info
existence

Contemplating death- Contemplating the image

Contemplating Panos Famelis’ work, both visual and textual, we cannot help but wonder why the work of such a young, optimist, social engaged artist puts emphasis on death. If it is not about a revolutionary necrophilia of a contemporary nihilism, aspects of which are commonly found as a post-modern caricature in the mainstream spiritualistic and gothic aesthetics, then which is the touchstone of this art that seems to refrain from drawing from easy discernable symbolic references and meaning connotations? Which is the bet that the artist is placing, in his effort to compete death through art?

Representing death in a visual way is somehow impossible. Perhaps the only way of such a representation are the burial masks used in various cultures (Minoan funerary masks, Medusa’s mythical head, lamenting Noh theatre masks, Maya masks and Vodoo religious masks), which as symbols of the transcendence of life and death invoke an exorcism process. Modernism proposed a different solution; it depicted death not as a representation but leaving “traces of the everlasting presence of its absence”.  Rothko’s paintings can be seen as efforts to showcase this, which is recorded and simultaneously eliminated. Hence, art, which replaces the present and is continuously referring to another, constitutionally absent, refers to some kind of death, while the image becomes its trace. (After all every image is etymologically linked to the Latin word for the funerary mask: “imago”.)

The philosopher Lacoue- Lambarthe stresses that death cannot be represented and that the manifestations of painting are depictions which are reproduced, acting as a second or a third etc. reproduction of the primal event. Because of the fact that the object of death (carrion, dead body, skeleton) is present but death is never present, it is absent or better it is “lurking” without “existing”. Therefore, the immediate reference of Famelis’s  work to death iconography, from the origins of European Art to the Fayum mummy portraits (the moment of the birth of both the byzantine iconography and the western painting as a representation) and to the “stage of death” in Christianity, for example the scenes of the Crucifixion or the Deposition of Christ or to the representation of many other “dead bodies” (lovers, artists, heroes and dead gods) to the art of Romanticism and Symbolism as well as to the “Right to death”, Blanchot’s  motto, as the  ultimate artistic action, could give a first answer to our question.

The above mentioned iconographic sources are important points of reference in Famelis’ work. Demonic images, based on their various ethnographic versions, appear as painting dots on the canvas; traces of fluid matter which through shaping movements (let us avoid the term “gestures”) create an image. They might be skulls, they might be masks, and in any case their ambiguity attracts the viewers and makes them reflect in front of these “black holes”.  In sculptures alike, a hybrid form of representation where the visual artist’s engagement with the qualities of the painting medium is the starting point, the painting pigment becomes the primal matter for sculptures such as abstract forms, unfamiliar totems and decaying dead bodies. Either they are abstract forms or heavy masses of pigment on a canvas, which in that case is an object, or sculptures combining pigment with organic matter (animal skeletons), those works, force us to decide on their nature. Are they objects of worship, trying to banish the gap that was left after the death, or dismembered, dead bodies?

But probably this isn’t what interests the visual artist. Even though these works deal with imaginable depictions of death, do they in the end attempt to deconstruct any representation-image perceived as death? According to the philosopher Nancy, any reference to the image as re-presentation, as copy (making here reference to the Aristotelian imitation theory) is wrong. For Nancy, the image is an imprint that stamps a presence with its force. A presence that is impressed onto the material and through this inherent force is revealed to the viewer. The image cannot be such if it bears any indexical or demonstrative function (as do, for example, a sign or a passport photo – these are dead images), but only if it bears a monstrative function (the neologism used here by Nancy refers to the Latin monstrum which means a holy sign or a miracle). This monstrous sanctity (and we’re not referring here to any religious system) contained within the image provides its statutory quality. The image is self-authorised and unfounded (image sans fonds). The painter must harness the force that occupies the forms and bring them to the level of presence. Nancy here makes the distinction between art that draws from its absence, from this depthless depth, and the image that merely slays without being present, the image-death. Famelis’s work should be seen through this interpretative framework exactly as a need for the presence of the image to become visible.

Indeed, Famelis does not appear to refer to the dead image, but to contemplate the kind of death that “lurks without being”. His work, the result of this contemplation, wants to act as a presence and eventually articulate a contemporary moral contemplation about life through death. “You learn to live, this should mean that you learn to die, to consider, in order to accept, the absolute mortality (with no salvation, no resurrection, no deliverance – not for yourself, not for the other). It’s the post-Plato philosophical calling: philosophizing means learning to die. I believe in this truth without surrendering to it. A little less every time. I have never learnt to accept death.” In this stoic view, Derrida appears to follow the Socratic/Platonic proposition (Phaedo, 81a) that philosophy is nothing else but “a study, a review of death”. He, however, is really expressing a protest, an opposition, thus putting forward the deconstructive function as a possible route to affirmation, to confirmation of life. Derrida urges us to live being conscious of this gap, believing in the truth of philosophy as a review of death, but at the same time in our inability to accept death, endeavoring to live with an ideology of a total and radical negation of our self, of our ‘peculiar life’. He is not suggesting a death-craving annihilation of life at some ideological altar (such as religion, scientific discourse or the world of entertainment), but an affirmation of life, what he calls “letting life live” as an act of love. “Knowing how to ‘let’ and whatever ‘letting’ means is one of the most beautiful things, the most reckless, the most necessary I have ever known. Similar to abandonment, a gift or forgiveness. The experience of ‘deconstruction’ cannot be conceived without these things, without love, if you prefer this word.” For Derrida, death, the separation, perhaps as a kind of sacrifice, from the other and from what we believed was our own reality is an act of life, a more intense, rich, and significant life beyond survival, a life that has been “let to live”. “Knowing how to let” defines a moral stance, one that is equivalent to the psychoanalytic experience (as a realisation of symbolic castration) which is not defined by the absolute libidinal self-affirmation of personality, Ego, “creative” expression, and emancipated self-realisation, but by the realisation of permeability and the possibilities that open up through it. It is this personification of death in Derrida’s phrase “I have not learnt to accept him” that places death in the position of the “Other”, who remains however as the radical otherness, the monstrous “Thing (Ding)”, even if this radical otherness must be a part of our (psychoanalytically defined) negotiation with death. We can thus make sense of the philosophical saying: “we are all survivors on suspension” and perhaps it is within this framework that we can understand Panos Famelis’s visual stance on existence, a reflective stance that brings us face to face with life through death’s traces.

Sotiris Mpahtsezis , Art historian

i  Vaggelis Mpitsoris, Jacques Derrida, Life. Death, Survival, Nefeli, Athens, 2006, p. 47

ii  Jacques Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin, Gallilée, Paris, 2005, p. 25, transl. Vaggelis Mpitsoris

iii  Jacques Derrida, Élisabeth Roudinesco, De quoi demain… Dialogue, Fayard- Gallilée, Paris 2001, p. 17, transl. Vaggelis Mpitsoris

iv  Vaggelis Mpitsoris, Jacques Derrida, Life. Death, Survival, Nefeli, Athens, 2006, p. 45

exhibitions

Fizz Gallery, Athens, 2009

Contemplating death- Contemplating the image

Contemplating Panos Famelis’ work, both visual and textual, we cannot help but wonder why the work of such a young, optimist, social engaged artist puts emphasis on death. If it is not about a revolutionary necrophilia of a contemporary nihilism, aspects of which are commonly found as a post-modern caricature in the mainstream spiritualistic and gothic aesthetics, then which is the touchstone of this art that seems to refrain from drawing from easy discernable symbolic references and meaning connotations? Which is the bet that the artist is placing, in his effort to compete death through art?

Representing death in a visual way is somehow impossible. Perhaps the only way of such a representation are the burial masks used in various cultures (Minoan funerary masks, Medusa’s mythical head, lamenting Noh theatre masks, Maya masks and Vodoo religious masks), which as symbols of the transcendence of life and death invoke an exorcism process. Modernism proposed a different solution; it depicted death not as a representation but leaving “traces of the everlasting presence of its absence”.  Rothko’s paintings can be seen as efforts to showcase this, which is recorded and simultaneously eliminated. Hence, art, which replaces the present and is continuously referring to another, constitutionally absent, refers to some kind of death, while the image becomes its trace. (After all every image is etymologically linked to the Latin word for the funerary mask: “imago”.)

The philosopher Lacoue- Lambarthe stresses that death cannot be represented and that the manifestations of painting are depictions which are reproduced, acting as a second or a third etc. reproduction of the primal event. Because of the fact that the object of death (carrion, dead body, skeleton) is present but death is never present, it is absent or better it is “lurking” without “existing”. Therefore, the immediate reference of Famelis’s  work to death iconography, from the origins of European Art to the Fayum mummy portraits (the moment of the birth of both the byzantine iconography and the western painting as a representation) and to the “stage of death” in Christianity, for example the scenes of the Crucifixion or the Deposition of Christ or to the representation of many other “dead bodies” (lovers, artists, heroes and dead gods) to the art of Romanticism and Symbolism as well as to the “Right to death”, Blanchot’s  motto, as the  ultimate artistic action, could give a first answer to our question.

The above mentioned iconographic sources are important points of reference in Famelis’ work. Demonic images, based on their various ethnographic versions, appear as painting dots on the canvas; traces of fluid matter which through shaping movements (let us avoid the term “gestures”) create an image. They might be skulls, they might be masks, and in any case their ambiguity attracts the viewers and makes them reflect in front of these “black holes”.  In sculptures alike, a hybrid form of representation where the visual artist’s engagement with the qualities of the painting medium is the starting point, the painting pigment becomes the primal matter for sculptures such as abstract forms, unfamiliar totems and decaying dead bodies. Either they are abstract forms or heavy masses of pigment on a canvas, which in that case is an object, or sculptures combining pigment with organic matter (animal skeletons), those works, force us to decide on their nature. Are they objects of worship, trying to banish the gap that was left after the death, or dismembered, dead bodies?

But probably this isn’t what interests the visual artist. Even though these works deal with imaginable depictions of death, do they in the end attempt to deconstruct any representation-image perceived as death? According to the philosopher Nancy, any reference to the image as re-presentation, as copy (making here reference to the Aristotelian imitation theory) is wrong. For Nancy, the image is an imprint that stamps a presence with its force. A presence that is impressed onto the material and through this inherent force is revealed to the viewer. The image cannot be such if it bears any indexical or demonstrative function (as do, for example, a sign or a passport photo – these are dead images), but only if it bears a monstrative function (the neologism used here by Nancy refers to the Latin monstrum which means a holy sign or a miracle). This monstrous sanctity (and we’re not referring here to any religious system) contained within the image provides its statutory quality. The image is self-authorised and unfounded (image sans fonds). The painter must harness the force that occupies the forms and bring them to the level of presence. Nancy here makes the distinction between art that draws from its absence, from this depthless depth, and the image that merely slays without being present, the image-death. Famelis’s work should be seen through this interpretative framework exactly as a need for the presence of the image to become visible.

Indeed, Famelis does not appear to refer to the dead image, but to contemplate the kind of death that “lurks without being”. His work, the result of this contemplation, wants to act as a presence and eventually articulate a contemporary moral contemplation about life through death. “You learn to live, this should mean that you learn to die, to consider, in order to accept, the absolute mortality (with no salvation, no resurrection, no deliverance – not for yourself, not for the other). It’s the post-Plato philosophical calling: philosophizing means learning to die. I believe in this truth without surrendering to it. A little less every time. I have never learnt to accept death.” In this stoic view, Derrida appears to follow the Socratic/Platonic proposition (Phaedo, 81a) that philosophy is nothing else but “a study, a review of death”. He, however, is really expressing a protest, an opposition, thus putting forward the deconstructive function as a possible route to affirmation, to confirmation of life. Derrida urges us to live being conscious of this gap, believing in the truth of philosophy as a review of death, but at the same time in our inability to accept death, endeavoring to live with an ideology of a total and radical negation of our self, of our ‘peculiar life’. He is not suggesting a death-craving annihilation of life at some ideological altar (such as religion, scientific discourse or the world of entertainment), but an affirmation of life, what he calls “letting life live” as an act of love. “Knowing how to ‘let’ and whatever ‘letting’ means is one of the most beautiful things, the most reckless, the most necessary I have ever known. Similar to abandonment, a gift or forgiveness. The experience of ‘deconstruction’ cannot be conceived without these things, without love, if you prefer this word.” For Derrida, death, the separation, perhaps as a kind of sacrifice, from the other and from what we believed was our own reality is an act of life, a more intense, rich, and significant life beyond survival, a life that has been “let to live”. “Knowing how to let” defines a moral stance, one that is equivalent to the psychoanalytic experience (as a realisation of symbolic castration) which is not defined by the absolute libidinal self-affirmation of personality, Ego, “creative” expression, and emancipated self-realisation, but by the realisation of permeability and the possibilities that open up through it. It is this personification of death in Derrida’s phrase “I have not learnt to accept him” that places death in the position of the “Other”, who remains however as the radical otherness, the monstrous “Thing (Ding)”, even if this radical otherness must be a part of our (psychoanalytically defined) negotiation with death. We can thus make sense of the philosophical saying: “we are all survivors on suspension” and perhaps it is within this framework that we can understand Panos Famelis’s visual stance on existence, a reflective stance that brings us face to face with life through death’s traces.

Sotiris Mpahtsezis , Art historian

i  Vaggelis Mpitsoris, Jacques Derrida, Life. Death, Survival, Nefeli, Athens, 2006, p. 47

ii  Jacques Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin, Gallilée, Paris, 2005, p. 25, transl. Vaggelis Mpitsoris

iii  Jacques Derrida, Élisabeth Roudinesco, De quoi demain… Dialogue, Fayard- Gallilée, Paris 2001, p. 17, transl. Vaggelis Mpitsoris

iv  Vaggelis Mpitsoris, Jacques Derrida, Life. Death, Survival, Nefeli, Athens, 2006, p. 45

info exhibitions

Fizz Gallery, Athens, 2009

solo show

existence