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Vertigo, or the Origins of the World

Anselm Franke on Wim Catrysse

It appears to me that one common thread runs through all works produced by Wim Catrysse - a concern with vertigo. It is perhaps less the phantasmatic, psychological vertigo, which gained fame through Hitchcock - the moment in which the psyche overrules the stable coordinates of reality. In comparison, the concern in Catrysse's videos and video-installations is more basic, primordial. Vertigo, in the artist's work, is a precondition of boundaries. The issue is the boundary between form and the formless and the question pertaining to the 'proper' realm of the aesthetic insofar aesthetic may be seen as equivalent to techné through which we impose form on the formless in the first place.

Catrysse's point of departure is the exposure of the human body to elementary forces. Not what this body feels at this moment is of greatest relevance, but rather the encounter as such. Bodily action that follows the subjective feeling and translates it into a response. It revolves around the way in which the mental and the material are intertwined, caught in mutual inter-relational response. In Catch-As-Catch-Can (2005), this image of the performed encounter is perhaps most lucid: two male characters oppose one other, as if in anticipation of an attack, while standing on a round platform that is turning in what seems an increasingly high speed. Tension oscillates like an electrical spark between the men and the background, between the suspended anticipation of an attack and the creation of a sensitive equilibrium. As the background passes by, the men have to balance their bodies against the centrifugal forces of gravity. Their bodies are teetering along a thin line in the attempt of mastering the forces they are exposed to: this is an image facing its own collapse, revealing the precarious boundary between control and loss of control. It leads us straight into the heart of the sensory perception through which the forces of gravity, in this case increased through the centrifugal acceleration, are mastered: the sense of equilibrium, upon which the fundamental order of the world is dependent. And as Catch-As-Catch-Can makes us travel along the very nerve of the sense of balance, it becomes clear that it represents a primordial structure, giving initial shape to what later we call 'a world'. The coordinates of this world, its dimensions, such as time and space, are jeopardized here and driven to the edge of dissolution. What is demonstrated here is the relationship between the undifferentiated and difference, between background and foreground, subject and object at the moment in which these are endangered and have to prove themselves. The objective is a differentiation of the world through the primal forces that preceded the symbolic system of differences. These are the tactile, affect-based forces in which mind and matter, subject and object are already intertwined with and mutually constitutive of one another. Catch-As-Catch-Can is shown together with a second projection, the video-installation Caught in the Act (2005-2006), which is presented in a 90-degree angle to the former work. The other work shows the reverse shot: the background as seen from the revolving platform. This interconnection of perspectives still further enhances the tactile effect rendered by this borderline sense of equilibrium in an acute manner.

Catch-As-Catch-Can/Caught in the Act is a video-installation, which - like most of Catrysse’s works - is immediately reminiscent of a certain cinematic vocabulary. In fact, as a video artist, Catrysse is more indebted to cinema than to the iconography of the visual arts. It is in cinema that he finds an aesthetic with a physical impact that is pre-symbolic and pre-aesthetic, and which can address the origins, the primordial history of an aesthetic that has emanated from the encounter as such. This primordial history is perhaps found in its purest form in the genre of science fiction. Only seemingly paradoxical, it is the fantasies pertaining to the future where the origins of fantasy reveal themselves. Catrysse liberates the essence of these genres of popular fantasy, adopting their particular economies and intensifying them (the latter a technique familiar from in the vocabulary of video art). He isolates singular moments in order to shift their allocation from the phenomenological to the ontological, where no longer merely a specific experience is at stake, but the order of being itself. And in this suddenly the primordial history of these moments reveals itself.

If one was forced to choose between the mental and the material then Catrysse’s work would opt for the latter, as it wanders along the border between chaos and order, the undifferentiated and differentiation. Here, not subjects are decentred and progressively dedifferentiated, but rather ‘the world’, ‘the environment’, ‘the background’, or the order of things. We can see this not only in Catch-As-Catch-Can/Caught in the Act, but in Quartet as well, a work from 2002, in which in similar manner four people confront each other in anticipation of an attack. In this case stable ground appears to disintegrate. As if exposed to a never-ending earthquake, the protagonists seek to balance out the disintegration of the ground under their feet. In this case as well, the work deals with the sense of equilibrium being “externalized” – translocated here to the equilibrium between the four performers, whose state of reciprocal vigilance appears to be elevated into a projected (that is, looped) eternity, thus constituting their 'reality'. The mastery of this potential disintegration of the material grounds on which we stand creates, as we may speculate, the fragile social equilibrium, which is demonstrated in the choreography of an anticipated and suspended threat posed by potential disintegration and collapse.

Another work, Backdrop (2007), was shot in the landscapes of Alaska, and later digitally manipulated. Here, Catrysse has literally cross-fades various shots of landscapes with the landscape in the foreground of the image. The shots are taken in a remote area in Alaska, near an abandoned town in which once the world’s purest copper was mined. Before this backdrop, the work develops the theme of material integration and disintegration, of differentiation and de-differentiation, of form and the formlessness in a perhaps paradigmatic manner. The horizon, obliterated by gusts and sandstorms, is like an elusive stage on which the primordial drama of difference and indifference is played out – the original schism between high and low, up and down, material and immaterial, chaos and order. Reminiscent of a cosmic spectacle, it is as if we were observing the emergence and the dissolution of the world.

published in: BE MAGAZIN #15, Berlijn, 2008