Art we need is like a bullet in the head. It is supposed to dig a hole into one’s own subjectivity. A bullet that, instead of obliterating and dispersing, creates a precipice within our very self, a vertigo in a metaphysical well: a pure disfiguration. In August 1867, Dostoevsky and Anna Snitkina spent a day in Basel and experienced this feeling standing in front of Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521–22) at the Kunstmuseum Basel. In the painting, the body is overly emaciated, the ribs and bones plain to see, the hands and feet riddled with wounds, all blue and swollen, like a corpse on the point of decomposition. A pure horror is produced by the sight of the famelic and necrotised body of Christ. This confrontation caused a dilemma for the Russian author, a disfiguration of his faith, later disclosed in the form of a negative epiphany stated by the main protagonist, Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot: “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!”
We are looking for the same: to be riddled by doubts and to expurgate any kind of certainty. We would like to see, ideally, an artwork that is not dependent on reality but one that imposes itself on it. Not in the sense of an intangible truth, but rather as a salutary illusionism. It would be a dramatic loss of self, a cataract-like shattering. Art could be a Saturday night brawl, an opioid intoxication, a self-destruction, a car crash, an unreasonable speed, a dizziness in front of the beauty of a strange and sickly world. It is a personal quest for emotional exaltation as well as a turbulent and happy morale. This process is akin to a disfiguration, the process by which something familiar becomes unrecognisable. Disfiguration, instead of destroying, alters what it touches. It is horrifying not because it exposes an atrocious or repulsive vision but because it pervades a familiar reality. Disfiguration does not belong to the strategies of shock and awe held dear by early 20th century avant-gardes; very often it takes the form of a serene melody, albeit one that is dangerous for the status quo. What more of a crystalline mission could we ask of art than to disfigure the fortresses of words and images that compose our reality?
From the Louvre to Las Vegas, art needs to resist the homogenising cultural forces that produce flat consensus. Instead, it should help induce a cognitive impact – a critical dose of panic, horror and ecstasy. Like a trip inside a haunted house or a cruising spot at 4 am, the visitor should leave an exhibition shaking and laughing. Disfiguration is, in that sense, a violent attack against clerical posture. It has developed an allergy to distance, clarity and univocity. It is more about losing than gaining insight, replacing solutions with problems and exposing the viewer when they are far away from any shelter. If this notion was a place, it would be a ruined abbey or a castle stolen from Ann Radcliffe’s imagination. Within its walls, reason becomes imagination, and imagination becomes ardent reason during this turning of the thought on itself. The further one ventures inside, the more fragile one becomes, up until the moment where the entire being is engaged in this shaking along which sensibility and reflection meet and merge in a single point of maximum tension. The head on the body of the dead Christ in the tomb was inspired by the remains of a merchant who drowned in the Rhine. We are looking for the same thing, to ultimately confront our own beliefs, a disfiguration: Art we need is like a bullet in the head.
Pierre-Alexandre Mateos and Charles Teyssou are a duo of curators and writers based in Paris. They are currently preparing a show based on Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers by Pierre Guyotat and recently co-curated a show with Kevin Blinderman dedicated to Jacques de Bascher at Treize, Paris, and Kunsthalle Bern. In collaboration with Rasmus Myrup and Octave Perrault, they initiated the Cruising Pavilion, a series of exhibitions dedicated to the links between sexual dissidence, art and architecture that travelled to Venice (16th Architecture Biennale), New York City (Ludlow 38) and Stockholm (ArkDes Museum).