Getting Rid of the Sad Passions

— Helmut Draxler

His appearance is still as bombastic as his sounds were back in the day. With that huge blond Afro wig, and the gem-like buttons on his shirt, he still represents something of himself as a pop star, just that his gaze seems thoroughly disturbed. It’s the year 2005, and the photo shows Phil Spector at his trial, which will end only years later with him sentenced for murder. To know him in this way certainly does not mean to love him; and to identify with him as a public character implies to identify with someone who says about himself, that he has always been his own worst enemy. Is there still some empathy possible or at least a different look than the monstrous media scandal?

What does this image and the way it is presented to ourselves within Bernadette Van-Huy’s artwork tell us about the logics of the star-system in the pop and fashion industries, of jurisdiction and media representations, and finally of the politics of the self? And what about the possibilities for an artistic self-assertion in the face of these logics? Neither a purely outside position nor a merely inside one seems possible in order to be able to address the representational codes and the corresponding overlaps between the personal, the social, the cultural or the structural spheres. Difference is decisive here. If the way out into the infinite, unlimited world of pure possibilities seems largely blocked today, to break down the “fences and barriers”—in Bernadette’s words—seems crucial in order to address the defensive mechanisms or the “sad passions” of each sphere.

What we see here in this work are several representational layers. Firstly, there is the representational mode of fashion, which works by mimesis, identification, and voyeurism, and secondly, there is the representational mode of art, which can be acknowledged as performance, photography, drawing, and conceptualism. In trying to imitate that “parade of wigs” the man showed off at his trial, Bernadette performs, documents and graphically reworks her own identity as a fashion, fandom, and media victim. The drawings not only imitate and deviate from the curly wigs, in gesturally overwriting the photographs they also bear testimony to the act of identification itself. In so doing a third representational mode is popping up, that of social identity. With the blonde Afro the white man explicitly expresses his reverence for Black people, and there is Bernadette adopting that gesture as the “Asian” (see “Take Four Part” in the poem) using a home perm. Two nonidentities collapse into one, an identity, which is not the same.

And there is another layer. It’s the referential mode of representation itself. It shows up in the mirrored wall text. In its unreadability it mirrors our fantasies and desires, not ourselves. Such distortions are not corrected here into an outwardly right image or a canonical text; the staged image of a mirrored text just indicates the insistence of the problem, that there is no identity without desire, and no desire without identifying moments. Desire, here, seems neither conceived as a non-representational or multidirectional flux nor as a constitutive illusionary and misrepresented force; as a twisted moment it is located rather in the core of representation itself.

Thus, representation depends on such reflexive moments as well as on referential horizons to which it can direct its inherent desire to overcome itself. These referential horizons span the enormous distances between the stars of pop culture and the stars of the universe, between the cozy world of a hair salon and the lofty galaxies constantly produced by the Hubble Telescopes’ space imagery. To traverse these spaces means to connect private fantasy and public spectacle, the imaginative space explosions and the mediatized implosion of any meaning, or, an overwhelming joy, the joy of transcendence, with that abysmal sadness concerning the inherent contradictions in immanent beings.

Hence, empathy concerns the monster within ourselves.