Willem Elias — I is an other



Willem Elias — Ik is een andere


I is another
From symbolism to neo-symbolism

In May 1871 Rimbaud sent a letter to Demeny; the letter would become known as the ‘Lettre du Voyant’ (Letter of the Visionary). Rimbaud writes about the poet as a visionary. ‘Je est un autre’, he claims. In order to become a visionary, a ‘reasoned disorganisation of all the senses’ has to take place; the poet has to rationally disorganize his own senses in order to create a new reality, with new images and a new language. This statement does not just enter history as a clarification of Rimbaud’s work. It has become the motto of post-modern thinking, as it emerges in post-structuralism. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and his unsurpassed precursor Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) are both counted as symbolists. It is remarkable how well this instinctive body of thought, or this well thought-out emotional life from the nineteenth century, links up with the world of the past two decades. This is especially obvious in the art of painting, and the exhibition ‘Fading’, in which Reniere&Depla participated, is a good example. It would be wrong to speak in disparaging tones about this relation of present-day painting with nineteenth-century symbolism. A word such as ‘retro’ is altogether wrong here. Postmodernism has actually highlighted the illusory character of the novelty criterion. ‘Re-thinking’ is the rule here. Looking at the outcome of varying contexts is the order of the day. Postmodernism has made it possible for the form in which the concepts of conceptual art are shaped to be paint as well as anything else – and they can be painted well, too. Symbolism lends itself to this: no mere visual pleasing; no cheerful feast for the senses, unless it is a funeral – the laying to rest of illusionary certainties. Symbolism is reflection, based on connotative production of meaning, linked to objects, spaces, faces without standard expressions, poses without whereto or whence. Everything preferably comes from another era. The present is past. The attic is a secret hiding place to escape from the absent future. What we lived through yesterday is what we remember of yesterday. Ask a group that has experienced the same, and the same facts result in different stories x times over. Everything is multiplied by the particular history of experience of the experiencer. Meanings roam around in swarms in the paintings of the symbolists. That is the format used by contemporary painters, who cultivate blurring as a stylistic characteristic, as a vehicle for their present social message. Almost the opposite of social-realistic, sloganesque protest. Not any less well-meant, though. What is the biggest protest: shouting an anti-ideological ideology through a microphone or unplugging the PA system and whispering a number of disturbing questions? As such, I like to use the term ‘neo-symbolism’.
Symbolism was neither an organized movement nor an unambiguously delineated aesthetic concept. Representation was based on a central concept, linked to sensory perception and the atmosphere surrounding things. This imbues the objects with meaning. The subjectivity does not preclude that there was usually a social dimension. The principle of representation was redefined on the basis of the revolution in ‘looking’ brought about by the emergence of photography. The hope pinned on photography by some intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century fitted perfectly in the spiritual crisis that the bourgeoisie had fallen victim to, at the crossroads of the rapid development of science and the doubts about traditional values. In short, it was a world without certainties. Modern thinking could not help but put up the concept of ‘representation’ for discussion, both in connection with the world around the individual and in connection with the identity to be determined again by that individual. The rejection of reality and the withdrawal within oneself went hand in hand in a world without sense. Photography led the way to a replacement of reality. This is what is called ‘picturalism’ within photography. As opposed to ‘pure’ photography, which spreads the illusion of being reality itself, picturalism aims to manipulate reality in order to get certain effects, as is the case in painting.
For symbolists, the function of art is the reconstruction of reality after first having destroyed it. The work of art has to maintain the impression of being reality and at the same time suggest an uncertainty by introducing blurring in the image. The novelty is in the way in which reality is constructed in a deconstructive way. Put simply this means that, as the symbolists were doing, there is a complete focus on the ambiguity of photography, recording reality (construction) and at the same time reflecting on it. This reflection makes us think and doubt the obviousness of our fixed visions of reality (deconstruction). Apart from the undermining halt – reality never stops – the blurring reinforces the doubt about the certainty of everything we take for granted. Parallel with symbolism, links are being made between the hard visible reality (whether or not recorded as a document on film) and the psychological worlds: the unconscious via the dream; the possible via the sloppy colourfulness of mythical stories; the secrets of power via the hidden ideological dimension of the symbols of the normal commonplace. In addition, there is the fact that, as time goes by, we are constantly living in the past. Everything is an immediate recollection. We experience the past as the sum of vague moments. No film, but film stills, photography. The objective blurred, the subjective pinpoint sharp. A manual in faded ink for a better comprehension of this art can be found with Freud, when he writes about ‘Das Unheimliche’ (1919), which in the meantime has become an accepted term in philosophical English, as the etymological power of the phrase far outdistances the weak translation ‘uncanny’. Freud considered this a relatively neglected area of aesthetics. It concerns works of art that evoke a feeling of unpleasantness, uneasiness, anxiety, fear, disgust – up to horror, but not the horror of the sudden appearance of a terrifying Dracula, but the horror of a situation in which the silence fosters a suspicion of a presence not seen and hence unknown. Here is the ambiguity of the word. Indeed, semantically and etymologically the ‘unheimliche’ and the ‘heimliche’ cannot be told apart in German. They refer to situations in which something ‘heimlich’ – homely and familiar – is at the same time ‘unheimlich’ – uncomfortable, uneasy. As such, the ‘unheimliche’ is the occurrence of something that was once familiar, but that has been repressed and now evokes alienation in the mind.

The Evenings

The fact that Reniere&Depla have encouraged me to revel in ‘The Evenings’ by Gerard Reve, is a joy. Nothing really happens in the book. The main character eats, drinks, talks, relaxes and has trivial conversations with his friends. The best way to get to know the character is through what he thinks but does not put into words. Looking inside, we slowly come to realise that this ordinary man is a weird customer. A weirdness that we share with him. A weirdness that goes hand in hand with the realisation that the I holds a collection of doubles, each going their own way. Identical on the outside, variable on the inside. Eventually unknowable, neither by the other, nor by himself. I is another. Indescribable, even in the endlessness of a legal or psychiatric file. Literature at its minimum suggests being. It generates what being might be.
The same holds for the paintings by Reniere&Depla. The essence is not looked for. It is not there. And if it were, then it is annoying. It is what it is that it is – a tautology. The fact that semiologists have rapidly become nit-pickers does not alter the fact that they have introduced the idea that denotation is uninteresting. Life only becomes interesting with connotation, the details and the way in which contexts attach themselves to symbols. Reniere&Depla paint that kind of context. Bodies or objects are not themselves. They have changed their clothes over time. An atmosphere has shrouded them in meaning. A thing is not a thing. It symbolises mood. No facts, interpretations. That is what we live with. They are life. We needed Nietzsche to make us see that and to liberate us from Plato.
Reniere&Depla record moods in paint. The one is not the other if he is not the other for someone. A thing is only a thing if it gets a place in a world of experience. The thing gives meaning to the world, and the world to the thing. Both message carriers mate with each other constantly. As such, things get a patina of meanings, and the world changes step by step. Not towards a future, as the past walks along, albeit with the faltering step of memory. Melancholia for what has gone and nostalgia for what has been, determine the breathing of becoming. Reniere&Depla evoke worlds in which this mixture, diluted with continuous degeneration, is shown by hiding it. Behind the mask there is no true face. The face is the mask – one of the many. Reniere&Depla paint these walks of life, so delicately fragile. Modestly, breathtakingly, they record its moments.
I have called this kind of contemporary painting neo-symbolist because it does not start from observation. The cause is a thought process; a processing of the world; a quest for humankind and its world; a rollercoaster among the exuberance of symbols; a labyrinth of meaning-generating elements, as in a house of horrors. An object or a situation cannot remain meaningless because both presence and absence have a symbolising effect. The outside world as the screen of the inside world. Autism as a ubiquitous character trait.

— Willem Elias, Dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (VUB)
in Reniere&Depla 2005-2009