For up in this dark loft we are witnessing a strange swan song: Brown has made an installation of stuffed swans and white sheets suspended in the room, almost hovering weightlessly, strikingly illuminated against the dark backdrop of the loft. The swans from the pictures have now made their dwelling among us and are shown as an exceedingly theatrical tableau, a development of the subjects of the staged photographs. The difference is that this time, we are possible participants. The installation being so ingeniously designed, the symbolic white purity of the swans and sheets is thoroughly tarnished; it can only be rescued from absurdity by adoption of a tongue-in-cheek approach. What springs to mind is the Baroque St Nepomuk monument, made by Antonio Corradini, in the St Vitus cathedral in Prague, with its opulent pomposity and a hovering silver angel lifting up the curtain. Brown’s installation has swans holding up the sheets – a kind of pretence angels, lifeless and stuffed – there is no saint to be revered, only the dark emptiness surrounding all the white. Thus Brown illustrates and avails himself of the distance between kitsch and camp: Whereas kitsch represents trivialized idyll – in which "pleasing the eye is the key", according to Hermann Broch (Kitsch and Art, 1933) – and is a beautiful, sentimental replacement art unsuccessfully demanding to be taken seriously, because it is pure escapism, the artist can turn the kitsch aspects around by using irony and looking at camp from a distance. This is what Brown does in his swan pictures and swan installation. He consciously applies plain kitsch elements in an art setting, while asking whether this theatricality and contrivance can be given true significance today, or whether it only holds the desire of the fetishist eye.
That is what makes Brown’s art interesting. In its excessive use of Baroque and camp effects, it operates on the outside of most other contemporary art in Norway. And he does it with a skilled application of devices, approaching the edge of what we can accept as valid within the concept of art. Brown presents art as excess, and life as a distinctive staging of imagination, desire and art historical heritage. He turns around and looks back at the history of art, seeing tremendous darkness and an art attempting to fill this darkness as the art is disappearing. Brown considers it his task, like Orpheus, to create beauty, to bring Eurydice from darkness into daylight. But like Orpheus, Brown succumbs to his desire, turns around and looks at his forbidden object, resulting in melancholy and silent pain. Orpheus’ desire is not to see Eurydice in the light, but to see her as hidden. This is not only a paradox, it is also impossible: Orpheus is the artist who wants to make visible the invisible as invisible, and that is why he loses his object, the very core of his subject, forever.
This is the paradox of art, according to Blanchot, because without this desire and the loss of it Orpheus would never be an artist, for art should express what is not obvious, the unseen; it should approach what is hidden and reveal what cannot be revealed. In this it will not succeed, and that is the nature of art. It is the grief of art, and its melancholy.
In his art, Per Christian Brown turns to this darkness; he sees the loss of a great context, of absolutes, of a transcendence which art used to express as truth, but which may today only be hinted at, dreamed of, mourned. There, in the dark, before the collapse. And then he conquers darkness, paradoxically, by intensifying it and showing us the substance of emptiness, illustrated by the swan installation up in the dark loft. Art is being swallowed by darkness, and can only be grasped as it is disappearing.
Translation: May Britt Strømsvik