- Beyond Representation:On the Real and its Relation to Visual Art
John Coplans, Bas Jan Ader, and Michal Na'aman are three prominent artists. There is no apparent affinity between them: Coplans (1920–2003) was a British-born American photographer, Na'aman is an Israeli Painter, and Ader (1942–1975) was a Dutch performance and video artist. Their works of art of course also seem unrelated in any way. Coplans' most famous works are black and white large-scale photographs, in which he photographed his own body, without a face, in extreme close-up. Many of these photographs depict the human body as unfamiliar, or even defamiliarized, due to the body-parts' position, angle of shooting, and cropping. Bas Jan Ader made short films in which his slim figure, dressed in black, falls or dissolves into the dark. This falling and disappearing is intensified by his last work, In Search of the Miraculous, which came to a sudden end with his own disappearance while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Michal Na'aman's paintings consist of two rectangular shapes one on top of the other that are each further divided into small colored squares. The painted squares are covered with layers of masking-tape concealing the picture's surface beneath them, while wet paint seeps from beneath and between the masking-tape layers. As a rule, the paintings include a written title, that is usually a quotation taken from an unknown literary or philosophical source.
Despite the radical differences between these artists, I would like to point out a certain aspect which, in my view, is shared by and revealed in some of their works of arts. All three of them, each in his/her own particular way, delineate a path towards the psychoanalytic notion of the real as it appears in Jacques Lacan's late teaching, through their works of art. This path, as I will show, is related to the human body, albeit neither by representation nor by documentation. It should be stressed [End Page 711] that this aspect is neither medium specific nor the result of artistic intention and, moreover, has not been argued for, at least explicitly, by any previous interpretation. Otherwise stated, these works of art do not require a Lacanian psychoanalytic reading because of any specific or inherent characteristic. However, such a reading suggests another avenue of exploring works of art in general, that is clearly evinced by these three cases. These specific works of art were chosen, not because they share certain common features, but because the differences between them expose aspects of the real and its complex—or even impossible—relation to art.
I will begin with W.J.T Mitchell's (1994) distinction between illusionism and realism, which will serve as a starting point for introducing the intricate concept of the real in its relation to the visual arts. I will further demonstrate this complex relation with several ancient examples and their Lacanian interpretation, which I will develop in what follows using Lacan's term the "real unconscious" from his late teaching, Seminar XXII of 1974–1975. Towards the end of the paper, I will return to John Coplans, Bas Jan Ader, and Michal Na'aman to show how each of them embody, in their own way, the relation between the real unconscious and works of art.
Art and the Real
In Picture Theory, published in 1994, W.J.T Mitchell compares realism and illusionism. He argues that illusionism is the picture's ability to cheat, amuse, and amaze the spectator. For example, in trompe-l'oeil paintings, the intention is to create the simulation of an object's presence, to evoke a response in the beholder such that he perceives an object and not a representation. As opposed to this, realism relates to the picture's ability to demonstrate the truth of things. Thus, while an illusionist representation asserts "so the thing appears," a realistic representation would say "so the thing is" (Mitchell, 1994, p. 325).
If we accept this premise, we find a clear instance of illusionism in one of the earliest classical exempla of painting, the famed competition between the two painters Zeuxis and [End Page...