The Law of the Falling Bodies
Isabelle de Visscher-Lemaître
« It is impossible to move someone without troubling them as well »
Georges Bataille (Edition of the first volume of Georges Bataille’s work at The Pléiade, Paris, 2004)
At first sight confusion seems to overwhelm him. The artist who fuses ideas and reacts to all stimuli shapes a plastic production that explodes. I am a ‘combinator’, he says - setting himself apart from all the ‘gladiators’ and ‘terminators’ that Hollywood has given us. Because Peter Morrens only operates through the means of a massive destruction. He is one of those who dedicate themselves to a sort of Italian ‘combinazione’, a complex manoeuvre that serves only fiction and lies and makes sure that art itself has become the sole master providing the strongest effects. For this he uses two names and two labels. We are not talking about heteronyms - of the sort that Fernando Pessoa used to sustain his own madness - and we are not talking about pseudonyms - which are used by writers who wish to remain unknown for reasons of social protection. We are talking about names that in fact represent different artistic techniques connected to certain worries that the artist dissects and then uses to produce a combined oeuvre. Some of those names will cease to be used. The artist will invent new ones in the future but there is no use in trying to foresee which ones, not more than there is any use in trying to establish a corpus of the works and how they belong. Creation that comes into existence like a flash of lightening cannot be classified in a detailed inventory and no matter how multiple he may be, a person will always be just the one.
Having said this, the three actors and the collective deserve more than simply being mentioned. They will help us place the work and distinguish its anchor points. We will focus our attention on a selection of installations to try and throw a light on the hard core of an artistic production that is above all ‘explosive’.
Peter Morrens uses a variety of visual techniques as is common in artists nowadays. He doesn’t only draw, print, paint and photograph, he also writes and constructs installations, intervening in the structure of space itself. Occasionally, he also films and projects his recordings in an arranged environment. He produces a performance or better the settings in which the performance takes place. He edits sounds taking into account their modulation. He then crosses the plastic procedures in such a way that they all clash amongst themselves and in the end troubles the spectator. He rocks and overthrows the ordinary perception we have of an event. What I try to do above all is escape from the consciousness that is always trying to correct me, Peter Morrens says. His entire oeuvre is a statement of this principle that he puts before the spectator who is invited to join him on his ‘trip’.
In order to manage the profusion of ideas that spring from his mind, Peter Morrens has created a versatile oeuvre that needs to be understood ‘in real time’. If today’s work systematically annihilates yesterday’s, as the artists says, it has no claim to existence if it isn’t visible, readable, experimental, if it doesn’t shake things up. Taking this into account, it is hardly surprising that the exposition that is to take place in Netwerk (a one-man show accompanying this catalogue) shows us a whole variety of things except for anything retrospective, even if it does assemble and accumulate previous work under a new form. His work as a rule draws from what is circumstantial about a singular place and turns it into an event. This event is titled ‘En retard (over tijd) on time’ because it blends together past, present and future in the expectation of the surprise.
Which personae make up the artist? There is Herman Smit, print name, Peter Morrens, first and last name, Point Blank Press Bureau and the Low Fish Collective that sets itself aside from the first three as it involves other people. Low Fish designs about a quarter of the oeuvre that was started in collaboration with Rik De Boe, co-founder of the structure. It is the work of two people or more. The number of participants depends on the situation. It is because of this and because the programme of the exhibition that we are concerned with does not involve any of Low Fish’s work, that we will talk about them only in passing without of course omitting them altogether.
Low Fish collects images, sounds and voices in order to produce films. One of those films was recorded in 2001, in the Japanese cities of Osaka, Tokyo, Nara, Nikko and Kyoto. The result is a free and flowing documentary made up of a chain of images that increasingly become less familiar. It operates through a deconstruction of the memory. There is no logical link between the different scene so that the viewer has all the space and freedom he needs to inject his own phantasms into it. The projection of this film took place in six different places. It uses different forms of presentation ranging from one single screen stretched out over the ground using a technique known as 'infinity' to a triple screen that bombards the viewer with three simultaneous images. The soulful whispers of Patricia Smith combined with Michel Ballon’s karaoke styled mime in the background precedes the flow of images in a space called Front Room in Brooklyn in 2003. During the projection of the film, David First’s concrete sounds gain power until at the end of the piece their tainted intensity reaches it climax. The viewer has no choice but to dive into a multi- sensorial environment and remain there until the moment of the catharsis. What we have to remember from this work, is that the tendency to multiply we distinguish in Peter Morrens’ oeuvre gains a social aspect here, rather than showing itself exclusively in the organisation of his different activities.
Low Fish is the name of a group whereas Point Blank Press, Herman Smit and Peter Morrens are in fact parts of one indivisible personality. Their names are not pseudonyms, as a pseudonym is an attempt to cover up a real identity, nor are they heteronyms, as a heteronym identifies personae who either through style or through physique are different and antagonistic. These three names (plus the one that is really multiple) have a relation. They exchange views and formulae. They partake in exhibitions, one alongside the other, thus clarifying the contradictions that the artist wishes to confront.
The most important enigma of this whole business is the one that Peter Morrens has confronted himself with (as does everybody at one point to a certain extent). It is the enigma that the self-portrait in painting has never quite managed to solve. If we take the example of Rembrandt’s self-portraits (there are at least twenty of them counting both paintings and drawings), not one of them breaks through the mystery of this look that the painter addresses himself. It remains as occult as it ever was in spite of the artist’s great capacity to dramatise introspection.
Would representing the face through a photographic image, like Peter Morrens does, solve this obsessive secret that haunts him? Definitely not. The enigma resists its author much like it resists him in the mirror. Only the look of a third person can loosen the magnetism of the self, the drama of the body that is just the one, the tragedy of Narcissus who cannot separate from his image. For Peter Morrens it is very clear: the look directed at the self brings only consciousness, unlikely knowledge, a real danger of a fixed and rigid solution. Your portrait? You just have to accept it and have a look at it every now and again and see the shit (you have) in your eyes. It is necessary to show it, to show it to oneself and learn from this meeting. It is the only way to build a bridge to the other whilst being able to sustain your own desire and the only way to make sure the other doesn’t make himself to comfortable inside yourself but to keep him neatly outside.
In this sense, the global project of the artist evolves while insisting less on the different names that refer to infinitely personal personae who blend together. He in fact foresees Herman Smit’s death in the near future and has started granting an increasingly important position to his ‘collective’ work. This is obvious in his collaboration with Low Fish and in the more traditional sense with Gallery Voorkamer, founded in Lier in 1996 (1).
Before we start burying anybody, let us have a look at who Herman Smit is and at what has become of him. He is a traditional painter from the past who works out in the open. He is an observer who since 1993 has been drawing, sketching and composing the landscape using pencil, charcoal, graphite, watercolour paints or ink. He wildly compiles and numbers his pages because this mountain of drawings, no matter how vital it may be, slips away from his fingers. This collection hinders him and it escapes him but it keeps him grounded at the same time. Sometimes on the left of his drawings, there is a blackened piece of cardboard with a clearly noticeable white number drawn on it. They look like the numbers on the storyboard of a film director. In this case, Herman Smit’s work absorbs the work of Peter Morrens, the exploring cameraman.
The name ‘Herman Smit’ comes from a commemorative plaque for a hiker who died in the valley of the Tarn. ‘Herman Smit slid while trying to cross the river’, it is written high up in the mountains. He was 29, the same age as Peter when he came across this ghostly image. There is more than just the one coincidence. It is a meeting with another being who just like Peter Morrens enjoyed these dazzling heights and the unassailable view they offer. On this vertiginous position amidst the rock formations, Peter Morrens makes the fall of the other man his own. He looks for vengeance, he pledges to avenge the classic artist who has been spurned, the artist who is behind his time.
Herman Smit’s oeuvre is usually exposed as a ‘heap’. This shows that it is but a fragment of an ever-expanding enterprise. Under the seal that reads ‘Herman Smit, waarnemer’ printed on the drawing, it is indicated that for each work that Herman Smit has done, Peter Morrens has done another. His work only counts as a part. It only has meaning when it has been given its counterpart.
Herman Smit’s activity seems to take place on the other side of the stage. Let’s take the example of Vienna where the artist was granted a residence in 1999. He did two performances in the city. For one of those performances, he drags along with him sounds that he has previously recorded there. The recording equipment is hidden in two ordinary plastic supermarket bags. After recording the sounds, the next step is moving them both in time and space. ‘Dag en Nacht Evening’, a simple and harmless event could have gone by unnoticed. Peter Morrens carried around two trite supermarket bags from the Bilal chain which is very big in Austria. He had changed the letters on the bags so that it read ‘labil’ (this means ‘unstable’ but here in the sense of ‘volatile’, ‘passing’). The event did not go by unnoticed. It got many reactions from passers-by, one of whom got downright violent. The peddling of sounds (or their treason), which was what was at stake, unchained some sort of nationalist authoritarian reaction. The aggressive intervention of the Austrian citizen caused a threatening relationship and led to the impossibility of sustaining a social relationship.
In the second part, called ‘Becoming’, Peter Morrens walks around the city with his writing desk strapped to his back. At a certain point, the physical and moral strain gets too much and makes him leave the city. He takes the train to the countryside, to Kahlenberg, where Herman Smit finds his pocket diary and his brush back. This occurrence gives a clear view of the opposed positions that Peter Morrens and Herman Smit take in. What we mean to say is that they are more contrary than complementary. It is clear that in the above-mentioned example, the second action eases the nervousness created by the first. The work continues in silence and distance since it has experienced proximity and sound just before. In both cases it leads to distorted information: the drawings that are anything but ‘contemporary’ and the sounds that are snatched from their context. At this point, everything seems to be paradoxical.
Point Blank Press is a direct writing bureau with Peter Morrens as its only employee. In ink he writes exclamations on the pages of typical traditional school notebooks, on index cards and on loose pages with or without a margin. The whole gamma of school accessories is revisited giving the impression of a nostalgic tendency towards the so-called ‘kindergarten’, although associated by the author with the English phrase ‘torture playground’. This stirs up old feelings of unhappiness. They try to find some relief through injunctions and assertions, in short statements made in a direct language such as is used in pre-school. The words concentrate on the art and address their receiver based on the heavy presupposition that language = saboteur. Language hinders the fluent workings of artistic enterprise, it refuses to believe the artist. This is what creates the necessity to write words down on paper (or get rid of them through the speakers in a live performance) in their crudest, most primitive form. Or just to chuck them out of the window as Peter Morrens did during that same stay in Vienna: get rid of words by dropping them and in this way make space for another subject to be born in - even if language is impossible to dissolve.
More than a thousand pages contain fragments of a discourse of observations cut and pasted on paper: ‘I can give point blanks: spoiling paper’, ‘The Big Division’, ‘Als ik goed nadenk, ik heb geen planning’, ‘Les drôles de façon de causer’, ‘hAhA?’, ‘Esthetische rebellen’, ‘Sortir de l’histoire’. It’s the freedom of the association and the juxtaposition that distinguishes this work from the automatic writing of the surrealists in their search of an outside (and therefore ‘extra’) meaning as is shown through the technique of the dead body. In Peter Morrens’ work, the frequency and the lack of order guarantee a certain quality of subjective, spontaneous and partial truth. There is a certain ‘excremental’ aspect to this way of working, evacuating words rather than faeces, without, however, eliminating the result completely. In other words, even if this leads to the loss of meaning, the loss of chronology and every known proportion, the loss of a life (‘point blank’ means ‘to kill at close range’ (2)), the process still creates!
Two years ago, Peter Morrens started enlarging blank papers by 300% (3). This is not the work of Point Blank Press but a critical view on it. The pages in the writing pad are empty, they have got two holes in them for ring binders and circular stickers around the holes to reinforce them. The quality of the paper and the whole gamma of school equipment from the olden days have been meticulously reproduced. It looks like an old unused page, its size being the only anomaly. This work shows the mastership, the talent of the craftsman behind Point Blank Press. This proof could leave the viewer confused seeing its similarities to belated conceptual art or the oversized items of Claes Oldenburg’s pop art. The artist in fact makes use of all of those and sets out to disconcert the viewer and get him off the track of a previously designed reading. A unilateral reading is not truthful. Perception, with its tendency to recognise, is a cheat. ‘Events, fiction and memory - including their deformations - are elements of equal importance for historical discourse’, Peter Morrens quotes Robert Rosenstone. There is no truth in identification. There always remains something that we cannot speculate about, something that we cannot associate with anything. Peter Morrens crosses this thin line between a complete image and an incomplete image, which lacks a word here, shows a deletion there. The artist, who is the designer of the installation and the manipulator of the letter, performs an ‘emptying’ that destroys all meaningful connections. Thus the existence of the plastic artist becomes acceptable and the artist will be recognised by the protagonist as the author of a ‘rarity’.
Peter Morrens and his contemporary, Christophe Fink, staged during the Eighties a series of theatrical violent actions at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gent (4). He recollects one performance where they staged a series of drainings in man-sized aquariums filled with water. There were intermittent sequences of apnoea and surrounding noise. The idea behind this performance was the putting to the test of the human body, as Jan Fabre had been doing for some time following the footsteps of Allan Kaprow, Vito Acconci and body art. Mike Kelley was also working along those lines but using different parameters. This happening had come about following abstract expressionism as Clement Greenberg defined it. As a result, situations were created rather than oeuvres. Peter Morrens exhibits himself as an isolated hanging figure. He is sitting on a chair suspended on a very high wall. He hangs about five meters above the floor dressed in a long black gown with above his head a chandelier pressed against the wall itself. A dozen light bulbs circle the androgynous figure like an aureole. The icon seems to flood the space. The viewers are impressed by the weightless immobile position in which the ecstatic artist has put himself. A certain mysticism is in the air and the artist feels embarrassed about this. The viewers’ look, focussed on his body, makes him shy and he decides never to perform on stage again. The creation of environments (or installations) solves this problem. This art form presents the unforeseen possibility to drop all separations between the parties, between who is the actor and who is the viewer. Using different media and objects, ready-made or not, the installation also rejects all boundaries between supposedly defined territories (art and non-art).
In the meantime, Peter Morrens has started making schematic drawings of bodies on a straight band of paper that can be viewed either vertically or horizontally: the standing-up body or the lying-down body. If for these drawings he doesn’t use charcoal in the traditional sense of the word, he uses X-rays or recuperated images where hairs and stains (blood or sperm) stand out clearer. Sometimes he adds an image of, for example, a crashed car, indicating the real and tangible presence of the physiological apparatus. The much-admired work of Antonin Artaud and Pierre Klossowsky had a big impact at the time. Arriving in the middle of the nineties when the creation of environments was the main thing on the scene, it is his own body Peter Morrens will use and suspend in space with the aid of photography, as an interface between himself and the viewer-receiver. In 1999 in an abandoned house in Ninove, he stumbles upon a mount of colourful clothes that belonged to a deceased woman. He also finds several other objects that formed part of her private life. It is the memory of a woman whose body must be stretched out (under the ground) that cathches Peter Morrens’ attention. He exposes the clothes in the garden as if they were hanging up to dry. Beforehand the artist sowed together a few clothes, skirts, dresses, blouses, and took a picture of them with the feet buried in the ground. ‘Learning to root oneself’ seems come to life in Ninove. Opposed to the being that is lying down, there is the memory of the being that stood up but that the artist fixed to the ground to avoid any new risk of staggering. Because life (standing up) does not eradicate the question of the earthly attraction predicting yet another fall! This modality of the artwork in three dimensions, circumstantial and a priori anecdotal, reflects a constant worry: what goes up must come down.
We have now come to the point where we will discuss a series of these installations that will cast a light on the axle of Peter Morrens’ art. A simple outline of five of the installations will show us quite quickly what drives the operator, the artist. In 1992 in the Bijloke Museum in Gent, the artist hangs two bluish reprises of a Christ on the cross (by Charles Le Brun, 17th century) in the middle of a room with paintings. Of the Christ figure we can only see the trunk, the pelvis and the legs, more aerodynamic than ever. The head is hanging down. On the floor, underneath some bony silhouettes, a pelvis is placed on the one side and a basket on the other creating the illusion of catching the body that during its fall has passed a succession of empty frames displayed from the painted ceiling down. From the coloured skies a first frame detaches itself marking off a black zone that is in fact the mark of a trap that the artist has immediately defined, where he has surrendered and that has crystallised his attention.
In 1995, a 2.60 meter long 50 cm high (without the base) display window is suspended in space, held up on one end by a chair that is itself hung on a wall at eye level, and on the other end by a transparent cable which creates the impression of great lightness. This work shows a series of transparent documents which vision blends together. It shows the process of creation throughout time and how intentions blend in with the unpredictable. Above all, it highlights the unlikely equilibrium of a shape that spreads, that pushes itself through space in an unreal manner given that not even the chair has any support, not even the earth (5).
In 1999, in the Art Page space in New York, Peter Morrens’ photographed head dressed up with three sticks, indicating the three dimensions, hangs from a thread in front of walls draped with pieces of cardboard, similar to the ones used for advertising. They are grouped together under the heading ’37 Flemish shortfilms’, like a grid of notices that are unfinished and ready to be completed. The bodiless head floats through space and the slightest breath makes it turn around its axle with a disconcerting lightness. It is especially disconcerting when you realise that this head is in fact the brain behind the whole scenario! There is indeed no need for the entire body as it is the body that invariably pushes us back into a state of gravity.
In 2001, for the biannual exposition Kunst & Zwalm in Zottegem, Peter Morrens installs a staircase that hangs above a magnificent field. This object, a foreign object in its surroundings, is even more so as it literally emerges from the ground, without being attached to any scaffolding or any other architectural structure. Having said this, the red carpet that covers the steps right up to the last one beckons you to climb those stairs. This is not at all dangerous, the artist guarantees us, as the staircase is solidly anchored through a contra-weight system that is buried in the ground. Gravitation doesn’t seem to present any problems for the artist who hasn’t even thought of adding a handrail. In reality, he hasn’t added them because the actual climbing of the staircase would seem to him to be profoundly silly. We can imagine Peter Morrens experiencing the cold feet mountaineers and window cleaners suspended on New York skyscrapers must occasionally suffer from.
In 2002, in the Beguinage of Lier, we find a masterpiece that develops itself in three times. After the room we see a window in the wall. This almost perfectly square window in the middle of the wall, built using an old technique of loam and cut straw, gives to another window. The shutters of this window open towards the garden. On the surface of the first window that is partially frosted, we can read the following phrase: WAT WIJ NIET WETEN - what we do not know. It adds to the intrigue of this place that used to be the room of a beguine. Led by his curiosity, the viewer climbs the stairs that lead towards the roof. From there, he has a downward view of the two windows and the space between them and, to his surprise, discovers an extra space in continuation with the beguine’s cell. We had no idea of the existence of this space while standing downstairs. On top of this, somebody is actually inside of this new-found space. From the high viewpoint that we have, we can only see his hairy skull. What we are trying to show here is the existence of an informal style (6) that is also undeniable: suspension, ascension, height and weightlessness blend together in the lexicon. ‘What we do not know’, we know a bit more about it after having climbed the stairs!
(1) The association Voorkamer has a space at its disposal where young national and international talent is presented and defended. This place is situated in Lier in the province of Antwerp. Peter Morrens is one of the key figure of this initiative that was started in 1996. The association uses a permanent gallery space (address: 14 Bril, 2500 Lier, Belgium) and organizes projects ‘extra muros’.
(2) The artist uses the expression ‘to kill at point blank’ on the seal with which he stamps the pages. It represents a revolver under the heading Point Blank Press.
(3) Piece exhibited in the Cultural Centre of Strombeek-Bever in 2004.
(4) The Academy of Fine Arts in Gent has also brought forth such renowned artists as Wim Delvoye, Thierry de Cordier, Patrick Vanden Eynde and Patrick Van Caeckenbergh who have all received tuition from the excellent and greatly appreciated professor Wim van Mulders.
(5) This object that formed part of Peter Morrens’ second solo exhibition at Netwerk in Aalst has been associated with the emblematic piece in which he sat on an elevated chair (this work is cited above).
(6) It is, in my opinion, slightly inappropriate to associate style with an informal character. I feel that Peter Morrens’ work, even though it appears in different forms and shapes, has its own tenor. The artist has his own style in the sense of Georges Buffon’s definition: The style is the man. The style is the person and not a certain ‘touch’ or ‘way’.
« (…) Art has changed (…) it doesn’t intend to produce sacred objects anymore but intense and particular experiences. »
Yves Michaud (Yves Michaud, ‘L’art -à l’état gazeux’, an essay on the triumph of aesthetics, Hachette littératures, Paris, 2004)
The questions regarding art have changed. We don’t ask ‘what is art?’ but instead ‘what experience does art provoke?’. Following this, art has lost its sacredness and its aura. This has happened following the effects of reproducibility as Walter Benjamin astonishingly predicted. This phenomenon re-centres the attention on the viewer who makes the art work somewhat to the detriment of the object and the advantage of the situation. Psychoanalysis has influenced this change by putting the focus on the person, also known as the subject caught in the webs of language in spite of admitting the superiority of the fact compared to the object. This is the famous paradox where the object ‘has’ what is lost, so that we re-experience the loss and feeling its absence, keep longing for it.
The fall that Peter Morrens repeats, is the fall from a ‘paradise’ - in the sense of a place high up where two creatures live together as one, in perfect harmony with each other. What he creates is in fact a series of cunning tricks that produce what I would call ‘a dynamics of the steep path’, via which we can get back to this Eden. This results in the programming of all sorts of scenarios where the viewer finds himself in the position of ‘the watching subject above’. In a state of solidarity, the experience to which the artist calls us, proposes an exchange of ‘points of view’ and a ‘generous’ transmission of the viewing point high up which overviews every conception of the world. Through the manoeuvre of using displacements to which the viewer is physically invited or through the intervention of mental gravitation and the high/low connection, the person gains a positive empirical experience of a more complete vision (without ever reaching a full panoramic view as this would pose a serious threat to man).
This view, from above, combined with our usual closer view (or perspective) makes up the human condition and makes man ‘a viewing subject’. This high viewpoint is generally associated with the ability to see all and was therefore, up until the Renaissance, considered a strictly divine privilege. Peter Morrens is bent on granting us this privilege and on exposing whatever it is that the representation still has to hide.
It is in this combination of a broader way of looking and a certain weightlessness (plus the memory of a paradise lost) that the true meaning of the artist’s work can be found. It reveals the meaning behind the staircases, the towering structures, the suspension of an image or on the contrary: the lowering of an image (to create the same effect).
Let’s take the example of a simple picture taken of the artist on a lagoon in Venice. He pastes this picture at the end of a long band of paper folded like an accordion and puts this whole structure on a table. Now there is an intermediate zone before you reach the picture. It creates the illusion of having to climb stairs.. The feeling of gravity that is generated this way brings us closer to what the artist saw: the floating city, the most breathtaking city in both history and memory, Noble Venice.
In the same line, in a recent exposition in the Van den Berge Gallery (1), some fifteen black and white pictures of the same tree are pasted one above the other in such a way that the trunk has been stretched endlessly and the foliage only appears after this exaggeration of the base of the tree. The famous cypress of the Italian paintings (always so long!), that can still be spotted in Toscane, does not serve anymore to create depth by growing smaller according to the distance, but creates height by its gradual distribution. The mounting is put in a straight high frame and leans against the huge colour photo of a large rocky hill (shot during a trip in Greece). There is nothing left for us to do but to surrender, overcome by the metaphor of the tree in scale.
landscape without a frame
Bearing this in mind, after having established an almost compulsive preoccupation with the conquering of heights, it is not unusual that Peter Morrens revisits the landscape. It is also clear that he is interested in the weight of bodies. With his partner Herman Smit he has already worked with landscapes, and through his work with Point Blank Press (throwing those pages out of that Viennese window) he has some experience with weight.
The landscape became a fully-fledged pictorial genre in the 17th century. It is often associated with a Flemish tradition but in reality it goes back to the work of the first Italian Renaissance painters. It is the origin of what is called ‘the atmospheric perspective’: negating the world an aerial view but on the other hand joining forces with the geometric perspective. This way, we are able to look further, up until the point of flight of the painting where the parallel lines of the plan meet. To this effect Leonardo Da Vinci perfected a bluish green colour that expresses the thickness of the mass of air which separates us from the rocky formations and the vegetation in the distance thus creating the impression that we are approaching it. Peter Morrens tries to obtain the same effect by using a different means. He puts a pair of tights on his head and stretches the legs out at the level of his eyes like some sort of ocular antennae, stretching the look (2). He holds a shotgun and puts his eye on the trigger viewing the sea through a lattice from a terrace on a cape. This image, with its connotation of a misdirected terrorist gesture or the settlement of a Mafia score in preparation, paints a clear picture of the impulse that drives Peter Morrens to break through the limits of our look. Finding ways to make us look downwards or upwards is a permanent challenge for the artist.
Semantics come to the rescue of this challenging clairvoyance, be it through an isolated interjection or a ‘litanic’ accumulation. Since he is not able to get rid of words, Peter Morrens (or Point Blank Press) uses them as another possible extension of the image. He acknowledges the fact that meaning always gets mixed up with the visual relationship with the object. Once we have climbed the flight of stairs out in the open in the valley of the Zwalm, we have the landscape at our feet. This landscape is filled to the brim with ideas. Where we expected to find a panorama reduced to details of the formation of the site, we instead find a transcript off all the ideas that went through the artist’s head (both through free association and psychoanalysis) when he saw this landscape.
It was therefore foreseeable that Peter Morrens wouldn’t believe in the existence of nature. He finds nature stuffed with meaning and feeling and comes to the conclusion that because of this, nature is never a stranger to us, it is never surprising. It is on this point of convergence that the two of us meet. I myself defend the proposition that nature nowadays is entirely subject to science. Science exploits nature, domesticates it and knows it to such a degree that it can completely control it - with a few exceptions, this mainly in the area of meteorology (3).
The words we find on the highest point of the staircase in the field negate the existence of nature, that according to the etymology of the word should ‘ex-ist’, keep itself on the outside as indefinable, one and indivisible. Instead, nature is inventoried, it is completely booked and labelled, all its species and varieties are known and known thoroughly. This does not stop us from enjoying nature and it doesn’t stop nature from being the cradle of our imagination. This is the reason why landscapes in painting have always been so popular. We have made the landscape into a pictorial invention. We have sized it up and confined it to the two dimensions of the interior of a frame.
In the history of painting, the landscape started out as a refined artificial construction on canvas or wood that served as a background (15th century Italian paintings). Gradually, it became the most important subject of the painting and constituted a genre in its own right. Its beauty and sublimity gained force of law to such an extent that the actual countryside started to be arranged and ordered according to the painted landscape’s rules. It has increasingly been acknowledges that there is in fact very little left in our landscapes that would still qualify as ‘natural’. As opposed to what is commonly assumed nature procedes from an artificialisation (4) following its pictorialisation. It goes without saying that this process started in the West during the Renaissance.
‘The surmise would be that we think the way we see,’ Gérard Wajcman states about the landscape in a study (5) in which he grants the window the highest rank in the science of the visual language. This hypothesis is open to a double interpretation: firstly, we think at the same moment as we see (something that Peter Morrens is bound to agree with) and secondly, our view is conditioned by its own perspective mode, it needs a window to put some distance between subject and object, a certain amount of haziness, a distinction, but also a connection. This is a fact in the same line as the notion that thought is conditioned by language, that we use words that are always approximate and that always shift meaning but that are still the motor of our communication. Alberti’s ideas on perspective will mean to the view what the Oxford dictionary means to the language. Wajcman goes one step further by stating that ‘perspective structures thought’. He grants primacy to view above understanding. This fits in the idea of seeing but not seeing everything or its equivalent in language: saying but not saying everything. The window is the guarantee of this articulation of the visible since it creates a ‘cut’ which allows us to see but not everything. A window seems absent in Peter Morrens’ installation in Kunst in Zwalm. In reality, it has been artificially created through the high viewpoint that places us in a ‘in front/below’ type relationship of visibility (but never ‘behind’ in spite of all the efforts made). Moreover, it adds a ‘legibility’ to the work by injecting a dose of intimacy into it which it a priori lacks. In spite of all appearances, Peter Morrens’ production is solidly anchored in a painting tradition which the artist would like to stretch and which boundaries he would like to cross, those of the frame in particular.
The same diagram is used for Peter Morrens’ installation in the Beguinage in Lier. There is a frontal view where text has been inserted and a downward view, which follows the first one rather than clashing with it. The landscape that can be seen through the set-up of halved windows has great similarities with the Garden of the Virgin as it was often painted in miniatures during the late Middle Ages (the period, in fact, in which the old Beguinage was built). This garden seems very relevant in the context of beguines subjected to convent life. They were recluses, reciting biblical prayers. One of those prayers is the Song of Songs, a passionate song of love that was taken from profane poetry and turned into a holy allegory. It plays an important role in the constitution of this imagery of an idyllic garden. This Hortus Conclusus, the fenced off blooming garden, envelops the Virgin (6). It isn’t exactly what we expected to see through the frosted window but as we notice the tarnishing greenery we understand that it was Peter Morrens’ call to suspend engravings of flowers taken from old encyclopaedias in the partition room overhanging the garden. At the very beginning of biblical history, this garden represented all the virtues of a paradisaical universe before the apparition of sin, a Garden of Eden, the same one where Adam and Eve lived. For the beguine, it was the perfect garden to seal a mystical marriage with Christ.
Peter Morrens is fascinated by this cloistered life prone to ecstasy and hallucinations. Through the window in the wall and through the letters in the frosted part which form its only truly transparent zone, the viewer can’t see anything but the isolated room and manages to catch a glimpse of the garden. There is little he can see clearly, just like there was little the beguine knew about the outside world. Only the (sacred) text brought some real light in whereas the double window diffuses a profane clarity. Since for Peter Morrens seeing means knowing, the now earthly text changes the point of view. What he suggests is that we must look further (or higher) as there is something that we do not know. If we in fact follow Peter Morrens and climb the few stairs that lead to the roof, the enigma will be solved because if you look downwards you will know more of what goes on downstairs. The partially opened up attic floor offers us a view of the empty cell below from above. Moreover, it reveals another space where we discover a person who went unnoticed when we were still downstairs. His balding skull is turned towards the dividing wall. This is all we know. We wonder what this male figure is doing in the beguine’s room.
The picture of this skull creates the illusion of there being a real person. It isn’t God, as the image clearly shows a carnal being, nor is it an angel, as the figure isn’t effeminate enough. The person is standing near the window as we see in every depiction of the Annunciation (7). Could he be her lover (spiritual or otherwise)? We can only see his head, no shoulders or belly or feet showing, just his slightly hairy skull, the top of his nose and his ears that stand out. We perceive just this head which covers the rest of his body. Let’s note that only newborn babies have heads that are more prominent than their bodies. This realistic disproportion continues when the baby is a toddler. The weight and the size of his head make it all the more difficult for him to walk. This changes in pre-adolescence. What I am getting at is that this weightless head and this hidden body can be interpreted in two ways. This person is at the same time a lover yearning for a woman who has left, and a baby. This newborn person will fall of the border of the bed on which his mother’s pelvis rests. This border is represented by a little ‘gyproc’ wall that reaches my pelvis (no even my waist, in fact just above the knee). The wall marks the end of the floor and prevents the viewer from falling off. But more than keeping the viewer safe, through its height it focuses on a particular place on the body, the genital area. The value of this wall is symbolic rather than practical.
In short, Peter Morrens the painter has exchanged his brush, paints and canvas for a spirit level, cement and a set-square to build a wall that forms an essential part of this installation. Seen from above, this wall is smooth and clean like one of Robert Morris’ white cubes. It contrasts with the full wall downstairs and its rugged irregular surface of lime, sand and horsehair. The difference in size and surface is a determining factor. The rough ‘hairiness’ of the lower wall gives it a carnal quality. Its texture reminds us of skin. If we then look at the hole, which the window creates, we take the liberty of making the association with a woman’s intimate parts. The window is in fact an orifice. It is not there to look through but rather to represent an opening that, in my opinion, has a ‘genital’ character. This use of a window reminds us of Gustave Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’ (1866) (8): legs spread and a veiled pubis (9) that, after a detour to the barn, will give birth to a subject, ‘abandoned’ in the world - without much intervention from the Holy Spirit, mind you!
The result of this framing is a double scene in which one viewpoint slices and hides and the other viewpoint opens up and reveals. This is diachronic which means that it incorporates a temporal parameter, which Peter Morrens intends to decline whereas classic painting in perspective syncopates it (10). The framing has the power to let the curtain fall and keep something in store for the visitor who will only afterwards see the annex to the beguine’s room that was invisible to him before. The veil that covered the new born, freshly fallen individual had not yet been lifted (11).
the falling body
Falling is usually linked to failing but it affects the existence of every body, subject to gravity. It shows how real the body is as it conforms itself to the phenomenon of earthly attraction. This reality is our essence. Even if Adam and Eve’s fall is the moment in which they are chased out of paradise, it is also this fall which opens the way to redemption. It is because of this fall that the Virgin came to us and after her, the Saviour. The one who is known as Eve or EVA announces the coming of the angel whose first words are: ‘AVE Maria, the Lord is with you.’ Eva’s name in reverse is used to address the woman who will give the world its liberator. Mary is the second Eve, according to theologians. The reversed word appears explicitly in the Annunciation scene at the back of a panel of Jan Van Eyck’s triptych The Lamb of God (1432, St. Baafs Cathedral, Gent). We notice it even more as it is read by the Highest, God, who sent the angel. The scene of the Annunciation which proceeds the Incarnation is often associated with the moment when Adam and Eve are ordered to leave Eden. They can be seen on the outer panels of the Flemish triptych. Both scenes appear completely entangled in two of the Annunciations Fra Angelico painted (between 1432 and 1445, currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid). The two episodes are bound together for the wellbeing of us all. It has got nothing to do with the fall into hell on Judgement Day (which is nothing to rejoice over for the community of the faithful in ‘The Fall of the Damned’ by Dirk Bouts - 1468, Museum of Fine Arts in Lille, France). That fall is an abasement that follows a moral judgement. As a mirror reflection of all this, height, ascension and assumption carry all the hopes of a spiritually ideal life. But this aspiration is in vain for us humans as is made apparent by Icarus, a young boy exalted by an escapade through the skies, as Ovid tells us. In Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting (1558, Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels), Icarus’ fall is but an anecdote, a dream, a myth, which touches one and turns into a catastrophe for certain others - but not for the labourer working with his ploughs in the high fields. Not for Panamarenko, either, who never ceases to attempt to fly and never ceases to fail in spite of the mathematically calculated and highly scientific character of his operations. Flying is a ghost demanding to be made into a project, promising to make our lives more viable, more fun! Falling, on the other hand, comes naturally to the human race, in its reality and its desire, its compulsivity with a chance of something groundbreaking.
When Peter Morrens throws those written pages out of the window of an old Viennese building, he has a picture taken of it. The work is titled ‘Excluding language’ (1999) and brings comfort. The artist wants to get rid of words representing knowledge. This makes quite a difference in weight! As Jacques Lacan put it, twisting around the old saying: ‘What’s written fades away, only words remain.’ In 1993, Peter Morrens stays on an island in the Como Lake in Italy. He receives other artists there. He jumps out of all the openings the villa has to offer. The film that springs from this exercise is called ‘To jump out of a rational house’. It doesn’t show the artist as floating, with his arms spread out and his body launched towards the sky like Yves Klein did when he jumped into space in his series of photos published in a magazine in 1960 (12). Peter Morrens repeated jumps are truthful. His arms are lifted as the logic of the weight of the human body dictates. His legs point downwards, as they are bigger and heavier than the upper limbs. He does not go in search of an accomplished immateriality pushed to the very edge of invisibility of the work as Yves Klein did. Nor does he strive to make an abstraction of the body like he does in his anthropomorphic work. Quite on the contrary, Peter Morrens repeats the original ‘fall’, the fall of the subject as a result of a copulation and the amazing childbirth, an object given up for the price of existence - and not kept.
Peter Morrens entire oeuvre simulates (not without anxiety) this ‘falling’ which forms such an intrinsic part of human nature, from the very beginning right up until the moment when we fall in the grave. Rather than glorifying the elevation, Peter Morrens’ work focuses on this ‘dropping’ (‘dripping’) and warns us not to get caught in the traps of illusion. Not to be trapped, let’s fall again.
(1) Duo exhibition with Maria-José Hoeboer in the Van den Berge Gallery in Goes, the Netherlands, November/December 2004.
(2) ‘Without title’ (self-portrait in tights) and ‘To shoot’ (self-portrait with shotgun).
(3) The sliding of the underground plates in the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 is a clear example. Seismologists predicted the tsunami more than an hour before it took place. This indicates that nature doesn’t hold any real secrets anymore even if it can still cause terrible ravages.
(4) Alain Roger, ‘Court traité du paysage’, Gallimard, Paris, 1997, p.79-81.
(5) Gérard Wajcman, ‘Fenêtres –chroniques du regard et de l’intime, éd. Vedier, Paris, 2004, p. 239.
(6) I would like to refer here to a miniature of the superb breviary Mayer van den Bergh that forms part of the collection of the museum in Antwerp bearing his name and that is at this moment being exhibited.
(7) In all Annunciation scenes, the angel comes from outside and approaches Mary who is standing under a canopy, behind a column or on a platform which defines her as carnal.
(8) This work has been exhibited in the Orsay Museum in Paris since 1995. It has been magnificently commented on by Bernard Teyssèdre in ‘Le roman de l’Origine’, Gallimard, Paris, 1996.
(9) We find a similar image in Peter Morrens’ oeuvre. It is an enlarged negative of the spread legs and genitals of a woman with in black letters printed across it: ‘vorm & inhoud’ (form & content).
(10) A clear example is the Annunciation by Pierro della Francesca in the convent of Pérouse (‘Polittico delle Monache di Sant Antonio’, National Galery of Umbria, Perugia), and described in Daniel Arasse’s ‘L’annonciation italienne’, Hazan, Paris, p.41-45. It is obvious that the artist constructed his work in function of two converging viewpoints. The column between the angel and the Virgin is positioned exactly on their meeting point. The painter was aware of the theological symbol of the column, and used it accordingly to indicate the miraculous Incarnation (free from sin).
(11) It is possible to see this scene as a birth following a sexual act that took place in the front room. According to this interpretation, the bald skull seen from above belongs to both father and child.
(12) Published in ‘Dimanche - le journal d’un seul jour’, 27 November 1960, Paris; re-published in: Denys Riout, 'Yves Klein - Manifester l’immatériel’, Gallimard, Paris, 2004.