Girls & Philosophers


A diptych or a triptych - it all depends on how you look at it. Two screens form the basis of the work that Brussels artist Koen Theys has entitled Girls and Philosophers, which constitutes the subject of this catalogue. These are panoramic screens – each 3 meters high and 12 meters wide. Together they form a gigantic diptych whose parts directly face one another. Between them, however, there is also a space which is marked out by these screens and within which the viewers can move. What happens there, how the viewers react to what they are shown on these screens, can be interpreted as the third part, the middle section, and therefore even as the central element of a triptych.


Almost by definition, a diptych or triptych has something dialectical about it. Contrasting panels show heaven and hell, while in the middle the earthly vale of tears is depicted. Or they show the before and after, the front and back of one and the same world. They are designed to teach the viewers a lesson, warn them about how things can go wrong. Girls and Philosophers too presents a dual world view, with parts which are simultaneously each other´s mirror image and opposite. One is populated by the Girls, the other by the Philosophers. The zone in between is a bit like a magnetic field. It is not only powered by the contrasts between these two groups, but also by the regards of the figures who people them. Not only do the many girls look the philosophers right in the eyes, and vice versa, but the viewer is also aware of being seen by each of them while looking at them. Caught in a web of regards, the viewer is as it were forced to take a position. From a spectator he becomes an actor.


The viewer is also stimulated to move. Because the screens are directly facing one another and it is physically impossible to view the entire work in a single glance, he constantly has to turn his head from the one screen to the other, and then back to the first. A ping-pong perception which is further stimulated by the fact that what is shown on these screens continuously assumes a different constellation.


Girls glide past on the one screen. A hundred of them. You can hardly call them children, but on the other hand they still appear as virginal as the white decor in which they advance. Pre-adolescents. During the filming, Koen Theys had them perform, one after another, dancing to their favourite music. Just like that, the way they showed up on the set, and apparently with nothing special done about their appearance.  He filmed them with five different types of shot, ranging from a close-up, just the head, to one in which the camera captures them from head to toe. Then Theys processed the results into a single tableau, a long frieze, where the girls dance in rows over the screen, as if they had all appeared together before him. In fact they remained dancing in place. Via computer processing he makes them pass by over the full width of the screen - from left to right, after which a moment later they return in another framing (closer or further away), on the left of picture. No sound accompanies the projection. Yet it should be clear, from their gestures and their clothes that none of the girls dares to attempt ballet. They dance to pop or hip-hop, disco or techno. They know all too well that they are being looked at. While they continue to stare at the viewers and philosophers in a somewhat challenging manner, Lolita´s in the making, they are clearly intent on seducing and pleasing. They do it with complete devotion, and their enthusiasm is infectious.


The look of the men who glide over the other screen is entirely different. Not exuberant like the girls, but rather resigned. Serious, cautious, ironic sometimes, and pitying. They aren´t dancing but sitting. Filmed somewhat flatteringly in clair-obscure, they pose by way of contrast not against a white but against a black background. Their movements are limited to a hand playing with a cigar, and a mouth blowing smoke. The are men of a certain social position, you can see that. Not blue-collar workers, but intellectuals. Moreover, there is that studied nonchalance in their clothing and hair style which makes you, even without knowing the title of this installation, suspect that they are philosophers. They too glide from left to right, but vis-à-vis the girls they are coming from the other direction, so that the two projections together constitute a circular movement around the viewer, who feels like he is being carried along in a maelstrom. Because on each of the screens the same tableau constantly repeats in a loop. The Eternal Return of The Same.


All of the figures appear to be not much more than variations on the same standard image. Despite the differences between them, they seem virtually interchangeable, which especially in the case of the philosophers gives one something to think about. Moreover, that standard image does not appear to be much more than a towering cliché. It corresponds perfectly to the preconception one has in the back of the mind about ´a girl´ or ´a philosopher´. The girls dance, the philosophers think – and not vice versa. Their position is also limited primarily to a pose, which is defined by the regard of the other. Gradually, the viewer is overcome by a ´Tintin in the Land of the Soviets´ feeling.  What offers itself as authentic - and today, where can you expect more authenticity then from a philosopher or a girl in her earliest youth? - appears to be pure façade. There is scarcely a shred of individuality here.


Koen Theys has an identical twin brother, Frank Theys. That may help to explain not only why the idea of the mirror image in Girls and Philosophers plays such an important role, but also why the question of what exactly makes an individual an individual - a unique being, different from all others - constantly recurs in his oeuvre. For example, in 2003 the condition humaine of twinship formed the starting point for Meeting William Wilson, a video recording of a performance in the Museum D´Hondt-Dhaenens in Deurle, near Ghent. During a vernissage, eighty pairs of twins mixed in with the rest of the public. In the video, one hears a whispering voice reading the story ´William Wilson´ by Edgar Allan Poe, about a man who is confronted with his mirror image. Elsewhere in his work, the fascination with depersonalisation translates into a frequent use of techniques such as the splitting and multiplication of figures, or morphing, a process which permits objects, people and even gods (The Thousand Faces of God - 2001) to flow seamlessly into one another and lose themselves in a greater whole.


Themes such as dancing, posing, theatricality and spectacle have also characterised the rhythm of Theys´ oeuvre ever since Song of My Country (1984-1989), a grotesque video reworking of several operas of Richard Wagner, with which he and his brother Frank in the eighties immediately earned an international reputation. In Song of my Country, old myths about power, beauty and war, the gap between men and women, were transposed into a present day dominated by television and other mass media. The title was borrowed from one of the anthems of the Flemish-Nationalist movement, which would collaborate massively with the German occupiers during the Second World War. And although Theys was only born in 1963, this Second World War, and the decades which formed the prelude to it in Germany, the Weimar Period, also remained a constant in his later work.  For example, in 2001 he created Mediastudien (nach Heinrich Hoffmann), a video which is a reworking of pictures in which Adolf Hitler poses for his official photographer Hoffmann, practicing the gestures with which he would later manipulate his public – the palms of the hands raised towards heaven, the fingers spread, with open mouth, and the eyes opened wide as if possessed. Here, too, Theys frequently uses techniques such as morphing and the splitting and doubling of images, in order to end with ballet which is as sinister as it is hilarious, worthy of Chaplin.


And can a greatest common denominator be found in this at first sight so diverse oeuvre?  Old myths and gods, morphing, the Weimar Republic, Nazism, the Second World War, dancing and posing - what do they all have in common with one another? Perhaps the fact that time and again an individual loses himself in order to be absorbed into something greater, whether this be an idea, a group, a myth, boundless violence, a ritual or a movement - and thus no longer has to bear the burden of constantly having to decide about his own fate. Fear of freedom, quite simply.


In 1998, Theys filmed the video installation Busby Berkeley´s Village. Busby Berkeley was a director who introduced the high kicking routines of the Tiller Girl Troupes into the Hollywood musical and, with the aid of a battery of female legs dancing in perfect synchrony, managed to capture some of the craziest kaleidoscopic scenes on film. Busby Berkeley´s Village shows a somewhat desolate variant, in which anonymous street furniture, such as lampposts, surveillance cameras, benches and trash cans get to play the leading roles. Similarly, Girls and Philosophers can also be interpreted as a reflection of the Tiller Girls.


The Tiller Girls were especially popular in the Weimar Period and the inter-war years. Siegfried Kracauer, a Marxist and one of the most brilliant cultural critics of that period, in his text ´Das Ornament der Masse´ praised the seemingly so innocent music-hall act as one of the most significant art forms of its time, and as the example par excellence of a positive modernism. He saw in their show ´an artistic reflection´ of the revolution which at that moment was taking place within capitalism, and of a new social order - a view which was only confirmed when fascism came to power a few years later in Germany. On the economic level, the revolution was moulded above all by Fordism and Taylorism, named after Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor.

The first had introduced, on the eve of the First World War, in the Dearborn Michigan Factory the principle of the assembly line as a production method, whereby the individual worker only retained value in so far as he could submit to the group and its ritual. Taylor published in 1911 his argument on behalf of ´scientific management´, in which the worker was modelled on the example of the machine, and not vice versa. Through optimal precision, a minimal investment also had to generate minimal waste and maximum production. This was a conviction which was far from being shared by everyone. Thus the leader of a strike against Taylorism already in 1913 could predict that ´scientific management´ “destroys not only the personality but also the intelligence of the workers, and also eliminates all their other desires from the work floor”.


John Tiller was a businessman from Manchester. He didn´t need Taylor to already at the end of 19th century set up a first company in which he drilled girls with military precision and the iron discipline of a corps de ballet, and had them dance in perfect synchrony the same tap and kick steps, mathematical and mechanical, like automatons, and according to purely geometrical patterns. It didn´t take long before more offices were opened in London, Paris, and New York, from which the troupes were sent out to stadiums and music-halls in virtually every corner of the world.

The innovation which the Tiller Girls achieved is still difficult to comprehend today. Until then popular theatre, and certainly cabaret, had always been a refuge for the Dionysian, untamed and carnivalesque. The most famous Broadway show back in those days was that of the whimsical and frenetic Flo Ziegfeld, who drew his inspiration from (among other things) the “wild and untamed” Buffalo Bill´s Wild West Show, and in whose programme the characters were announced “in the disorder of their appearance”. Moreover, it had long been the custom that a choreography was developed around one central figure, who even in the music-hall of the early twentieth century as the star or diva drew all attention to him- or herself. With the Tiller Girls, this star was replaced, as was the case in film with Sergei Eisenstein´s Potemkin and Leni Riefenstahl´s Triumph des Willens, by a collective whose members remained completely anonymous. Their personality was reduced to little more than a pair of legs. Stronger yet: graphic signs, lines which - mutually interchangeable - created patterns, a purely two-dimensional reality. The Tiller Girl Troupes were a perfect illustration of what Guy Debord would later describe in La Société du Spectacle as “the flattened universe”. No art work in the traditional sense, but pure decoration, an ornament, created for and by the masses, as distraction, without any third dimension or depth. A pure surface phenomenon, in every conceivable significance, which could be repeated and stretched out infinitely, and on which one can never get a grip due to the lack of a centre. Quality was generated exclusively by quantitative concepts such as repetition. The good was now only a numerical phenomenon, and a synonym for many. Kracauer saw all of this as a consequence of "the logic of the capitalist system", which was all about consumption and standardisation. He compared this with the Enlightenment, when reason still recognised the logic behind the fairy tale as its equal. That time was definitively over. The new logic left no more room for the organic, the magic or vitality of real life. What remained was an abstraction, of which the Tiller Girls were a perfect reflection. Taken by themselves, their patterns didn´t mean anything. Behind them waited only a vacuum, emptiness.


The similarity with Girls and Philosophers is striking. It is as if, with this work, Theys had also wanted to create a mass ornament and a contemporary variant on the Tiller Girls. While the Tiller Girls danced in perfect synchrony with the rules of Fordism, the Theys Girls dance in accordance with the customs of a more contemporary capitalism - one in which the illusion of individualism and freedom of choice is cherished. But in the final analysis, everything is just as uniform.

Already in 2000, the insight that children already in their earliest years are forced into the straitjacket of certain cultural codes formed the theme of Les Maternelles, a photo series which Koen Theys created around children´s drawings and kindergarten classes. Girls and Philosophers does the same thing. Everyone, including the philosophers, conform to the cultural code. Kracauer moreover also described the Tiller Girls as an example of the capitalist alienation prescribed by Taylor, whereby the performers can have no view of or grip on the totality. So it is also with Theys´ girls and philosophers, although the fault for this actually lies with Theys himself. After all, he´s the one who staged all of this, and measured the girls and men for their straitjackets, without their getting a say in the matter. Whether he likes it or not: Theys is Tiller and Taylor rolled into one.


Thus the spectacle the girls perform before the footlights unavoidably becomes the product of a male imagination. In that respect, Kracauer wrote about the Tiller Girls that they not only embodied typical male fears and obsessions about the feminine - but also about the masses, which in the eyes of the rulers assume female characteristics. Everything which the female stood for - nature, the unconscious, the temptations and pleasures of the body, uncontrollable and unreliable like a large crowd - was subjugated in a typically male manner, because with military drill, to a vision where there was no longer any room for all of that.


Those who look carefully will note that the Theys girls also appear to already harbour evil inside themselves. Some of them at times make a quick cutting movement across their neck, while facing them several philosophers let their heads hang to the side and their body appears to have dissolved in the black background. They did this at Theys´ command, who wanted to insert an allusion to the dark drama, half-Biblical, half-pornographic, of Salome, who in exchange for a whorish dance for Herod had the head of John the Baptist brought to her on a platter, because he had rejected her love. More than anyone, therefore, over the course of history she came to embody evil in woman. And however much the girls feign immaculate innocence, the murderousness of the femme fatale appears to have already been passed on to them.


Admittedly: many viewers will not even notice the just-mentioned gestures. The whole thing was filmed with so much love, and the portraits are so fresh that these associations attach themselves only afterwards to the enjoyment of looking at them, like footnotes. Theys himself doesn´t even have many problems with it. His videos are generally heavily loaded. They make a statement - political, historical, philosophical – and, in his criticism of the society of the spectacle, Theys himself doesn´t avoid spectacle in the least. Already from his first performance, Crime 01 (1983), he was expelled from the academy because, before the eye of a camera, he hacked off the head and legs of a German shepherd with a dull axe, while in several of his more recent works, such as The Vanitasrecord (2004), he had more than 21,000 slugs crawl - with exasperating slowness - over the largest vanitas tableau of all time, or - for The Dynamite Show (2004) - purchased several hundred explosions from a Hollywood special effects studio and strung them together into something which falls somewhere between celebratory fireworks and a cosmos gone wild.

In Girls and Philosophers there are no such fireworks. Technically, this work too is one complete manipulation, no question, and when Theys makes the work speak, the allusions range from the Tiller Girls over Emil Nolde to Marcel Duchamp´s Large Glass. But the montage is done so flawlessly and smoothly one doesn´t even notice it. The hand of the maker remains invisible, as it were. At one point, for example, Theys had considered having the girls play with hacked-off heads, but he quickly dropped the idea. The reason was clear: too much symbolism, too many metaphors would have robbed the work of its lightness. The projections would no longer radiate the superficiality of a mass ornament, and therefore would no longer simply charm and seduce.


Yet there remain those small details, things which surprise and which subtly, almost imperceptibly, open doors to parallel worlds. For example, there are the men´s cigars. Even inveterate non-smokers got one pressed in their hand when they reached the set. Their presence is so emphatic that they, on second thought, suggest a sexual connotation, while the plumes of smoke could also sometimes symbolise not just their phantasms but also sperm. The plumes of smoke coil through the image as if it was spawn released by fish in the water, or clouds of pollen swirling through the air.


Girls and Philosophers, or Hunter and Prey – although not necessarily in that order. In the aftermath of the paedophile scandals which afflicted Belgium in recent years, Girls and Philosophers will undoubtedly also give rise to a few associations in that direction. With his decision to use a panoramic format, Theys also had in mind the example of Henry Darger, whose lifeworld and work was largely defined by girls. Only shortly before his death, in 1973, did one find in his cramped studio apartment the improbable oeuvre on which he had laboured in total isolation until he was over 80 years old. This included the 15,450-page typescript of the longest novel of all time: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

At age 17 Darger escaped from an institution for the mentally handicapped, and after being rejected by the army during the First World War, he created with this novel his own war on an imaginary planet. The Christian armies of the country of Abbiennia are at war with the Glandelinians, because the latter engage in child slavery. They are led by the Vivian Sisters, seven princesses, who also remove their clothes at every opportunity, thus also revealing themselves to be hermaphrodites, while the scenes vary from pastoral to extremely violent. People are strangled, tortured, drawn and quartered vigorously and in large number - also in the roughly 300 watercolours and the many drawings and collages with which Darger illustrated his stories.

The Vivian Girls too had borrowed their identity from others. As an autodidact, after all, Darger had copied photos from newspapers and magazines or comic strips which he fished out of trash cans, and he repeated these templates endlessly in quite amazing panoramic scenes. Thus happily posing child stars like Shirley Temple were given a role to play which they most likely had never dreamed of: cruel and, in sexual terms, extremely vicious as well.


When Girls and Philosophers was first presented, it was accompanied by a programme of films which were chosen by Koen Theys himself and included a documentary on Henry Darger. The programme also featured Salo, Pier Paolo Passolini´s film version of the Marquis de Sade´s Les 120 journées de Sodom ou l´Ecole du Libertinage, and Battle Royal by Kinji Fukasaku, two extremely violent films which like no others succeed in depicting a closed world, a huis clos and cercle vicieux, in which the actors are nothing more than pawns, victim and executioner, in a deadly game where only sex and brute power still rule. The choice of these films says a great deal about the underlying intentions of Theys in making Girls and Philosophers, even if this work appears in comparison to be entirely innocent and open, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer.


Young versus old, man versus woman, body versus spirit, doing versus thinking, carefree versus concerned, nature versus culture, delight versus sorrow, emotion versus reason, static versus dynamic, Apollonian versus Dionysian, distraction versus depth, hunter versus prey - these extremes stare at one another in an eternal now. Together they include virtually the whole of existence, and it is very much the question whether they will ever come closer to one another. After all, progress appears excluded in a world where everything goes in circles.


The relationship between old and young has, however, become the opposite of what it was just a century ago. Old is out, and infantilisation has grown steadily more entrenched. The elderly have less and less of a say in things, while the ideal image in our minds has grown constantly younger. With this displacement there has also been a shift in our scale of values: spontaneity trumps reflection, emotion trumps reason, action trumps contemplation, doing trumps thinking, charm trumps wisdom. Dancing girls win by far over a bunch of pitiful-looking philosophers. Setting them up as an ideal is one way of evading the burden of a sense of responsibility, and the necessity of reflection. In the meantime, the ideal itself is insouciantly hopping up and down, back and forth, unimpeded by any form of self-knowledge. Occasionally it extremely charmingly raises a hand to the throat, in a cutting movement, with a smile, and the message reads: you´re done for. 

Max Borka – Catalogue Girls & Philosophers
Jan. 2006