Colophon > Related Texts > Beyond Mirrors, Peeping Holes, and Hidden Messages. Text by Sinziana Ravini and Nicolas Bourriaud

Beyond Mirrors, Peeping Holes, and Hidden Messages.

Text by Sinziana Ravini and Nicolas Bourriaud, published in “She, an Introduction” 
Published by Silvana Editoriale & Bonniers Kosnthall, 2015.

Beyond Mirrors, Peeping Holes, and Hidden Messages


Dear Nicolas,
Love is like a labyrinth: once you enter it, you get lost, or at least you lose the parameters which you once built your world upon. You start wandering, looking for new meanings, symbols and narrations, but then you realize that the best way to experience something is to continue walking, without knowing where the road is taking you. The same thing can be said about a true encounter with a work of art. It permits us to transform our narcissistic gaze that finds its jouissance in an intellectual discourse based on what we already know, into a gaze of self-oblivion that is open for a true journey into the unknown.
“Love, is two people looking into the same direction,” Saint-Exupéry’s famous quote, is a perfect metaphor for absolute tranquillity, but also stasis. It makes me think of an old couple that sit on a beach and look at the sunset together. With time I’ve also come to think that love is looking at each other through the prism of objects that “look” back at us, or “concern” us. In French, there is a double-headed word for that—“regarde.” Yes, love permits us to exit obsessive mirror relations or disinterested contemplations à la Kant, and engage us with true alterity. Like Holbein’s ana- morphic form that only appears as a dead skull when we decenter ourselves, love makes us exit the tyranny of the self. This exit can be extremely painful, for we have to make a Pascalian bet and transform the contingency of a hazardous encounter into a fruitful, durable one, that doesn’t erase our differences.
Now, you can say that the encounter with the other can be perfectly experienced between a subject and a work of art, without any other interference. That’s true. Augustine wasn’t truly alone in his monk cell, neither was Dostoyevsky in his cellar while he was visited by all his demons. He was doing relational aesthetics with hundreds and thousands of dead Russian souls completely on his own. Why not? I sometimes feel more alone when I’m surrounded by people, than when I’m truly alone, but my strongest aesthetic experiences have always been shared ones. For is there anything more beautiful than sharing what seems to be unsharable? Whether we do it through words, a ges- ture, or absolute silence? I like when we get mystical together, when we go around in an exhibition space, feeling that we’re the only ones in the world who have understood something. But I also like when we transform artworks into intellectual battle zones. For, as you say, “if I would agree with you on everything, I wouldn’t need to talk to you.”
One of our strongest aesthetic experiences occurred with Ylva Ogland’s work. You had been a little bit reluctant to my fascination for dark and phantasmagorical artworks built on codes and secret symbols, claiming I should leave my romantic metaphysical side, in favor of a materialistic philosophy that embraces the here and now. It didn’t take much before you were entirely seduced by Ogland’s labyrinthian portals, by her relational oracles and psychoanalytical peeping tom devices. For what is Ogland’s art, if not a contemporary form of coincidentia oppositorium—the secret artistic formula that we find in ancient alchemical crystallization processes? Art is perhaps the only point in society where everything, all aspects of human and post-human conditions, can converge.

This concept is not very far from what André Breton wrote in the surrealistic manifesto: “Ev- erything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.” Ogland’s work embraces materialistic and esoteric, relational and psychoanalytical dimensions, in a way where the difference be- tween real and imaginary worlds, art and life, no longer matters. We enter a zone of absolute indeterminacy, where the chains of associations are completely disintegrated. Where does the story begin? “The story begins at the end of the road,” as Snöfrid, Ogland’s alterego, used to say. It’s only when we give up timeworn concepts like good and evil, true or false, that what I call “a psychonautic journey”—a true journey towards the unconscious, can begin.
The female body, with the arrival of postmodern feminist practices, has been culturally construct- ed as the ultimate site of “the other,” a source of fear and uncontrolled desires that inevitably leads to representations of fragmented bodies. Eva Hesse’s cancerous forms, Hanna Vilke’s death-mock- ing performances, Louise Bourgeois’s monstrous organs, Kiki Smith’s absent bodies and Cindy Sherman’s abject masks have altered, dissolved and deconstructed the female body beyond any possible recognition. Of course, humor has always been there as a liberating force. But according to Freud, humor can also imprison its subjects in structures of alienating self-defense mechanisms. As he writes: “The grandeur in it clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability. [...] It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”
Ogland’s pleasure seems to be elsewhere. In a true return to the female body, but a body that is both fragmented and unified. In her Frankensteinien reconstruction of the body, she seems to in- tertwine with theatre inspired female surrealists such as Cahun, who was both a sailor, a Japanese doll, an acrobat, Buddha and a wrestler, and mystical visionaries such as Hilma af Klint and Ma- dame Blavatsky who constantly talked with angels and spiritual alteregos. I would say that Ogland is working with romanticism’s most beloved topos—the double, which is a device for signifying the real and the unreal simultaneously, but also a way of immortalizing the artist, a form of resistance to our finitude. Femininity has been often reduced to the level of seductive rituals, a simple mas- querade. Joan Rivière’s “Womanliness as a Masquerade” (1929) has most certainly contributed to it. But Ogland’s masquerades are much more complex than that. They have a totemic dimension, not far from the Dadaists’ performances in Cabaret Voltaire, where the artists tried to resuscitate pagan forces in order to access a time before time. But this permanent dualism is not enough. One must also create a consistent world that can keep the masquerade together. In her total works of art, Ogland is entering a multifaceted dialogue with art historical masters by such as Caravaggio and Velázquez when she’s painting her abyssal and baroquely odd canvases, ballet choreogra- phers such as Vaslav Nijinsky when she’s organising her Petrushka like marionette theaters within theaters, and relational artists such as Tirivanija when she’s offering people to participate in her vodka and tea based rituals. She’s also bringing a life stained, autobiographical dimension to her performances, not far from Tracey Emin’s bed displacements or Andrea Fraser’s libidinal exchang- es, when she’s swooping the private and public space.
We live in a schizophrenic time, both highly transparent and extremely opaque. We are lost in images of ourselves and others. But at the same time, we’ve never been more hidden to ourselves and those that are supposedly close to us. Ogland is also approaching these contradictions by an intricate reversal of peeping tom devices.
In her “Tondo” paintings, Ogland becomes her own model. We see her hands caressing herself. But if we look through the peeping holes that she puts in front of her masturbatory portraits, the searching eye activates the hand, thus giving the illusion of a moving picture. But there are more than mirrors. There are also mental mirrors that pull us out from visual to cognitive speculations. In Looking at the Unconscious, we see a painting of Ylva, based on a photography that Rodrigo took of her when she was sleeping, thus confronting us with both what we see, that is her body, and what we don’t see—that is her dreams, the royal way to the unconscious. Oglands specular body is pierced by a small hole through which we can gaze at a new specular I, and another, until we lose ourselves in the abyss of intertwined desires. As Lacan says, “every desire is the desire for the other.” But here, the geometry of space and the psychology of time have been distorted into a moment that brings the indivisible subject in doubt. The artist is both present and absent, present through her sleeping body and the painting of her body, and absent through her sleep, bringing us in the position of Proust’s jealous Swann who’s biggest suffering is caused by seeing, yet not knowing what Albertine is dreaming of.
Ogland’s artworks can be seen as fragments of her dreams. Wandering through someone else’s dream—isn’t that a possible definition of what an artistic really experience means? I think so, but in a miraculous way, Ogland also gives us the illusion of wandering through our own dreams. If one accepts that art is like a dream, how should one decode it? Trying to find the hidden mean- ings or just enjoying what one doesn’t understand? In the first case, one could end up in a true paranoiac thinking, looking for rigid relations between symbols and their ‘true’ interpretation. In the second case, one can easily fall in a lazy laissez-faire attitude that looks upon art as a device for easy entertainment. Ogland works against those easy extremes, by dividing her work in three consecutive and interchangeable dimensions: separation, interaction and fusion. We are to begin with separating from her work through a contemplative subject-object relation. She troubles the Duchampian Étant Donné set, where the body of the woman is eternally absent, by offering herself in rituals as a performative subject that is eternally present. In difference to Marina Abramovic ́ who fixes us with her Meduzian gaze, we can both exchange and merge with Ylva Oglands world, at least mentally. How?
Remember the oracle? The painting of the mirror that doesn’t reflect? The mirror is knotting together several generations in Ylva Ogland’s family, thus almost functioning like a sphinx of her personal mythology, but this Sphinx is not a static protection of a timeless narration that we can have access to by decoding its hidden meanings, but more of a scene shifter, a trickster, that turns around our scopophilic gaze onto our inner dramas. Who are we? What do we want? Where do we want to go? I don’t remember what the oracle told us, when we first encountered it. I have a fish memory, but some years later, I chose to restage the experience I had with you, Ylva and Rodrigo —the gatekeeper of the Oracle—when we sat and had alchemical tea with gold leafs at her home.
Myths provide synchronic models of diachronic processes. But the psychoanalytical myth provides a model for change. It doesn’t derive its theoretical effectiveness from its truth-value, but from its truth-encounter with the other, from its capacity of writing one story through another. Mythical thinking permits us to get rid of our compulsion to repeat, to return, to stay, to give up, to sleep and forget. Can the ritual take us out of the repetition, or is the ritual the very form of the repeti- tion? Well, it depends whether we can transform the ritual into a site for a true encounter.
In The Black Moon, the exhibition-film at Palais de Tokyo that tells a love story of two people that meet again after several years, in an exhibition space, where I restaged a mixture of our first en- counters, Ogland’s work came to play a crucial role. When Mathieu Demy and Sabrina Seyvecou, the actors that incarnated us, came to interact with Ogland, who came out of her tipi, in the shape of Snöfrid, her magic alterego, she gave them both a separate message, written down on a piece of paper. They weren’t allowed to share the messages with each other, and after they had read it, they had to give it back to Ogland, who burned them straight away. What did the Oracle say? “Every- thing is one.” There was no difference. As if the biggest secret of our lives, of our time, of all times, would be that everything is connected ? Already. We just have to realize it. Only then can we truly encounter each other. When we accept the idea of a space that transgresses oppositions between the present and archaic times, unity and loss.
When I look back on my text now, I don’t know if I agree with everything I have written. I’m sure that there are aspects that need to be reconsidered or even rethought, and that you will have an en- tirely different point of view. Or perhaps not? Time has brought our horizons closer to each other. You’re just some meters away, preparing dinner in the kitchen. Cutting vegetables as if you were cutting the delicate leafs of a small bonsai tree. Nothing can compete with your love for details, for time, for linking what needs to be linked, in order to create a bigger picture. But you also like distancing, separating things. If there were no differences between art and life, our kitchen and an art exhibition, me and you, no one would try to overcome it by saying “Everything is one.” That’s how desire works. It needs cuts, lacks, mirrors, hidden messages, distance and obstacles, in order to have something to overcome. The same thing can be said about art. And yes, finally love. To love is to recognize that you have a lack. It’s assuming your castration, your not knowing, and recognize that you’re not complete, not a whole, without the other. I think that’s what Lacan meant when he said: “To love is to give what you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” Perhaps here is the place where art plays a crucial role, in transforming the gift of the lack in a highly desirable matter.

Dear Sinziana,
What I see as certain is the importance of the discursive in our relationship with artworks. They need to be discussed, even talked. It is, I think, what Marcel Duchamp exactly means when he says that the beholder is part of the signification of an artwork. During the famous lecture he holds in Houston in 1957, Duchamp clearly says the beholder also bears the responsibility for its duration. A painting exists as long as we discuss it, its wavelength is carried by our braincells, it is alive as long as it takes part of this “infinite discussion,” the words used by Duchamp to define art. A sim- ilar notion crosses Aby Warburg’s theory of art, when he writes that any work of art is an attempt to emit a message not only in space, but also towards the future. For Piero della Francesca or Piet Mondrian, it was a success; for so many others, the message did not reach its target, because of an insufficient load of energy. That is the reason why I always affirm that beauty has to do with energy. The power of any artwork (let’s call it “Beauty” to connect it to the totality of history of art) depends on its capacity to generate and convey energy, a convertible energy that the beholder can transform according to his/her own mental configuration. I like this line by Jean-François Lyotard: “Painting is libido connected to color.” So let’s assume that the highest quality of an art- work is its density, its mass of meaning. One could say the same about love: a couple has its own energetic logics; some of them invent a sustainable system, some others burn their fuel in a few months. In both cases, it is linked to a capacity of reinventing yourself, avoiding to repeat the same loops over and over, destroying the black holes that flush the positive energy into anxiety and fear of the Other. Nevertheless, artworks have a much longer duration, not because of their physical quality (the fact that they are made of wood or steel), but because the signal they send is intended to remain beyond the death of their author.
What I like in Ylva Ogland’s work is the very ambiguous nature of the signals she emits. Her work is fragmented in its principle: it is made of shattered messages, bits and pieces, debris of visions, and even her paintings are generally accompanied by doubles or negatives, as to express the im- possibility of reading them as a whole. I see her work as the demonstration of the impossibility of totalization. Something has happened and we don’t know what. Something that reduces total- ization of a human life to almost nothing, to such an extent that it obliges the beholder to take glances, look through keyholes or stand in front of a ciphered situation.
An object is never enough, it has to be represented too. And this doubled image always has a dif- ferent value, or even negates the object’s value, as a painted mirror contradicts the very idea of reflection, burying it under the opacity of the pictorial paste.
The series of paintings “Ogland” showed in Tokyo, She Who Shows the Way (2008), is the multipli- cation by ten of the work you mention in your letter, The Oracle. This “oracle” is the representation of a blind mirror, reflecting nothing, and painted in grey tones. No image can appear, and the mir- ror is turned towards itself in a way that reminds me the mirror games played by Édouard Manet, especially in Bar aux Folies Bergères, which depicts a waitress standing against a huge mirror, whose perspective is distorted in order to show the interior of the café. For Manet, mirror is painting itself, and any painting could be summed up by the equation “mirror+woman.” When Olympia looks at the beholder, it is painting itself that looks at us. Ogland’s blind mirror is an artwork that suppresses the gaze, and calls for another type of apprehension of art. It certainly is a trickster, but its first effect is to erase the artist’s presence : she should be in the painting, like Velázquez in Las Meninas, but she isn’t.


Getting back to energy, her work displays a vast array of “shy energies,” to stick to Duchamp’s physics: slow distillations, tiny holes used to swallow our gaze, negative images. Those energies are so shy that they are able to absorb ours, to become negative. In a way, they function like black holes: spacetimes with such a gravitational pull that no radiation can escape to it. Her works don’t try to radiate, they are trying to attract and catch us into something I cannot describe. Oculus, mirrors and alembics might have a common point: they attract matter (or our gaze) in order to concentrate and recenter it. The representation of female body in Ogland’s work is often centered on the vagina: certainly the most fascinating visual part, because it is the most hidden. Another quote from Lacan would be interesting here: “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.” This is the exact impression I get when I see Ylva Ogland’s work. It pumps my energy, like fire carbonates matter. And fire is everywhere in her work, in the form of black stains, the marks of the flame. Nothing burns under our eyes, but the beholder can see it has burnt, before his/her presence, and it cannot be explained. The impossibility of totalization, which is Ogland’s secret theme, expands into the impossibility of remembering the past. We can’t track that fire, and both present and past are presented as debris and wrecks, vibrant and powerful ruins.