2017 Stefan Hertmans – The Hunchback deep inside

The Hunchback deep inside

In the literature of German Romaticism there is a whole tradition of fairy stories and folk tales, in which exotic figures suddenly turn up with innocent and childlike eyes, but who also have something weird about them, so that they provoke fear in us and seem akin to a childhood dream or nightmare. They are icons of philosophical and psychological obsessions. For this very reason they continue to fascinate and appeal to us. This combination of attraction and repulsion is typical of everything that appears to us as exteriority – as the Outside, as the unknown. That which is strange and which appeals to us for just that reason vifear and exaltation are strangely interwoven. It is of such feelings that Walter Benjamin speaks in the final short chapter of his childhood memories of Berlin, in which he recalls the popular song about the little hunchback, in Germany known as the bucklichte Männlein. The little hunchback crops up everywhere where the young woman turns in her house, and he is always too quick for her: he is in her herb garden, her kitchen, he eats her muesli, he breaks the wine jar in the cellar, he steals her firewood, blocks her spinning wheel and stands there grinning when she makes her bed. But in the final verse when she’s gone down on her knees to pray, he mutters to her to pray for him too.

It should be clear by now just how complex the phenomenon of the buckliche Männlein is: he treads a narrow path between terror and guilt feelings. He resembles the subconscious of the ordinary woman, of her bad conscience, her childhood dreams, her fears and her longings. He is the ancient archetype of the dwarf with menacing sexual potency, but in the final verse he is the contrite sinner. At the same time he gets the blame for everything that is botched instead of her: who knows, maybe it is she who drops the wine jar, she who ate too much muesli, there was no firewood because she forgot to fetch it, and she herself was sniggering as she was making her bed; and it is her guilty conscience that bothers her when she’s trying to say her prayers and that whispers to her about her dark side: pray for me and for the sins that I accuse someone else of. In other words, please show some understanding, because I don’t dare to face my own dark side. The bucklichte Männlein is the black sheep, the Dionysian farmakon of Greek tragedy: he who must suffer in lieu of someone else, who therefore makes fun of the woman with his dual role of perpetrator and victim. He is the black sheep in each and every one of us.

‘Yet I never actually saw him,’ Walter Benjamin wrote. If you try and look at the dwarf, you become forgetful and don’t observe yourself. Self-knowledge therefore hangs on a delicate and slender thread: be aware of the hunchback, but don’t look him in the eyes.

The artist who genuinely invited us to engage in a confrontation with this oracular dwarf was Juan Muñoz, in his compelling work of 1986, The Wasteland. Despite the title, this work reminds one more of Walter Benjamin’s hunchback than of T.S Eliot’s famous poem. A bronze fairytale figure sits on a ledge leaning against a wall; in front of him is a floor with a tile pattern that has such a powerful trompe l’oeil effect that the viewer already feels unbalanced before even reaching the mannikin – and once there, he hears something murmur that must fatefully remain unintelligible.

It is this tradition of the ‘Unheimliche’ that I am reminded of by many of the powerful sculptures of Maen Florin. The expressions, transfigurations, travesties and fusions of images in which her gallery of alienating figures excels, refer without a shadow of doubt to the elusiveness of the unexpected appearance – that of something that cannot be straightforwardly defined, but which still has to be submitted to. In its philosophical sense, ‘appearance’ means the arrival of something that cannot immediately be understood – something that appears for the first time is therefore always frightening because it does not yet belong to the grammar of the known. Only then are we faced with the terror of the appearance: that it can constantly and seemingly inexplicably be repeated sometimes to the point of nausea. Both forms of appearance – that of the unexpected figure who suddenly stands before you, and the repeated one of figures that provoke revulsion – are pervasive in Florin’s series and constellations. The images in the ‘Commedia’ series for instance (a title that lacks any further explanation so that we have to decide for ourselves whether they have to do with a divine or a human comedy, or even a ‘commedia dell’arte’) display ambivalent expressions of grief, meditation, self-absorption or introspection; but the series of disturbing travesties of dolls in the ‘Do not look’ series seem to refer directly to Benjamin’s idea: don’t look this seemingly innocent horror-show in the eyes, because the potential of the appearance for revealing truth is immediately withdrawn.

Maybe we should teach ourselves the gaze that Slavoj Žižek described as ‘looking awry’: trying to look out of the corner of one’s eye at ‘the domain of the subject’s impossible relation to the object-cause of its desire, the domain of the drive that circulates endlessly around it’. Yet what is involved is not only what we are offered by the tradition of the Freudian unconscious.
At issue too in the complex sculptures of Maen Florin are cultural references in Christian and sculptural iconography. The heads for instance in the ‘On the wall’ series have in turn something of a Christ figure (although they could also belong to a dead terrorist, a refugee or a weeping man), a medieval character, a sad clown or a mystic.

The consistently closed-off feeling of the gazes, the way the sculptures turn away from you, form the basic power of their appearance: what we ourselves are not capable of facing up to does not look back at us. No confrontation of gazes comes about such as one gets in the art of portraiture. Some of these brittle or angry dolls are blindfolded; their sexual organs are vulnerable, or even indefinite; they have artificial body parts, asses’ ears, a Pinoccio nose or a pig’s snout; sometimes theiy are missing an arm, or they stand guiltily in the corner as if punished, they wear a touching little jester’s cap, they have blind eyes and open mouths as though they are screaming inaudibly (another typical feature of the nightmare); their arms hang by their sides like the child who awaits fatalistically whatever destiny will bring: Scream, Armed, Dreaded, Whisper, Dwarf. But due to them taking an impenetrable burden of guilt on themselves, they make us as viewers guilty too of a complicity that we also cannot locate. They are particularly disturbing because they are silent about the context of their situation.
Because Maen Florin is able to blend all these reminiscences in each of her series of sculptures, she ensnares us with her psychological sophistication, while at the same time creating an impression of guilt-ridden lucidity. And yet her work is at no time moralistic: morality always has to do with a simplification of the psyche. She on the other hand shows us the poetic complexity, both of the imagination and of the appearance that bewilders. It is this that makes her sculptures at once so vulnerable and enormously powerful; they attract our gaze, they reject our gaze, they set up an unsettling exchange between our interest in them and their sudden appearing. Their childlike bodies shoulder the conscience of an adult world that has no intention of resembling them, but which, in the person of the viewer, knows full well that an image of buried inwardness is standing there before our eyes.

There is nothing else we can do, but submit to the oscillatory movement between our gaze from the corner of our eye and the closed or downcast gazes of these icons of the tormented inner life. It is a matter of the countless, unfathomable emotions and feelings that make up that entire domain of the impossible relation of the subject with itself. This also explains the appearing of our repressed interiority: of the demons, ghosts and childlike dwarves of our own stock of imagery. It is an interiority that impresses us as something completely ‘outside’ – as exteriority.

With this paradox we come perhaps face to face with the most urgent aspect of this work: that which originates in our deepest inner selves seems completely alien, almost obscene (in the sense of the Latin term obscaenus – that which appears on the mental scene from an unexpected quarter). And nonetheless it is recognizable in all these forms: they emerge as former family members of the hunchback. They occupy the twilight realm of morality, one that is dominated by riddling expressions but where there are no moral landmarks.
Pray for me, the hunchback murmurs to the young woman in the final verse of the folk song. He does not say why. But we know what it is that he does not tell the woman – namely that he is none other than the Self that is not understood. His hunchback is the mental rucksack that contains our elusive self-awareness.
Tat Tvam asi – this is the formula of the ancient Vedantic Sanskrit hymn: this is what you have always been, the ultimate stranger that you are for yourself, the image of the Self. The human awareness that suffers from its own appearance – also in the form of everything strange that human beings in our time are confronted with: the exotic fellow human, the person of ‘colour’, the foreigner, the refugee, the noble fool, the one with different religious or political views, the victim and the executioner, the immigrant and the homeless person, the beggar and the child washed up ashore on a deserted beach, or the face of the abused ‘in-between people’ who emerge out of the twilight of the repressed consciousness. These contemporary associations also lie concealed in the encyclopedia of expressions, forms and attitudes that the artist confronts us with. It is for this reason that, quite apart from its radical psycho-poetic and iconographically timeless character, I also experience the work of Maen Florin as being of contemporary social relevance. Not because it refers directly to our reality, but also because it opens an imaginary space in our own fundamental self, where the essence of what we find strange turns out to belong to our own deepest inner being.

© Stefan Hertmans, januari 2017