Death Fucking Metal
The beauty in dissonance lies in the humanity it expresses. I think it was Wittgenstein who said that. I’d like to use this quote in referring to Death Fucking Metal, a performance created by Koen Theys for the opening night of his retrospective in the S.M.A.K. in Ghent, in 2013. Death Fucking Metal is a video installation, showing thirty wilted-looking rock musicians and singers. They seem to be asleep. The platform, veiled in smoke, on which they stand, turns slowly round, as a drowsy carousel, giving each portrait equal significance for the viewer. All the elements needed for a spectacular concert are there, except fort he virility of the musicians themselves, who appear tired and resigned, no longer capable of wielding a guitar, keyboard or drumsticks. The dissonance lies in the atonal tension this creates. Moments of silence alternate with brief musical outbursts, in which the sounds and fragments of the melody of a heavy metal song are produced, abruptly, apparently an expression of cropped-up frustration within the musicians and singers. The viewer waits somewhat nervously for a subsequent climax which never actually comes, since this too shrinks to a restful silence, with only the squeak of the rotating mechanism, or the white noise from an amplifier, to be heard.
Next to Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa from 1818, we see here a live scene, a sculptured group of people, icons of our western cultural history, who silently portray something, inspired by the tableau vivant tradition in nineteenth-century romantic painting. In Death Fucking Metal, the characters are dressed up in the rebellious uniform of the rock star. The artist is referring to the archetypical image which originated in the nineteen fifties, and spawned a number of youth movements now more or less extinct. Death? Fucking? Metal? Is the word ‘death’ perhaps an overly hasty and one-sided expression with which to indicate that a movement has come to an end? And could the word ‘fucking’ possibly be a mechanical insertion, slightly exaggerated, aimed at indicating the presence of exasperation? Looked at like that, the title seems paradoxical. ‘Death’ points to someting which is almost, or completely, passé; a past perfect which irrevocably leads to a new human state of being (or not being), a condition humaine in which not just the few, but the many find themselves. The paradox is to be found in the realisation that they are (un)dead. They are people from a world already disposed of. They no longer belong here. Koen Theys: ‘Fossils from another era, in which a counterculture really was a counterculture before it survived and became mainstream’1. The given here is the condition in which humanity finds itself; the inability to stop. The desire to stay in motion, carry on, even though the direction is unknown. The over-riding impression is of the illusion of the proximity of death (or of freedom?) which resonates in our minds, a lurking uneasiness. A ‘memento mori’ which urges the living/viewers to appreciate the morality of their history.
A broad pallet of humanity can also be seen in the early nineteenth-century Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Our reality is no longer embodied by the heroic image of the romantic tradition, and yet the impact is not undiminished. Here too, the viewer regards the everlasting proximity of death, or of freedom… Here too, there is ‘something’ happening, which will end fatally for many, of maybe not entirely. We see a shipwrek, a raft as the only hope fort he few who cling to life and a speck on the horizon which is their only chance of survival. And how here (just as with Koen Theys’ present-day ‘raft’) the context and continuity of the image influence the perception of the painting. Is there still hope? Will they survive? Will the ship that can be seen far, far away arrive on time? The razor-sharp realism of the style in which the characters (or drowning men) are painted contributes to the gravity of the situation and the gravity of the message. The raft acts as a metaphor fort he artist, taken hostage, who regards the proximity of freedom as a poisonous gift, leaving him to his own resources as he drifts, rudderless. In that context, (as in Death Fucking Metal) the personalised nature also has subversive potential. The artist himself is present on the raft. The gravity of his message sounds like an efficacious j’accuse! directed at that alleged freedom. The death of an old tragedy is the birth of a new one: the artist being made aware that he is not one, but countless possibilities. He has no other choice but to accept the fact that he is burdened by a heavy duty.
Identity and continuity fit and flow together throughout Koen Theys’ entire oeuvre. Man inventing himself, becoming who he really is, creating the potential for recognition to enable him to distinguish himself from others and the struggle for the continuity of all this; to give yourself a new destination, despite the experiences you endure, and which change you. In Death Fucking Metal, the characters wrestle with the temporary lack of that continuity. It’s an existential identity crisis, expressing itself in a breaking point with one tradition; an era which has nestled itself somewhere in history, and is determined to stay there. The musicians don’t want to believe this. They lie, draped across their guitars, microphones, keyboards or drum kits. They seem to be asleep, or staring into nothingness. That sleep derives not from any weariness, but from an acceptance of the senselessness of their rebellion. They realise what’s going on, and trust only in their instincts. Their only truth is a sense of truth. Their only resistance is no resistance. This is how they immunise themselves against the world. They break in such a way that they cease to generate any meaning with the myth of the vain, rebellious rock star: the sleeper literally loses face. He is the remnant of it.
The artist shows the true vulnerability, but we prefer not to look at that vulnerability. Maybe that is the Apollonian significance of this image: we are staring at not only their short-lived frivolity, but also our own transience. A theme which directly touches our own lives. What is life? What is the meaning of it all? The uniforms and musical instruments respectively represent the short-lived pleasure of vanity and dying sounds, both typical visual images which denoted transience in 17-century painting. A skull image is predominant in the tattoos, stickers and jewels play the part of a Vanitas and also visualise the senselessness and emptiness of earthly things. A Vanitas image intended to spur the viewer on to concentrating on eternal life – the eternal recurrence, which is strongly expressed in Koen Theys’ oeuvre in a dialectic between ‘something that is disappearing’ and ‘something which is taking its place’. Not a swan song heralding the approaching end, rather a ‘memento vivere’, resuscitating the transience and continually reminding us to remember to live. In Hegel terms: “The truth which is now important and which, in a post-historic era, forms the source of a new truth.”2
1. Chris Dercon, Koen Theys Home-made Victories, MER Paper Kunsthalle, 2013
2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Fenomenologie van de Geest), Boom uitgevers Amsterdam, p. 249.
Kathy de Nève – catalogue ‘The Raft’