Excess and Melancholy
Pernille With Madsen’s works are a kind of Op Arte Povera, a poor and fudgy art of perception. Her images are coated with sugar, but they also push you around, and check you out, as you lose control of your experience. They are decoys and ersatz, shadow play and kinky transformations of materials, according to the artist, “an attempt at seduction at the same time as you reveal your tricks.”
What kind of seduction is this? And what tricks are revealed in the same moment? Madsen herself characterises this double-bound procedure as a bad flirt, no doubt knowing that such meta-flirters are the most affected and troublesome of their kind. At the same time as they hang at the bar looking for attention, they make honesty and transparency a part of their game. They don’t pretend to be the tall, dark stranger who will sweep you away, and they are too fatalistic to care about the social competence of the good flirt. Culturally speaking, seduction is instrumentalised in fake news, functional nonsense, and tendentious narratives: seducers and mechanisms that want a whole lot from you, in order to forge an agreement that reality is a pliable, controllable substance. Meta-flirters, to the contrary, locate seduction in the realms of (wishful) thinking and (day) dreaming, as much as on the plane of reality – for it is on the limit that you can get drunk on the signs themselves, and perhaps also stay true to what the things actually are. The movement that seduction aims to be, and that cannot culminate in consensus or representation, expands the limit to an in-between space of becoming.
The concern of Op Art was the retinal – the eye understood as an organ. In so far as it was an art form that universalised the human body as stimulated physiognomy, it was accordingly criticised for its controlling and de-contextualising tendencies. The remainder of Op Art that might be left in Madsen’s work, is as an almost homoeopathic ingredient, utilised against its own premise of visual fascination. She uses it as a trick. The Arte Povera element in her practice could be derived from Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Oggetti in meno (as Op Art, also the from the 1960s): works that on the limit of the familiar come out with a deficit as ‘minus objects’ by opening up to contingency and the social space around them.
A work in a series of photos of manipulated scenarios consists in the screen saver from the High Sierra operating system on Mac OS, photoshopped with onyx, drawing, Styrofoam lint, and all of it “lit up with a beamer on an adapted background.” It is titled Dazzling Scenes of Hysteria, nothing less. The meltdown it provokes between dimensions and pictorial orders – 2d and 3d, digital and analogue – can be seen as an image of a historical space that performs its pathologies to itself and is totally excited about it. There is no holding back: instead the image devours and builds on a logic of exaltation and too-much-ness. The result is a vista to a pathetic global simulacrum that, unlike the lofty and totalising theories from the 1980s about seduction and ecstatic orders of image production, now appears prosaically in the middle of everyday life with its invasive mediations and augmented postulates . Its apparatuses come in boxes lined with Styrofoam.
Outside the sphere of visual art, Op Art was expanded in psychological space. In the sequences that exist from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished film Inferno (1964), Romy Schneider plays a woman who appears in her jealous husband’s obsessive fantasies about her. In a delirious image space mediated by effects and filters, the paranoid multiplication of the female body makes the surfaces and limits of reason break down in “visual non-security”. The effect of Madsen’s collapsing images produces a similar absence, where desire no longer has a central axis to turn around (like Woman in Clouzot). Instead desire is uncertain and flickering, and the human body appears as scenographic fragments and Nebenwerk, such as a pair of feet borrowed from a marble angel from the Rococo in a Bavarian church. Or, in the film loop Building Ruins, where the face of the artist is seen lying around in an obviously staged heap of ruins. Here you are tempted, with smoke and spotlights and other cheap tricks, to find meaning elsewhere than on the plane of reality. Perhaps the artist dreams that she is Kiki de Montparnasse in a tragically destroyed Paris; or she is in character as an un-exploded bomb that can unleash Wagnerian debauchery and Gesamt-destruction. Perhaps she has closed her eyes because she feels so deficit-like that she just wants to disappear – perhaps she really has lost her head – alternatively, she dreams of being you, which would give a whole new dimension to seduction. Perhaps she is only sleeping, while everything comes crashing down around her. Maybe if I close my eyes just a little bit...
The doubting desire also appears in non-human actors and structures. The photograph Animated Colony of Sister Taxa is a kind of manifesto for the language character of the image, that which Madsen pertinently calls ‘an associative taxonomy’: “Here I decide who is related to whom.” Things and their accompanying sensorial registers meet one another in postulated relations and entwined analogies. The – now annulled – signifieds of the image come from an arctic diorama at Copenhagen’s Zoological Museum, wigs of judges and a carnival wig, sheets of Styrofoam (98% air) and a bone. Such elements are conjoined through their common renouncement of giving direction and meaning to things. On the one hand, associations are flickering through the scene. The heap of Styrofoam is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Das Eismeer (1823-24), in which a giant iceberg has splintered a ship: its crew, and all other humanity, is gone and destroyed, long disappeared. On the other hand, Madsen flirts determinedly with meaning, in a way that makes her brutally dishonest if she thinks that she doesn’t give direction and meaning to things – for the priapic judges’ wigs make for a confrontation far more than for an escape: an accusation against all dickheads who turn themselves into the judges of the world.
Excess and melancholy are concepts that pull and tear at the subject and resonate in modernism. Is it this anachronistic contraband that she has in mind with her work Timeslut 1 and 2: the artist as a disorderly girl who messes up the stabling of history? Melancholy, she tells, has long been a theme in her work, but not a Freudian one about the individual’s – that is, the emotional man’s – expressive sorrow. Instead, it is a structural depression, a feminisation of materials where they are disempowered and disclose themselves through indecision or ambiguity. Materials which allow themselves to be disturbed when the artist, “searches for satisfactory forms of alienation.” This results in strange and vampy media that waver between lightness and gravity, form and non-form, such as the concrete reliefs with fibre optics cast into them.
As regards to excess, it is a critique, not a promise or a horizon. For one thing excess must be named when culture insists on it as an ideal condition through tropes of growth and optimisation, of having more and being more. Secondly, excess is “aimed at art making in general”: an obscene undertaking, as Madsen says. According to an interesting definition of its etymology, ‘obscene’ isn’t only something unseemly and offensive, but also a theatre metaphor for what exceeds the stage and reappears somewhere other than where it should be. A rejection of the arena of representation.
Maybe it is from here that you can observe the enjoyment that can never be fulfilled or inhabited – because you will overdo it gluttonously, or because you ultimately care more for dissolution and longing. When you are in doubt what the image shows; when the celluloid breaks and reveals the screen itself as a projection; when sublime materials become indeterminable and stick to the eye like the blind spots from where we cannot see death, but we are momentarily made capable of seizing the freedom to break up the plane of reality, and escape across it…