Paul Thek's Tomb and the Image

by on Apr.19, 2011

1) I first heard of Paul Thek about a decade ago, when I saw some of his work at an exhibit in Vienna; it included several of his Meat Pieces and his famous Chair with Craws and Meat Pieces. The exhibit was called Eine barocke Party, and it contained many grotesque and disturbing works (another piece was a film showing a nude woman lip-singing to the only known recording of a castrato), but even in such an exhibit his work stood out. The black bird in Chair with Craws reminded me of Poe, or Hitchcock, and the meat-strewn chair looked like the residue of some annihilating catastrophe. I remember thinking that the piece was absolutely disgusting but also absolutely beautiful. If “beautiful” is a word that could be used for such an arrangement. And the “meat” was all the more unnerving for looking so shiny and fake; actual meat, which has become that product we see in grocery stores, would have been less disgusting.

2) Contrary to the traditional notion of art as a vehicle for creating distance, and the related notion of art as a vehicle for emotional catharsis, there is the notion of art as stimulant. Nietzsche and Deleuze put forth such a form of aesthetics, as did Artaud and Francis Bacon. (Artaud: “We have no intention of boring the audience to death with transcendent cosmic preoccupations.” And also: Art should be “nothing but a fine Nerve Meter.”) Disgust can be a stimulant too. As can nausea.

3) Before diluting his insights with his arguments about authenticity and his highly teleological brand of Marxism, Sartre wrote a brilliant novel entitled Nausea that dealt with the way the material world can cause us unease and disquiet, and how this very unease and disquiet can lead to a radical and dizzying form of freedom. (Before becoming Sartre the Dialectician, Sartre was actually very close to certain elements in Blanchot and Bataille; even the anti-Sartean Derrida considered the novel Sartre’s most radical work.) Roquentin is constantly picking up random bits of trash from the street and being overwhelmed by their there-ness, their stubborn insistence on being nothing but transparent. Transparency becomes horror because there is not even a fall from grace to romanticize. Even his own body takes on this fearsome (and for Roquentin, nauseating) quality: “My body of living flesh, the flesh which swarms and turns gently liqueurs, which turns cream, the flesh which turns, turns, turns, the sweet sugary water of my flesh, the blood of my hand…”

4) Disgust is linked to attraction and allurement in the same manner love is linked to hate. Jean Genet, from Our Lady of the Flowers: “I hate them, lovingly.” Or the many sex scenes in Dennis Cooper’s novels where disgust and desire are part of the same woof and warp.

5) Thek’s The Tomb, with its figure of the “Dead Hippie” inside, an effigy of himself as a corpse, is a work of political outrage, but it is difficult to explain how. On the most sentimental level, it could be seen as a fallen “beautiful soul,” a hippie-wanderer killed by some unknown reactionary source: hence the political implications of calling it the “dead hippie” (which is not Thek’s name for it: no one seems to know exactly when the figure started being referred to with that phrase). On a related level, a few Vietnam vets appeared to see the figure as a fallen Vietnam soldier during early appearances of the piece, and they responded by placing flowers by the pyramid housing the figure.

6) But I prefer to think of it as an artwork emerging from the shadow side of the sixties, the harsher, more discordant, and more apocalyptic side, a side that would later find its openly aggressive sibling in punk rock and punk culture. The sixties of Pynchon’s relentless despairing (and relentlessly comic) The Crying of Lot 49. The sixties of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. The sixties of Meat Joy and Kenneth Anger and Robert Crumb. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and the MC5.  Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. “Revolution No. 9” on The White Album. “Gimmie Shelter” from Let it Bleed.

7) Thek’s effigy seems to be a shrug, a joke about the gravity of death, a joke played on death even though the figure, with its mangled hand and blackened tongue, appears to tell us that death will win anyway. A joke at the edge of terror. A joke laughing with terror. The theatrical cackle mad people make in B horror films. If we think of the figure as an instance of feckless black comedy, then the fact Thek would later be so indifferent to the effigy that he would let it be destroyed due to controversies over its shipment does not seem so surprising.

8) Blanchot was obsessed with the intertwinement of death and language. But he was also a great philosopher of the image, of the way the image haunts us because it too, like language, is only possible because of death and absence. One passage from Two Versions of the Imaginary is especially relevant to Thek’s The Tomb. Decades before Thek, he wrote about the concept of the image as follows: “At first sight, the image does not resemble the cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image. What we call the mortal remains evades the usual categories: something is there before us that is neither the living person himself nor any sort of reality, neither the same as the one who was alive, nor another, nor another thing. What is there, in the absolute calm of what has found its place, nevertheless does not realize the truth of being fully there…The cadaverous presence establishes a relation between here and nowhere.”

9) Thek’s “cadaverous presence” in The Tomb. The cadaverous presence of all images. Of their refusal to simply be either here or nowhere. (When Roquentin picks up pieces of trash that then nauseate him, he is experiencing those pieces as images and not objects. As Blanchot says, even a face or the corner of a room can become “images” when stared at in a certain manner, when the objects lose their daylit assurance and take on the quality of night.) The fear of simulacrum is not simply the fear of “nothing”–a fear that could be remedied by a simple dialectic, by “tarrying with the negative”–but rather this anti-dialectic collapse of “here and nowhere,” the pollution of decay within the supposedly totalizing arena of presence and knowledge.



4 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Great post. I thought of Freud’s famous and infamously ambiguous discussion of “the double” in “The Uncanny” – it’s both a figure of immorality (defeating death) and a figure incarnating death.


  2. Carina Finn

    “Disgust can be a stimulant too. As can nausea.” yes. I’m really obsessed right now with the transcendent properties of nausea, like maybe Art is supposed to make you sick, meditating on it I mean, like how a peyote trip will make you very sick but then all Truth is revealed.

  3. James Pate

    I think disgust, nausea, dizziness, other visceral qualities—they all get swept under the rug in most discussions about Art. We just finished Dante’s Inferno in a class I’m teaching, and, as some of my students pointed out, the poem is incredibly disgusting at points. Rivers of boiling blood, rivers of shit, cannibalism, the scene where a figure named Ugolino gnaws eternally on the back of his enemy’s skull, like a scene from a zombie film carried to the nth degree…

  4. adam strauss

    “To His Coy Mistress” is rather gross! But like a grossness cut from fabric that’s 1200 dollars a yard!

    I like the Dante observation!