On Something and next to Nothing
Per Aage Brandt, 2003

"Couch". Tempera on canvas, 180 cm x 300 cm, 2003.

1. Representation and signification.
A painting is a picture, and a picture is a kind of utterance. In viewing and experiencing them, pictures are predicates of something-or-other, whatever it is. There is a something – whether it originates in mythology, history, faith, the media, statistics, the imaginary, or even in physical nature or an experienced reality: some realm of human reality, in any event, that we can refer to and of which we can predicate (say, show) something – this something yields an image for the artist. It then lends itself to presentation in a painting, whose paint-covered surface affords a perception of it as a picture, a representation, and thus allows us to imagine a scene in some space, and finally we let this imagined scene form a presentation of whatever it is that is supposed to be signified, namely the in itself invisible something.

The immediate ‘pictured content’ imagined is, then, seen as the expression of something exterior to itself; it is a sign or signification of this invisible something which the picture is intended to refer to. It presents something, it is a presentational content behind which is another content, expressed by it, a content we could call referential, in that we refer to it with our imagined content. One cannot paint a picture – or write a poem or a piece of music, for that matter – without at the same time having the immediate “representation” signify something it does not directly represent. If the picture appears to represent for instance a chair, or a pair of boots (van Gogh, Magritte), this chair and these boots necessarily bring about in our imagination something which they do not resemble: some general aspect of human reality that can be the object of thought or that can be felt. You “sit down” (cf. chair) or “walk” (cf. boots) in an existential sense, not just in the concrete bodily sense; the picture produces this effect in a particular manner by having picked this particular metonymically related ‘pictured content’, by having this existential meaning resound in the key of this content, so to speak. It is this manner or tonality that is conveyed as a predicate in the utterance of a work of art. Something appears a certain way in a certain light, resonates just so, in this key and with this phrasing. This is also what makes style so significant in art in general.

"Jacuzzi". Tempera on canvas, 180 cm x 240 cm, 2003.

We cannot show, say or play, that is: represent, something, in Art, and not have the physical expression of this piece of art refer to such a threefold content – the represented, and behind it the significance, which is more generic; and finally, and especially, the manner in which the representation signifies, i.e. its “resonance”, perceived as an emotion. (Conversely, all emotions are “relations to” something, and it is always “the manner in which” something happens that affects us.) The relationship between the represented content and the particular aspects of human reality signified is interpreted by emotion. It is thus emotion that people sense is the actual meaning behind the physical expression of a work of art. In this perspective, contour, chromatics, light, stroke, texture, the size of the motifs relative to each other and to a human body, frame size – everything that can be seen as tied to events on the canvas – all become significant; the threefold content of this (semiotically) dense expression points back in the opposite direction, to the physical surface of the picture, and calls attention to or warrants renewed attention to details and wholes, which may not have been noticable at first glance but which are now significant “manners in which”. The perception or experience of the painting – the image perception – becomes a reading process.

"Barstools". Tempera on canvas, 180 cm x 300 cm, 2003.

2. On not being.
A room, an interior containing certain measures of color and light, and that may be decorated, as if there were people around, and as if they had just been here, and as if they were here to accomplish whatever, as if they were part of a story and filled the room with their intermingling intentions…, such an image of a room can be experienced as a thought pondering this intentional intimacy and musing that this intimacy is a momentary emptiness, a striking absence. Homes, garments, décor, artefacts at large, are, as any anthropologist would concur, as such and in themselves a kind of negation: here someone is not presently engaged in some activity… They could be, under different circumstances. Where did they go, or when will they arrive?

When we want to deny the existence of X, in Danish, we say that X is not “found” – as if someone were looking without finding; as if X had hid too well, and though in a way still present it was nowhere to be found. The very “existence” of X says the same thing, really: X ek-sists, it protrudes, stands out, or it fails to do so, in which case it is non-existent. That which does not make itself available does not obtain – but it is here, nonetheless, according to language, only it does not ek-sist. Virtual being, we might call it. When people die, they persist in their being (otherwise it would not be felicitous to say: “he is dead”, because there would no longer be a “he”), they are still themselves, it is just that they can no longer be found. True, when something has been obliterated, scattered into a thousand pieces, or has been incinerated and is up in smoke, gone with the wind, it no longer “is”; but not even a negation of such fortitude can annihilate its presence in the world. It merely eliminates its accessibility, so that one can no longer “get a hold of” it. (“There is no X to be found”). There is no longer any “here” or “there” for X, there is no Da-sein anymore. Our minds do not allow us to cognize absence and negation but as proximity with difficult or obstructed access.

To be sure one cannot paint or depict a negation in any straight-forward manner. Pictograms have to make use of symbolic means, such as diagonally crossed lines on street signs (e.g. “No parking”) if they are to signify a “not”. They are then – equipped with diagonal lines and other graphic symbols that stand for words – no longer pictures but diagrams. A picture cannot shake its head no. It depicts what it depicts, and is condemned to positive showing. And as human thinking supposedly relies completely on mental imagery this creature should not be expected to be capable of thinking “not”. However, as it turns out, we manage anyway: we imagine the object of thought to which “not” applies, and which is thus being negated, being denied existence, in a state of de-solation (destruction) or as being lost (abandoned). We let it fade out – it still resonates, but faintly. We think of the negated thought content as a ghost version of the actually existing version.
To think of that which has no being, is to think of it as counterfactual, i.e. as something that could-have-been but is prevented from being due to something else, whether accidental or necessary. As something that might have been if some other state of affairs had been (the case), which it is not. “If I had any money, I would invite you to the movies”; I do not, so I will not. Still my doing so is something to which I can refer. The doing is real, in a sense, but it is a ghost: a phantom of an initial doing which was never actualized. Phantom thought, i.e. counterfactual thinking of this sort, is crucial to the way our minds work; only by doing this can we sketch out things that are possible as well as impossible and plan our lives in accordance, navigate in time and space in a world that is haunted – for historical reasons (everything that turned out a way it was not supposed to casts a shadow of counterfactuality).

"Portrait" 1 & 2. Tempera on canvas, 50 cm x 75 cm, 2003.

3. Vacuum narrativum.
The narrative absence, not just as a ghost story but in a more radical sense, as a meeting with an experiential space whose time contains no story at all, though it contains things, including artefacts, is an impossibility. This should not deter us, though. In such a space, these things are now objects, and they signify their own concepts, which they do in a way such that the relation between object and concept is not seen from anywhere, that is, they are seen from nowhere: that is the only vantage point from where the gaze, the gaze of the mind, is not occupied by an individual, a subject. It is of course impossible to see an entity without seeing it from some spatial location, where a subject would be positioned as an observer. Hence the endeavor is paradoxical: it is not possible to represent olympically; still it is possible to signify olympically – in the sense assumed earlier. In principle, the manner in which the object is pro-duced, the manner in which it signifies, can be one that blots out or eradicates from expression the subject’s “subjectivity” and instead expresses a sort of generous and dim neutrality which (for a start) at least removes any traces of passion on the expressive surface, the passions of a volitional, fantasizing, desiring, painfully focused subject, and (thereafter) little by little, the expectation – in the mind of the audience – of the occurrence of drama. Maybe a physical picture surface is still a façade after all, in the opinion of the mind, and in spite of all history of art: cf. Latin: ‘facies’, Danish: ‘fjæs’, – a face; and this face can keep itself straight and not bat an eyelid. It shakes off its historicity, at least for a glimpse of time, as we occasionally do when something has ended, before something else has begun: during those privileged moments of de-modalized being, of the nothing-in-particular-ness that we can experience in the interval between two narrative event sequences, during which, by contrast, we act as full-blown subjects who coulda, woulda, shoulda done things, or want, have to, or ought to do things that we find ourselves able or dramatically un-able to do: modal subjects with each our identity in all its lustre.

These demodalized states might be called poetic – if we assume that prose more so favors narration – and it is curious that language does not allow the total absence of subjectivity in representation either, though it can still communicate demodalization, for instance by the means of metrics, in the rhythm of a text, and through every other possible enunciational “dimming” or “matting” (cp. a dim or matt light bulb). We cannot look to language either for the possibility of saying nothing at all, but from time to time it allows for a next-to-nothing for one precious moment, if the face of the representing subject is equally “dim”. It is the physical surface of the picture that determines what will be the case for a particular painting, what its “enunciation” conveys. In movies, it is mostly the music enunciating the picture; the degree of narrativity is marked by the part of the soundtrack that does not consist of ‘on location’ sounds or speech but blind and averted music. In painting, it is the blind and averted paint that is the music, to use an analogy.

"House". Tempera on canvas. 200 cm x 300 cm. 2003.

4. Art and negativity.
Human beings have a positive form of perception, and to such a one the world keeps pouring in, positively, and leaves positive traces, and traces on top of other traces. “Experience”. However, we also have a negative perception at our disposal, a symbolizing perception, that makes it possible to perceive isolated visual impressions as intended pictures, or certain isolated auditive impressions as intended music or language. This form of sensory perception is negative in the sense that it shows us what is not there but might be, or has been, or could have been, or never was nor ever will be, or almost was, or actually is, though unnoticably so. This is, in essence, the activity called aesthetics. In brief: art that attends to developing this negative, intentionally oriented and averted, symbolizing perception, without which we most likely would not have produced an historical consciousness, scientific knowledge or social community, let alone an erotic love life.

We do not know how it happened that we became fond of negativity. It must have cost us several neurons, especially since it seems to have happened in conjunction with the discovery and the first systematic use of intoxicating drugs. Rather than do away with non-real imaginings, man began to sustain, remember, communicate and celebrate them during intoxication. During intoxication, oblivion was purposefully inhibited. And at the same time sensory integration was inhibited, and the speed of perception decreased, making it possible to see without hearing, to hear without seeing, etc. – and man tied these extravagant imaginings and the thoughts they signified to the unintegrated sensations that they came to express. This is one possible account of how the signifying, fantasizing, more or less discontent and intelligent human came into being. In every work of art we see it arise over again; what is irresistible about creating and experiencing art is in all probability this elementary and prehistorical thing; encountering the concretely negative, even in the extremely historical circumstances that make the relevance of each work of art dependent on its “time”, measured in days and years, because it can never be free of iteration – paradoxically, art is only one universal and ahistorical thing, but as it cannot display its negativity without shifting from one form of expression to another, from one style to another, with iteration in its wake, it must be both the most and the least historical phenomenon known to us. Iteration, repetition? Yes, the industry, the triteness, the active and positive thoughtlessness with which we maintain everything that is substantively present, which art has made possible, and to which art is no longer familiar.

English translation by Line Brandt