Tribus - Peter De Graeve

by Peter De Graeve 


Like a modern-day Odysseus, Carl De Keyzer lives in a world where our wanderings are planned ahead – by the travel agent or the human trafficker. Experiences have become a set-up game. We exist in schedules; our life is enacted in the montages of intoxication at our disposal. Carl De Keyzer, too, roams a world where the figure of the wanderer – whether living in the Sahara or under cardboard boxes in New York – is framed. The photographer, too, views a world in which all aberrations are carefully analysed and caught in reports, documented – from the boat refugee off the coast of Gibraltar or Lampedusa to the nomad in the steppes of Mongolia. The eye of the camera has long since registered everything. We see absolutely everything. Everything visible has become reality and the world itself has been reduced to the visible. All this visible matter is neatly canned. Our life is sliced and spliced, digitally edited. We are embedded.
    In those places deserted by the Omnipresent, the Omnivisible is now to be found and has reduced the world to a window into which we fit everyday scenes. Withdrawn into this enclosed space we live, under the waterline, and the helmsmen of the Visible (cnn, nbc, bbc, www, gps…) steer us through the agitated churning of the world. Carl De Keyzer is an Odysseus swimming around his own ship, drilling peepholes under the waterline. He is the insider who offers insight into what, for us, remains concealed. Our dread is Odysseus’ dream: that his insight should seep into us, board us. That we should sink into it.
    Trinity reads like an epic poem. It is the story of a strange voyager, travelling with the manifest, to fathom it, to reveal its hidden depths. It displays the obvious, what catches the eye: power, destruction, spectacle, decors, decorations… Trinity shows both the horror and the beauty of power (and even the strange beauty of horror), it reveals both the repelling and the attracting aspects of power (and the strange attraction of the repulsive), it shows the hideous in the charming, the abyss behind the decor (decorous originally means beautiful). Trinity acquaints us with the strangeness of wandering in a world that is without secrets, but remains pervaded with horror. It voices the strangeness of a world without magic, but full of snares. It is set in this world without boundaries, but full of obstacles. The magic of the sacred Trinity that does succeed in being retained (and I will come back to the name, the Christian ‘mystery’ of the Trinitas), lies primarily in the threatening force lurking behind the beauty of these images, like a grumbling minotaur. It is the threat of banal horror, the last secret in this world, our last labyrinth… Trinity offers a fascinating look into the canned visibility of a world without taboos, without pictorial censorship. It is a look back at the path that has been trodden, back at the last riddles of a tattered world painfully revealing itself.
    From this point of view, Trinity is also a magnum opus. After all the images of hidden worlds presented to us in the past (ussr/1989/cccp, East of Eden, Zona, Unvarnished…), here the photographer touches on something so immense and, at the same time, so mysterious that only harking back to the fundamental codes of the western language of image enables the observer to gauge the implications of the (in)sights provided here.

– Tableau, tabula, panel, finestra, window, scene, frame: the history of art is a history of editing, splicing, framing and canning. Man is a creature of straight lines, of columns, angles, diagonals, convergence lines and intersecting lines. Homo tabulator.
    The oldest series, produced between 1990 and 2000, Tableaux d’Histoire, is the most dynamic, the least mysterious. The series demonstrates the way power manifests itself, its urge to write history, to leave its impression on time. Tableaux de Guerre, created between 2003 and 2006, follows the traces ruthless rulers all too often leave behind: devastation, destruction, disruption, displacement. Tableaux Politiques, finally, the most recent project, goes in search of the bowels of power. The photographer – like Odysseus, again – descends into the underworld of Capitol Hill, into the catacombs of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels, and of the Chinese power bases in Beijing. Seemingly, the logic of the triptych is therefore simple: power as a decor, power as destruction and desolation, power as a labyrinth.
    Trinity is more of a trilogy than a triptych, however. The word triptych is derived from the Greek verb ptússein, to fold. It signifies three panels arranged in such a way that they can be folded and unfolded at will. Expressed in contemporary terms: a triptych is an installation. And Trinity is clearly not an unfolding, as the movement here is one-way. Here, nothing is closed or sealed again, modestly hidden from view. The observer arrives in a labyrinthine universe where one image unlocks, unveils, uncovers, unfurls another.
    The secret of this infinite unfurling – both thematic and aesthetic – lies in the fact that Trinity displays the three topics (labyrinth, decor, desert) arranged not in three panels (politics, history, war), but four. Series four is the presentation itself, tabula tabulator. Series four is the subliminal history of ‘editing, splicing, framing and canning’ with which the photographer confronts us in the three individual series. Not only the irony of the Tableaux d’Histoire and the ethereality of the Tableaux Politiques, but also the monumental sorrow of the Tableaux de Guerre are generated by the fact that, in the fourth series, which remains invisible, the artist Carl De Keyzer plays a game with his medium, photography. This game wrenches the observer away from the composition, out of the framework and disorients him. Here, the age-old trick of artistic deception, trompe-l’oeil, is played as trompe-l’esprit. In this way, De Keyzer expresses tacit, but nevertheless overwhelmingly loud, criticism of the embeddedness of all information, all over the world, and of global Man’s procrustean bed. It is all show; the stage is empty. With series four, the observer slips, inadvertently, between the folds of power unfolding on the international scene.

Trinity – Tableaux Politiques
In a preview of these series, ‘History Paintings, War Paintings and Political Portraits’, as he himself calls them, Carl De Keyzer remarks that ‘these three structures can successively represent the following: 1. the leaders or gods, 2. the army or group of vindictive creatures and 3. the people or the representatives’. This ternary structure (derived from the Latin trinus, triple, on which the concept of trinitas is, naturally, based) is reminiscent of the French anthropologist Georges Dumézil’s mid-20th century analyses of Eurasian mythology. In numerous books, Dumézil describes the ideological principle of the oldest myths as threefold. At the head of a primitive society was the king-priest, whom De Keyzer refers to as the ‘leader or god’. Directly below, according to Dumézil, is the warrior caste – De Keyzer’s vindictive army. Finally, in Dumézil’s mythology, below the warrior comes the simple farmer, ‘the people’ of the Tableaux Politiques.
    Upon inquiry, Carl De Keyzer proved unaware of Dumézil’s concepts, so his own tripartite classification can be seen as serendipity, at the very least. Leader, warriors and people… God, vengeance and dialogue… Glory, destruction, representation… The tripartism of De Keyzer’s iconography is a reference to the fact that Trinity taps a deep, mythical stratum of image awareness.
    If you compare the Tableaux Politiques with classical power portraits from the Renaissance, Baroque or Neoclassicism, it is immediately obvious that Carl De Keyzer’s political portraits really belong to the democratic era; they are at once political and apolitical. These images portray the space where the big decisions are made; they even show the processes leading to those decisions. At the same time, though, the leaders appear in all their banality, their smallness. An American senator undoubtedly wields more power than a 17th century Spanish king, but he nevertheless represents something inexpressibly indecent, an unsightly figure, a nobody (oudeís, as sly Odysseus was the first to realise in his battle with the Cyclops: in the Tableaux De Keyzer would seem to be hanging under the belly of the ram, keeping a cycloptic eye on the nobodies…).
    The ‘unsightliness’ of contemporary power is all due to democratic image-forming. The status of the classical power portrait still depended on sacred iconography. Whereas, as Malraux puts it, the new image language of the renaissance is characterised by radical humanisation, for centuries the power portrait remained tributary to the transcendental logic of the Byzantine icon, the Pantocrator, or in Latin-Christian image language, the Trinitas. For centuries, the power portrait remained unhuman. Until Jacques-Louis David’s worldly portrayal of Napoleon, every power portrait before the advent of modernism remained an image of plenitude, of the overwhelming superiority of power. Pictorial absolution. The image is full of itself and of what it portrays. The subject portrayed converges with its portrait. Any form of irony would have been fatal, both for the portrayed and the portrayer (one has to possess at least the genius of a Velázquez to create room for any form of irony that does not have a self-destructive effect, in that sense. Which is why Las Meninas is the unrivalled masterpiece of western painting, the only true non-religious Trinitas from the religious era).
    In the democratic era, on the other hand, the plenitude has collapsed, the omnipotence shattered. The leader has been humanised, poached of his sacredness. No leader, anywhere in the world, is any longer able to protect himself from the radical humanisation of the power structures: no mystery, no sacred secret, no ‘higher order’ can be invoked by the leader as an excuse for his (in)humanity…
    This modern, human, democratic order is portrayed almost obsessively by Tableaux Politiques. The irony, banality, triviality and insignificance of power scream at us from every image. The medium of photography lends itself perfectly to the purpose. Unlike classical power portraits, which are painstakingly calculated constructions, demanding the dedication and total talent of ‘pictorial architects’, photographs generally capture a split second in time. The former engender images borne primarily by art: the imitation is aimed less at reality than the reality at imitation. A photograph, on the other hand, produces an image supported by ‘reality’ or, more precisely, by the modern urge for universal documentation of the real. It is not so much the wish to replicate the world that predominates as the desire to ‘record’ everything, to make the archives visible, to cover all events (even non-events). Reducing reality and history to their moment suprême – ‘The Last Supper’, ‘The Night Watch’ – is therefore no longer possible. Photographs catch events off guard. Unlike the classical power portrait, a photograph is more likely to reveal a moment de gêne of reality, the human moment…
    The Tableaux Politiques are built up of such embarrassing moments, snatches of time caught in the act. They can include just about anything. Bored bodyguards and security officers, skulduggery, moments of confusion or bewilderment (but bewilderment at what? What exactly is going on here?). The omnivisible reporting is also present: tv screens, photographers. This is documentation of documentation, film on film. Ted Kennedy giving a speech somewhere. But who is listening to him, who is watching? And, above all, who should listen or watch? We have it on disc. In the universal documentation, power is tamed…

A surprising image in Tableaux politiques is that of the man in the turban – Bedouin, Tuareg, nomad – displaying a few items of jewellery for sale on a hastily-erected table in the European Parliament. A man in a tailored suit – member of parliament? Congress participant? Day tripper? – is sampling his wares. In the background a gigantic, hideous history painting depicting the moment the bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Moment suprême. Split second. The image of an unimaginable destructive power (one of the code names of the Manhattan project, which led to the first atom bomb, was… Trinity). This picture is pure kitsch: the depiction corresponds perfectly with the ear-splitting moralising commentary of its subject matter, the form with the decorative context. There is no room for interpretation. Or for aesthetic experience. So the men pay no attention to the tableau of horror. Preoccupied as they are with their own little affairs, this trivial Armageddon escapes their notice.
    Parliaments are the symbolic centres of today’s sedentary culture. They are, as Carl De Keyzer’s report on Washington and Beijing demonstrates, identical locations, utopias, but with the ‘u’ for uniform. The men wear shirts and ties, the women suits and high heels; the uniforms of guards, agents and soldiers are everywhere, omnivisible. Even the symbols are dressed in their Sunday best: flags, stamps, official portraits, courts of justice, down to the flat screens with their monotonous messages… In this Utopia of uniformity, the photographer is a spy in the service of multiplicity, of amorphousness, of kitsch.
    That’s why the Bedouin in the European Parliament presents a spectacle in himself. His uniform demonstrates the wildness of the tribe, tribus. Political modernity in one word: democracy, offers Man the very opportunity to free itself of its strong bond with the earth, the terrain, the territory, or with the origin, the blood, the tribe. The polis is at odds with the tribus. By picturing that hidden political doctrine, the Bedouin’s display provides insight into the ironic space from where De Keyzer is spying on the one-dimensional aspect of power. The photographer himself is a wanderer, a stranger. These images show us, hidden in the underbelly of power, the tribal remnants of a politically uniform universe. The elite of senators on Capitol Hill and the caste of party leaders in Beijing themselves form a tribus of uniformed monomorphs: E pluribus unum! Tableaux Politiques is the official portrait of this bloodless tribe, this organised horde.
    The ancient Romans, a shining example for the political leaders of the US, for example, were only able to establish their historical power once they had set aside their tribal feuds. According to tradition, it was only possible to found Rome once the Romans had stopped fighting amongst themselves and the three Roman tribes were united in one people and, later, one political community, the republic. In its Roman origin, modern democratic power is therefore based on a trinitas, the trinity of tribalism. Trinitas tribus. The tribe as a symbol of origination in simplicity, without any trace of irony and, for that very reason, in a contemporary context, so ironic… The tribe as a symbol of that far-off ‘innocence’ that has become so elusive and therefore so mysterious, so dangerous, no longer innocent… 
Tribe – Trinity, part one.

Trinity – Tableaux d’Histoire
The strangeness of the Tableaux Politiques lies in a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, they lay the emphasis on the invisible, the hidden. That sometimes makes the subject matter of the pictures blurred, if I can put it like that: we don’t know exactly what we are seeing. Neither the picture nor the observer, however, is responsible for that blur. It can be blamed far more on our communication era. Under the all-seeing eye of the media we are seldom, if ever, aware of what remains underexposed, what ‘they’ are keeping from us. As if the omnivisible makes the world itself suspect. The Tableaux Politiques confronts us with this embeddedness of our view. On the other hand, however, the invisible can then only appear as irony. It has often been said of Carl De Keyzer that he puts humour into his pictures. But it is not necessarily his own humour. It is equally the humour of the world itself, the wry, sinister humour of modern times. These works are set on the border between that gravity and this frivolity, between making the unseen visible (contrary to the diktat of the omnivisible) and the ironic smiles prompted by the pretended receptivity, the false ‘openness’ of contemporary Man. That incongruity harbours the strange power of this photographic work.
    From this point, the theme of the second part of the Trinity series, the History Paintings or Tableaux d’Histoire, is easy to determine: tribune. In this series, the oldest, the irony was still fresh. It has not yet been imbued with the attention to, the obsession with the invisible, characteristic of the Tableaux Politiques. You should therefore view the Tableaux Politiques before the Tableaux d’Histoire. After all, the former hold the key to understanding the latter.
    The tribune was the place from which, originally, the political representatives of the Roman tribes united in the ‘people’, addressed their audience: a plinth on the edge of the Forum Romanum and therefore, literally, a cornerstone of the republic, the res of the publicum. The tribune is a first, primitive, still tangible form of streamlining, diverting the wildness of the tribe into a political channel (the concept of tribunus is as far removed from the simple tribus as trinitas is from the number tres).
    A tribune is intended to retain the attention, gain support. The Tableaux d’Histoire direct the attention to our contemporary tribunes, to the mass media (support converted into ratings). These tableaux are themselves a kind of tribune: photographic installations or visual platforms that, despite the instant nature of the snapshot, have been carefully ‘constructed’ by the photographer beforehand. If you look closely, you will see tribunes popping up all over the place in the Tableaux d’Histoire. This series is a tribune for tribunes.
    One of the first pictures is a tableau vivant, mimicking the Passion of Christ in a pageant sponsored by Coca-Cola. The image consists of the stage for the show, a ‘display platform’ as it were. The sponsor is also present on stage in the form of paper cups. A little while later, we see a group of people, four women, two men and a few children, waiting patiently during the festivities accompanying Bill Clinton’s inauguration as the newly-chosen president, in January 1993. A woman and one of the children are trying to catch a glimpse of the platform on which the oath will be taken. Not wanting to miss anything, the woman is holding her hand to her forehead like a visor, while the child has both hands held up to its temples like blinkers: the natural focus of homo tribunus. Two women to the right are looking straight into the lens of the camera. This banal scene is taking place in front of media giant nbc’s building (tribune for tribunes). The image is already loaded with criticism of the streamlining of news, of the image culture that plays such a prominent role in the Tableaux Politiques.
    Another picture bathes in the spectral glow of impudent camera lights. The moment is theatrical: three Lynchesque characters have stationed themselves front left (baroque stature, contemporary equivalents of Caravaggio’s figures). Their bodies and heads are turned away from the visible action, the jazz band in the background. The essence of this picture is the absence of the stage: there is clearly something going on, but it is not here. What is it? Where is it?
    A little further on is a religious ceremony in Rome. A tv camera is recording the event. Tribune versus tribune. A visit by Fidel Castro to the un in New York. Reporters are establishing their familiar tribune – the direct broadcast – with the international tribune, the un building, in the background. Then Castro opponents clamber onto their own tribune, waving flags, yelling slogans; a rubber tyre hanging around one of the masts as a sinister threat (necklacing). Finally, Castro himself on the tribune, on screen, on the platform, the attention of the world focused on him. Castro as the last people’s tribune, eye to eye with the senators of the new world order, in the heart of the ‘benevolent empire’…
    Following the theme of the concept of  ‘tribune’, it is hard to deny that, in this series of photographs, Carl De Keyzer has found the stepping stone, as it were, that will enable him to touch upon the notion of the tribus itself in the Tableaux Politiques, by getting through to the underlying level of the interminable political show, to the hidden power behind the scenery, beneath the greasepaint.

The name Carl De Keyzer thought up for his project is bound up in western art history with the renaissance of pictorial language. Masaccio created the fresco Trinità in the Santa Maria Novella in Florence in 1426, exactly one millennium after Pope Augustine completed his treatise De trinitate. This famous painting broke with a tradition that is still reflected in the title: Trinitas (Trinité, Trinity). After all, the dazzling precision of the perspective strikes at the heart of the dogma. As far as the subject matter is concerned, the Trinità is still the faithful evocation of a Christian mystery: the fact that God sacrificed His Son to pay for mankind’s sins… As far as the form is concerned, however, the Trinità has already surpassed the mystery. It is a composition that plays freely with the artistic device of trompe-l’oeil. This is the true proof of the birth of art, said Malraux in La métamorphose des Dieux. Whereas a goddess in ancient Greece, or a Virgin Mary by one of the Flemish Primitives, is still the portrayal of a religious reality, from the Renaissance onwards art finds its definitive ‘artificial’ niche: the representation is faithful… because it deceives us. With Masaccio’s Trinità and with the discovery of perspective painting in general, begins the power of the image, the power of deception, tromperie. The Trinità in the Santa Maria Novella was intended no longer to be worshipped and adored, but to convince. The Trinità is the first tribune in the history of western art.
    The emergence of the new power of the image is well documented. The perspective image is composed around a centre, the vanishing point. This was less the creation of a photographic focus, before the term existed, than a visual structure based on the interaction of ‘optical triangles’ that, with their centred position in relation to the vanishing point and the ensuing division into a foreground, a horizon and a cloudy sky, define the traditional ‘window’ of the new art of painting, the finestra. The geometric triangle, and no longer the metaphysical trinitas, forms the basis of the new art. In the attentive eye of the observer and no longer in his meditating mind, or soul, the oblique sides of all the triangles converge. The observer, and no longer God, constitutes the top of this pyramid. The triangle heralds the end of redemptive history (the Histoire de Grâce that was the Grâce de l’histoire) and the beginning of calculation, of demonstration of the tabula as a modern tribune (the Florentine usurer’s bank or the Tuscan master’s tableau). Consequentially, there is a far greater historical cleft between the Van Eycks’ Lamb of God and the Trinità than between the Trinità and De Keyzer’s photographs.
    Tribune – Trinity, part two.

Trinity – Tableaux de Guerre
The Tableaux de Guerre indisputably form the highlight of the entire series. They are the ultimate consequence of the image logic De Keyzer used in the other Tableaux.
    Where form is concerned, the images of the Tableaux de Guerre can be seen as tribunes, extensive, grandiloquent – like the monumental art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods – coercive in their craving for attention. They are the photographic equivalents of the Vedute della città ideale, three renowned paintings from the early Renaissance (today spread across museums in Urbino, Berlin and Baltimore), each portraying an ideal city in panoramic perspective; elevating observation itself to subject matter for painting, creating their own (ideal) observers and therefore placing themselves in front of the tribune, as it were. They create the tribune, they are the tribune. We, their observers, are created by them and put on show. 
The Tableaux de Guerre also use such techniques. We share in the action because we are part of the picture. We are sitting in their tribune. In subject matter, however, the Tableaux de Guerre are something quite different. Here, the scenes are not of ‘ideal states’, but of war zones, disaster areas, no man’s lands, buffer zones. The essence is not observation, but waging war. Not the stages and the audiences, but the warlord with his men. Not the tribune, but the tribus. 
Tableaux de Guerre is a protest against the tribalisation of the world. At the same time, it bears witness to the trivialisation of horror (the trivial also fits perfectly into the image language for the concept of Trinity. Trivium is the crossroads, the point where the road divides into three, where the via becomes a trivium and the straight line changes into a triangle, the unum in trinitas. The trivial is the trinitas without God). Tableaux de Guerre shows how war takes Man back to the deceptive simplicity of life in villages, in a tribal setting. But the village has been razed to the ground, burned down, every house riddled with bullet holes. Ithaka turns out to be a den of cut-throats. The tribe has become a horde, dealing in horror and violence.
    One only has to look back from here to the Tableaux Politiques or the Tableaux d’Histoire to overcome any homesickness. We don’t live anywhere any longer, because we are witnesses everywhere. The intrusive, sometimes magisterial images of the Tableaux de Guerre are anything but isolated. Their impact is conveyed in the way in which all the aspects of contemporary image culture are presented in Carl De Keyzer’s work and here, in the images themselves, at the same time harmonised and played off against one another. We comprehend these panoramic vistas on the one hand on the basis of the development of art history since the Renaissance and, on the other, on the basis of the disruption of that same pictorial language, which has since become classic, by the irony mentioned earlier and the desire to visualise the invisible. 
With De Keyzer’s work there is both a kind of ‘fidelity to the given image’ – as one would say, ‘fidelity to the given word’ – and a contrived infidelity, a pictorial promiscuity. He photographs at the same time as a ‘good paterfamilias’ and a Don Juan, like a faithful dog, a reporter, and as a predator lusting the ‘image that bleeds’. A good example is the picture of an improvised hospital, somewhere in Burundi. High on the brick wall hangs an icon depicting the Blessed Virgin and the child Jesus – a striking sign of historical ‘fidelity’ to a given image. The photographer has positioned himself in front of a narrow passageway formed by two walls to the left and right of the room. This creates an enclosed space suggesting something sacred. The photographic image is solely responsible for this, however; nothing in the banal reality actually implies anything sacred. The impression is therefore pure trompe-l’oeil. Front left, two figures with vague contours stand on this side of the sacred. They are the profane (as we are). The room with the virginal icon contains two beds, propped up with ordinary house bricks. The beds themselves are shabby, with weights made from the same bricks. This is a ‘Mercy Seat’ of triviality. Consecrated banality.
    The pictures from Afghanistan and the Punjab are traditional, static, monumental. Two warriors on a plain near Kabul. An Indian soldier standing guard on a plateau before the Punjab valley. The images from Kuito in Angola, on the other hand, are more modernistic. Photographs of houses shot to pieces, reminiscent of Fontana’s perforated canvases.
    We are witness to a world that has lost its bearings, to a humanity gone adrift, a return to the tribal. War became democratised in the twentieth century; today violence is becoming trivialised. Carl De Keyzer sets up his pictorial tribune in front of this banality of horror and lets us… enjoy the show. Does such aesthetic pleasure conceal a protest? Or, as Kant once claimed, does beauty remain, at a safe distance from any displeasure, out of range as it were? The aesthetic image as a protest against the silence of the tribunals (Judgement Day) on the destructive advance of the tribus… Each vista in the Tableaux de Guerre is composed as a tacit protest against the tribunals of silence. From the grandstand, we gape at the gratuitous violence of a civilised world. From amongst the rusty wreckages, the heaps of rubble, the bullet holes, the ruins in these breath-taking landscapes, this treasure-trove of images, rises not a single lamentation.
    The grass grows, clouds drift by, a tree rustles in the wind. 
Tribunal – Trinity, part three.

Tribus, tribune, tribunal.