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On the project ‘An exercise in violence’ by Guillermo Ros
As the theme of his project, an artist Guillermo Ros chooses violence—the broadest, almost transhistorical theme for art. In doing so, the artist puts himself in a thematic frame—the project is entitled An exercise in violence—an unequivocal indication that the author himself is an active participant in the process of production of violence. In the accompanying text to the project, we find arguments that violence is not only produced in all stages of the artist’s work, but that it is, in principle, woven into the very fabric of our existence. In this sense, participation in the process of violence turns into accepting oneself as a full part of the process, a unit of the overall flow. There seems to be nothing that defines our connection to the world and to each other as fully as violence, understood not in private but in an ontological way. In all processes, in all actions, in all movements of the world we can discern an underlying, ancient, impersonal violence, a force directed in equal measure toward processes of destruction, reassembly, and new birth. Such violence transcends time, it is not interested in contexts, individuals or particularities, however it manifests itself in things of all scales, from the global to the most insignificant.
It seems to be the relationship of scales that Guillermo Ros is trying to capture in his work. There are many actors in his project: rats, columns, marble, damascus steel, museum halls, museum workers, food, garbage, iron, revolution, artists, their spectators, their labor, other people’s labor, rat labor… This list could go on and on, and do you know why? Certainly because violence, this global transhistorical force, binds all the actors in this chain together with one strong glue. The scale changes with dizzying force: the world revolution is chewed up by rats, and the marble piles are wiped to the ground and turned into garbage behind the nearest McDonald’s. What is it? An attraction? An adventure? An exercise? Whatever it is, I suddenly want to be a part of it, too. In a strict sense, each one of us is already part of it—but not everyone understands this and not everyone admits to it. I want to acknowledge my participation with this text—how?—by committing an act of violence over it, of course. An act that will first break this text to pieces, leaving it in disarray, and then reassemble it, clearly demonstrating, it seems, the main thesis of Guillermo Ros’s project: violence illuminates connections between phenomena and a capacity to reassemble things.
The Rat King
No one knows the exact reason why rats entangle their tails and paws, thereby making a semblance of a living nest. According to one theory, this happens at an early age, when the rats, while playing, become entangled with each other. According to another version, adults do this deliberately in order to keep their cubs warm in a nest during the cold season. In any case, when entangled, rats can no longer move and eat independently; they are brought food by their congeners, on which thus depends whether the rat nest survives. In those rat nests that people have found so far, all the rats were already dead (not counting the nests with live rats, which apparently were encountered by medieval people, if we believe the engravings). No one knows exactly how long rats, entwined with each other and immobilized, can live. The number of rats in the rat nests found so far, ranges from five to fifty individuals.
Characteristically, such a compound of rats was named the rat king. The historical figure of the king is a very ambiguous symbolic object. On the one hand, it is a person, clothed with unlimited power, blessed by God, acting on his behalf, an untouchable subject. On the other hand, it is always a lonely figure, a hostage of intrigue, forced to make decisions of inhuman scale and risking to be killed during every minute of his or her life. It is no coincidence that in Baroque cultural tradition the monarch is simultaneously the happiest and the most unfortunate, the greatest and the most miserable, the wisest and the know-nothing—in short, the one who combines all possible opposites and is somewhere beyond the human existence we might understand. In this sense, the rat king is the same strange, ridiculous and at the same time creepy creature, mystically predicting misfortune and elementally unable to survive without the help of his relatives.
Should we wish for such a rat king? Pet each of the intertwined rats on their little heads? Turn away in disgust? Be frightened? Or maybe, make an attempt to unhook their tails?
Column to be demolished
On May 18, 1871, the Paris Commune teared down the Vendôme Column. Its demolition was one of the Commune’s administrative successes—the demolition was preceded by numerous discussions, decrees and questions of an applied nature, such as how it would be most convenient and cheapest to demolish it. The attack on the Vendôme Column was quite logical—erected to commemorate the victories of Napoleon’s army, it was surmounted by a statue of Napoleon I dressed as a Roman patrician with a laurel wreath on his head. The column, this confidently directed upward French phallus, was once intended to be a symbol of the militaristic power of the Empire, for which it was thrown to the ground in May 1871.
On Google you can easily find photographs of communards gathered around the fallen column and the defeated statue of Napoleon, as well as the pictures of the square itself, filled with rubble, next to which stands an empty pedestal. This pedestal resembles a stiff, sagging belly, gravitationally pulled downward toward the shattered bones of its gigantic body lying on the ground. Characteristically, before the demolition, the column was thought to have been cast entirely from the iron of cannons recaptured from the enemy by Napoleon’s Grand Army. Only when the column was demolished did it appear that it was in fact made of stone encrusted with bronze bas-reliefs. Thus the Commune, having destroyed a symbol of the greatness of the Empire, also, quite by accident, destroyed the myth that for 64 years accompanied this imposing symbol.
What could be worse than the destruction of an old myth? The column was rebuilt shortly after the fall of the Commune (which, as we know, lasted only 72 days), but was the myth of its iron integrity restored along with it? Would the communards have been able to destroy it just as quickly and easily if it had been iron rather than stone after all? Maybe when the Commune was piecing together debit and credit in 1971 and contemplating whether it could afford demolition, a porous brittle stone somewhere peeked out from under the bronze shellac covering, and one of the communards, seeing it, shouted: ‘‘Brothers and Sisters, I know how to get rid of it!’’
The artist rat-catcher
For art history there is a scandal of its own in the demolition of the Vendôme Column. The artist Gustave Courbet took part in the decision to demolish it, though he denied any involvement later, after the fall of the Commune. Courbet nevertheless repeatedly advocated removing the column from the Square. During the Commune he was elected to its Committee and also served as president of the Arts Commission, a position in which he was responsible for essentially administrative matters of cultural heritage preservation. Regardless of what role Courbet actually played in the issue of the column’s demolition, it is the mythologized story of the artist’s direct involvement in the cause of the revolution that is important. There seems to be no second such example in the art history when an artist who became widely known in artistic circles, reincarnated as an administrative employee of a revolutionary committee. It is believed that it was at this point that Courbet the artist ended and Courbet the politician began—because it seems impossible to combine these two roles simultaneously. And even though Courbet was quite successful in making revolutions in the field of art, still—as they say and as history has shown so far—true revolutions are made by other people.
Courbet became widely known for his bold solutions to internal pictorial questions. Can an artist today break away from solving the autonomous problems of art and break into the political struggle? Such a question would prove obsolete if we were to argue: a) that the autonomous problems of art are less and less of an issue for artists today, b) that what we call the political today is the gesture with which we brush our teeth in the morning, c) and that therefore there is nothing truly autonomous left in this world anymore, including art.
When the artist chews the rat’s tail in the hope of finding the truth of art inside, fused with the truth of life, but finds only the gristle, does this mean that the revolution is over?
Once, at the very end of the 20th century, the German theorist Peter Bürger said that the avant-garde did not die because it remained eternally alive in the works of subsequent authors. An ambiguous life, some would even say it is life after death. Although, on the other hand, this is what all artists dream about: life after death. Does this mean that artists themselves would want the avant-garde to die?..
Today it is already difficult to answer the question of who exactly wanted it dead. It seems that everything came out by itself—it died because it had to happen. Revolutions fail because this is apparently meant to happen. After the fall of the Commune Courbet was first sent to prison, where he wasn’t allowed to paint (what an irony—because for history he had already stopped being an artist and was only a revolutionary), and then he was sentenced to pay an absolutely gigantic sum of money designed to cover the restoration of the Vendôme Column. Soon afterwards he died. His death allowed him to become an artist again—and this time for good. Thus Courbet the artist outlived Courbet the revolutionary because the former remained in the eternity of art, while the latter died because of his health compromised in prison. The avant-garde lost, the revolution fell, but Courbet seems to have won. Or wait…?
History also knows revolutionaries whose memory will live on forever. Lenin, Napoleon, Emperor Constantine, John Lennon (with some ambiguity for this one)—only the revolutions made by the last two seem to have not yet been defeated. We are still Christians (at least so they say) and we love to consume under the slogans of universal liberation and social responsibility. But what about Lenin and Napoleon—have their revolutions been lost? Bürger would certainly argue with that.
Revolution, any Marxist will tell you, is a complex dialectical process which can last even at a moment when everything that can be done seems to have come full circle and returned to its previous course (besides, in the form of a farce, a wiser Marxist will tell you). Bürger seems to have been a Marxist. It is ironic that Courbet couldn’t be one.
Realism of a Child
Courbet called himself a realist. And that’s pretty ironic, too. He seems to have been the first person in the history of art to declare himself a realist. He was sure that his painting practice was closer to the harsh reality he saw around him than what his colleagues were painting. In a way, perhaps it was. After all, he was the first to paint peasants, workers, beggars, and drunken priests at other people’s funerals. And yes, we shouldn’t forget The Origin of the World, which seemed a far more realistic way to depict what art had been pondering with such awe throughout its history and had never dared to depict. All because it was far from realism. The genuine realism of the true artist.
Does an artist remain a realist when he believes in the victory of the revolution? Or we could ask in a different way: is an artist still a realist when he or she sincerely believes in the good? In universal justice? In the belief that art is really capable of changing the world? Okay, let’s not forget the context: a realist from the mid-19th century (not only before Marx, but also before Freud, for a moment) is not the same thing as a 21st century realist or a Bertolucci’s dreamer (the one from the 20th century). Still, it was a little easier for a person 150 years ago to deal with abstract concepts than for our typical contemporary, who is used to more modest targets for liking.
Some people like to say that the main realists in the world (not in the sense of artistic style, of course) are children. Although it is not quite clear why exactly them and until what period of their maturity—because children very quickly learn to lie and manipulate, understanding how adults are arranged. And often children manipulate adults with such sophistication that many adults would never dream of. It is often said that artists, too, are children who grew up physically but are still children. Does this mean that artists are the best manipulators in the world? Given that art since Courbet is a process in which some people successfully deceive others, perhaps the thesis of artists being children is not so far from the truth.
Teeth of Love
A rat is running across the square. It is difficult for a man to understand where and why it is running, it is difficult to understand the instinct that drives it at this second. The man notices the rat, but he is not frightened, because he has already met many rats in his life—both humans and animals, and humans who seemed to him worse than animals. He knew about the latter firsthand; he stood in this square on this day precisely because he sincerely wanted to cleanse earth, the whole world, the entire globe of them. Freedom, equality, and fraternity are important components in the life of a good human being, a good, upright society, he thought before he saw the rat, and the moment he saw it, he suddenly remembered the only woman he ever loved. She had slightly long front teeth, and he liked that; he called her ‘‘Ma petite ratte,’’ and she got jokingly angry and bit his neck with those slightly long teeth. Once, while playing, she bit him too hard, so he was left with a bruise of a purple-reddish hue on his neck, and he was very proud of it—a mark of his adult life with a real woman in it.
Next, to thicken the effect, I could have written that this guy (obviously a young boy, as this short passage implies) was killed three days (or maybe three hours?) after the events described. He was killed, and the rat who ran across the square, who probably saw him as well as he saw it, survived and lived quite a while by rat standards. But I’m not going to overdramatize. Maybe I just want everyone to stay alive, or maybe that’s just not the point at all. Maybe it’s about those slightly too long, rat-like teeth that bite but instead of tearing apart give someone pleasure. Isn’t this where we find one of the most sophisticated dialectics of pain? And isn’t this the kind of pain an artist experiences every time they takes up their precarious, thankless labor, once again biting into marble, silicone, or whatever else they has stashed away in his studio for which they hasn’t been able to pay the rent for three months? How long would a rat’s teeth have to be to leave a bruise on an artist’s neck to make them forget their debt?
We seem to have reached the end, and there is only one thing left: to do what I promised at the beginning, which is to put all these disassembled, scattered, disconnected pieces together into something as slender and shiny as a marble column. There seemed to be too many questioning sentences in this text, and it also seems that I was writing about the artist Courbet all the way instead of writing about the artist Guillermo Ros. But I should probably admit that I didn’t do it by accident—although it wasn’t a deliberate decision, either. It just seemed to me that, bound, like a rat king, by the same problems, tasks, ideas and ecstatic dreams, we all at different times become Guillermo Ros, Courbet, or a rat crossing the Vendôme Square, and the difference between us can be as difficult to find as subjecting a block of marble to our efforts. Guillermo Ros seems to have succeeded in subjugating it by making it into a column and then destroying it. Can this act of violence point to the true structure of our relationship (with each other, with ourselves, with the museum where we go or where we make an exhibition)? Perhaps yes, perhaps not, or perhaps the artist did not intend for this to happen (remember?—artists are like children). We can grit our teeth and accept the fact that the artist has once again deceived us by throwing us a rat instead of a marble statue, and we will probably get even more disturbed if we spot a barely noticeable bruise of a purple-reddish hue on the neck of the contented artist.