Since quite some time I have wanted to write a philosophic essay about the sculptures of Pépé Grégoire. On several occasions, bicycling through Amsterdam, I had passed his sculpture at Krugerplein [pictured above] and was struck by its simplicity and unparalleled expressiveness. When I met Pépé some ten years ago, not through his sculptures but through music, I gradually gained greater insight into his work. I became curious about the specific factors that make his sculptures so appealing and wanted to find out what those factors are exactly, how Pépé succeeds in letting his work say so many things. What does he put into those sculptures that makes them so intriguing? How does he produce them, and what concrete processes does a sculpture go through from design or concept to ultimate form?
This essay contains my personal impressions, mixed with philosophical reflections about looking at sculptures, about the feelings that you have when looking at them, about what they do to you. They say much and quite different things. In doing so they evoke all sorts of associations that often compete with each other. I call those associations paradoxical, and much of this essay is an attempt to unravel those paradoxes. After all, paradoxes are apparent contradictions that are made plausible and liveable through further reflection.
The new social era is not in need of readymade answers, but of experiments, conjectures and authentic
So as not to interrupt the line of thinking, I have included only a few references in the main text and have incorporated all references in a separate chapter [below]. Whoever wishes to can there find literature and discussions that assist on the way towards greater insight into what the sculptures do.
1. The sculptures
Looking becomes touching, inside becomes outside
Your eyes slide across a sculpture of Pépé, and you feel a pressure in your body, in your arms, because you want to feel the sculpture, to stroke it with your hands. At the very first visual confrontation with the sculptures of Pépé, you are immediately taken along to what they want to tell you. The hard external world of the bronze figures you quickly forget, it takes you along and puts you in motion. Your inside is swept along by that bronze object outside of you. Seeing is taken along as it were in touching and being touched; the visual is framed by the tactile. When confronted by the sculptures of Pépé, your innermost becomes linked to the outside; both your body and what you think while observing them build a bridge to the sculpture.
We can immerse ourselves in a sculpture, even though it is nothing other than a piece of inanimate nature, a dead stone or a lump of bronze. We imagine that a hand stands for shaking hands, or for referring to something, or for linking something with something else. It constitutes a metaphor in matter, without
It is to be expected therefore that people do not interpret these sculptures in the same way. The human body and parts of the body are interpreted and valued in quite different ways, all depending on the culture. Feet in particular may be viewed as something low, while hands are usually regarded higher, simply because they are attached higher to the body. In other cultures the head is not categorised at all as higher and the feet as lower. Instead, the key is whether the head is closer to an important mountain compared to the feet. My interpretation of the sculptures is therefore just as subjective, but at the same time it tries to break old interpretations open.
There are metaphors that maintain and express the core of their material carrier. A lavishly decorated table is a symbol of hospitality, an open hand symbolises friendliness. But there are also metaphors that preserve only a single aspect, such as the colour orange in the painting Vivat*Oraenge that Jan Davidsz de Heem produced around 1670. Understanding such metaphors is only possible on the basis of a certain background knowledge, but at the same time these metaphors enrich that knowledge.
The metaphorical effect of a sculpture is heavily determined by the material that is used to shape the metaphor. Bronze in particular is a difficult material. It is heavy, sturdy, it stands the test of time and is usually dark, so that all those paradoxes are evoked such as a bronze movement or a bronze gust of wind: how is this possible? How can two colossal bronze hands that tear off the halves of a mask personify liberation? The same applies for the fossil couple that tries to pull out of their ancient cocoon. How can bronze, so heavy and hard, symbolise that liberation so well and so clearly? This involves not just a movement from inside to outside or vice versa; it is also from low to high and the other way around, or from light to heavy, from fleeting to perennial. All these fundamental contradictions are told in bronze and personified by the sculptures.
Much of our viewing appears to take place without personal involvement. We behave like outsiders with regard to what we see. We indeed look at an object without the eye being touched by it, and in a literal sense our eyes have no contact with the things that they see. The fly that has flown into your eye you don’t see anymore. Hearing likewise involves no direct contact, except in the case of very unpleasant hard sounds right next to the ear, but then we are already just about deaf. Most of our looking at things or at happenings involves no personal effect, which means that in most cases we look in a detached way. Looking and hearing are non-contact forms of observation. Our senses of touch and taste, on the other hand, bring us much closer to the things around us and our situation in the midst of reality than the sense of vision; these are forms of observation that involve contact. Taste and touch are only possible through direct physical contact with the object to be tasted or touched. By eating, by contact with tongue and palate, by feeling with our fingertips or other part of the skin we get to know what a pastry tastes like or how a piece of wood feels. That is why feeling and tasting are senses that produce a link between our own body and the thing that is felt, with reality. The surface tension of the skin enables us to feel whether the surface of a piece of bronze is smooth, rough, sharp-edged or rounded.
Still, this orderly classification of looking versus touching is imperfect: simply looking at a sculpture such as Woman and Matter by Pépé leads us to want to touch it. It is strange that simply looking at a bronze sculpture
Pépé’s sculptures are concrete in the sense that we generally know what they represent. Yet they are so different from concrete pictures, such as a photo. Just like other works of art, such as paintings, they are not images of reality, for then you might ask, whose hand is this? In addition, a work of art, as the well-known aesthetician Suzanne Langer would say, shapes virtual space. But sculptures do something more: one of their inherent features is that they shape both virtual and real space, purely through their robust three-dimensional nature.
The directness of the sculptures contrasts sharply with much modern art, which you can only understand through much study, or if you know the history behind it or what the artist focuses on or reacts against. Barnett Newman’s Who is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (the painting that caused so much commotion when a maniac attacked it with a knife, after which a restorer tried to repair it with wall paint) is such an intellectualistic example of a painting that means little to me and quite an exercise for cerebral viewers to unravel. It is odd that, in order to appreciate the painting, you need to know the intent of the maker. That leaves little room for personal interpretation. To be able to understand and appreciate Pépé’s sculptures and other works of art, no information about the intention of the artist (which often is not even known) is needed.
Tensions in matter
There are various recurring themes in the sculptures of Pépé, such as the movement of a bird, of something through the air, of wind, of headwind, of a man who steps into another person’s shadow, of hands that tear off a mask. They all have a certain tension, just like the sculptures of hands and feet, and of Woman and Matter [photograph just above]. In this last work it is as if, when viewing in and with the material, you are pulled out of the material.
With the sculptures with hands and feet, when you look at the hands that caress, at the feet that are also present, at the face that withdraws, at the wind that blows your face to one side, at all these direct associations, then you apparently open yourself to what the sculpture attempts to say. When you are open to it, you ask yourself: how is this possible, and what happens if you are not open to it, how do you open yourself to it then?
You are open to it, or you let the sculptures affect you, while the emotions in the sculpture, the tensions, partly of contradictory emotions, often hesitating, are tensions that slowly force themselves upon you. We feel hardness and heaviness outside of us, something that withholds us, but also its attractive force, the inviting openness of a heavy piece of bronze: you don’t even see that it is heavy. Not until you try to pick up or move the sculpture do you realise how incredibly heavy it is.
Power, space and movement
A bronze statue takes up quite a bit of space, causing it to structure the space around it: to the left of the statue is this, to the right is that, and behind it you see an object standing in the shadow. Trees and shrubs appear to move away from the statue or instead to move towards it; the surrounding buildings drop off into the background or incline towards the statue, all depending on the lines that the statue sets out. In Hilversum the buildings appear to rise upward along with the statue in their midst. The power of a statue thus depends partly on the way it structures the surrounding space.
The larger the sculpture, the more powerfully it structures the space and the more shadow it produces. Shadowpower, to invent a new expression, is an indication of the quality of the sculpture that is indicated by the quality of the shadows that it produces. The more intense the shadow, the higher the quality. Who knows if there isn’t something like shadowpower 4002.
But that is pure nonsense, of course, for it would mean that the quality of a sculpture could be measured by a general standard, whereas such a standard is exactly counter to the uniqueness of the sculpture and the fact that its meaning is so difficult to catch in words. The uniqueness of a sculpture can be approximated but never measured.
Who are you? Identity and mask
A significant theme in a number of sculptures is the identity of the human being. Both in Mask and in Double,Profile, and definitely in Pain Mask, Pépé shows either a new face being put on or an older one reappearing. Inner conflict appears to be the theme here, both in a negative sense as something painful, and in a positive sense as the possibility of a new identity. This double interpretation is also possible in Double. Here a man steps out of his cocoon or silhouette; it is almost as when a snake loses its skin. Double fits perfectly with the theatre, where temporary change of identity is common. But it also shows the painfulness of identity change, as in the statue Unmasked in front of the Beatrix theatre in Utrecht [picture at left].
2. The people who produce the sculptures
Pépé creates his sculptures in a large number of steps, some of which are executed in his own studio and others at Stijlaart, a bronze foundry in Tiel, where it is evident how much effort goes into the casting work. In a spatial sense Pépé’s work is divided into four: his own studio and three different areas at the foundry: the moulding shop, the foundry in a narrow sense, and the final shaping hall. All four areas are roughly equal in size but fitted out altogether differently, and they each exude a different atmosphere, with different sounds and colourings.
First, Pépé makes a plaster, wax or clay model in his studio, all depending on what he has in mind. The model may be unique but may just as well involve several versions. Depending on the ultimate sculpture, the clay model may be large (several metres tall, with the clay being attached onto a skeleton of metal wire) or small. The studio is an airy yet large building with an enormous glass wall. Along the wall are miniature models of all the sculptures that Pépé ever made.
The clay model is then taken to Tiel. There, in a gigantic hall, are three areas: the moulding shop, the foundry and the final shaping area. The clay model is first of all plastered by hand in the mouldry. This is a very meticulous job that requires great care, for air bubbles, tears and hard spots must be avoided. Next a wax model is produced, which is then shaped with gravel and plaster, and then a new mould is made from this. What used to be outside is now inside, etcetera. It is also possible that the caster does not use gravel and plaster as casting mould but a ceramic shell; he may even use a rubber mould. For large sculptures, different parts are made from the clay model and poured into casting moulds, which are welded together after the casting and chipping process. This whole area is an organised chaos, but you feel the tension as to what the object will ultimately look like.
The spectacular part of course is the bronze casting, where the bronze is poured as a hot fluid mush into the pouring holes. The casting process is not very time-consuming, however, so this area is not used as intensively as the others. The moulds to be cast are properly packed in large steel frames because they may burst when filled. After cooling off, the castings must be peeled off again and the plaster shapes hacked away. This hacking is done outside, where remnants of gravel and plaster are piled up as dirty chunks of rubbish.
Next the pieces must be welded together, which in the case of the nine metre high Triad (placed in
Roughly half of the work takes place in the foundry, passing through many hands. I counted some ten people at work, both men and women, at their own worksites, like islands, in the three large halls in Tiel. The sculptor is captain, director and manager all in one, consulting with everyone involved about the choice of materials, alternatives, costs and unplanned eventualities.
Much can go wrong. When casting, a form may not come out altogether correct, during bronze casting too many air bubbles or other disturbances of the material may occur so that the casting needs to be redone. It is possible that pieces that are not incorporated in the form need to be added. Slippage can occur during polishing and filing, the rounding can be filed off just a bit too much. And lastly, things can go wrong during transport, like when a heavy statue fell out of the crane because the hoisting belts were not strong enough to carry the weight. It can also happen that a bronze plate is too light for the weight that it must bear, so that the piece must be remade.
When considering all these steps, you may wonder whether Pépé is really a sculptor, for he does not sculpt a statue from stone. He does not hew a sculpture from existing material. The surprising thing is that Pépé has actually made a bronze that appears to express this thought, best expressed by Michelangelo in one of his sonnets:
Look at ‘Woman and Matter’ [above near the top of this article] and you see the living expression of Michelangelo’s metaphor. Out of nature, out of a block of marble or stone, the sculptor makes what already exists inside the stone, what lies slumbering, waiting for the sculptor to arrive with his chisel. From the interior of a stone a sculpture steps forward, in linear direction from inside to the outside. Various forms and materials are used, with constant interaction between inside and outside, before the ultimate material can be used. Form and content, inside and outside, constantly alternate before the ultimate sculpture is there. It is thus clear that the metaphor that Michelangelo uses does not literally correspond for bronze statues.
There is also a second difference that Pépé’s sculpture infers. From classical antiquity through the Renaissance the principles of form and content (or matter) are also the principles of masculinity versus femininity. (In the verses following upon the above lines of the poem, Michelangelo alludes to the idea that he is the form and Vittoria the content.) The form is the active and lively element, while the content is the passive element, which is how masculinity and femininity were defined in the past. Pépé plays with this thought but turns it around by portraying the form that arises from matter as a woman, while matter is assigned the masculine role. The sculpture thus also stands for emancipation and liberation.
3. An interpretation. About paradoxes and a sculpture as solution
Pépé’s sculptures appeal to the viewer in a certain way. The rough versus the smooth surfaces, the dark and the gold-coloured sections, the constructions that reach up, the internal dynamics: they do not fail to touch the viewer. A spectator has the feeling of being addressed as participant, as neutral observer, as thinker, but just as often the viewer, as a sensual being, feels the urge to touch, for the sculptures stimulate, they invite the viewer to touch the smooth and the rough surfaces. In addition to many other things, Pépé‘s sculptures are paradoxical. I come to at least five paradoxes, all of which deal with the contraditions between hard and soft, direct and indirect, inside and outside, heavy and light, approaching and distancing.
The first paradox: something hard becomes touchable through human hands.
The second paradox: bronze becomes softer through fire and acid.
The third paradox: the sculptures move the viewer both directly and indirectly. Directly: “I see a foot and a hand” or “a face”. Indirectly: after taking more time and walking around it, we think: “This is care” or “an unmasking”.
The fourth paradox: the sculptures touch us and we touch the sculptures.
The fifth paradox: something stiff and heavy gives rise to the experience of space, lightness, movement and corporality.
First paradox: something hard becomes touchable through human hands
The surface tension of the material that makes you want to touch it, move it and be moved by the material, how does this become a characteristic of the sculpture? The bronze material is in essence heavy and hard as a rock and does not possess that tension at all. With a small piece of bronze you can knock a person down. With a large piece that becomes all the more difficult because of the weight. If you happen to drop a lump of it, then watch your toes!
There is something paradoxical about this: a sculpture of Pépé, so hard and heavy, asks to be caressed. How is that possible? The answer is complex, but a simple explanation would be: it is the human hands that, on the basis of Pépé’s design, make the material so full of tension. Before the sculpture is ultimately completed, whether it is two metres (six feet) tall or only ten centimeters (~4 inches) in height, many hands have been put to it. Fingers build the moulds, do the pouring, the adjusting. Soft human hands do this, time and again. It is a time-consuming job. An average statue, one metre by one metre (~three feet square), requires some six weeks of work by different people before the clay model (Pépé’s own first design) is made into a bronze. It is remarkable to see how many women are involved in the mouldry, foundry and polishing shops, who with great care and typically with all sorts of kitchen utensils such as a dough roller, develop the material from which the form must be produced into its final product.
So you can be touched by the sculpture because so much touching has gone into it, because so many hands have worked at it. Those round shapes, those arches and bends that correspond so smoothly with the hand, they have an origin: the spirit and the hands of Pépé, the hands of the workers, the craftsmen and craftswomen who have made it.
Second paradox: bronze becomes softer through fire and acid
But let’s not get too sentimental, because not only soft human hands have worked on the sculpture. There is another paradox here, for those same hands also lash onto the material incredibly hard, with welding and grinding tools, with fire and acids. The bronze is hammered with great force, it is worked on with sharp files, and the material is coloured by what looks like flamethrowers. The flamethrowers are not applied just once, but various times. The first time the bronze becomes black, and only after applying the flamethrowers several times does it become gold-coloured. The bronzeworkers wear heavy, stiff suits and masks to protect themselves. They need to work carefully, for one wrong movement and they are ablaze themselves. Bronze has enormous resistance, and you need to protect yourself properly to get the bronze into how the sculptor has intended it. Not much communication is possible during the work; it looks like a lonely way to deal with the material. If people need to dress themselves like that and accept so many restrictions, how could something good then come about, you might think. Isn’t a person wielding a flamethrower a symbol of destruction? How could someone who is totally involved in such hard hitting and in shaving metal possibly represent civilised society? And yet, that is the case. This iron discipline of a human being is necessary in order to bring something about that takes root. The hardened material gradually acquires the exact intended form, by steadily processing the material either with a hard or soft touch. This exactly is the crux of the whole
So we need to adjust the first paradox by means of this second paradox. Not only the soft hands, but also the rough processing touch ultimately lead to the touchable sculpture.
Third paradox: the sculptures move both directly (“a foot and a hand!” or “a face”) and indirectly (“care” or “an unmasking”)
Pépé’s sculptures are immediately recognisable. They immediately display their meaning and require no interpretation. This directness also indicates the position that Pépé has in relation to twentieth-century sculptors like Arp, Brancusi or Giacometti. In the sculptures of Arp the form has become altogether abstract, only a rounding for example, so that immediate recognisability disappears. Some of his sculptures that portray a round body (human or otherwise) might just as well be lying amphoras, as in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice.
In that same museum I found a beautiful litho by Jean Arp with a foot on top of it, entitled ‘Soulier bleu renverse a deux talons, sous une voute noire’ (‘Overturned blue shoe with two heels under a black vault’). Arp says about his works of art: “I tried to make forms grow”, and “I looked for new constellations of form such as nature never stops producing”. Arp sees the ideal artist as the likeness of nature that evolves and creates, that constantly makes new organic forms, such as a foot with two heels. Unfortunately these new forms are not always understandable and recognisable for contemporaries, just like evolutionary jumps or mutations are also not always understandable: why a foot with two heels? We see the new forms of nature also in the sculptures by Pépé, but contrary to Arp they are comprehensible. Gale Force 14 or Gale Force 16 tells us something, although the measurement of wind force only goes to 12, making 14 or even 16 hardly plausible. We could also imagine something vaguely absurd when confronted with atomic number 300, or minus 10 on the Richter scale, or 1,000 for Avogadro’s number.
With Brancusi we clearly see an anthropomorphic image (i.e. formed along human lines) but in a conventional way, both as to content (often a face) and form (the material is unable to speak, it might just as well be stone or wood). The faces of Brancusi, no matter how beautiful, do not move me. He too uses the properties of bronze, such as the polished surface, and yet these smooth, material things of his do not move me, probably because he does not evoke the contrast with roughness that bronze also has. In the Guggenheim Museum in Venice we find Amphora, a sort of ‘form of life, biomorphic’, which can be anything or any living being, yet it does not move me as viewer exactly because it is so round and smooth. Brancusi’s Bird in Space looks like it is dissolved in space, is (as Pépé might say) released from matter, yet in a different way than with Pépé. Brancusi’s bird is totally stylized, you don’t even see a beak, whereas Pépé’s Profile does intimate direct meaning such as nose and mouth.
Altogether different again are the sculptures by Giacometti, several of which can also be seen in Venice. These are rough, thin but still material torsos, often very stiff and elongated. His sculptures are immediately recognisable but do not invite to be touched: the visual stays locked up in the visual because Giacometti’s torsos are so stiff, rough, thin and coarse. The viewer’s hand does not have an attractive surface that moves, and you feel no inclination to touch the torso. It is a detached and aloof torso, which was in fact Giacometti’s intention. Jean-Paul Sartre, who was quite fond of the sculptures of Giacometti, felt that his torsos perfectly portrayed the human condition of loneliness of ‘existence, being there and nothing else’. In whatever way, we see that works of art, such as the sculptures discussed here, try to present the impossible, such as presence, existence or emptiness. Pépé’s sculptures likewise represent a specific side of human existence: the aspect of sensuality, even if in a paradoxical way.
The third paradox is therefore that of direct recognisability and indirect meaning, or meaning in second instance only. This recognisability is linked to the meaning of the statues, to their human and susceptible radiation. While form has become very abstract with Arp, is anthropomorphic with Brancusi, and is crude and elongated with Giacometti, form with Pépé suggests movement of the body.
The faces of Brancusi do not stir us; they portray aesthetic ideals. The fact that Pépé’s sculpture stirs or touches us means two different things, corresponding to the different meanings of stirring. In the first place, to stir means to mingle with the reality around us, to bring your own inner feelings in balance with all the significant things that happen around you. In that way you blend with reality, just like clotted cream blends with a sauce hollandaise along with flour and butter and a touch of wine. All these ingredients make for a delicious sauce, they all contribute, but it is the blending that brings out the best, for by itself flour is bland and tasteless. That is the culinary meaning of stirring. In the second place stirring means being stirred in such a way that your inner emotions are aroused, that a sensitive chord is touched, that something makes you sit up, that a spark lights up. You know that you feel something that is important to you, that gives greater joie de vivre or vitality. Here you don’t get stirred or mixed up, but you stay on your feet in the jumble of impressions that resound in a specific way. If the string were to disappear, it could no longer be touched or stirred. That is the musical sense of stirring, but surprisingly both meanings, the culinary and the musical, can come together in a work of art, for example your string is elevated to great height, so that you are stirred in a culinary sense while moved in a musical sense.
Feelings play an important role in both meanings of stirring. Art and feelings belong together; that is a known fact in aesthetics. Many aestheticians (such as Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key) view a work of art not as an image of a reality that is given to us beforehand, but as a portrayal of feelings using colours, forms and spatial effects. Art articulates ‘the felt life’, the emotional life in the sense of the complicated links between all sorts of emotional tensions that grow and diminish, that become weaker, that grow in intensity and push each other aside or instead reinforce each other. What is relevant here is the emotional experience of the beholder, not that of the artist, because the uniqueness of the sculpture implies that, as the sculpture expresses more, it becomes more remote from its maker. The feelings of the beholder do not mix with the feelings of the sculptor but with the feelings that that sculpture elicits.
The feelings that we have when looking at a sculpture do not come first, so that we recognise them in the sculpture, but they are formed and articulated along with the sculpture, they are evoked by the sculpture. The profiles of Pépé thus articulate the impression of a human face and provide direction to it by placing various significant senses (eye, nose, mouth) in line. We learn as it were to look at a profile with different eyes and to feel with different hands, even though that seems strange. Once again, Profile does not express some aesthetic ideal, nor is it recognisable as a specific person. Instead, it is a generic profile, with all other profiles representing variations on this theme. We thus get different feelings and observations when observing a sculpture. The same applies to Head Wind. Experiencing a head wind is a typically Dutch experience, but through Pépé's presentation of it we experience it also as a different head wind.
Fifth paradox: something stiff and heavy gives the experience of space, lightness, movement and corporality
Paintings arrange space in a virtual way, but sculptures structure space in a realistic way, something that is emphasised further by their shadow effects. In front of, behind, above and beneath are all arranged anew and scaled in terms of our body. Height, depth, up and down, left and right are accentuated depending on the body, thereby giving our body its own place and movement in space. How, for example, do we experience space when viewing Windcatcher? As some pointed force, or fanning out as in the profiles?
The paradox here is that such lumps of bronze, that at first sight appear static, evoke such a feeling of dynamism, both of the body and of the sculpture itself. As Pépé himself has indicated above, the dynamism is usually expressed in classical statues through movement along the diagonals. This also occurs in paintings. The classic Creation of Man by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel runs along the diagonals of the half-recumbent God who reaches his hand to the first human being from the cloud that he floats on. With Pépé the movement does not run along diagonal lines but more along horizontal and vertical lines, as also happens in the emotional movements of a human person: sorrow goes down, joy goes up, just to name a few simple movements. These emotional movements are likewise metaphors that establish links between a human body and a dead piece of bronze.
The impression of lightness that such sculptures as Profile and Lonely at the Top give are in turn paradoxical, as so beautifully exemplified in Kundera’s expression ‘the unbearable lightness of being’. In his book by that same title, Kundera shows that lightness is unbearable: people are focused on targets but do not know what target. The unbearable means that, while we know that the profile is directed at something, but we don’t know what the target is. The space that the profile is directed at is experienced as interesting, inspiring and open (something happens there that draws us to it), but at the same time we do not get to see what is looked at or is spoken to.
Metaphors and symbols
In our everyday language, more emphatically in prose and all the more in poetry, metaphors play a major role. Metaphors have also become fossilised in many clichés: ‘he looks like a worn-out rag’, ‘the baby is a ray of sunshine’ and ‘I see what you mean’. In prose a writer may try to break through such fossilisation, but excessive experimentation can make a book unreadable. Especially poets try to invent new metaphors, consciously, sometimes even systematically and searching, sometimes in a forced way. Trees can weep and speak, birds are instructed to report our feelings to someone else, sun and moon look down on us in a friendly way or with concern.
Simply stated, a metaphor is the transfer of a meaning that is characteristic for a specific domain to another
When modelled in bronze sculptures, metaphors obtain a third dimension, where the above paradoxes play a key role. The hand, for example, stands for care or friendship and not just for a part of the body with five fingers. The bronze sculpture of a hand that holds a foot stands for care and support, with the solidity and durability of the bronze expressing strength. When hand and foot cannot reach each other anymore (such as in Broken) and the sculpture implies breaks, then serious disruption is indeed felt. The choice of the domain bronze sculpture is a determining element, and the new meaning that the term gets in the new domain is surprising. Exactly because we need to move from hand to foot and see all this in the bronze (and virtually feel it), we are surprised by the movement.
The three metaphor levels (direct use of a metaphor, conscious search for new metaphors, and reflection on the use of metaphors) are explored further in various theories, provided with meanings and interpreted (at a fourth level). Metaphors provide structure and something to go by, but especially when they are new and surprising, they also destroy, since they liberate us from old meanings and present new forms of riches. We can laugh about metaphors, use them to deride others, to express friendship but also to knock down enemies.
Boundaries are continually crossed through the sculptures, and a different aspect of reality is revealed that we were already somewhat familiar with but are now fully confronted with. At the same time, we are confronted, despite our partial familiarity, with various questions: can a human profile not be viewed as a sickle? Can hands and feet not also be seen as holding onto each other? A bronze body tries to unwrestle itself from matter such that you want to make the same movement. It is fascinating that this can be seen in bronze and transferred! It is puzzling that all this can be expressed in bronze, using a technique that is so complex and time-consuming, a technique involving quite different steps before the end result appears, where the different steps do not in any way resemble the final result. It takes great imagination to be able to see the end result in the forms that are made during the various phases.
In this philosophical essay I have presented many contradictions and paradoxes that intensify the enjoyment that a person viewing the sculptures can experience. The process of making a bronze is quite complex compared to the first impression of simplicity and the direct sensation of lightness and ease.
Various old philosophical contradictions and distinctions stand in a new light, such as the contradictions between hard and soft, direct and indirect, process and product, inside and outside, heavy and light, approaching and distancing.
I have tried to illustrate this with the five paradoxes:
• According to the first paradox, something that is hard becomes touchable through human hands.
• The second paradox indicates that bronze is softened through fire and acid.
• The third paradox is that the sculptures stir us both directly (“a foot and a hand!” or “a face”) and indirectly (“care” or “an unmasking”).
• The fourth paradox is that the sculptures touch us and we touch the sculptures.
• The fifth paradox is the following: something stiff and heavy gives the experience of space, lightness, movement and corporality.
The resolution of these paradoxes is obviously that sculptures have been treated both gently and with force, that they are light as well as heavy, that they express both the inside and the outside, both rest and movement: it is all complexity. Once again it is evident that all these elements yield an adequate philosophical conclusion, which unfortunately, however, says so little.
The way the sculptures of Pépé function, transferring different meanings, appears to go via paradoxes, where the interconnections between the senses are touched in a significant way. The sculptures are heavy and light, visible and tangible, hard and soft, they move lightly and are quiet in an earthly way. It is these interconnections that move us so.
Explicit and implicit references in this essay
With regard to the senses a tremendous amount of philosophical literature could be cited that I have perused over the years within the context of many other research projects. During my entire life I have allowed myself to be inspired by the breakthrough lectures by Husserl (1970) about the inner awareness of time and about
‘The essence of observation is that it not only has a punctual “now” in view and not only allows a “just been” to pass from this view, and that it has in the special manner of “just been” and “still still aware”, but that it also passes from “now” to “now” and that it goes to this in looking ahead.’ (p. 106)
´Form consists in that a “now” establishes itself through an impression and that the tail of retentions and the horizon of protentions link themselves thereto.’ (p. 114)
Earlier, Kant (1798/1800) had already linked time and space to the human senses, but only in the sense of the sequence and the simultaneity of impressions in the case of time, and as to the experience of impressions above and below, nearby and distant, in the case of space. His ideas about the human mind, where time and space are the forms of sensual observation and his later anthropological interpretation of this, I have incorporated in this essay.
The sentence “the key is whether the head is closer to an important mountain than to the feet” refers to the work of anthropologists and ethnologists, making clear that the Western way of thinking high and low from the perspective of the human body is not the only form of orientation. In many non-Western cultures the surroundings, such as mountains or rivers, are taken as an orienting structure to indicate the position of parts of the body (see Wassmann 1998). I suspect that the orienting function of sculptures such as those by Pépé represent a breakthrough from the usual Western (Kantian) manner of orientation.
With my analysis of the interconnections between the senses I run counter to the modular view of the senses (expounded by Dennett and others) that forms the basis of modern cognitive science. In this view it is assumed that the senses function autonomously and that they acquire new information on the basis of evolutionary mechanisms. Elsewhere I have developed the concept that a certain minimal form of synesthesia (as the link between the senses is called) is needed in order to orient oneself in the world (Korthals, 2006).
I have also allowed myself to be inspired by the work of Renee van de Vall dating from 1994, Een subliem gevoel van plaats (A sublime feeling of place). Just like I have done, she has studied the subject of looking at art. However, she does not consider the time-space aspects and the interconnections between looking and the other senses.
Susanne Langer, who in the oppressive positivist climate of the 1950s was one of the first to produce a detailed study about philosophy and art, has continued to make worthwhile observations about art. She emphasises the cognitive meaning of art, for art orients us in reality. She seeks to strip art of its elitist and romantic aura. Art does not immediately make the beholder a better person, and the artist is likewise not a better person than the average consumer of art.
In writing this essay, however, Gadamer’s theory about art turned out to be especially worthwhile for me. To be able to understand and appreciate Pépé’s sculptures or those by others, you do not need information about the intention of the artist (which is often unknown even). That is the essence of his hermeneutic view, meaning the view that works of art have their own history that we must interpret (the Greek ‘hermeneuein’ means to interpret). A work of art stands on its own, and the intention of the maker is not relevant. Relevant,
During my studies I came into contact with the theories of the sublime in art, a way of looking that is much promoted nowadays but that never meant much to me. Renee van de Vall, Nancy and Lyotard attempt to show that art indeed leads to sublime experiences: shudder, impotence and the feeling of an abyss are significant components of this (Thüsen, 1997). Although I shudder at certain works of art, I think it is mainly the contrast with other things and events that involve less or no reason to shudder that make the experience of a work of art into a sublime experience. As always, it is the context from which a viewer enjoys art that determines how that viewer regards the work of art.
The theories of the sublime in art are, to me, too romantic and too focused on the artist instead of on the work of art itself. They make the artist into a lofty person, who out of his familiarity with the gaping abyss of everyday life sends artistic messages to ordinary people so that they can cope better with the world that they face each day. There may well be artists who have experienced the gaping abyss of existence, but why would
Art usually does not take us outside the reality that we have already experienced, but it enriches that reality and extends its boundaries. In first instance we experience this extending of boundaries as tremendously imposing transgressions of boundaries, but upon further observation and reflection it turns out to involve not perspectives of the total other of our experience but perspectives on the other in our experience. It is the transcendence in immanence, not the transcendence of immanence that moves me in the sculptures of Pépé. They remind us of the unknown (or forgotten) aspects of experience.
Pépé’s sculptures of masks, including Double, imply that human identity is a fragile thing, involving various layers, or layers in a tension relationship that can be very painful. Pain Mask shows this fragile and painful aspect in a beautiful way. In that way the sculpture takes up a position in an old debate about human identity that roughly speaking has two movements. On the one hand, the sculpture goes counter to the view of human identity as a sort of Thinking Thing, as with Descartes or Locke, that is not affected by experiences and that lies at the basis of experiences and characteristics. Locke asserts:
“A person is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, … the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking.”
On the other hand, it also does not correspond with the view that human identity must be regarded as a depot, theatre or bundle of impressions, representations and ideas, as with Hume (Korthals 1982, p.101ff). Mask and face appear in a vulnerable and painful relation to each other; the mask that is pulled off cannot be compared to a page that is turned or to a new print or photograph.
The five paradoxes
As to the first paradox, I was inspired by the care ethics of Nel Noddings, who places great emphasis on care for the persons who are directly visually present. In concentric circles, starting out from the personal I, people care in her view firstly for their most cherished friends and relatives and to lesser extents for others. She says:
“We find ourselves at the centre of concentric circles of caring. In the inner, intimate circle, we care because we love (…) As we move outward in the circles, we encounter those for whom we have personal regard. (…) Beyond the circles of proximate others are those I have not yet encountered…” (Noddings, 1984, p. 46)
The second paradox is especially inspired by the work of Horkheimer and Adorno from 1944/47, Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectics of Enlightenment). In this book the authors establish a direct relationship between the way in which human beings control nature and control themselves. This link between control of nature and self-control is a common thread in their criticism of modern industrial society. The rationalisation of the control of nature reverts back on human beings themselves: age-old expectations of total control over nature turn out to be directly and necessarily linked to suppression of human beings.
‘The subjection of everything in nature to the sovereign subject ultimately [reaches its culmination] in the very domination of the blind objective, of the natural ...’ (p. 5)
But as I have demonstrated, this link is far from clear, much more ambivalent and less obvious than they intimate. In numerous trades and other forms of treatment of natural products, such as sculpture, people must wear protective clothes and exercise proper control in order to achieve a satisfactory end result, without this implying total control or domination. The paradox that belongs to the essence of Pépé’s sculptures is that self-control for a certain length of time is needed in order to convert raw matter into a moving and appealing piece of sculpture.
The third paradox is inspired by the work of Gadamer, especially Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method, 1960) and Therelevance of the Beautiful (1987) . Gadamer emphasises that a sculpture is not an image but a representation or an event that the spectator is taken up in. The different layers of meaning can be seen as the various stages of that process. According to his hermeneutic interpretation of a work of art, the biography of the artist is one of the many contextual aspects in the evaluation of that work of art, in addition to the material design, the environment of the work of art, the history of the material itself and the history of its interpretation (Wirkungsgeschichte).
Sartre recognised his theory of the human person who is nothing other than ‘existence, being there and nothing else’ in the sculptures of Giacometti. After all, according to Sartre, a human being is not a something with properties but a nothing. In the sculptures of Giacometti, the human person is reduced to the very core: being infinite breach with reality. The sculpture radiates what it is not and never can be: being human. Therefore, the sculpture is released via art from the hard, rocklike material.
‘Starting out from pure space, Giacometti has made the human being by depicting motion in total motionlessness, unity in endless multiplicity, the absolute in pure relativism, the future in the eternal present, and speaking signs in the permanent silence of things.’
Sartre does not, however, cut through to this third paradox because he regards the appreciation of works of art such as those by Giacometti as an appreciation by people of each other. People are moved by such sculptures because they recognise themselves therein and have the same emotions as when they meet other people in life. The third paradox shows, however, that not only human beings but also things material can elicit emotions.
The fourth paradox is partly based on a radical reading of the early work of Marx. He speaks of the ‘fusion of
‘Specifically in the treatment of the concrete world does the human person present himself as belonging to a species. This production is his work-active life as a member of the species. Through it, nature appears as his work and his reality. The product of his labour is the realisation of his life as a human species, by not only duplicating himself intellectually in consciousness but really in the object and as a result encounters himself in a world produced by himself’ (p. 517)
In the fifth paradox I have pursued in thought the statements by Susanne Langer about the virtual spatial functioning of art. Quite soon, however, I arrived at the real spatial function of sculptures.
One of the first philosophers researching in a fundamental way the perspectivistic character of the senses was Wittgenstein, who in his later work introduced the terms ‘language game’ and ‘praxis’. With these concepts he wanted to indicate that people learn to observe through the senses by, depending on their attitude, selecting certain aspects of the objects to be observed as either important or less important. In one and the same drawing we can see either a rabbit or a duck. He therefore says: ‘I believe that habit and upbringing can play a role here.’ (Wittgenstein, 1971, p. 236)
In the full sense of the word, spatial experience is discussed very little in philosophy. There is attention for the experience of left, right, in front of, behind (according to a three-dimensional coordinate system), as in Kant, but there are many other aspects of spatial experience. A space can be experienced by a person as free and spacious, while in objective terms the same space can be experienced by another person as inhibiting, cramped and unsafe. The same objectively viewed space can be experienced by different persons in quite different ways. Sculptures contribute to the subjective experience of space; they structure the spot where they stand for the spectator. People in a given space do not structure that spot only with their bodies. For that reason alone, the way Kant analyses the experience of space of the Western human being cannot be right, because he only takes the human body as starting point (see Kant, p. 15 and Wassmann). Some of Pépé’s sculpture have a direction, such as Profile, while others have a place, something that the spectator immediately senses.
The section about metaphors can be seen as a discussion with the theory of Lakoff and Johnson, who in their breakthrough work Metaphors We Live By from 1980 work out the relationship between below and above, such as is used in a guiding way in all sorts of metaphors. Below is usually weak, governed, passive, less, bad (p.23 ff). The authors assume in rather rigid fashion that the physical experience is the key to the meaning of these metaphors (p. 47). However, when Pépé places the foot at the same height as the hand, or, as in his monumental sculpture, even above us, he then cuts through this line of thought. He in fact recreates this traditional idea by introducing hand and foot in a new combination, namely in an unusual position.
The following lengthy quote from Geertz about the mechanisms of culture indicates nicely that culture not only operates via mental representations but also via concrete concrete objects and gestures:
[C]ulture is best seen … as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions … for the governing of behaviour. … “Thinking consists not of ‘happenings in the head’ but in a traffic in what has been called by G.H. Mead and others, significant symbols – words for the most part but also gestures, drawings, musical sounds, mechanical devices like clocks or natural objects like jewels – anything in fact that is disengaged from its mere actuality and used to impose meaning on experience… (Geertz 1973, p. 45)
In this essay I have tried to examine in some detail the way these mechanisms operate, generally described by Geertz as imposing meaning on experience, by exposing the paradoxes that come to the surface when experiencing sculptures, in particular those of Pépé. The impact that sculptures can have runs via our senses and via the way the senses interconnect.
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This essay was for the most part written between May and September 2005, based on numerous conversations with Pépé, visits to exhibitions and with people who have sculptures of Pépé in their home, and with random viewers of his statues. It was rewritten in 2012 with the purpose of continuing to advance the love of modern sculpture. In particular I wish to thank Pépé, Loek Dijkman and others for their aid in the writing process. I did not want to weave too many references to other sculptures or philosophical texts through this essay, but anyone who loves modern sculpture and philosophical anthropology and aesthetics will, I think, appreciate the list of books (often implicitly referred to in the essay) that are referenced above.
Wageningen University (1993), he gives shape with colleagues to a new discipline, philosophy of food and agriculture, of both local and global significance, with respect for animals, sustainability and landscape as essential components. Main publications are: Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture (with Keulartz et. al.; Kluwer, 2002); Ethics for Life Sciences (Springer, 2005); Before Dinner. Philosophy and Ethics of Food (Springer 2004); Pépé Grégoire, A Philosophical Interpretation of his Sculptures (Zwolle: Waanders, 2006; Genomics, Obesity and the Struggle over Responsibilities (Springer 2011).
To Contact the sculptor Pépé Grégoire
Send email to Drs. Eva Mennes, Aesthetics Editor, The Journal for Social Era Knowledge
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