A Connoisseur of Chaos: Erik Waterkotte’s Expressionless Prints
Just an image of Joan of Arc, Jeanne d’Arc, Renee Jeanne Falconetti, Anna Karina. Just an encounter with an image that is already a repetition, a sinuous line of repetitions, a beautiful movement of visibility. An image of Joan that repeats within itself the frailty and promise of vision. Because it is a vision of promise that animates her face, beyond the tears and anguish. Time and again it becomes clear that an encounter with an image is never simple.
Spiritual, expressionless encounters are what Falconetti transmits through her body (gestures, countenances, her deep black eyes). This transmissibility renders Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film so magnetic and absolutely affecting. It is also these bodily becomings that bring tears to Nana’s eyes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) as she watches Falconetti’s face. The resonances between these two actresses’ faces (Falconetti and Karina), transmitting the expressionless yet sensible state of their characters’ very being, transforms the film stock (as materiality) into a vital and compelling artwork. This vital materialism is the force of art, a force that creates with, alongside, and at times against the sheer “power of life,” as Gilles Deleuze reminds us. And we must remember that it is a “just image” not “just an image” that we are after, as Godard himself insisted.
And what of Erik Waterkotte’s Of Arc (2015), with the Joan/Jeanne an ellipsis signaling a disappearance in time? The multiplicity of her face barely cohering against the corrosions and colorist distortions of the print. The print deteriorates—its very materiality chemically dissembling into tenuous forms, rust-colored gashes, scratched lines, and sinews of ink and paper—even as her face insists, as it comes into focus and then dissolves just as quickly. This aesthetic rhythm imprints itself because the tension within the picture plane itself reveals not the simplistic coexistence of layers, but rather the presence of a single plane of composition creating and decreating an image at once. Waterkotte presents us with nothing less than the frailty and promise of memory separating itself from perception. The frailty and promise of memory being capable of unraveling itself from present perception is perhaps the best definition of a just image. One that embodies the beautiful movement of eternity by fending off the stillness of death. This is the expressionless power of the image that Waterkotte gives us.
Waterkotte’s prints create with and alongside the expressionless power of an image. His prints work with the materiality, the scraps and detritus of memory and visual culture. Walter Benjamin created an aesthetic and historiographic concept by thinking through the scraps, remnants, things, and images of modern, collective visual culture—what he termed das Ausdruck, a German word meaning both “expression” and “to print” (to press out, to squeeze). Benjamin’s concept is das Ausdruckslose, the expressionless. The “expressionless,” Benjamin writes in his brilliant essay on Goethe, is “the critical violence which, while unable to separate semblance from essence in art, prevents them from mingling…[and] completes the work, by shattering it into a thing of shards, into a fragment of the true world.” The expressionless is characterized as the interruption and fragmentation of totality because it “strikes” (schlägt) and “destroys” (zerschlägt), Benjamin argues. Waterkotte works with the remnants, das Ausdruck, of visual culture: the very remains of the past are his materiality. But he works not to affirm the past as if it were safely concealed in some past perception frozen in a photograph, an architectural plan, or a film still. Instead, he creates an image wherein our sense of the past unfolds, exposing only the endless rhythm of the past as such continuing to co-exist with each passing moment (each perception in the present), but never becoming identical to that momentary perception. Waterkotte’s images present an expressionless splitting of memory and perception. What we encounter in this work is the sublime, maddening, poetic turning away of memory from the present. A turning away that allows us to glimpse a just image of the past as such, to encounter that which continues to exist beyond our attempts to reify and to represent it for ourselves.
It is feral time that Waterkotte gives us. A temporality whose expressionless power magnetizes content by remaining out of the present. It is an aesthetic past-future temporality that inscribes itself within each of his prints. What remains of the past is what Waterkotte takes up (re- main, to play with the French language a bit, literally meaning here in “to take in hand again”) as he creates his prints. What re-mains is an image of the past repeated at such a degree of inflection, saturation, distortion, and intensity that it is rendered unrecognizable and thus absolutely singular in its countenance. His images take on a consistency only to the degree that they threaten to collapse back into the chaos of time itself.
We could say it in this manner, repeating the words of Deleuze from his late essay on Samuel Beckett entitled “The Exhausted” (1992). A print is not defined not “by the sublimity of [an image’s] content but by…the force it mobilizes to create a void or to bore holes, to loosen the grip of words…a small, alogical, amnesiac, and almost aphasic image.” Such a just image opens a space by turning away, by tracing a passage between chaos and composition, between what is said and what is seen, between past and present. Whenever we encounter Waterkotte’s best works we should hear Deleuze’s raspy, insistent voice reminding us, like one of Beckett’s singular characters, that
an image, inasmuch as it stands…apart from words, stories, and memories, accumulates a fantastical potential energy, which it detonates by dissipating itself. What counts in the image is not its meager content, but the energy—mad and ready to explode—that it has harnessed, which is why images never last very long.