Exorcisms (studio notes)


(to the memory of Henri Michaux) 

Gu Kaizhi sometimes let several years pass before looking at a portrait. When asked why he let such long periods go by, he replied: “The beauty or ugliness of four limbs actually has nothing to do with that subtle point which conveys the spirit.

Back in 1991 I suddenly felt that a new kind of social pathology had become manifest in the behaviour of the general populace though I didn’t really care whether or not there was any explanation. I tried to describe the main aspects of this troubling sensation, but to no great effect. Writing, which is the tool, par excellence, of mental slow-motion, allows one to fix the movement of images and to reveal its meaning, but the retranscription of a fleeting vision requires artifices of construction so long, so fastidious, that while setting them down, one continually runs the risk of losing the original intuition of the reality that one seeks to share. As I desired to relate what was obvious to me, and as I didn’t see any alternative to the dilemma with which I found myself confronted, I decided to respond to the immediacy which was tormenting me with a natural action which was just as immediate. So I bought several bottles of India ink and some brushes, and immediately set about giving life to the aggressive and grotesque expressions which accumulated in my brain each day. Against all expectations, the result largely surpassed my hopes. The pouts of anger, the expressions of hatred and exasperation reappeared as if by magic from my memory, but this time, a flick of the wrist allowed me to make use of them instead of harbouring the negative effects. In this way I learnt that it was possible to maintain a dialogue with reality in an entirely different manner…

Through the triturations and little virtual vengeances with which I freed myself in a modest studio thrown together out in my garden, I performed long and quite exhausting séances of exorcisms.

Exorcism is a virtual action directed against a being or an object that is judged harmful. But as virtual as it might be, this action still ends up producing a perfectly real object…

By observing how the urge – which pushed me to paint what my gaze couldn’t bear – arose, I learnt that in order to prove effective, the exorcism must revisit the object on which it bore until piercing the mystery. In this way, the interiority of the object which one wishes to exorcise must be explored until the painting succeeds in condensing the intentionality with which the said object is charged at the very moment it catches one’s attention.

Exorcism is an action which takes place beyond all aesthetic preoccupations, but the operation through which one attempts, by painting, to materialize a sensation full of images, only proves timely if this sensation persists for a sufficient period of time. Memory possesses the capacity to store such potential. It is however the hand which, in the suddenly opened bundle of the gesture, resurrects with precision what the gaze was only able to glimpse in the flash of an instant …

Like writing, painting proceeds from a creative recurrence (revoir). In writing, this linear recurrence follows its course through words. The recurrence of painting, on the other hand, is spatial.

Throughout the centuries, Chinese artists have founded their vision on the complementarity of painting and poetry. The painter, in China, immerses himself in his subject until he is able to act as its conduit. Achieving this supreme state of concentration, it is possible, with the simple reading of a poem, to resurrect an entire landscape. It is a unique and astounding fact surely bound to a form of writing which, in China, combines image and symbol. Basically, painting and poetry question and give rise to the action of one and the same source of silence. This silence is that of the constant memory which, in Taoist vision, remains inseparable from its ephemeral manifestation. This fabulous working concept is found formulated in the eleventh chapter of Lao Tzu.

Visual proliferation, painting establishes in the space of the gaze a manifestation of reality that writing isn’t able to formulate, so that painting, amounts to lifting the veil masking the truth of the instant and hence to finding the meaning of the meaning which is intermingled with the movement of life …

Between the world and the gaze a subtle and rapid exchange takes place that discovers in the gaze … the world’s gaze. Looking as if one didn’t know how, as if one didn’t know anything. Gazing into the void.

Into the void, the memory feels inspired. Enough to traverse the image. The humble penetration of the Void creates seeing. Suddenly, the gaze takes flight and dreams in space. Voyage in the recurrence (revoir). Both outside and inside at the same time, the gaze’s spring bubbles. A contact is established which engenders a kind of diffusion of retinal activity. The body becomes clairvoyant and is seen by this clairvoyance that is suddenly active in the flesh. One is both nowhere and everywhere. But, where does the image that emerges from beneath my hand really come from? In the eye? Between the fingers? In space? The image forms here, in an everywhere here that contains elsewhere.

The archaic vision plunges its roots into a compost of perceptions buried beneath many layers of reality. Certain circumstances, however, cause this vision to appear through moments of forgetting, full of an intact potential. The gaze, from this moment on, evolves in the pure anteriority of the present.

The more the gaze questions reality, the more it becomes sensitive to the insanity of meaning. This renders it more spacious. From then on, nothing of what remains immobile is any longer perfectly still. There is only more or less motion, more or less speed, more or less slowness.

Maintaining mindful (hence active) detachment. This is a question of adopting the appropriate posture, of approaching the subject in the proper disposition. Painting the monstrous is a way of celebrating beauty. I began painting ugliness in order to exorcise my vision of a maleficent being. By leaving the task of digging up the roots of a mask to my hand, I have been able to see the whole evil deed. I now know that every face is a crossroad, and that conjuring up the action of ugliness, restores life to beauty. In this way painting ugliness is an indirect way of celebrating beauty.

Practicing painting in the mode of exorcism leads to establishing a distinction between the fleeting Vision and the constant Vision. The fleeting Vision is the coruscation of the constant Vision.

There is, under each form of artistic expression, a desire to suspend which turns into a celebration of movement.

Writing a poem or painting is to apply oneself to causing the emergence of a virgin gaze, so that the result can open a passage to the indefinite aspects of reality.

I paint in order to see, not to represent. If my act triggers a good conjunction, the benefit must be attributed to the liberating impulse expressed while, as if outside of myself, I entered mimetically into my subject.

Painting is an action that effects a mutation of reality.

The pensive duration of the gaze creates an air of suspense. In reflective suspense, creation occurs.

A steady wind stirs the discrete combustion of the gaze.

A painting inevitably fulfills its function if a certain sensation, that the gaze had grasped without being able to fix, is found materialized there. The more this thing, now present, is impregnated with silence as it evolves in the invisible, the more power the painting possesses.

Writing, painting. Two ways to bring the present into play, but only one way to catch it: wait, listen, action.

When I write, my body is a mental stage and when I paint, space acts upon it. I see what distinguishes these two actions. I also see what they require of concentration. Whatever it might be, both actions question the same source, try to circumscribe the same object. Everything plays in an inner exterior.

A vague intimacy floats outside, ungraspable and precise, a shadow swimming in the liquid mirror of forms.

Whether I write or paint, I only try to contribute to the revelation of a presence. Brief twinkling above a bottomless chasm, we swim in the substance of our own deaths, in the substance of a dream that is dramatically real.

Features rather than faces, for meaning is concentrated in them. The animal doesn’t escape the law. It too, to the very depths of its immense innocence, is the most accurate manifestation. Besides nothing escapes the law, neither plants, nor trees, nor stones, nothing which can be caught by the gaze, nothing finally of that which projects toward the visible the obscure intention of Presence. The primitive gaze possessed a high degree of this porosity that allows the invisible to be grasped through the visible. A gaze encumbered with nothing only sees what it knows. The visible becomes the buffer of thought when it becomes the threshold to thought. The hypertrophia of knowing and seeing provokes deafness. But, the eye only really sees what it hears. Without listening, the most visible object becomes immediately unreadable.

Just before painting, I need to create a strong concentration of silence around me. A vision bears down upon me. I must materialize it. The sensation of oppression intensifies in proportion to the calm that is required for the exact expression of this sensation. If the provoked suspension is achieved, the gesture’s mechanism can operate. The intention, then, condenses in space. Starting from this condensation, something toils, the soon visible structure. Without it, nothing would be possible.

Silence strips and simplifies. That is why I paint people as if they were animals and animals as if they were people. On the face of a man wrought with fear and anguish appears the same expression of glassy coldness as on the features of an animal sensing danger. Imagining the look of a reptile or the features of a beaten dog… Hybrid images form a bridge that connects us to an ancient memory. The relief of this memory holds true treasures.

Naturally, the gaze is already penetrating. The action of painting renders it even more so.

I paint my fellow men such as I think them, in other words less like they see themselves than as I hear them when I set about listening to what their image expresses. To define this kind of gaze I use a word that characterizes the auditory capacity of living because it is really a question of deciding to listen to what one sees.

Exploring, starting from the visible, what the visible doesn’t reveal is indeed the work of thought, but a similar action of thought would undoubtedly prove ineffective without the mass of perceptions which come to be associated with it. It is really a question of capturing an internal resonance, of grasping and probing the content. Something which cannot come about without an intense concentration being maintained at all times.

Behind each feature a vast silence. These masks have no suggestive power without the silence that they cover and which comes to contradict their expressions. Whether it is a question of poetry or painting, it is always silence that provides something to see and hear. It is silence that gives beauty to the ugliest images. Without silence, which comes to temper its effects, ugliness would become unbearable. By finding the silence of painting, I have discovered the lost silence of words.

Whether it is a question of painting or writing, the posture is identical. Silence and deepening. The deepening of reality demands the deepening of perceptions. When perceptions deepen, the entire body starts resonating and becomes visually receptive to what it perceives. Awareness can then summon up each sensation, by provoking an action, opening upon the boundless space of the world whose calm and mobility it embraces.

The true subject of painting is silence in plenitude. Like the poem, a painting is a window. The painter and the poet are always accompanied on the journey that demands the most extreme attention to signs. Light precedes meaning. Once the theatre of shadows is dismantled, the world is all that remains.

I paint copies of mentalities, of thoughts that become incarnated, a potential that is fulfilled in the mortal.

We say, when we are immersed in someone’s image: “I have photographed them”. It is less a question of a metaphor than of a reality for the gaze’s ground consists of a substance that each image affects much like a roll of photographic film is affected. The difference lies in the fact that the retina converses with memory and memory possesses the capacity to transform what it fixes. The eye is a photograph-oesophagus. It prepares the brain to consume the visible substance of the universe.

The inspiring subject leads to the empty subject and then, the empty subject paints the true subject.

When I paint, I often have the sensation of crawling down the shafts of a mine. Inside these shafts, circulate currents of energy that sweep you along then abandon you on the edge of dark regions where another language is spoken, comprised of breaths and rustling. These snatches of sensations racing about in the invisible become the layers of my vision, the language that I can read when I once again become a subject of this world.

Caricature is an act of penetration that takes place between two invisible mirrors: the mirror of the outer gaze and the mirror of the inner gaze. When the surfaces of both mirrors coincide, a veil is rent in the gaze and there is revelation. What caricature teaches me about the other, I learn all by myself. To caricature another, therefore, amounts to entirely stripping oneself, and thus to experiencing the absolute pre­carious­ness of life.

There is something inhuman in man. The inhuman that adulterates itself produces the strange. Laughter acts like a remedy in face of the strange. Caricatural exaggeration is one of the ingredients of the great remedy. With the penetrating vision surges a limpid clarity that fixes the strange and holds it at bay. The human tissue takes shape on the threshold where the strange encounters the original light. This juncture isn’t static, it moves with consciousness and modifies the structure of reality. The gaze that thinks clings to and moves along the length of this juncture in the boundless expanse of the world. When the gesture of painting draws the energy of its impulse (élan) to this region where space freely dreams, it is simply a matter of letting emptiness work, for it is then no longer I nor me.

The temporary reduction which executes caricature implies a reality taking into account the virtual. Caricature is basically only possible because the caricatured possesses a nature other than the one it is temporarily endowed with. It is this fact that confers upon caricature the curative property which is ultimately that of all authentic creative activity.

Through a series of gestures impregnated with space, the sensed takes shape; crude vision that comes to visit the shadow of the real, always suspended in the gaze. A face is never the face. A caricature even less so. The penetrating vision passes through the face and reunites with the immensity. Magical instant crowned by an impression of unlimited freedom.

In the street, suddenly, a fleeting vision. Quickly return to the studio. Ink, paper, brushes. Attention, there is a risk of transcribing it too quickly. One must gather the potential and contribute what little knowledge of how to go about it one possesses, to achieve the impossible. Just the same, one must have the calm of space in which to concentrate the élan of the living gesture; which animates while it depicts…

Whether it is a question of painting or writing, one struggles in a sphere of opacity where something toils, seeks the clarity of day. One feels pushed, almost expulsed by the grasping action to which, docile, the hand comes to lend its support: obscure passionate work like that of thought. When I write, the light’s source is inside. When I paint, it becomes external.

As I collect these notes that I have hastily jotted down on scraps of paper, my obsessive and persistent scrutinizing stands out, the stupid, obstinate questioning of what is not understood but still needs to be clarified. What I would like to know above all is the true identity of the inquiring title bearer.

The unveiling takes place but it escapes me. More than the instant of revelation (temporary no matter how long, and relative whatever its size), it is the instant of unveiling that I would like to live, thereby seeing what no eye has ever seen. But is that seeing or thinking?

For want of an adequate expression, I often use the term caricature but it’s not exactly right. It is rather time celebrated by the gaze.

I obstinately resist temporal mirages and I don’t know why. The faith animating me is real, but it is, on the other hand, without reality.

Each vision is a tree that must be examined right down to the root.

If all one had to do was look at a face in order to decipher the mystery, what use would painting serve? One paints faces because in the attempt to capture the expression something greater occurs which brings into play both the memory of the world and of mankind.

When I use colour, it is generally with the goal of distorting my subject. If ugliness becomes the norm, all that remains is to distort the ugliness in order to modify the relation which, in the space of the gaze, establishes the norm. This is the old artistic artifice of displacement. Happily the artifice completely surrounds space. The object which doesn’t change ends up disappearing from view. So that it might appear again, and in a form other than that of a simple mark, it must be presented in a different light. A face splattered with ugly colours becomes a mask. It is however neither one nor the other. Because it is disturbing, it again becomes, in a certain way, visible. But this isn’t the most important thing. What does count is what causes the displacement to be felt: the unrepresentable presence that the action of painting summons, a presence that sometimes becomes the gaze of the painting.

Art celebrates the Mystery. Creation is a magical act. Through the magic of art, the return to unity occurs. Art points in the direction of unity but without fixing the modes of the return. It is the path of consciousness. It involves a practice and through this reveals its participation in the trans­formation of things, and that is why it can neither reach nor fix a goal. It strives only to maintain the natural relation of distance between what is real and reality itself. Ugliness, of course, is an aspect of reality. By passing through the reality of ugliness, one reunites with the real.

The real artistic act, one which occurs out of necessity, of urgency, realises an emotion. This is first and foremost an identitary act.

A painting comes to life when the general direction of the signification is localized then redirected at a crucial moment of its unfolding. The necessity of a painting that takes shape is validated when an artist accurately evaluates the relationship of the temporal to the intemporal, in other words when it succeeds in making, in the formulation of its vision, the three dimensions of time coincide.

Painting and poetry are both keys opening upon the gaze of the invisible space of the present.

Painting is adding the visible to the visible. Writing is adding meaning to meaning.

In painting, adding as little as possible. In poetry, removing as little as possible. Economy of precision. Concision.

In painting, proceed as in writing: observe, learn, experiment. Seeing is not sufficient unto itself. A striving efficaciousness is also necessary. Efficaciousness results in a connivance that is justified by the artwork or text.

I paint or write to plot a disaster that I feel is imminent. In face of the onslaught of sounds and thoughts which threaten to annihilate me, I restrict myself to the prow of the boat in which I sail. Writing and painting are the actions which temporarily save me from the disaster. From that which is temporary, I construct my duration.

Beyond the mask, there is man, the thinking animal. Art allows the thinking animal to escape the animal thinker.

There is a reality independent of our mental reality. Namely physical reality: the fact of being corporally present with the real. The real is the support of mental reality. When I try to paint the silence of certain visions, I am investigating the nature of this support. Then a strange dialogue comprised of conjugated silence is formed; as if lending an ear, I would be able to hear the silence in an ear a thousand times deeper and vaster than my own. It is in these very moments that I come to see the images that are transmitted solely by painting.

The act of painting sharpens the blade of the gaze but the human brain is not made for stomaching the massacres that its perverted functioning engenders. One must inhale a certain emptiness. A pregnant emptiness. Seeing without suffering? Impossible. One only learns to measure the pain, to circumvent it. Art was initially an evasion, a skirting. Grace and beauty are successful avoidance tactics.

Whether he paints or writes, an artist always strives to establish a revealing relationship. The more apt the relationship (favourable strong point, easy manipulation of intangible masses), the more suggestive power contained by the artistic creation. Such an exercise demands humility and precision. Never cheating. Failure can give rise to success.

An artwork tends to substitute itself for what it obliquely refers to. Besides it succeeds all the better by being an imperfect depiction.

An artwork must not be a goal, but a vector, a place of passage, a transition between the world and that which looks at the world within the world.

By painting I don’t so much seek to represent what I see as to grasp the intentionality (spinning sensation). Defining too much, all sense of movement is lost.

Grasping the sense of a presence is to open its form to energy.

I paint around a gaze to which each eye is the entry. This exercise of unveiling inculcates in me the rules of an ephemeral combat, the vision of which perplexes me. I don’t really understand the monstrous miracle concocted each day yet nevertheless I still pursue exploring it. I am like one of those swinging doors which at times open outward, at others inward.

When I paint, I look at what I am painting without seeing it. It is really only later that I discover what my hand has drawn from space, once forgetting has swept past.

Primitive man knew how to invoke both the intelligence and the action of matter. He knew how to make a crude use of certain things from which he drew satisfaction. Matter responded to his demands in a natural and immediate manner, why should he have bothered looking anywhere else? He sensed the existence of a potential, but instead of seeking to take advantage of it, he pondered the miracle and foresaw that it wasn’t at all necessary to seek, further or elsewhere, what he already reached with his eyes… Through this attitude, an innate sense of the sacred was expressed. I write, I paint, so as not to lose this primitive intuition.

The gaze’s trajectory is never broken. It only vanishes into the silences of obscurity where it regenerates itself and continues on.

Working, I observe myself starting from a point where nothing that comes into being has any kind of reality. This allows the creative energy to circulate.

An artwork validates itself in the expression of its most exact necessity.

Every Vision is the product of a relationship that puts into play gaze and reality. This relation is modified according to the distance that is established between the two. The greater the distance, the higher the vision.

The increase or decrease in distance is effaced by the position’s angle. The more one is immersed in a reality, the less one is distinguishable from it. When the angle is nil or almost nil, all Vision becomes impossible.

All Vision is a gift silence bestows upon the gaze. But the gaze is all being. Vision is the gift in the Body’s image to the body.

All visionaries must find, outside of themselves, the strength which will allow them to not buckle under the pressure of the lucid tension. This force is the fullness of emptiness.

When I paint, I merely seek to return to the highest expression of truth. Sensation, feeling provide the action’s tone. An image which moves you can arouse a Vision. Without an emotion arousing the image, no Vision would exist. But the image only moves if it is thought. In order to be established, Vision needs inner silence. One could call this direct knowledge. The verification undiminished by the fluidity of exchanges is the painting which brings it forth.

There are lines of visible forces that externally organize the real, and lines of invisible forces that organize it internally. Between visible and invisible an uninterrupted exchange takes place in the air from which exteriority and interiority abolish one another in order to coincide in the gaze of awareness. It is at this very moment, the same time as Vision, that the Same transforms into the Other.

A famous drawing by Hans Bellmer represents a young girl who lifts her body’s flesh as if it were a skirt. She looks into herself, at the strange mass of organs and viscera that comprise life. Sometimes the visible similarly lifts itself, providing a glimpse of the strange mass of mental matter in which it takes shape. This is what I try to paint.

Generally, I paint starting from real images, but occasionally I also paint faces seen in passing, in photographs or billboards and ads.

Whatever the image it must act as a trigger.

There is a linear gaze and a spacial gaze. Though connected, these gazes don’t evolve on the same plane of reality. The linear gaze adopts the forms of time whereas the spacial gaze immobilizes time. The linear gaze connects forms and recomposes them, the spacial gaze preserves the principle of all Vision. The work of art is, between these two gazes, the dialogue of anteriority.

A painting loses all effectiveness if the relation that has provoked its emergence ceases to act within it. It is the constant arithmetic of relation that allows a painting to pursue its élan, to communicate it, to open the gaze to the unperceived part of reality that it silently points toward.

I paint polymorphous beings because I paint what I think and, in thought, everything is movement and mutation. The real is not what we imagine it to be. If we could ponder the real, look at it, think it starting from Emptiness, we would aid the mutation of the visible. The mutation of the visible draws attention to itself through the discrete signs of the world.

Everything, in our universe, obeys the alternation of opening/closing. Everything, in the human gaze, is the fruit of this alternation that from our viewpoint is unstable and constant from the world’s point of view. The artist is the one who sees reality in multitude.

The creative impulse can be neither diverted nor forced without causing damage. One must proceed from an appropriateness between the real and the living. Whatever a work’s nature, it only possesses evocative power if it results from a harmony, from a resonance of which it confirms the visibility. When reality and gaze communicate (commune), something, inside the body, lights up and emits a radiant energy. It is this energy that gives rise to the creative process. The gaze, then, becomes the filter through which this energy assumes an appearance.

One day while trying to paint a bird’s feather, I saw how much breath my gaze lacked and how much suppleness my wrist lacked to fly to the aid of my hand. When the Chinese painters recomposed the landscapes that had moved them, they hoped to prolong a moment of grace and offer it to others (“A painting must come alive” writes François Cheng in Mille ans de peinture Chinoise). The proliferation of half-baked works will perhaps cause us to one day become incapable of being moved upon seeing such masterpieces.

In silence, everything communicates. Through silence, everything is transmitted. Silence is the true fabric of life.

Writing, reinventing the gaze. Painting, discovering, uncovering of the gaze. Discovering and reinventing, are these not to think, to dream?

An artist is someone who strives to establish emptiness. Emptiness is established by the least possible. An artist is someone who uselessly strives for the natural state of simple nudity. The only thing that gives an artist any pleasure is the purpose that he or she usually maintains while simplifying his or her art as well as him or herself. The creative transformation also confirms the necessity of the dialogue of silence that is established between the world and man. Art is the melody of this dialogue leading, through the awareness of the Other, to self-awareness.

And a certain duration, no matter what happens, escapes the jaws of time. This is the duration of the realized dream…

Rochefort, October 1, 1998.

Claude Margat
EXORCISMES © 1998 Éditions Hesse