Jose Luis Brea

Text read by Jose Luis Brea for the opening of the Ton Mars exhibition at Galeria Elba Benitez Madrid, 14 March 1991.

There is a beautiful and well known poem by William Yeats of which I would like to quote the last few lines:

Oh chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer.

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? Oh body swayed to music, Oh brightening glance.

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

How could we interpret this last line, which asks how we can “know the dancer from the dance”? Traditionally, it has been understood to be a rhetorical question – like those jokes about the couple living alone, in which one asks the other “Who left the bathroom tap open?” That is, as a false question, a question whose answer is self-evident, indeed to obvious.

In short, according to this traditional interpretation, “How Can we know the dancer from the dance?” can be read, as stating that  ”it is impossible to know the dancer from the dance”, just as the question in the second line, “are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?”, is read to state that the chestnut is not one or another of these things, but their conjunction, which exceeds and blends them all together into a “superior”, indissoluble unity.

The same tradition which has read these questions as statements, which has closed the opening of their interrogation about a statement so self confident that it even allows itself the ironical trope of being presented – if only rhetorically – as questions, that same tradition has posited that the poem as a whole could itself be read as an “allegory of reading”, as the very metaphor of the act of reading, as an example Yeats’ own conception of reading.

Thus, the question-statement that “we cannot know the dancer from the dance” should be interpreted as the expression of the happy Romantic conviction of the indissoluble linking – as between dancer and dance – of a sign and its meaning, of language and the world, by means of precisely that mysterious superior unity which, like the chestnut, is more than the sum of its parts: the strong transcendental subject, the modern subject.

Paul de Man has shown that there exists the possibility of a second reading, an – “other” reading, of the same line-question (of that “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”), one which would resist rhetorical reading and would take “seriously”, literally, its condition as question. The poem would then be making explicit the feeling of need to distinguish between what is indistinguishable, indissoluble, the dancer and the dance, the sign and its referent. In this light, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” would mean: what on earth can we do to distinguish the dancer from the dance, how the devil could we manage to differentiate the two?

Taken as an “allegory of reading”, what the poem would not be speaking of would no longer be the indissolubility of sign and signified, the unity between language and the world under the guarantee of the subject, but in effect, the very opposite: the need to recognize its fracture, its unweldability: the distance which separates every sign from its meaning.

The poem should therefore be read as an allegory of the ultimate ”unread ability”, as an allegory of the irreducibility of the sign to a definitive signified – and, under the poet’s question, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”, would then lie the ultimate uncertainty. The uncertainty which would show that the Romantic self was not in fact that posited strong subject, but a subject beset with insecurities, not the inhabitant of the firm conviction which attempts to weld sign and signified, language and world, but, rather, an unstable voyager, a guest in that disarrangement, in that irreducibility of the world to language which manifests itself as a need to distinguish, a need about which the poem, literally, asks.

If in Yeats it was still possible to find this oscillation between readings which would reveal the simultaneity of two contradictory convictions – if, that is to say, the poem surely concerns both – today we no longer have but the possibility of ascribing ourselves to one only, to a single conviction: the second, and, if anything, of recognizing in ourselves a spot of melancholical nostalgia for the first.

As it is now evident that even such a poem, which is an allegory of the act of reading, can be subject to diverse, and even contradictory, readings, we find ourselves no longer able to proclaim that faith – peculiar to the modern subject – in the immediacy of the sign to its signified that the poem supposedly espoused. One must, on the contrary, subscribe to the skeptical certainty of the distance, the opening and deferrement which, even in time, separates them – separates the sign from its “definitive“ meaning.  

In effect, we can only declare our conviction in the dark certainty that the meanings of a sign belong to the aftermath of an interminable, never closeable, task of interpretive production.  Such is the conviction which, as subjects sundered from the faith, now constitutes our lot.

These paintings by Ton Mars are born of this new conviction, of this skepticism that we would do well to describe simply as lucidity, as unavoidably acquired conscience, and as the complete fading of the modern dream par excellence; the forced abandonment of the illusion that language could dominate the world, that, at least, language and the world could be joined in a perfect fit, could grant each other a faithful reflection, could interlock without gap or friction.

In their certainty of the inescapable breach of any presumed fixed link between sign and meaning, these paintings result from the awareness of performing a movement fatally bound to fail in reaching its goal, its final place of rest – if they were nothing but fragments of unfinished discourse, insufficient enunciations. And they acknowledge that awareness by actually putting themselves forth in fragmentary, unfinished, open form; as explicitly and voluntarily incomplete writings; as, barely, the beginnings of a graphic, arch writing, writing in remote, barely initial stage.

Thus, they respond by overtaking that fate of which they gain awareness. They anticipate their fatal destiny in the distance that separates their – unreadable – traits from an imaginary final reading – now known to be impossible. They respond by registering the insuperable distance which, as signs, will forever separate them from their definitive meanings – they speak thus of their openness to an endless task of decipherments, to an interminable labor of readings and interpretations.

In this sense, and as in Yeats’ poem, we could look at these paintings as “allegories of reading”, as metaphors or paradigmatic examples of the manner in which we today know the act of reading, of contemplating, to be resolved.      

However, inasmuch as we now recognize that all reading is an abysmal and interminable search for a meaning in flight, we could have to look at these paintings as, in effect, “allegories of illegibility”, of their own unread ability  and of that which  due to the very interminability of any meaning acquisition process, equally affects any work of art in our contemporary experience. In these works – in any work of contemporary art – meaning manifests itself as undecipherable, as an open and interminable process: thereof speak these paintings.

The works have, therefore, to do with the statement of their – inevitable – illegibility, and not with any formal, geometric or purely abstract experimentation. Not even with minimalist experimentation – which, already recognizing the untenable condition of the supposed link between sign and referent, would play postulating it as a recursive, self designating, self reference.

By contrast, in these paintings, if opening up the process of signification demands at certain points that the reading curl around them – inasmuch as they DEMAND TO BE READ  as “allegories of illegibility”, as allegories of their own unread ability – that curl of a purely meta-figural, rhetorical character, such that it only can be resolved paradoxically, in aporia. This is because, were they actually “read” as allegories of unread ability, they would fail to be just that – true “allegories of illegibility”-, if the reading were thereby suspended -, if it were assumed to be, let us say, accomplished and resolved in that conclusion.

Hence, they return to the look that observes them an irresoluble dilemma: either it recognizes in them mute signs, interrupted and frozen on themselves, and incapable of being read, or it throws itself with them into a reading “en abime”, in which what they – though insufficiently, unreadable – enunciate is precisely their own illegibility.

Thus, the look faces an unstable curl. The only possible exit being the attempt to give more turn, or one turn less, to the screw of what it sees.

And, in the end, each eye-thought is bound to choose, depending on whether laziness or haste dominate its dynamics, orientates its trajectories or its courses. Each eye-thought, not this discourse. Fir, in order to say no saying can exhaust what these paintings have to say, too much has already been said. It is now everyone’s turn to see, to understand; and to understand what they manage to see and understand.

And thus, I leave you, though not before thanking you for the courtesy and attention you granted me in these lectural stammering to which, I’m afraid, we are doomed. For, as another poet wrote, in words we could perfect imagine to be what is written in these paintings:

We are only a sign, unreadable

we are without pain

and have almost lost our language

in a foreign country.

I had failed to mention it up to now but, probably, Ton Mars comes from it, from that other foreign country, perhaps another planet. Just like everyone of us, after all, – and I hope he will forgive this final joke.

Thank you

[Jose Luis Brea (1957-2010) was Professor of Aesthetics and Contemporary Art Theory at the Universidad Carlos III of Madrid]

(Translated from Spanish by Maruja García Padilla)