Fillip

Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Chained Melody
Teresa Steel

Undeclared desires, unacknowledged wishes, urges forbidden by consciousness often find indirect expression through illness, errors, dreams, and obsessions. The psychoanalytic concept of compulsive repetition, which is related to the death drive,1 involves the impulse to return again and again to a distressing situation or trauma that occurred during childhood. Although we may not remember the origins of our compulsions, we are invariably drawn towards things that we fear. Feelings of anxiety, repulsion, fear, and uncanniness have a dominant presence in Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter’s newest film, Ten Weyngaert (2007). In this examination of powerlessness, abuse, and victimization we are confronted by scenes of ritualistic violence and aberrant behavior, which are disquieting in their familiarity. What unfolds is not only unsettling in its strangeness, but also compelling.

Ten Weyngaert (In the vineyard) takes its name and location from a Brussels Community Centre, “which was built as a utopian space but is now notoriously frequented by troubled people.”2 In an ironic reflection that magnifies lived reality to horrific proportions, the film portrays the institution as a sterile, dehumanizing environment where people are mechanical slaves and machines are the masters. The film’s topography is divided into three stage-like settings: The institution, with its brightly lit, claustrophobic interior; an exterior world, dark and fog-shrouded, inhabited by silent watchers; and a black, featureless space, which contains some of the same furniture and occupants as the institution’s main room. Although we never witness the characters enter or leave any of these settings, they often appear in one space only to reappear as subtly altered duplicates in a different location. In yet another rendition of “the double,”3 these characters appear to exist simultaneously in different realms.

In psychoanalytic theory, the “double” was originally viewed as an insurance against the destruction of the ego and a denial of the power of death. “The immortal soul” was probably the first “double” of the body.4 The theme of the double is integral to Freud’s concept of the uncanny: “that form of terror that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” but that has become alienated through the process of repression. “An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes, which have been repressed, are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.”5 Citing Samuel Weber, Susan Bernstein notes that the uncanny has a peculiar discursive structure, which is “intimately bound up with subjective feelings—above all anxiety.”6 The discourse of the uncanny destroys the illusion of a stable subject position, of a final meaning, of a sense separable from language and the body. It points to the finitude and temporality of thinking, as Weber makes clear in “Uncanny Thinking,” and “marks the spot where what is (there) and what is not, presence and absence, coming and going, can no longer be clearly distinguished.”7

In his 1906 essay, Ernst Jentsch wrote: “In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton.”8 This is the case in Ten Weyngaert, where characters carry blank expressions and mechanical gestures that resemble puppets more than people. In the film’s opening sequence, for example, we see the “human” residents of the institution passively shuffle into the corner of a room toward a black-faced overseer, like sleepwalkers pulled together by a magnetic force. Caught in this hypnotic spell are Tom and Tim, the institution’s janitors, as well as a small group of casually dressed residents. What we witness is a kind of puppet theatre, where living beings are reduced to powerless objects under the control of an “overruling puppeteer-subject.” As Dieter Roelstraete observes, the representation of the human form as an object or pawn in a board game is at the very core of Thys and de Gruyter’s artistic practice.9 Typically, their work is characterized by a remorseless equalization of “man” and “thing” where man becomes more mechanistic and thing-like as things become increasingly anthropomorphized.10 The process of dehumanization is presented quite literally in one scene, when two magicians, dressed in stereotypical black coats and top hats, transform a man into a doll. Although magical transformation has often been used as a metaphor for the creative process, in this instance, rather than giving life to an inanimate object, the magicians invert the act of creation and turn a living being into a lifeless toy.

Notably, the film lacks any spoken dialogue; in fact, the characters do not appear to possess even the ability to speak. As Roelstraete points out, a total absence of speech implies a fateful loss of “anima,” as in “animation” or “soul,” which is a “quintessential human quality.”11 Control over the human body as a site of agency is often manifested as control over the environment. However, in Ten Weyngaert, the order and structure of the institution is contrasted against a complete loss of individual agency on the part of the inhabitants. The institution, with its bright, hygienic rooms and robotic guards, exemplifies order and discipline at its most extreme, while the characters, in their detached, zombie-like movements, appear to have lost voluntary control over their own bodies.

As the human characters are emptied of their humanity, machines undergo a complementary process whereby they acquire human qualities. In one scene, a six-legged robot with a white, human-shaped head collapses and dies after looking into a bucket used by the janitors to clean the floor. Presumably, the antiseptic cleaning fluid contained in the bucket is so toxic that even a machine cannot withstand the fumes. We might also conclude that, in comparison to the janitors, the robot is more human, because it is more sensitive, and thus vulnerable, to the bucket’s contents.

Although Thys and De Gruyter used non-professional actors, family members, and friends as the cast, the performances are utterly convincing. Playing the roles of victims, abusers, and witnesses, they mechanically enact dehumanizing power relationships. Despite the film’s overt theatricality, the quality of authenticity in the performances provokes a discomforting sense of recognition and identification in the viewer. This effect is amplified by the film’s prolonged periods of dead silence, which serve to focus the viewer’s attention on the physical actions of the characters. Lengthy close-ups allows viewers plenty of time to observe their facial expressions, and even the subtlest gesture is readily apparent. Initially, the performers appear to be completely passive, their faces almost slack. Yet, after several minutes of sustained immobility, this passivity begins to seem forced, and there is a feeling of mounting pressure, as if something is about to snap.

One scene, for example, begins with an extreme close-up of an ordinary man staring vacantly into space. His stationary posture and blank, unfocussed gaze indicates that he may be daydreaming. However, when the silence is broken by the sound of laughter and he still remains completely unresponsive, his passive expression takes on a new significance, becoming symptomatic of a catatonic state. The laughter, which has a compressed, strangled quality, therefore seems to emanate from an alternative reality, perhaps from the man’s own delusional perceptions. Eventually, the camera pulls back to reveal a group of people seated around him pointing in his direction, and the single voice is multiplied into a chorus of laughter. By making the source of the laughter visible, this wider perspective shifts the viewer’s focus from the subjective experience of the individual character to the taunting reaction of the group, suggesting that the man has not only succumbed to his environment on an external level, but has internalized the perceptions of his tormentors through his own self-effacing laughter reflected in the mocking and belittling actions of those around him. As this scenario unfolds, the senseless cruelty of the aggressors combined with the passive submissiveness of the victim becomes frustrating, if not infuriating. Still, despite the exaggerated theatricality and blatant, didactic message, this brutal but ordinary drama generates an unsettling sense of recognition and familiarity.

As in many of Thys and De Gruyter’s earlier works, the characters in this film are no more than “puppets dancing to a tune.”[12] In this instance, the tune is the discordant melody of sadomasochism. The artists often subject their characters to senseless rounds of “burlesque violence and cartoon torture.”[13] In one scene, we witness the institution’s janitors push and bully two of the male residents, forcing them to cower in submission. This act of aggression, which has no cause nor purpose, exposes the “mechanics of victimization” as a banal routine, destined to be repeated in an endless cycle of torment and debasement. Through this apparently meaningless act, life is revealed as a “circle” of mechanized daily activities. In it we “turn around and about, caught in the rut of the all too familiar.”[14]

With Ten Weyngaert, Thys and De Gruyter don’t pull any punches in their critical examination of the human condition, offering an uncompromising look at how ordinary people are damaged and enslaved by an ideology that renders life mechanical and routine.

While the artists resist offering solutions, they present a world where the frightening and the familiar are irreconcilably entangled within the discursive structure of the uncanny. In his discussion of Heidegger, Samuel Weber notes that an uncanny happening or event has the potential to disrupt the repetitive cycle of daily life, breaking it apart and creating an opening toward “something strange and alien.” In this way, the magical circle of questioning expands into a spiral, disrupting the relentless path of logic and order, creating the possibility of “repetition with a difference.”[15]

Notes
  1. Elisabeth Bronfen provides a comprehensive definition of Freud’s “death drive” in Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary Elizabeth Wright, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 52–59. According to Freud, although fear of annihilation is one of the most basic primal anxieties, the death instinct is an urge “inherent in organic life, to restore an earlier [pre-animate] state.”
  2. MuHKA Jubilee Press File, “Lonely At the Top # Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys.”
  3. Dieter Roelstraete, “The Sacrificial Lamb: Dieter Roelstraete Ponders the Work of Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys.” A Prior Magazine 11 (2005), 163. In his examination of the recurring motif of the puppet in Thys and De Gruyter’s work, Roelstraete notes that the puppet or “double” comes in a wide variety of forms, including “automata, dolls, dummies, idols, mannequins, pawns, pet toys and stuffed animals, teddy bears, wax figures,” not to mention “zombies, werewolves, vampires, twins, robots, golems, Frankensteins, and clones.”
  4. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” [Das Unheimliche] (1919). In Standard Edition, vol. XVII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 217–56.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Susan Bernstein citing Samuel Weber in her essay “It Walks: The Ambulatory Uncanny” (2004), http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/german/uncanny/uncanny_readings.html.
  7. Bernstein is citing Samuel Weber’s extensive analysis of Freud’s concept of “the uncanny” in “The Sideshow, or: Remarks on a Canny Moment” in MLN 88, no. 6 (December, 1973), 1102–33. See also http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/german/uncanny/uncanny_readings.html.
  8. In “The ‘Uncanny,’” Freud uses this citation from Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” which laid the groundwork for his own theory.
  9. Roelstraete, “The Sacrificial Lamb,“ 172.
  10. Ibid., 167.
  11. Ibid., 170.

Image: Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter, still from Ten Weyngaert, 2007. Image courtesy of the artists

About the Author

Teresa Steel is a Vancouver-based visual artist. She works in a variety of media, including photography, video installation, and Flash animation.

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