The Melancholy Revolt of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven

An Ethical View on an Aesthetics of Virtue

Koen Raes

In cultural psychiatry, the second half of the 20th century is scientifically recorded as 'the age of melancholy'. Over the last thirty years, the number of depressions has grown, especially in young adults. And these depressions appear to have their roots in a profound disappointment due to unfulfilled expectations, the disintegration of role models, and insecurity about the place of the self in the world. People wander about, lost, in a world that gives the impression of no longer understanding itself. Melancholy is the look of dashed hope, the realisation that the promises that were made will not be kept, but that they are still beautiful, nevertheless; the awareness that the values are confused and may even have lost their meaning, but that they are still values, nevertheless. The melancholic finds himself in the no-man's land from where he can look back on the ruins of the many claims to truth and justice which this century has formulated, and look ahead in a world that has deconstructed the principle of hope, yes, even made it seem preposterous. The melancholic is a vulnerable human being who experiences the vulnerability of things, and who approaches the injuries that have been inflicted with tenderness and care. There is so much coolness, loneliness, isolation. There is so much indifference. There is so little willingness to empathise and so much complacency. Don’t people see the injuries ? Wounds are there to be healed, but is there a point in healing them ? And does one see which wounds were inflicted ? And are they seen as wounds ? Cannot beauty be discovered in wounds too ? And should we not, first and foremost, show respect to all those who bear the scars of the times, rather than turn them, in a new project of hope, back into instruments of that which transcends them ?

The melancholic outlook on life is situated on the dividing line between the optimistic outlook of the moderns, in which so much seemed possible that the contemporary world was radically neglected, and the pessimism of the fin de siècle, that wallows in the feeling of meaninglessness and powerlessness. It is situated between the idealistic though strict disciplinary purity of the modernistic hubris and the exciting cult of chaos and disorder, which is, though, often very materialistic and self-centred. Not like a hinge or a link that joins the two together, but like a cloud, that overshadows and transcends both, but also cherishes and embraces them.

The work of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven (°1951) thematises the melancholy humour of someone who is just a bit too young to have fully experienced the boundless optimism and self-assured violence of the iconoclasts of the sixties, but who is also too old to identify with the nihilism, cynicism and indifference of the eighties. She has tasted just enough of the hope for change that was promised to be able to ridicule it just like that. But at the same time, she has had to keep just too much distance from it not to be able to expose the sham. Before her lies the debris of change, like a simulacrum. And she is fascinated by those who went through all this, as companions, but especially as depressive companions in adversity, who have experienced something that goes beyond their understanding, on which they have lost their grip.

Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven rethinks - rephrases - the relations between the ruins and fragments that modern society has produced, often as by-products of that one synthetic hope to get a grip on everything. And she has been doing that in her very singular way ever since 1976. The fragmentation of experience is expressed and reflected by a layered aesthetic perception that transforms existential fear into creative snapshots. She has a strong preference for schemes, structures, formulas, modules and diagrams, which she draws from very diverse disciplines. Her work expresses the search for new forms of coherence and sensibility, in which the fragments are brought together again in a form that expresses the possibility of overcoming the fear of isolation and fragmentation, as an expression 'in' the world rather than 'about' it. For melancholy is not the same as nostalgia.

According to Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, art is a survival strategy in an age that often lacks the courage to stand still for a moment and simply look in the mirror. Art can enchant. Art can express respect for the other, with all his ordinariness, with all his decadence, with all his obscenity. Not as a contrived pose, nor as a cliché, but as a sanctuary where all that is withheld can be said, all that is hidden can be shown. Art can do that by looking at things in a different way, by combining things in a different way, by being different.

Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven always accompanies her work with powerful texts, texts that are part of the work itself and not just texts about the work, like a manual. Still, she speaks, in the first place, with images. Greatly condensed images, that do not disclose their meaning immediately, because they are intentionally ambiguous, just as the world is ambiguous. She is - allow me this bold appropriation - the artist of the difficult encounter, both in the sense that her work investigates the consequences of the modernistic liberation from obligation, that no longer acknowledges any bounds, and in the sense that she is continuously staging encounters that are difficult: between science and art, graphic design and computer technology, masculinity and femininity. They are opposites that can yet be integrated, if one knows how to put their insuperable field of tension in the right tonality. She wants to thematise, fix and transform the transience of an age in which all established truths - both conservative and progressive - have gone up in smoke.

But Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven does not wallow in such melancholy depression. In fact, she wants to get over it precisely by charting it in detail, like a psychoanalyst. She does that not only in the manner of a head nurse, treating victims of violence with gentle care - victims of political violence, technological violence, ideological violence, sexual violence - giving them back their voice, giving them a place, giving them a stage, but also as a nurse of the head, who wants to discover the meaning of the cries and whispers and of the way in which those cries and whispers have been interpreted by others. In that sense, she also considers her art as therapy. Knowing exactly what and where things go wrong is a necessary requirement for being able to overcome these problems.

Language, communication, concepts and understanding, speaking and slips of the tongue, saying and withholding, showing and hiding, expressing and suppressing, that is what Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven's work is all about. Because not only are things going wrong in the world, but also in the ways events are interpreted. There is too much fragmentation, too much isolation, and there is too much complacency in that fragmentation. The gulfs that divide science, art, spirituality and morality from each other are too deep, and for that reason, their approaches of the world are imperfect. They lack a language - and the interest - to communicate with each other and thus bridge the gap. What's more, sometimes it seems that the refusal to engage in a dialogue is cultivated like a credo that is supposed to protect the integrity of one's own field. To science, art is supposed to be 'outside world'. And vice versa. This pseudo-comfortable isolation is radically challenged and contested by Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. She is continually trying to join elements from different systems of thought to each other in order to break through their closeness. Maybe we would have been able to understand more about the world if those closed systems had not wanted to explain so much from their specialised perspective. Maybe it is precisely that specialist non-speaking with the other that is the cause of the prevailing malaise that is making us all mal à l'aise. It is no coincidence that she named her 'thought station' Club Moral. Because hasn't ethics always been an attempt to cut sections across all systems to offer an answer to the question of 'mother, why do we live ?'. Has ethics not been too much the excluded other in science and in art ? Has that not been the cause of the dehumanisation of knowledge and technology and of the alienation of the modern arts ?

Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven tells stories. Autobiographical stories, stories about her age, about the ways that age is now being experienced and the ways that experience is talked about. And she does that with images. Layered images. Daring images. Colourful images. Images that linger and won't let go, as if they were archetypes that have sprung up from the subconscious. Images that, in her work, turn out to be palimpsests that often started off as porn pictures. Porn, one of the products of sexual liberation, in which the female body is reduced and made into an object of male desire. Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven does not judge. Her gaze is more one of fascination with the power that women exude, even where they are reduced to mere sex objects, instrumental wares.

So, images of women. Beautiful women, strong women, wounded women, seductive women, ecstatic women. Women who, like the goddess Baubo to whom she dedicated Morele Herbewapening (Moral Rearmament)(1996), look through their nipples and speak with their vulva, and who succeed in overcoming their depression caused by their reduction to an object precisely by proclaiming that erotic objectification with all the more joyfulness and provocativeness.

Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven is not a nihilist or a pessimist, nor is she a nostalgic. The optimistic experience of the moderns is not foreign to her, and nor is rebellion. But it is a melancholic rebellion, filled with the awareness of vulnerability. Her work is first and foremost analytical, rather than an attempt at an all-embracing synthesis. What needs to be done first is to dissect with extreme precision, to discover the damage that was done and the values that prevail. Because our senses are affected. In her HeadNurse project, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven expresses that analysis in five stages, which are each expressed by a series of images and a series of words. The instrumentalisation, encapsulation, disciplining, and suppression (of the female body) are first charted, before investigating ways of overcoming these processes by controlling them. And that presupposes that values are understood as immanent and not transcendent, as qualities that live in the world itself and do not belong outside it, whether they are epistemological, aesthetic, or ethical. A virtuous person radiates truth, beauty and goodness at the same time, interiorises the project of the ens bonum, verum et pulchritudum convertunctur. To attain this, however, one can no longer rely on one single prefabricated philosophy. All of them are too much in shreds for that. They have insufficiently understood the contemporary world for that. But neither does one have to start from nothing, as the modernists could still think. Our history and our culture offer enough points of application for those who are willing to look. Even though they may be in pieces. One should not treat those ruins of truth and of true justice with nostalgia or distaste, but constructively mobilise them in a project of reconstruction, a 'nursing project' that heals and builds.

Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven is fascinated by the female body and by the desires it arouses… and undergoes. It stands as a metaphor of what the world does to people. It stands for our culture, for our being. For woman is also the link that connects past, present and future. As a source of fertility, but also as a source of tenderness, concern and sympathy, of caring and sharing. But women's lib has not only brought woman - and therefore also our culture - freedom from the straitjacket of traditions and role models. It has also, due to an utilitarian frame of mind, instrumentalised women - and our culture - to a very large degree. In the seventies, the question of meaning was reduced to a question of utility, to the question 'what is this for ?' And whatever could not prove its usefulness was sacrificed on the altar of the urge for liberation.

That happened to women too, who saw their sexual liberation filled in mainly on the grounds of male ideals. That is why Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven wants to fix the male gaze on women and transcend it by appropriating it. As a weapon and as power. Because the female body is about power, as the source of power and as the object of power. Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven explores eroticism, as a field and as a promise of infinite possibilities, for untapped opportunities for regaining an identity. All too often, the modernistic liberation led to new disciplinary measures in the name of purity, truth, health, or science. Against the terror of spontaneity, the terror of the diet, the terror of sexual education, she goes for a new playfulness, a playfulness that both does one good and is good, in the sense of virtuous, and in which the confusion brought about by the shattered role models is taken as a creative starting point.

For the sexual is the tension itself between that luscious fragrant garden of extremely differentiated and excessive desires and that orderly ground of sexual and social role models. In that sense, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven certainly does not turn her back on modernism. Rather, she asks us to start it anew, but this time with the knowledge we have now. But then without the striving for absolute purity, because precisely this striving made modernism totalitarian and pretentious. No longer the experiment for the sake of experiment, innovation for the sake of innovation, destruction for the sake of destruction, but instead, the creation of beauty for the sake of that beauty for and in the world. Morele Herbewapening must certainly not be understood, in that sense, as a conservative plea in favour of a moral revival. Rather, it is an attempt to mark off a new track, against such a revival, a track that leads away from the spurious contradiction between a repressive and disciplinary ethics of obedience and an anarchic, violent amoralism, and a track that rehabilitates Eros. Eros as a virtue that can be practised virtuously and that does one a power of good. As a value that is internal to the erotic practice. It is probably no coincidence that Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven closes her HeadNurse project with reversible models of seduction in which the therapeutic value of beauty is investigated. Beauty and virtue, aesthetics and ethics, can be integrated in each other and do not necessarily have to be opposed.

This theme recurs in her installation De 5de Kracht (The 5th force)(1989). Here, it concerns a space where different moral survival systems coexist in time and space, so that one gets an ethical - and therefore - total picture of what usually determines our behaviour and thought, consciously and unconsciously, as modern westerners. The fifth force, beside gravity, electromagnetic force, and strong and weak atomic force, is, in the end, nothing else than the force that makes all that lives feel connected. One could call it the religious or the ethical force, which, in spite of all the chaotic structures, still suggests the possibility of a unity. Against the principle of 'divide and rule', which, according to Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, mainly legitimises the principle of rule, she suggests a 'thinking-in-connection', which recognises the 'ethical pull' in us. (This happens to be a central theme of feminist ethics, which reacts against the blind worship of autarchy for the sake of autarchy.) The point is not only to be original, but also to recognise the relational network in which that originality was given form. Everything is connected to everything else, and one can probably live with the illusion of being an independent nomad, but it is no more than an illusion. 'You cannot do without the other.' It sounds nearly like a cry, though it is uttered by an artist who also expresses loneliness in her work. And even abandonment, and sometimes, despondency and spleen, because Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven is clearly also a wounded person. It could be different. There should be more attention and care for the larger wholes in which we move. There should be greater awareness of the connection between all things. There should be more love for that connection. Is desire a stronger source of creation than experience ? Maybe. But with Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, the search for links, interrelations, connections, points of contact, is clearly an obsession that reveals a certain desolation. And which, precisely, gives her work such a strong authenticity, that it simply radiates off on you, even before you have fathomed its precise intentions.

In the work of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven and in Club Moral, culture is perceived as a question of values that are upheld and proclaimed by people, in their actions, in their glance, in their attitude. Life is living with values, organising values, solving conflicts between values. That awareness seems to have been lost in many people. They live like moral zombies, parasitising on values without realising their importance. They are blasés who are continually chasing new kicks because their utter lack of understanding of quality leaves them with quantity as their only standard. Immoderate pleasure then becomes their guideline, because the insight that every pleasure - as any art - presupposes moderation, is foreign to them. Without moderation, every desire is exposed to the threat of gluttony, excess, and bulimia, which quite often turns into cruelty as the ultimate kick. For immoderate pleasure is a contradiction in terms, a desire that could only be elevated to an aim in itself in a consumer society. The modern liberation ethos unwittingly paved the way for such a consumer ethos and it is precisely this ethos that has eroded all sense of proportion. We have become the prisoners of a ruthless instrumental reason that dominates everything and monopolises the discourse of liberation. In an act of pure overestimation of its powers, it ignores the fact that its own organisation of elements is only a historical artefact too. And it refuses to see so many other possibilities of thinking freedom, synthesis, and organisation of elements, that have not yet been tried.

The moderation of desire and pleasure does not have to be seen as external to that desire and that pleasure. It is internal to it. That moderation is the virtue that strives for perfectibility. The disbelief in the possibility of attaining greater perfection is precisely what puts this day and age in sackcloth and ashes. In the first place, Morele Herbewapening wants to denounce this indifference and insensitivity and make room for possibilities of perfection as an immanent project.

But the acknowledgement of values in the world and of virtues in the human race does not yield a harmonious world view, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven sees that very well. Those values are not coherently organised, and cannot be coherently organised. They give conflicting signals. They oppose each other, fight for predominance, attempt to seduce us, sometimes to lead us astray. There are countless ways of organising values. Organising values is a contextual given. And virtues too are mutually incompatible and conflicting. What makes a good man, a good lover, a good scientist, a good artist ? There is a multitude of values and virtues that can assume a certain configuration at a certain moment, in a certain place, a configuration that will probably fall apart again at another moment and in another place, if it does not explode because of its contradictions. That is why Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven presents a diversity of moral survival systems, none of which contains an answer to all questions. But at least they are attempts at giving meaning to the chaos, and that is the reason why Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven cherishes them, rather than throwing them all on the rubbish heap as worthless failures. There will probably also be a few points of contact, similarities and complementarities that are eligible for recuperation. They can also be approached as challenges or possibilities, incarnations of hope, faith, and love.

In Paradogma (1993), Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven herself postulates respect as the central value. And she does so with great integrity. Because each of her works and installations is witness to the concern of creating an authentic atmosphere in which everything can be expressed with precision. Each image is an attempt to express its value content in a well-defined environment. They are exciting images, because this content invariably refers to problems. Harmony cannot be assumed just like that. It has to be won, by rearranging and recombining the elements. And by also emphasising their impermanence, because a good synthesis in one context is not necessarily good in another context.

It may seem like stating the obvious, but it is probably precisely because of that precision that it is so difficult to describe the work of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven in words. She herself is continuously working with language and with the problematical relation between language and world and between écriture and peinture. Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven is a graphic artist, a draughtswoman, who attaches importance not only to syntax and semantics, but also to the graphic aspects of the word. Bringing words together yields ever-different semantic fields: words from physics, psychology, philosophy, alchemy, biology, ethics. Words which, just like values, have different meanings according to the field in which they are situated and, just like values, become meaningless when they are divorced from any context.

During our conversations, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven repeatedly said 'I don't know how to tell you this, but wait, I'll show you'. And she certainly knows how to do just that, in an unparalleled way. Her quest has not been fruitless. She has found beauty on her way. She knows how to create beauty. Intelligent beauty, that shows power and fragility at the same time, and expresses the possibility of overcoming the fear of isolation and loneliness. Hope, faith and love. Could it be any simpler and at the same time, any more ambitious ? One has to be an artist, and probably also a woman, to succeed in that with so much soul force.