Sounding Out the Idols:
W. J. T. Mitchell’s Love of Pictures

OCAT Institute, Beijing
09.09.18 – 31.12.18

Translated by Bridget Noetzel

This time it is not contemporary idols but eternal idols that are being touched here with a hammer as if with a tuning fork – there simply are no more ancient, more convinced, more puffed-up idols.1

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols ( 1889 )

On entering Metapictures at the OCAT Institute, Beijing, the viewer is immediately confronted with an explosion of pictures – the walls are loaded with all kinds of pictures, covering suspended sheets of glass and blanketing the floor. All of this seems a bit like a recreation of that famous picture of André Malraux at the beginning of the exhibition, in which he is surrounded by hundreds of images scattered on the floor as he conceives of Le Musée Imaginaire.2

In both the Metapictures exhibition and Malraux’s pictorial array, the logic of looking replaces the logic of knowledge. In the case of Malraux, the author confronts a massive pictorial maze that leaps across temporal and geographical contexts and narratives, flowing into a stream-of-consciousness art history. In the case of W. J. T. Mitchell, the curator uses nothing but replicas of pictures, so that they gush forth like a waterfall. The tradition of iconology with which Mitchell engages is different from Erwin Panofsky’s classic doctrine. Instead, Mitchell explores the passionate juxtaposition that Aby Warburg employed in his Mnemosyne Atlas, in which pictures speak for themselves, thereby retaining a fresh vitality.3

Metapictures, the core idea behind the exhibition, relates to pictures of pictures. Metapictures are self-referential or reference other pictures. Mitchell notes that self-referentiality is a core issue in modern aesthetics and its various postmodern correctives, and that exploring metapictures is important because their inherent ontologies still wait to be unearthed. In Mitchell’s research there are many different types of metapictures: everything, from Ferdinand de Saussure’s binary semiotic icons of signifier and signified, to William Blake’s fantastical almost alchemical images of creation, falls within the scope of his research, and our ways of looking at pictures are always enlightened and restricted by his methodology.

As one of the most important metapictures in the exhibition and an image that appears repeatedly in the show, the rabbit–duck illusion first appeared in the German humorous magazine Fliegende Blätter in 1892. Mitchell juxtaposes it with many important images from gestalt psychology, calling them ‘multi-stable images’. These multi-stable images will undoubtedly make scholars who want a fixed way of looking at images very anxious, because they cannot be explained with objective descriptions. Pictures cannot make judgements or give speeches; they are more like discursive emissaries that can bear countless messages. This is not the first time this image has been presented – this monstrous rabbit–duck illusion has its own history. From Sigmund Freud’s research, it moved into E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion ( 1960 ), before it rather surprisingly appeared in Jackson Pollock’s paintings. The image was also summarised and theorised in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations ( 1953 ): here the rabbit–duck passes through space and time like a ghost.

Like the long lives of pictures that Mitchell presents multiple times in the exhibition, ‘survival’ was a method often used in philosophical and iconological explorations. Early on, Warburg discussed the survival of antiquity: he saw the sadness of antiquity as a reserve bank, on which all modern emotional creation was simply drawing. Similarly, any picture or image can be traced back in the unbelievably long river of history. In the eleven sections of this OCAT exhibition we can see this tracing of survival, in which similar images were presented like a waterfall or a series of dominoes, and the imagery within them are as long-lived as the ancient gods.

The domino effect of Mitchell’s exhibition naturally makes one think of Carambolages, an exhibition curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2016, which discussed comparable pictorial issues. Martin employed a similar strategy to that of Mitchell, juxtaposing works with similar elements from different periods and places to create a thoroughgoing anachronism. For that exhibition, Martin selected a Diptyque satirique ( 1520–30 ), by an anonymous Flemish painter, as the featured work. The diptych bears the words: ‘Keep this panel closed or else you’ll get angry at me.’ Once it is opened, the viewer is confronted with a person’s offending rear end and the words, roughly translated, ‘It’s not my fault, I did warn you.’ The image next to it is of a monk pulling a face, and he seems to be saying: ‘The more we warn you, the more you want to jump out of the window.’ This piece concretises the exhibition’s bantering tone.

If these two exhibitions profile the long lives of pictures, then Martin’s methods lead to a playful, empty view of the universe, while Mitchell’s originality lies in the use of sequencing to imbue the pictures and metapictures with life and passion. This method implies an essential latent starting point for the pictorial turn – seeing pictures as autonomous, living presences. In his book, What Do Pictures Want?, Mitchell asks, ‘Why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray?’4

For Mitchell, the romanticism of pictures lies in the fact that they have their own course of life, and their own intense desires and demands. Pictures are others, and we shape them in our eyes. Thus, the Face-to-Face section of the exhibition draws on Emmanuel Lévinas’s idea of the spirituality of face-to-face interaction, directly confronting the viewer with a series of faces: a First World War depiction of America’s Uncle Sam, a picture of Osama bin Laden, a Byzantine Christ figure, and a Warner Brothers’ poster for The Jazz Singer. These faces all have their appeal, longing for the participation of the other beyond the frame, longing to be loved.

It is worth noting that the desires of pictures that Mitchell hopes to describe are not the upper-case concept of the ‘Other’, but rather the lower-case ‘other’. In contrast to other work in cultural theory, he does not concern himself with the ideological implications hidden in the images ( such as patriarchy, violence and consumption ), nor does he concern himself with deconstructing these myths. Mitchell believes that iconoclasm cannot truly destroy the Other; instead, the Other circulates in eternity. Mitchell hopes to establish new sightlines and new methods that make the most of a picture’s potential. Like Lévinas, who defends the concept of the ‘other’ and ardently opposes the focus on the self and existence in the Western philosophical tradition, pictures, which are elements that take over language’s key position in the symbolic world, must build the bridge of a translation system geared towards communication.

In these explorations of pictures, Mitchell’s core judgement can be divided into two parts. First, at a time when the mass media turning out huge quantities of images is immensely influential, the ‘pictorial turn’ has replaced the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, and explorations of linguistics in twentieth-century semiotics have been dragged towards picture-centric discussions. Second, transforming pictures into romantic, desirable things returns them to a sign of life. To borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche, Mitchell’s hammer was not used to smash the idol, but to sound out the idol like a tuning fork. Today, we are confronted with contemporary art’s waves of ‘formal innovation’ and confusing explorations of regional politics, so I think that this succinct and congenial method of pictorial analysis has become particularly necessary and to the point.

On the basis of these reflections, the way to view OCAT Institute’s Metapictures exhibition becomes clearer. The exhibition spaces appear chaotic at first glance, but the explosive accumulation of pictures gradually forms an organic whole, which can also be abstracted into an organic glossary of terms. The layers of content sometimes return to the origin, point from corresponding subcategories, and sometimes leap from the momentary into the eternal.

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: or How to Philosophize with a Hammer ( 1889 ), trans. Duncan Large ( Oxford: Oxford University Press ), 1998, p. 3.
2. André Malraux, Le Musée Imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale ( Paris: Gallimard ), 1952–5 ( 3 vols ).
3. Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, begun in December 1927 and left uncompleted on his death in 1929, brought together nearly 1,000 thematically arranged images from newspapers, journals and books, pinned onto 40 cloth-covered wooden panels.
4. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press ), 2005, p. 7.

W.J.T 米切尔的图像爱欲




一 弗里德里希尼采《偶像的黄昏》

走进OCAT北京馆的“元图像”( Metapictures )展场,观众不得不面对“图像的爆发”—各种各样的图像堆砌在墙壁上、从天而降地贴在悬挂的玻璃上、散落在地上。这一切都似乎像展场起始时安德烈客马尔罗( André Malreaux )在构思其《想象的博物馆》( Le Musée Imaginaire )时留下的那张著名照片的重现,其中马尔罗的面前散落着成百的图像。

无论是在“元图像”展场中还是在马尔罗的图像阵列中,观看的逻辑都取代了知识的逻辑。在马尔罗的案例中,作者面对庞大的图像迷阵跳跃时代和地理语境叙事,切入一种意识流式的艺术史;而在米切尔的案例中,策展人使用全部复制的图像,使它们如同瀑布一般倾泻而出。米切尔所采用的图像学传统不同于潘诺夫斯基的经典教条,而是寻求了瓦尔堡( Aby Warburg )在《记忆女神图集》( Atlas Mnemosyne )中运用的充满激情的并置:图像演说自身,因而具有了鲜活的生命力。


作为在展览中反复出现的极其重要的元图像之一的“鸭兔图”,最早出现在1892年德国幽默杂志《Fliegende Blätter》中,米切尔将其与许多格式塔心理学的重要图像并置,将它们称为“多稳态图像”。“多稳态图像”无疑使那些希望固化图像观看方式的学者感到焦虑,因为它无法基于客观的描述得以阐释:图像并非论断或者演讲,更像是能够承载无数种表述的话语发出者。无独有偶,这个怪物一样的“鸭图兔”却发展出了自身的历史:从弗洛伊德的研究演进至贡布里希的《艺术与错觉》( Art and Illusion ),进而惊人地出现在波洛克的画作中,再被维特根斯坦( Ludwig Wittgenstein )在《哲学研究》( Philosophical Investigations )中加以概括和理论化,“鸭图兔”中的“鸭兔”形象也如幽灵一样穿越了时空。

就像米切尔在展览中多次展示的图像的长生一样,“遗存”( survival )已是哲学和图像学探讨常用的方法:瓦尔堡早已谈及古典时代的遗存,他将古典时期的悲怆视为一种“储蓄银行”,现代的情感创造都是借于那里的黄金储备。类似地,任何一个图像或形象都能够被追溯至难以置信的历史长河之中。此次OCAT展览的十一个部分中,都可以看到这个“遗存”追溯的逻辑,相似内涵的图像以瀑布或多米诺骨牌一样展开,其中的形象如同古代诸神具有长时间的寿命。

米切尔的展览的这种多米诺骨牌效应,不难使人想到2016年巴黎大皇宫让-于贝尔客马尔丹( Jean-Hubert Martin )策划同样讨论图像问题的“图像撞击”( Carambolages )展览。马尔丹采取了相似的策略,即将具有类似元素的不同时代和地点的作品并置,以造成彻底的非时间性( anachronism )。马尔丹在展览中选取的亮点注解作品是佛兰德斯匿名大师的《讽刺二联画》( Diptyque Satirique,1520-1530 )。这幅二联画的表面写着:“保持这个镶板关闭,不然你会对我生气的。”打开之后,观者看到一幅惹人不快的臀部画面,文字则是:“这可不是我的错,我已警告过你。”另一幅画面上僧侣作者鬼脸,好像说着下方的铭文:“我们越是想要保护你,你越是想要从窗户跳出去。”这件作品具体化了这一展览的戏谑语调。


米切尔眼中图像的浪漫主义,就在于它们因为具有自己的生命历程,也就有着强烈的爱欲和诉求。图像有如他者,我们在其目光之中塑造自身。因此,他在展览的“面对面孔”部分中借由了埃尔纽埃尔客列维纳斯( Emmanuel Levinas ) “面容的神显”的概念,罗列了数张直面观者的面孔:美国一战时期征兵的拟人形象“山姆大叔”、本客拉登、拜占庭的基督、华纳兄弟的爵士乐海报。这些面庞都具有号召力,渴望画框外的他者的参与,渴望被爱。

值得指出的是,米切尔希望勾勒的图像欲望,并非大写的“大他者”( AUTRE )的概念,而是小写的“他者”( autre )。和常见的文化理论的工作不同,他并不关心图像掩藏的意识形态宣传( 诸如父权、暴力、消费等等 ),也不关心毁坏这种神话的拆解工作。米切尔认为,偶像毁坏( idolatry )并不能真正毁坏大他者,反而使大他者的建立处于一种循环往复的永恒之中。米切尔希望试图建立一种能够发挥图像潜力的新视线、新方法。正如维护“他者”概念的列维纳斯极力反对的就是以自我和存在中心的西方哲学传统一样,图像作为代替象征界中语言核心地位的元素,亦必须建立一种导向沟通目的的转译系统桥梁。

在对于图像一连串的探索之中,米切尔的核心论断其实可以一分为二。首先是在大众媒体批量生产图像具有强烈影响力的当下,以“图像转向”( pictorial turn )替代哲学中的“语言学转向”( linguistic turn ),将20世纪符号学关于语言学的探讨疏通向以图像为中心的讨论。第二,则是将图像浪漫化和爱欲化,将其还原为一种生命的记号。借用尼采的说法,米切尔的锤子并非用来砸碎偶像,而是用来如音叉一样拨动偶像。在今天,面对当代艺术中层出不穷的所谓形式创新和探讨地缘政治的迷惑语汇,我认为这种简洁、亲切的图像分析方法正变得尤为切题和必要。