From December 12, 2004 to February 20, 2005, Tongue In Cheek, a group exhibition with Wim Delvoye, Richard Fauguet, Marcel Marïen, Alain Séchas, Franz West, Guillaume Bijl, Joachim Mogarra, Claude Closky, and a project room with Graham Fagen, curated by Hilde Teerlinck.
"Humour is the exact sense of the relativity of all things, a ceaseless criticism of all that is believed to be definite, an open door to new possibilities without which all rress of the human mind would be impossible. Humour is determined not to reach conclusions, because every conclusion is an intellectual death. It's this negative aspect which is unpleasant for many people, but it indicates the limit of our certitudes and this is the greatest possible favour that we can receive.
When certitudes are reached, humour intervenes and pushes reasoning to the point of failure, revealing the relativity of these certitudes to us. Humour applies to the mind's loftiest endeavours.
It is humour that shows us the limits of the "exact" sciences, just as every day it exposes the limits of our moral "certitudes". It doesn't transport us to a new world, but it offers proof that our world is limited and that behind the wall that holds us back there must be something more.
No criticism could be so profound, so rich in its outcome.
—Are you serious? Is a question that humorists are asked all too often. We never ask the same question to a poet, a painter or a thinker. From the most vulgar pun to the most beautiful poetic image, we can obscurely feel the deep significance of these analogies, these comparisons, these rhymes, these associations of ideas which lift a corner of the thick veil that hides from us the mysterious relations between things and the formidable continuity that is the world.
And then, when it comes to art or literature, the game has been accepted since Antiquity, because we imagine that these things are merely games, social entertainments that do not touch "realities". Humour, on the contrary, appears as dangerous because it insinuates itself into "serious things", into the accepted reasoning that is the true foundation of human knowledge, in order to push this reasoning to the point of absurdity so that it reveals its own relativity. Humour is not laughter. Laughter is a social trial that judges and condemns people by comparing them to the accepted truth which is the law. Humour, however, is not in the service of society: its task is to reveal to us the meeting point of the unknown. Are you serious? But isn't genius serious when, in a folly of the imagination, it takes pleasure in upsetting all accepted laws, all hackneyed experience, all secular reason, in order to brusquely oppose all human certitudes with the lightning bolt of a new idea that goes against everything? Out of a human respect, the thinker will then scratch "the method which led to his discovery", just as the artist will then search for the media which will let him "seriously" present his idea. But all this is just social window-dressing, whereas genius explodes in an immediate flash of contradiction.
Was Zeno of Elea serious when, in opposing two adversaries, Achilles and the tortoise starting a few steps ahead of him, he affirmed that Achilles would never catch the tortoise because each time that he crossed the distance that separated them, the tortoise during the same time would travel a new distance, however small? Zeno, they say, was trying to prove that movement didn't exist, or that movement is proved by walking... What poverty! On the contrary, isn't it evident that with this paradox Zeno was revealing the incapacity that mathematics had and will always have to reach the whole truth with one final jump? The imagination is the real of which mathematics is only a memory. Now, a memory is limited to certain relations, whereas reality is not at all in a world where everything is present and continuous, and what we call illusion is often closer to a higher reality than that which we call certitude.
An architect imagines a monument; the colonnade of the Louvre, for example. He conceives it to be equal and balanced in all its parts; geometry and calculus then provide him with the formulae corresponding to his intuition, and the monument is built.
A painter then proposes to paint a view of the monument. Immediately the need to draw in perspective is impressed upon him: geometry and arithmetic consequently translate his desires into formulae, and give him, with the same certitude, an elevation which is completely different from that which they gave to the architect; with receding lines, unequal and deformed but nonetheless certain and exact.
The monument is the same, but two opposing mathematical certitudes represent it through the relative points of view of two different observers.
But, you might say, reality is on the side of the architect, and trompe l'oeil is on the side of the artist.
What do you really know, besides that which you experience through your senses, like the term trompe l'oeil indicates, and how do you know if perspective doesn't precisely open up a more real space, higher and more universal, in the realm of art?
The laws of attraction of lines and masses, obscurely sensed by the architects of Antiquity, led them to slightly curve the two upper sides of triangular pediments towards the sky so their extremities would resist the attraction of the base line. These lines appear to us as rigorously straight, whereas if they really where straight they would appear to collapse in their extremities, like in the modern pediment of the Madeleine church in Paris. Similar observations led antique architects to incline end columns so they would appear straight.
Where is reality? In the conception which deforms things under the pretext of reality, or in that which obeys the secret laws of art and conveys perfection upon masterpieces?
Let us observe a race car which passes at full speed before us. The sound of the engine coming toward us is high in pitch and immediately becomes lower as the car moves away: this is easy to explain relative to our position, but by introducing a new notion of speed which is independent of that of sound.
Which is the most complete truth for our consciousness? Obviously that which takes into account the most complete range of sensations. But here is what is more important: at full speed, the body of the car appears to us to be shorter than it is in reality. As for the wheels, which we know to be round, they appear to us as elongated ovals, leaning in the direction of car's motion: O.
This is obviously a simple illusion that changes according to the position of the observer, but an illusion that is also shared by the mechanical eye, the camera; an illusion that can be reduced to a formula using calculus. It is in fact evident that the top of the wheel moves faster than the bottom, because its movement is combined with that of the car instead of being subtracted as it turns back below. This is naturally in relation to the observer, since it is obvious that motion of the wheel itself is constant in all of its parts in relation to its axis. From this observation we can retain the following:
1° That all observation in the physical domain is relative and is valid only in relation to the observer;
2° That it is not correct to speak of illusions and realities, a reality being only an observation that we blithely consider to contain a totality of elements, and an illusion being an observation which we know holds new and unknown elements.
3° That the role of science is not to explain this unknown but to provide a symbol that approximates our observation, locating the site of this unknown and thereby facilitating further inquiry.
Suppose now that we live in a two-dimensional world, and that our eyes, ignorant of depth, can only perceive flat surfaces.
Here now is a square form that is rotated a quarter-turn before us.
We observe that it progressively thins into an irregular lozenge, and then disappears completely, leaving a straight line in its place.
Perhaps we would gravely announce that this surface had become infinitely small... or perhaps that it now belonged to world with only one dimension.
What would happen then if a thinker, imagining a three-dimensional reality, announced that not only did the original square exist, but that its rotation had engendered a more vast and comprehensive world?
The defenders of reality would surely take him for a fool."
Paul Nougé (1895-1967) in Fragments, Didier Devillez Éditeur, Brussels, 1998.
Tongue in Cheek was organised with the support of Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Brussels. Graham Fagen's project room was organised with the support of British Council.