Leevi Haapala

Acts of Creation

Being against emptiness

"Now if you consider the vase from the point of view I first proposed as an object meant to represent the existence of the emptiness at the center of the real that is called das Ding, this emptiness... presents itself as a nihil, as nothing. And that is why the potter, just like you to whom I am speaking, creates the vase with his hand around this emptiness, creates it, just like the mythical creator, ex nihilo, starting with the hole."
Jacques Lacan

Hans–Christian Berg can be said to create works of art around emptiness. This may sound paradoxical in a time that is abundant with things, stories, and meanings. When writing "around emptiness," I do not say out of nothing, ex nihilo, and thereby equate Berg with the creator-gods. The artist's activities are more adequately depicted in Plato's trilogy Timaios, by the demiurge that plans and moulds already existing chaos material with the purpose of good. Contemporary artists are surrounded by our own time and the cultural, historical, and social codes of meaning that uphold its reality. In the case of Berg, the traditions of the arts and the recurring techniques are at the very least doubly coded in his practice through the traditions of sculpture and design that are so close to him. He compares the working process to an empty dish with rims that have gathered ingredients, which he draws from in his works.

Berg reminds us of the starting points of his processes; these are the stage provided for the presentation of the work, the architecture of space, and light that is also an essential factor in understanding the essence of his works. And if we go back once more from the conditions of the presentation to the creative act, Berg tells about his physical relation "to his materials as one of diving in with his whole body." Thus it would be a misunderstanding to say that he creates art from emptiness. There must be something to dive into. The materials of his works vary from glass to aluminium, from acrylic to steel and epoxy resin. His techniques extend from moulding to carving, from welding to assembling, cooperation and chains of subcontractors.

What then do I refer to when talking about emptiness? Let me direct it straight to the point: to the desire at the core of the creative act. It is not only about the need to create, or if you may, about the original impulse underlying it, but about the desire that is manifested as a creative act and a work of art, the Thing at the center of the work. In psychoanalytical theory, the Thing (la Chose in French, das Ding in German) refers to the original object of love, to the body of mother as an impossible object of desire. This Thing can also be interpreted more generally as a craving to attain the original, to existence before acquiring language. When communicating through language or pictures, we can only point toward the Thing before it disappears. Beauty forms a bulwark against the horror of the Thing. In my reading of Berg's works, emptiness as the Thing surrounds itself with many horizons of meaning: origins, bodies and gazes that in turn create and mould identity, space, and so also the changeable positions and vantage points around the works.

In relation to art the discussion about emptiness refers to the existential question concerning creation. The creative act takes place as being against emptiness, being towards death. It would seem that the creative act is about – nothing less than – birth and death, where the birth of the subject in a sense repeats the loss occurring in the world of meanings. With Berg, the merging of materials and techniques leaves emptiness elementarily waiting for the chain of significations. Emptiness presents itself on the level of the materials, in the arrangement of the volumes, and in the providing of meaning: in the Lightcell works, in the cellular pattern formed by the round openings of interlocking straws; in the steel sculpture Thoughtrise in Vacuum as a series of ones and zeroes, as well as in the skulls of mirror glass that reflect the beholder's finite horizon of being. Berg's presentations varying the subject of emptiness appear to us as a netlike structure shifting light, as a metaphor of data transfer and a symbol of death as the final nominator – empty, the Thing, impossible – and yet when transformed into art, as something that still is possible to pursue.

Receiving the perceived

What in fact was the original act? In Jewish and Christian creation stories, the creative act is assumed to be a series of divine statements. In Genesis, things are presented on a cosmic scale. The first to be created was light. "God said: 'Let there be light!' And there was light. God saw how good the light was." (Genesis 1:3) Later, in form of the Logos hymn (John 1:1), the priority of the word and the creative strength of the statements are unparalleled in the history of metaphysics. The providing of meaning takes place in both verbal and visual form. What if the creative act had been a gaze, with which God had spoken His primary language? The gaze that God directed towards the emptiness and brought it to life. Or the eye with which Adam gazed at Eve when he woke up after the afternoon nap that cost him his rib. In her readings on this is creation account, professor of rhetoric and film Kaja Silverman gives the gaze an approving role as the upholder of the existing. And as she sums it up: "It is – – primarily by looking that we speak our language of desire."

Berg's works can be seen divided into two categories. On the one hand, they examine the conditions of perception and especially of seeing. In his series Perception Instruments, this is evident in the functioning of the perception instruments placed in front of the works' concave mirror surfaces. On the other hand, some of his works clearly strive more towards effectiveness, such as the works that belong to the Visual Vortex series with their optic illusions reaching out into the space, equally based on kinaesthetic perception. The division can also be conceptualized according to how these works function in a viewing situation through sensuous and bodily feelings, and then again in the linguistic signification process.

Silverman writes about the child's difficulty to choose between being and meaning. Here, being is perceived as something original, as life before learning a language, and then again meaning is seen as verbal communication. Yearning for a horizon of meaning, the child reveals its humanity and chooses meaning. At the same time, the child continues to yearn for something that will signify a lack related to being, the desire-to-be (manque-à-être). The difference now compared to the choices of our childhood is that once we have stepped over the threshold we no longer can achieve innocence. And as Lacan notes: "The reflection seems to be the threshold of the visible world." At best we can imagine the threshold on which we dwelled before daring to step over it. In Berg's works, the various mirrors and light refracting surfaces can be seen to function as this type of thresholds toward a revaluation of seeing and making it perceptible.

I tend to think of the relation between Berg's works and the viewer as some kind of activating recollection practices. Viewing the works is not so much about the formation of the narcissistic ego during childhood, as it is about the way of approaching the realm of seeing through contemporary art, art that also in a more general sense strives to challenge our common ways of perception. Works of art and talking about them build chains between signifiers, chains that return images lost from our consciousness at the same time revising them. Berg's works can be interpreted from the vantage point of psychoanalytical theories on the gaze, or approached through the visual pleasure they provide – the manner in which they make the viewing situation vibrate. In my own readings these two divisions finally merge with one another.

The gaze as an effort to control – and as a creative act

"We are beings that are looked upon in the spectacle of the world."
Jacques Lacan

In his works, Berg uses different types of pictorial filters in the dialogue he engages his viewers in. Various visual forms of expression utilising the eye can be seen to function similarly to the screen (écran) defined by Lacan as cultural codes that act as transmitters between the exterior gaze and the eye that is the object of that gaze. The work Eye of Light (1999-2001), awakens us to contemplate the values we relate to seeing as well as the question concerning the direction of the gaze. In a dark space the work seems to shut out the light coming from outside and becomes a source of light itself. The work's giant eye does not receive light or see because of light, but pulsates or radiates light in its surrounding from behind a blind, metallic point, through a programmed lighting device and glass rods. For Lacan, the concept of the gaze is connected to maleficence – the thought of the gaze from outside as the "evil eye." A certain kind of greed is related to it, which strives to take the object of the gaze into control.

Lacan presents the idea that every age is governed by a certain kind of gaze. The manner of presentation of a work of art and its fixation to the traditions of its time neutralise the effect of the evil eye, as it were, the ability of the picture to look back. The gaze of our own time can be thought of as being controlled by the electronic media. However, it cannot be reduced to just one type of gaze, but entails many interlocked customs (including attempts to control and supervise) that define the gaze.

The Eye of Light work is specifically about a cultural gaze coming from the outside and the direction of light. The work's mighty glass rod eye, with its large scale and technology that produces showers of light, provides a reference to the destructive power of the gaze. The eye hanging in the air by a heavy metal chain, borrows a body from the viewer. The light that in pulses emanates from the lens of the metallic tribal pattern imprints reflections on the viewer's retina. The flaming strength of the work almost three meters in diameter can be seen to refer to the all-seeing, even destructive eye of God. The work's cubical supporting structure in turn replaces the triangle signifying God's gaze and liberates it for the generation of more earthly significations. The work may be thought of as representing the individual's subjective eye in a disturbed viewing situation. The spectator projects part of the meaning in what he sees. Part of the vision is blinded by the surrounding visual culture, and therefore subordinate to the influence of the gaze.

Contrary to how it may appear at first glance, the human body is surprisingly often present in Berg's works. His works can be called anthropomorphic with the body or its parts functioning as their point of origin either as such or in an altered form. In his early works, skulls and the naked body were a common motif. The sculptures were made of translucent fibreglass or silvered glass. In his glass sculptures stylized phalluses and breasts as motifs are raised on the level of distraction. Some of the works are associated with the world of science fiction movies. Berg comments on the swollen mirror brains of the Mind sculptures as being "muscular and inflated brains." The grasping hands in Closing Space look like parts from a cyber-body. They hold in their grip the grey reflecting cerebral mass as if it had a consciousness of its own.

Berg's anthropomorphic works appeal to the bodily senses of the viewer and rouse different types of feelings – irritation, hate, desire – and thereby cause bodily emotions to leak into the showroom. They appeal to the individual's desire to recognise his own body in the forms or the measures of the work. As Lacan notes in his famous maxim: "Man's desire is the desire of the Other." It comes across in relation to the Other, the Other's desire, or is reflected through the Other.

From the body of desire to the body of light

"The question about light. First of all, I would like to say that there never is no light – the same way you can go into an anechoic chamber that takes away all sound and you find that there never really is silence because you hear yourself. With light it is much the same - we have that contact to the light within, a contact that we often forget about until we have a lucid dream. Asking ourselves where the light in the lucid dream comes from gets us near to these thoughts about the power of light. This power has, first of all, power in its physical presence. I like to bring light to the place that is much like that in the dream – where you feel it to be some thing itself, not something with which you illuminate other things, but a celebration of the thingness of light, the material presence, the revelation of light itself."
James Turrell

In western thinking, light has formed an analogous relationship with both goodness and truth. Thirdly in art, traditionally in the realm of beauty, light manifests being. Freud placed the subject's certainty in dreams and in handling the unconscious elements appearing in them. Lacan quotes Freud when he says: "Here, in the field of a dream, you are at home." The American light artist James Turrell – in accordance with the quote above – catches light at its brightest precisely in the dream and this is how he wants to present it in his works. He strives to build idealistic places for viewing the light phenomena in his chamber consecrated to seeing. Also the other half of Berg's work can be called retinal – an art of the eye from which dreaminess and unconscious investments of the human drives are not far. With his works he aspires to awaken the eye from the habits that trouble it and thereby to discover blind spots and the outlying realms of vision.

Light and the question of transparency are central motifs for Berg and he recurrently returns to them. His retinal works pose questions about light, its refraction and colours – the abilities of different materials to transmit light. He recounts having found Turrell's text on immateriality when planning the Young Artist of the Year exhibition. In the Sliced Vision / Split Man series of works (2007) Berg combines anthropomorphic and retinal elements. He continues his study of the human shape, but now presents it in the form of an optical illusion. It seems there has been a shift from the body of desire to the "body of light" (the latter is the artist's name for this new sculptural form). The sculptures have been assembled from several acrylic figures into overlapping constellations. The colouring and luminosity of the forms depend not only on the chosen colour, the number of layers, or the illumination of the work, but also on the viewer's position in relation to the work. It appears as if the lightweight figures radiating with different colours would float, disintegrate, and collide in accordance with the spectator's movements and and the entry angle of light rays. Berg reveals he is en route towards works that function "purely" through coloration.

Neither observation nor reminiscing is a mechanical activity. Before the observations made of a work reach consciousness, the actions of the unconscious have already influenced it. The layered structure of forms brings to mind Sigmund Freud's optic model, which he used to visualise the relation between perception and consciousness. In his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud presents an optic analogy of the functional mechanism of the "mental apparatus" by referring to the consecutive lenses of a telescope. The consecutive permeable layers make light refract layer by layer. The segmented sculptural forms of Sliced Vision / Split Man can be seen as flame-rimmed forms created by light impulses remaining on the retina before falling asleep. Viewed from a certain angle these forms refract the colours of the spectrum and their edges obtain a fractal shape.

The unconscious demonstrated by consecutive lenses is not an anatomical or spatial place, but a special spectrum displayed by the device that is situated between perception and consciousness. However, it is not my purpose to study electromagnetic radiation and different wavelengths defined by physics, which is what we see as colours. Before perception reaches consciousness, it has met with various engrams, their preconscious associative arrangement and mechanisms of unconscious activities, such as rejection. According to Silverman, through the optic analagy and the notion of delay it entails Freud challenges the notion of objective seeing (the notion of delay, Freud argues, is incorporated in the passage of sensory stimulation into the psyche before the observation becomes a part of conscious reality). A similar deconstructive observation is related to the conception of dream work. The observations made during the daytime melt into a complex networks of relations, which the unconsciuos utilizes when resistance dwindles.

In his deliberations of the unconscious and the structure of repetition, Lacan comments on Freud's optic model and reminds us that we should not forget about the interval between the light-reflecting layers – analogical to the interval between observation and cognition – as it presents itself as the place of the Other where the subject is formed. In this manner the unconscious constitutes the discourse of the Other (discourse de l'Autre). Lacan for his part does not envision a great difference between observation and cognition, but emphasizes instead the simultaneity and synchronity related to the temporality of the traces of perception (Wahrnehmungszeichen). In this respect, consciousness can be regarded as an organ of perception. When considered thus, the works of Sliced Vision / Split Man illustrate the concept of the birth of perception and mental presentation in a sensible form. And the name of the work tells about the foundational division of the psyche into being and meaning during the prehistory of the psyche.

Visual Vortex – writing on the cornea

"Light may travel in a straight line, but it is refracted, diffused, it floods, it fills – the eye is a sort of bowl – it flows over, too, it necessitates, around the ocular bowl, a whole series of organs, mechanisms, defences."
Jacques Lacan

Berg has worked on different phases of the Visual Vortex series since 2004. The illusions created by the works have become ever more multidimensional with changing colours and patterns and, in the most recent works presented in this exhibition, also by way of changing texts. However, the basic structure of the sculptural installation has remained the same. They consist of large boxes assembled of acrylic sheets and attached to the wall. The boxes contain large reflecting concave mirror that span their entire width. The surface of the works is composed of a clear or coloured transparent sheet on which different words or patterns have been engraved. Seen from afar the works seem strictly geometrical, but the effect they have is just the opposite. The light gathered and returned by the works and the image created by them does not focus on one vanishing point, but follows the movements of the viewer and creates a vortex between her/him and the work – hence the name of the series.

Berg compares the effect of the Visual Vortex sculptures to childhood experiences in the amusement park, where part of the regularities we learn in daily life no longer seem to apply. We have to struggle against gravity in devices that hurl us in different directions. We surpass our limits in high places or in the form of strange animals or scary forms. We are enchanted by hallucinations in mirrors that contort the perfection of our bodily image and shape it into curiously recognisable and simultaneously most ridiculous forms.

Each work is a type of an eye in which the mirror as a substitute for the retina functions like a bright carpet (tapetum lucidum) familiar to us from the eyes of animals. The colours pulsate like a spectrum in the background's glowing carpet. We recognise that same luminous effect in the glowing eyes of nocturnal animals such as cats, bats, or crocodiles, when light hits them in the dark. The incoming ray of light reflects once more from the shining retina to the lens and strengthens the nocturnal vision. But the image is not sharp due to the scattering of the light ray. In the human eye that demands visual acuity this phenomenon is absent. Gradually, the notion of light as an element of the creative act has metamorphosed into a notion of glowing coloration. In the works of Visual Vortex series from 2006–2007 Berg has applied the technique of colour sliding to their concave mirrors. The colour scale ranges from blue-red to yellow-orange. The large, one-eyed works function as optic devices and experiments that trick the eye. The background mirrors of the works gather the rays of light directed at them and in a sense shoot them towards the viewer. They magnify the patterns – graphic representations or words – engraved on the acrylic sheets between the mirror and the viewer thus enhancing the illusion these patterns generate.

As a totality these effects have guaranteed that in discussing the Visual Vortex works it has been impossible to avoid references to organs: talk about the eye, optics and vision as facets that stand in for the chains of association and meanings opened up by the works.

The dual position created by the viewing situation brings to mind Lacan's story about the sardine can drifting at sea that is revealed to him when a ray o light strikes it. Sitting in a boat he feels he has been seen: "It was looking at me at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at me is situated." The first works in Berg's sculptural series were colourless and functioned through topographical signs – curves or advancing circles of amoeba-like shapes – engraved on the cornea of the works. These were followed by the introduction of bright colours – yellow, red, and blue – functioning as the works' corneas. The graphic signs were now carved in the middle of these 'corneas' as types of lenses. In the next run of works the colours faded, broke, and blended. They began to shine like phosphorus and became more subtle. The protective patterns and cartographical signs were joined by symbols such as the yin-yang -sign. The graphic sign in Microcosmos (2006) unmistakably resembles an egg cell surrounded by sperm.

To this spectrum of colours and patterns in the exhibited works also linguistic signifiers have been added: words and entire clauses. Part of the engraved texts are quotes from the literary sources appearing in the names of the works; part are an "accumulation" that has wandered through the artist's mind changing during the journey into a new entity. At first sight I only picked out single words in English from the works, such as "empiricism" and "Buddhism". In the names of the works you can see the sources of inspiration for the quotes, such as the Japanese author D.T.Suzuki in addition to Turrell whom I have already mentioned. Studying the sentences requires tolerance to withstand disturbance: the concave mirror stretches the engraved words and turns them into a twisted mirror image in the background. After a while I can already distinguish a whole sentence that creates a vortex in the middle of the work: "All verbal descriptions of reality are inaccurate & incomplete." As an artist, Berg does not try to limit the phenomenology of experience through his use of language. He leaves the formation of meaning on a personal level for the viewers to pursue.

In what way can we as viewers partake in the creation of a work of art? In short: with the gazes that we grant to the works; with those glances and lingering looks with which we encounter the works, awaken them for a moment from their sleep, and believe in them. In granting them our attention, we at the same time awaken in ourselves selected memories of specific glances that have roused us and made us come alive again. Occasional wonders of creation: here and now – on earth.