{"'Liebchen, this is the other half of the earth. In Germany you would be yellow and blue.' Mirror-metaphysics." - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow}

Evocative philosophy, or a hint for representation

It must be an occupational hazard: being a ‘professional philosopher’ (I admit it does sound sort of peculiar if not downright ridiculous) I tend to read a philosophical inspiration into a lot of things. Into almost everything really, but especially into artistic expressions.

Into modern dance for example. Nowadays one very often encounters the point of view that one really should not look at creative acts through the lens of philosophy, since artistic creations have their own image-language and one should not indulge in too much philosophical hineinlesen. That’s fair enough. However I do wonder whether this critical stance is entirely appropriate or even tenable as more and more art-makers themselves have started using philosophical concepts in relation to their works. Sometimes this makes sense to a trained philosopher and sometimes it doesn’t. Yet it is not all surprising that art-makers turn to philosophy. Haven’t philosophers been turning to art from times immemorial?

This is why I wasn’t surprised when I did a little preliminary research about the dance performance I/II/III/IIII by Belgian choreographer Kris Verdonck that I enjoyed watching a couple days ago. The hermeneutic machinery surrounding this type of art told me that this performance ‘plays with the concept of repetition by Gilles Deleuze’, deals with ‘the uncanny by Freud’, but also that it relates to Kleist, the Golem and Frankenstein, that it evokes images from Dadaist marionettes to fallen angels, and that it is indebted to the classic number theory of the ancient Greek philosophers – among other references.

So what was this performance about? What did we see? As the name of the performance indicates we first saw one, then two, then three and finally four female dancers, barefoot and dressed in short but demure little black dresses, suspended from hooks attached to a mechanical device that flew them all over the stage. A strong spotlight artfully followed their every move so that we got to witness both their bodies and the shadows they produced. These shadows sometimes blended into strange shapes and seemed to create an imagery of their own. Interestingly enough there was no direct interaction between the dancers. The only interaction took place on the level of the shadows (this became obvious when during the duet one of the dancers was checking whether her position had the desired effect on her shadow that was supposed to form some kind of heartlike shape). Between each piece there was an interval: the dancers had to re-attach themselves to the machine as an extra dancer was added to it. During these little breaks the stage was dark and the audience lit so that we wouldn’t be part of the ‘technical practicalities’. (Naturally people started talking and visiting the lavatory.) The music consisted of - oh gentle shock of mild surprise – one tone for the single dancer, two for the duet and so on. Each time it started off with a ‘pure’ sound which then became more and ‘machinated’ into the standard beeps and rustles of a computerlike machine.

How can one say something about this performance without reverting to theoretical constructs, especially when the makers do it themselves? The art-creators themselves, like a lot of the art-critics surrounding them, fall back on philosophical concepts to elucidate their work. Although sometimes these theoretical embeddings seem to be aimed at producing a coherent framework for viewing a performance, their true function lies elsewhere, I would venture to argue. Ultimately philosophy here isn’t a sort of clarifying device; it rather serves to evocate something, an image to associate with the work of art, a hint for representation. One could say that philosophy here doesn’t leave the realm of association and comparison, but that is beside the point: philosophy doesn’t explain (it doesn’t need to), instead it evocates. Philosophy here evocates images and concepts and in doing so it becomes part of the work of art. By conjuring up philosophically inspired images to go hand in hand with their art, artists turn concepts into images. Philosophers have turned images into concepts, reading art as an illustration for their theories, for a very long time. Do artists now read philosophy as images, as evocations to bolster up their art? Are they beating us at our own game?

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