November • 1 • 2020
Between Thought and Action
Alejandro Cesarco, The Dreams I’ve Left Behind, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Useful Art Services.
I went to the gallery because I had extra time between classes. It’s on the fourth floor and by the time I climb the eight flights of stairs I’m out of breath. Heading through the doors, the first work of Song I see is faint and pink — as if it were returning my flush. It is entitled, The Dreams I’ve Left Behind (2015) and is supposedly a silkscreened photograph of a wall in artist Alejandro Cesarco’s bedroom, though the image is so light as to be unrecognizable. From the beginning, I get a glimpse of the artist’s most intimate space, a gesture disarmed or perhaps reinforced by a color often associated with frivolity and childishness. The question immediately raised is why the artist would open an exhibition revolving around two video installations about the meaning of literary tragedy with an image so personal and domestic.
Alejandro Cesarco, Everness (excerpt), 2008/2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Useful Art Services.
Of the literary genres, tragedy is among the oldest, with a history stretching back to antiquity. At its root, tragedy revolved around the question of knowledge; Oedipus is unaware he has killed his father and married his mother, though he has also received a prophecy warning him of precisely this. The videos, Everness (2008/2017) and Revision (2017), truly plumb the epistemological depths of tragedy, interpreting the tragic hero as receiving, like Oedipus, an indecipherable message.
In the first black-and-white video, the narrator is dressed in a professorial shirt and cardigan, pictured in an armchair with legs crossed, full bookcases in the background. He begins, “What he is saying is that it’s literature that produces readers…” We get an opinion explained to us by someone who is not the author — in other words, we get the academic, the specialist, the pundit.
The second video is different, yet similar. Almost a decade later, Cesarco recreated the initial video with the same actor. The second is less formal, due to its color and lack of the intellectual accoutrements of books and fusty clothing.
The monologue has shifted from the present to the past and from the third to the first person, leaving us with “What I said was that it’s literature that produces readers…” Rather than expounding another, the actor has internalized his lesson. While the presentation of Everness was serious and fresh, Revision is tired and resigned. Our narrator has visibly aged, his hair fading from a virile brown to an enervated grey. Time has taken its toll.
Alejandro Cesarco, Revision, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Useful Art Services.
Alejandro Cesarco, Interlude, still, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Useful Art Services.
To my annoyance, the videos are not playing simultaneously. I came in midway through the first and after it ends I patiently wait for it to loop, which is customary for video works. Instead, I am greeted with a black screen. I hear a voice in the other room and register that now the other video is playing, which had been silent when I entered. I walk over to watch the second in its entirety and then return to the first, expecting it to start again, only to have yet another video begin. The third video, Interlude (2017), has ostensibly nothing to do with tragedy or our actor-narrator. Shorter than the others, it consists of flickering white interspersed with footage of a woman, lounging in the sun as Sun Ra plays in the background. We have returned to the domesticity of The Dreams I’ve Left Behind, though it is unclear what Cesarco’s relationship with this new subject is.
I spend almost an hour cycling between the videos, trying to pinpoint the differences between Everness and Revision, knowing that they are there but I am frustratingly unable to hold that much information in my head at once. Eventually, I realize I am having an experience Hannah Arendt might describe as thinking. To the general public, Arendt is best known for her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann following his capture in 1960 for the New Yorker. Arendt’s essays were later republished as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). After administering the concentration camps during World War II, Karl Adolf Eichmann fled to Argentina, where he was eventually found by Israeli agents and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial for his role in the “Final Solution.”
Arendt went to Jerusalem expecting a monster and finding instead an imbecile. What struck her about Eichmann was how unremarkable he was. He defended his actions with jejune interpretations of Kant and could hardly speak proper German. How did this person organize the execution of six million Jews? Arendt came to believe it was because of, rather than in spite of, his ordinariness that Eichmann was able to orchestrate the Holocaust, a phenomenon she termed “the banality of evil.” Rather than understanding evil as the result of bad intention, as we in the West have been prone to do since at least the advent of Christianity, Arendt argued evilness, in this case, meant uncritical acquiescence to the status quo. Since the publication of her book, historians have challenged Arendt’s presentation of Eichmann and have argued he was a virulent and long-standing anti-Semite. But regardless of the specifics of Eichmann’s personality, for Arendt, he represents a deeper problem: the refusal to think.
Arendt went on to develop something of an obsession about thinking upon returning to the US, where she began a trilogy entitled The Life of the Mind (1977), which discussed what she understood as the three basic mental activities: thinking, willing, and judging. At the time of her death, Arendt had completed the first two volumes, the first of which contains a powerful metaphor for the experience of thought via a reading of the following Kafka parable:
He has two antagonists; the first presses him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks the road in front of him. He gives battle to both. Actually, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way, the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that at some time in an unguarded moment — and this, it must be admitted, would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet — he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of the umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other. (1)
Arendt interprets these two “antagonists” as the past and the future, which meet, of course, at the present. But what are we to make of the umpire who jumps out of the fight? Surely we don’t need so fantastic a metaphor to describe something as mundane as the present. For Arendt, the umpire is not experiencing the present, but engaging in thought. Thinking in this analogy is altogether different from the present, pressed as it is to a minuscule speck between the onslaughts of past and future. Through thinking, we are able to open up a space that rivals the infinitude of past and future, a “quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it.” (2)
What Arendt effectively warns us against is becoming so engrossed in what is before us that we can no longer occupy the position of Kafka’s umpire, removed enough from the fray to judge it. Naturally, the quietude of thought cannot last forever, but the shelter it offers us from the vicissitudes of life is all that prevents us from becoming like Eichmann, as powerless to resist the forces around him as a drop of water in a wave.
Returning to Cesarco, what would happen if we understood Everness and Revision as representing the past and future in Kafka’s parable as read through Arendt? The natural next question would be: Who is the umpire? Just as naturally, the answer is: The viewer. I wander back and forth between Everness and Revision, trying to ascertain their divergences, all the while suspending my judgment on what these divergences really are. I am partially driven by a desire to be correct, but more deeply, I am driven by the question: What does this mean? Why would an artist produce two near-identical videos with the same actor nine years apart?
The position of the art viewer is essentially that of the tragic hero, in possession of an unreadable message, which is not the same as an illegible message (a message is only illegible within the confines of a language, a message may be unreadable because it doesn’t fit within the confines of language at all). Of course, the messages of Everness and Revision could be translated into words. Indeed, they have already been translated into words as recorded speech. But the speech we hear is not of the everyday, and not only because it is Spanish, likely a language in which most who come to this gallery would not be fluent. This speech is not everyday speech because it is unclear why it is being spoken. We are not exactly being ordered, questioned, informed, or some other common mode of address. This lack of instrumentality is truly the hallmark of art. Art is unlike every other commodity insofar as it does not have a clear use-value. Some might thus see art as the ultimate symbol of bourgeois excess. But others might see it as the only point at which we might interrupt consumerist modes of engagement. If our lives are filled to the brim with That Which Can Be Consumed, then the inability of art to be consumed might allow us to imagine ways of being in the world that do not center on consumption.
Alejandro Cesarco, Vanitas (From Remorse to Regret), 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Useful Art Services.
Despite having received from the artist a message that I cannot decipher, I also cannot stay in the gallery forever trying to crack it. I have not even gotten through all of the art yet. I turn and see Vanitas (From Remorse to Regret) (2017). The work is a series of four prints, each containing three strips of texts, flowers, bubbles, and fruits. The title refers to a genre of 17th-century Dutch still life containing reminders of death or impermanence. The fruit will rot, the bubble will pop, the page will yellow, the flowers will wilt. The lesson is memento mori, “remember that you will die.” But the signals here also bring me back to the domestic sphere where the exhibition Song began, which is where I am most accustomed to seeing texts, flowers, bubbles, and fruit together. On second thought, however, the videos were also likely filmed within private residences — maybe I never left the domestic at all.
What Song most importantly allows us to see is the side of thought Arendt doesn’t stress in her interpretation of Kafka; the time we spend thinking is time we are not acting. Arendt is probably right in her claim that we do not think enough and that some of the horrors of history may have indeed stemmed from thoughtlessness. We must relearn how to think, or perhaps learn how to think for the first time. Although there is a certain timelessness to thought, which jumps over the battle between past and future to judge it as Kafka’s umpire, it is also true that time does not pause while we are thinking. If Cesarco treats the domestic with a curious gravitas in Song, perhaps it is because he knows it shelters thought. Cesarco must have thought about Everness since making it in 2008, or he wouldn’t have returned to it in 2017 with Revision. He also probably didn’t think of it continuously during the nine years separating 2008 and 2017, or else he wouldn’t have done anything else. We have been gifted with the ability to think and with this gift comes the burden of knowing when to think and when to act, since action without thought is foolishness and thought without action is quietism.
• • •
Brandon Sward is an artist, performer, writer, organizer, and doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago who lives and works in Big Timber, Montana.
1. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1978), 202.
2. Ibid., 209.