It encounters the construction of political bodies and representations that have lately taken on something like the feudalist and anti-democratic cast of yore. Where power seeks to maintain continuity, it incorporates a human community’s collective body into a symbolically exalted subject: Long Live the King!
Frédéric Moser and Philippe Schwinger’s films and sculptures respond to the contemporary refeudalization of post-democratic societies. Their new work builds on earlier video installations in which theatrical and sculptural reenactments of events from the past forged new discursive figures that shed light on political developments in the present. Take UNEXPECTED RULES, created in 2004 for the Bienal de São Paulo, a restaging of the Clinton–Lewinsky affair that took inspiration from the work of Ignacio Matte Blanco. Blanco took the mathematician Newton da Costa’s paraconsistent logic and applied it to psychoanalysis to describe the irrational as a form of rationality at a different level. This let Moser and Schwinger assemble the antagonistic emotions, strategies, and interests of the people involved in the political scandal around Lewinsky in a cinematic stage play that threw the paradoxical constellations of power and intrigue, sex and global media into sharp relief and revealed how their contradictory positions were utterly rationally plausible.
The point of departure for their new exhibition is a paradoxical set of events, a peculiar figure that for centuries informed the political organization of the West. In the late Middle Ages, theologians seeking to legitimize the king’s unlimited power over his subjects fabricated the feudalist fiction of his double body. They declared that his natural and mortal shell was at once also an immortal, sacred, and collective body capable of incorporating the entire people – an eternal institution become flesh and blood. This fiction eventually gave rise to absolutism; it survives today in nationalist formulas like the “body of the people,” but also in ideas of national sovereignty that are woven, for example, into EU regulations. Making the paradoxical double existence of physical reality and metaphysics in the king’s two bodies seem reasonable required an entire apparatus of aesthetic representations that glorified the ruler as the embodiment of the nation-as-subject. But things became tricky when the king died: his ideal body needed to be kept unblemished even in death to safeguard the continuity of the collective body and its organs of state. That is why, beginning in the fourteenth century, stonemasons created lavishly designed catafalques: raised platforms on which the body laid out in the coffin was presented to the public, embedded in the symbolism of an everlasting aristocratic world order by the grace of God.
One catafalque that has become famous is Abraham Lincoln’s. It is still used when eminent American public servants lie in state in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before burial, demonstrating the reproduction of this symbolic order in the age of democracy. Lincoln’s catafalque inspired the textile creation that is the dominant object in Moser and Schwinger’s exhibition in the gallery's upper space. Heavy dark fabrics reproduce the stereotypical forms of the exclusive staging of dead representatives of the people as limbs of an imaginary body politic (Lincoln’s funeral, 2018). The object’s second side translates this imaginary dimension into the idiom of modernism, reviving Abstract Expressionism’s aesthetic of the sublime. Vertical black and white bands extend through the work and into eternity. Set in the here and now, the aesthetic object touches upon the infinite. But then the two Swiss artists’ suspended “catafalque” is sculpturally twisted and without contact to the floor; a dysfunctional construction entangled in its own twofold formulaic rhetoric that we can walk around and relate to the dimensions of our own bodies and hence to the internalized dimensions of something larger whose parts we ourselves – are?
A few steps away, the symbolic order switches from vertical to horizontal and shifts to a more civic dimension. Two textile works in classical cuts of Japanese kimonos (Citizen O, citizen k, 2018) are mounted flat, side by side, on the wall. They look valuable, large, and gorgeous; their elegance reflecting a strictly codified principle of form. They, too, are stages for the appearance of individual bodies whose sartorial rituals hew to an iconography of distinction. Different patterns and cuts for varied social occasions and classes visibly assign the wearer to his or her place in the collective structure of societal roles and divisions. And they, too, signify the continuity of a political body that enfolds and integrates the subject. The same can be said of the fourth object in the room, an elaborate recreation of a ruff. Ever more ornate and sometimes astonishingly large, ruffled collars came into fashion in the sixteenth century and adorned the necks of nobles and public officials, especially in the legal professions. Moser and Schwinger’s object condenses the symbolic order into the one point of a centralized authority associated in the title of their work with its legislative function: Only words make the decrees (2018). As in the other works, the staging of a symbolically exalted body is like a prism bringing the regulations of a collective (legal) subject into focus that encounters its likeness – a virtual mirror image – in the delicate fabric’s intricate folds.
The king’s two bodies live on today in numerous forms of political representation, and not only there. A pre-democratic vocabulary of signifiers runs through the gallery. In altered form, they transport the metaphysical legitimization of corporative power into the post-democratic era, where they help establish neo-feudal relations divorced from discursive rationality. Or that seems to be the hypothesis Moser and Schwinger propose. Their new works intentionally operate entirely in the reality of sensory perception, of the positively tactile desire we feel as we contemplate a materiality that surrounds, envelops, and supports bodies. They chart the plane of sensations, speak the language of affects, charm the beholder with surfaces, and source their forms from the past. In short, they enter the same arena in which contemporary populists and contenders for royal power score their points as well; but unlike these, the artists mount a project of deconstruction. Sticking to the world of appearances throughout, they lucidly demonstrate how much the political body is an aesthetic body, an ideal narrative fashioned out of ephemeral materials that draw their entire strength from suggestion and its sway over the imaginary.
The exhibition’s second chapter turns the arrow of time around and looks toward the future. The austere art direction and simple plot of the two science-fiction films playing on separate screens frame ambitious discursive figures – the influence of da Costa’s paraconsistent logic is again recognizable. Isa appears on the screen on the right, while Tom is on the left. They are trapped in loops, in their respective stories, which are set in the same barren mountain scenery, a place that might as well be on Mars. Isa keeps riding her moped into the wilderness to bury the money she has made. She is the kind of businesswoman who has everything under control but has lost confidence in her bank, so now she feeds her wealth to the earth. Always waiting for her by her stash is the silent eye of a camera connected to some unidentified technical device, its sole purpose apparently to observe her. We see Isa through its digital eye, and a dialogue unfolds between her and its mute gaze, which concludes with its destruction. In the exchange, she negotiates her position in this absurd relationship between herself and something that is part of something else. Who owns this gaze that keeps an eye on her secret money management? A corporation? A state? A deity? Given this surveillance, what will she make of her self-determination and her dream of rising to the top of the food chain and taking her seat between Ivanka Trump and Angela Merkel at the W20 summit, where the world’s most powerful women gather? And how can she get off this hamster wheel that has her accumulating capital so she can accumulate yet more capital to bury?
And what is the connection between Isa and Tom, who is pursuing his own fate on the left screen, the rhythms of their stories coordinated? Tom has left his wife and is spending the night in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, far from his old life. The breakup is recent and he spends his time dictating voice messages to his cell phone that he can’t send because he has no signal. So he delves into an imaginary colloquy with his lost companion and watches as his world unravels. Beneath the starry sky, he begins to harbor doubts about the order of the universe. Tom is a conservative white macho family man from the 1950s, yet suddenly it is no longer inconceivable to him that everything might be different: that time itself might end and with it, life and even the sky above him. As he envisions the civilization he has left behind relapsing into a medieval way of life and feudalism, he suddenly becomes the protagonist of a new future in which utopia and dystopia coincide. His mind and body are ready for the great metamorphosis: “There is no law above our laws that forces them to persist.” Yet before the vast event that will void all rules, transform everything, and put Tom in touch with eternity can even commence, it is disrupted by an explosion. A stone’s throw away, Isa blows up the eye that revealed her actions to an anonymous power, finally breaking free from its grasp.
Isa’s and Tom’s stories are contrasting paths toward emancipation in a paradoxical world. It is a world in which different trajectories of time, conflicting values and judgments, the real and the imaginary, intimacy and universality, power and impuissance, reason and randomness coexist. The subjects embroiled in the plots are their parallel manifestations. The trope of the king’s two bodies recurs as a symbolic synthesis that embraces the incompatible and sets it out in the form of two neighboring projections in the room we inhabit. Moser’s and Schwinger’s double film occupies a precarious intermediate position also in terms of form and genre: between standup comedy, TV serial, stage play, and the aesthetics of the cinema, with interspersed crime thriller, action movie, and documentary elements. Jokes elicit no laughter, dialogue goes unanswered, the absurd passes for perfectly normal. The artists lend a tangible and contemporary meaning to the concept of incommensurability. It is when the run of things is not constrained by a single logic, when places and subjects bear contrary identities, when rational discourses integrate the irrational, when the yearning for freedom can attach itself to very different objects, when things may happen that make no sense – and yet are true. The work casts all these into a narrative and aesthetic structure without resolving the tensions that weigh on thinking and action today.
When the aristocracy sought to wrest power from the Church, it invented a regime that allowed for the coexistence of mortality and immortality, the fiction of a symbolic dispensation that placed some in the advantageous position of uniting everyone and everything within themselves. The struggle against this historic presumption has flared up again and again ever since; each victory is followed by a setback, and the antagonists continually change disguises as their forms of power transform. Moser and Schwinger’s theatrical art exposes the representations without which old and new kings' attempts to seize power would be doomed to failure. And it uncovers how we ourselves have long lived in an order of double bodies that endows our subjectivity with a mortal and an immortal side – both parts of an imaginary that is the true scene of politics.
Text: Alexander Koch; Translation: Gerrit Jackson; Editing: Kimberly Bradley