Macht und Nebel
The Warburg Ballets (2003-2006) is one of the least spectacular, most serene examples of Koen Theys’ video work. And yet it is also one of the most revelatory ones, with an explicit reference to Aby Warburg (1866 -1929) in the title.
Whereas most of Theys’ works can be understood from the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer’s essay Ornament der Masse (1927), in this particular case the artist rather acknowledges the importance of one of his contemporaries. In 1929 Warburg’s work culminated in The Mnemosyne Atlas, an unfinished project that demonstrated a non-logocentric understanding of the history of art and its constant evolution and transmission.
Whereas Warburg’s disciples (such as Ernst Gombrich and Erwin Panofsky) all tended towards verbal descriptions of the visual information in a tableau, as from 1924 Warburg devoted himself to purely visual essays, based on configurations of photographic reproductions. He provisionally pinned these in evocative combinations onto big wooden panels covered with black fabric. Less concerned with defining any fixed ‘meaning’ in images by description (the practice of iconography), Warburg instead advocated an iconology that focussed on the agency of the image and its dynamic potential to live and even transcend its historically determined context. He considered this Nachleben as the crucial notion (Hauptproblem) of all his research.
Rather than an ironic, Warholian recycling of glamorous imagery plucked from mainstream media, Theys’ appropriation art is thus more investigative, tracing the haunting impact of the different types of images that circulate in our contemporary culture. His recycling of non-singular images ties in with the oldest manifestations of paper collages, the 19th-century pictorial scrap books – Bilderbücher and images d’épinal – that took off as soon as reproduction techniques broadened the circulation of popular imagery. Together with Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, Warburg too was a pioneer in embracing the vernacular. Besides classic examples from Antiquity and the Renaissance, his Mnemosyne also featured images taken from advertising, as well as film stills and postage stamps, in order to instigate a study of so-called ‘Pathosformeln’ (Pathos formulae).
Juxtaposing classic paintings with international samples of propaganda imagery from the First World War period, Koen Theys has equally compiled a visual atlas that raises questions about the status of the image. Theys’ anachronistic mirroring of Renaissance paintings with early twentieth-century, war-related imagery suggests a continuity between the origins of modern warfare and its first culmination on an industrialised, global scale.
The division between consecrated high art and ephemeral low culture, between oil painting and lithographs, is the visualisation of a divide between the pious ones who contemplate a murderous spectacle and the exalted ones who heroically oblige, between sharply-defined individuals and generic cannon fodder. The two gestural traditions that are brought face to face here – a praying position versus the threatening one – are contrasted even further by their delineation, their gestures and facial expressions, isolated from the original setting and context.
“In Mnemosyne, Warburg established “an iconology of intervals” (eine Ikonologie des Zwischenraumes) involving not objects but the tensions, analogies, contrasts or contradictions among them.” In his extension of Warburg’s thinking to the medium of cinema, Philippe-Alain Michaud compared the Mnemosyne panels to art-historical story-boards and their black backgrounds, the empty spaces of black cloth on the tableaus to the dark intervals between individual film frames.
In Koen Theys’ video-graphic ballet, between two very different halves, there is also an important third visual component that blurs any simplistic categorisation: the fog that invades the empty black backdrop. The suffocating presence of this shapeless, ominous cloud (evoking the infamous mustard gas?) is further accentuated by irregular lightning flashes. These momentary linear patterns help to enhance the explicitly slow morphing technique Theys uses to update Warburg’s visual strategies. Just as the thick fog blends the contrasting images together phantasmagorically, the morphing technique induces a particular kind of meditation, overcoming both the glamour and the clamour of the distant epochs that are collaged together.
Warburg’s ambition was to produce a ghost story for adults (“eine Gespenstergeschichte für ganz Erwachsene”) in terms of the invisible, the implicit and the persisting qualities of images. Conflating an investigation on the power of the image with the visual representation of worldly power, Koen Theys’ work similarly awakens phantoms and animates the mind of the contemporary beholder..
Edwin Carels - catalogue 'Home-Made Victories