The Isolated Figure

“I think I’m better off not socializing”, Walken says with a shy laugh. “I make a better impression if I’m not around. If a director wants to meet me and pulls out a tape recorder, I just clam right up”.

“Interview with Walken”,  in Stephen Rodrick, “Odd Man In”, The New York Times (May 30, 2004).

If we look at In the Museum again in a more detached way, we do assist Christopher Walken, a single figure, an individual, walking through a public space.  I would like to bring in two films that centre on strong single figures, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1966) and Retake with Evidence by James Coleman. Retake with Evidence is a 30 minutes short and was presented on a large screen at Documenta 12 (2007). It shows cryptic Sophocles monologues interpreted by actor Harvey Keitel. In Retake with Evidence, Red Desert and In the Museum we follow a central character on a journey through various museum-like in- and outdoor spaces, which can also be seen as journeys through vast spaces of memory.[1]

The bodies of actress Monica Vitti in Red Desert and Harvey Keitel in Retake with Evidence function as mediums that point towards bigger, socio-political issues.[2] These underlying issues exceed the individual being. Through the individual and isolated figure (Vitti, Keitel, Walken), a kind of collective (un) consciousness is conveyed.[3] The characters in the three films are like ‘figures acting as gestures’.[4] The actors are embodiments and transmitters of ideas and the director’s mind shimmers through words and actions.[5] In Red Desert, the relation between the director Antonioni and the actress Vitti is ‘further complicated by gender’.[6]

In In the Museum, we follow Walken through a series of rooms and assist the (inter-) actions that unfold between various agents (mainly between Walken, artworks and zombies). The choice of Walken has to do with my interest in his ambiguous and complex ‘living image’ (in W.J.T. Mitchell’s sense of image that includes all kinds of images, whether they be mental, pictorial, sculptural or corporal) that I want to appropriate and work with. The scenario of a museum walk is conceived for Walken as well; to give him a space that he can inhabit with his presence. Coleman, too, chose Keitel for his intense screen presence and complexity of his ‘living image’, in which all the roles he ever played collapse. Keitel goes through an allusive decor that was conceived by the artist Coleman. Contrary to In the Museum, Coleman does not push for a direct interaction with the decor. He concentrates instead on the monologues, the act of reciting and invoking ghosts through speech. Retake with Evidence draws its strength from Keitel’s presence; the connection to the format of cinema remains strong.[7]

Retake with Evidence returns to the foundations of the Greek tragedy. Harvey Keitel himself is an actor known for his dramatic roles. The actor’s body is not mere medium; it embodies tragedy, it has the power of incarnation.[8] In the Museum shows Walken in a museum because it is an institution that provides a space for image reflection. Walken is not merely a visitor; he is a vital part of the exhibition. He lent his being, and particularly his face, to stories. Now, in the museum, the stories come back to the surface from deep below. The outset ‘Walken in a museum’ guarantees multilevel encounters of images. In the conclusion of his text on Retake with Evidence, Jacques Rancière states:

Friedrich Schlegel saw the poem to come as a “poem of poem”. With the means of art and of reflection on the art of today, James Coleman gives a fresh shape to this dream.[9]


Walken’s Face

Everything is in the face.


The face is both ultimate truth and fata morgana.

Daniel McNeill, The Face (London: Penguin, 1998), p.8.

What do you feel is your biggest shortcoming as an actor?

–       As I said I’ve been in showbu­siness since I was three, which makes it

little difficult for me to play a human being.

Christopher Walken interviewed by James Lipton, Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo cable television, 1995).

Nobody else can just sit there and stare at you and

give you so many feelings at one time.

Tim Burton on Christopher Walken

The face that has launched a thousend metaphors is, in fact, a precision instrument perfectly designed for Walken’s specialty: the Jekyll-and-Hyde switch. One minute, he’s a jolly sport grinning like a groom. Then, suddenly, a mask of psychotic rage or remorseless evil.

Michael Kurcfeld, The Mr. Showbiz Interview: Christopher Walken, 1999.

 “…I think that when I play these villains, maybe what is different is that the audience sees me play these and they know that that’s Chris and he’s having fun and he knows that and you know that and everybody knows that.”

Christopher Walken

We think of some sort of inner core that is our soul, the essence of our own interior personality, but all we have to show the world… is our faces. (…) They are enormously important to us, yet they are as much (…) a canvas stretched across bones, stretched across our skulls as any painting by Manet or the impressionists.

J. G. Ballard, transcribed form the Audio Commentary on The Atrocity Exhibition DVD.

What is a face?[10] What abyss lies behind Walken’s face? Is this question appropriate?[11] I think of the roles he played and the intensity and ambiguity of his face. Walken’s face ‘as museum’: The face that exhibits past roles and lives.

The face on the cinema screen is a particular place: the face is huge, for everyone to be seen. But what does it show?[12] What does it hide?[13] How controlled is appearance in today’s media landscape and how can appearance be exposed?[14] What artistic, political and economical intentions lie behind a film? Where can Walken’s performance be situated in this web of intentions? What does his face say about it?[15] Isn’t the face portrayed as an agent that is separated from bodily needs, isn’t the face in today’s media landscape often a distorted, grotesque grimace?[16] Is an actor’s face a public, working face or a private one?[17]

A thought: Sean Penn’s part in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is interesting insofar as the actor almost doesn’t speak. Malick just shows his face and cross-cuts it with childhood memories. We look at his life; the character steps back.

We do remember Walken’s face. His gaze. Walken enjoys acting. Walken grew up in the show business. Acting is what he always did. But sometimes it seems as if he is protesting against this never-ending look of the film camera. He knows how to intentionally ignore the look of the camera. But sometimes I can almost feel anger about it in form of a defiant look back. In such instances his gaze seems to let us know that he knows (that we know); as if his gaze playfully challenges the look of the film camera and return it; as if he creates a space for himself to express some obscure subliminal message which he conceived. Because the camera’s look is, potentially and practically, our look; the message is addressed to us.

With each role, an actor, an individual, receives the power to address a very large public. But the address can’t be personal; it can only be rendered personal; and the merging happens on the face.

The moments Walken defies the gaze are moments that often result in either self-parody or outbursts of violence. Self-parody and violence are two options for a partial escape from the folly of the endless look of both public and camera.

In Annie Hall, Walken talks about his suicidal drive to switch the lane in order to crash into incoming cars. It is a destabilizing moment, the same for the ominous handshake scenes in The Dead Zone. The intentions of Walken’s characters are far from clear. The abnormal intonation of his speech accentuates a disconnection between saying and meaning, face and body. It is alienation in essence and maybe the Walken version of meta-acting. His face is a metaphor for a thousand things swarming around an empty centre. [18]



I’m not sure I am an actor. The ‘Walken Thing’ is basically what I do (…) I’m the only thing I have to refer to as an actor (…)

Christopher Walken, The Henry Rollins Show (July 2007).

You believe you have seen a painting, but nevertheless you have seen a film.

Marcel Broodthaers

Paintings are of course not dreams. We see them with open eyes, but this may be what hinders us and makes us miss something in them. 

So the most beautiful aesthetics – the most desperate, too, since they are generally doomed to stalemate or madness – will be those aesthetics that, in order to open themselves completely to the dimension of the visual, want us to close our eyes before the image, so as no longer to see it but only to look at it, and no longer forget what Blanchot called “the other night,” the night of Orpheus.    

Georges-Didi Huberman, Confronting Images (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2005), p. 156/157.

At one point, I thought I would not be able to show the paintings because I could not know how they would look. How is someone going to know how the pain­tings work with light? However, I quickly got over that. Paintings don’t have much meaning unless they go out into the world.

Robert Ryman, Pace Wildenstein Press Release (February 2010).

At any rate, as observed by Robert Musil fifty years ago, if some painting is still to come, if painters are still to come, they will not come from where we expect them to.

Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning”, in Yve-Alain Bois et al., Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986).

I wanted to see what happens when Walken, zombies and artworks encounter themselves in an exhibition space. The idea developed out of my mental digressions as a museum visitor.

Transgressions do happen in art spaces. In the Museum not only glimpses at the museum space, artworks and the society that holds the museum. It also steps into another direction. It makes halt in front of images in order to get in them. The film has an anatomy of an interior traveller in a world of interconnected collective memories. In the Museum is about images, but as a film it is, simultaneously, an image that sinks deeper into itself. A dreamscape comes to mind in which nothing is what it seems. A thousand connections are opened; a sea of images ascends. When Walken moves, he does so within such a sea, a liquid constellation, where images float by.  In one of the paintings that act like posters for the film, I made a listing of related references. There are different layers and ‘intensities’ of referencing; some connections are more stable, others more fleeting. But the list can never be complete, because images, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar ones, come and go and they know shortcuts. Every single viewer activates his or her own knowledge to which content is linked. The viewing process with its accompanying creation of interconnections is often a very private and personal experience. Through In the Museum, I tried to show what might happen in my own mind when seeing things. In this sense, it is a sharing of a personal relation I have with the world and with works of art in particular.

What Einstein presumed about the relativity of the universe might also be true when it comes to images.  A connection pops up where it is least expected; agents start to move without being asked for. Images can be markers of time and the space we take to walk through is mental rather than physical. Much like spaces of an exhibition.

Mathis Gasser, 2011

[1] The isolated figure (and the choice of each figure) plays a crucial role in my painting series Heroes and Ghosts.

[2] “A text borne by a body. Not just any body: the body of an actor,  a famous actor whose stature illustrates the great divide of cinematographic bodies between stage and screen (…). The actor chosen by Coleman, Harvey Keitel, studied acting according to the methods of the Actor’s Studio. (…) He has put this learning to the service of one of the formal constraints of Hollywood cinema: to give human density and psychological complexity to the figures of villains. A man who has incarnated Judas, between roles as a criminal and corrupt cop, must certainly be able to lend his body to the Oedipal text, to combine in one voice the words of the judge and the criminal, the sovereign and the citizen. Lend it – for, once again, it is not a question of incarnating, (…). We are neither on the actual stage of the theatre nor in the imaginary space projected onto movie screens.” Jacques Rancière, “From the Poetics of the Image to the Tragedy of Justice”, in James Coleman (Irish Musuem of Modern Art, Dublin 2009), p. 22.

[3] Red Desert deals with ruins and relics of modernity: “In other words, Red Desert is an existential melodrama that suggests an evaluation of how Italian society has come since the end of World War II in its pursuit of modernity and technology.” Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting, How Art is Used in Film (London: The Athlone Press, 1996), p. 50.

[4] “In an astute commentary on Red Desert, Pier Paolo Pasolini has summarized Antonioni’s subterfuge of using a woman to paint in film as a “soggettiva libera indiretta”, or “free indirect subjective” approach.” Dalle Vacche, op. cit.,  p. 48.

[5] “Altough Antonioni sees trough Vitti’s eyes, and he does not really speak through her body, he establishes a visual ventriloquism with her. (…) Antonioni does not quite endow [the actress] Vitti with the power of winning words but only lets her have visions so pictorial and so abstract that they push outward the boundaries of what until now we have considered acceptable for the visual track of a European art film. (…) Through Vitti, Antonioni gains representational freedom (…)” Dalle Vacche, op. cit., p.48-49.

[6] “(…) Antonioni’s visual ventriloquism through Monica Vitti in Red Desert is both experimental and exploitative, for while he uses his actress’s eyes to work innovatively with color in film, her power resides more in the muteness of the images she shares with the director than in the dialogue. Put another way, from an artistic point of view the word is les daring than the image, yet Giuliana’s impact on the world is limited by the alignment of the dialogue with a masculine perspective.” Dalle Vacche, op. cit., p.51.

[7] “It is a film that makes us hear, live, the speech of a body, as it would be seen in the cinema.” Jacques Rancière, op. cit., p. 12.

[8] That might be one of the conditions to enter celebrity’s glass palace (a galaxy of shining, single stars looked at by everyone).

[9] Jacques Rancière, op. cit., p. 32.

[10] “Faces can appear anywhere: on walls or in the clouds, in dappled shadows or the bark of a tree. In fact, anything that gives the impression of staring back at us – a clock, an unpaid ticket, an expensive gift – can be said to have a face. Faces are what lift objects into the realm of signification; they are also what delimit the interiority of things, implying an agent behind the mask. (…) The story of modernist painting could be written as a story of the face – beginning with Manet’s Olympia and ending in crisis, with Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat.” Daniel Marcus, “Eyes in the Heat: On figuration in Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith”, Artforum (Summer 2011), p. 366-376.

[11] “We all know that stereotypes are bad, false images that pre­vent us from truly seeing other people. We also know that ste­reotypes are, at a minimum, a necessary evil, that we could not make sense of or recognize objects or other people without the capacity to form images that allow us to distinguish one thing from another, one person from another, one class of things from another. This is why the face-to-face encounter, as every theorist from Levinas to Sartre to Lacan insisted, ne­ver really takes place. More precisely, it is never unmediated, but is fraught with the anxiety of misrecognition and riddled with narcissistic and aggressive fantasy. These fantasies and misrecognitions become especially heightened when they are exacerbated by sexual and racial difference, and by histories of oppression and inequality.” “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled”, in W.J.T. Mitchell What do pictures want? (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 296.

[12] “Exposition is the location of politics. If there is no animal politics, that is perhaps because animals are always already in the open and do not try to take possession of their own exposition; they simply live in it without caring about it. That is why they are not interested in mirrors, in the image as image. Human beings, on the other hand, separate images from things and give them a name precisely because they want to recognize themselves, that is, they want to take possession of their own very appearance. Human beings thus transform the open into a world, that is, into a battlefield of a political struggle without quarter. This struggle, whose object is truth, goes by the name of History.” (p. 93) “The Face”, in Giorgio Agamben, Means without end, Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); p. 91-100.

[13] “The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 91.

[14] “What remains hidden from [the human beings] is not something behind appearance, but rather appearing itself, that is, their being nothing other than a face. The task of politics is to return appearance itself to appearance, to cause appearance itself to appear. (…) Exposition thus transforms itself into a value that is accumulated in images and in the media, while a new class of bureaucrats jealously watches over its management.” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 95.

[15] “Inasmuch as it is nothing but pure communicability, every human face, even the most noble and beautiful, is always suspended on the edge of an abyss. This is precisely why the most delicate and graceful faces sometimes look as if they might suddenly decompose, thus letting the shapeless and bottomless background that threatens them emerge.” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 96.

[16] “In their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari consider the face to be a machine that sets up shop at the site of the human head but is not bound there. (…) But make no mistake: The facial machine is by no means benign. Though it takes up residence on the surface of things, the face cannot fuse with the matter it enwraps. To query the human visage, then, is to confront the face as something autonomous, contiguous with the body but not tethered to it. Left to its own devices, Deleuze and Guattari argue, the body is a wild, unruly multiplicity of impulses, affects, and gestures; but when colonized by a face, this multiplicity becomes organized around the absent center of the I, the empty signifier underpinning all meaning making. As such, the face is a template for a power relation that projects itself across historical horizons (early modernity, industrial modernity, postmodernity), morphing as it goes along, but always turning on the colonizing relationship of surface and unity against interiority and multiplicity. (…) This symbiotic relationship can be discovered in every facial apparatus. Money is face, for example, that wraps itself around the body f the commodity-object. Because the face is always alien to the body to which it attaches, face-body relations are fraught with antagonism and even open hostility. (…) The advent of Christian figure painting made it possible to render visible the subordination of the body to the abstract face, but it also opened up a new field of covert resistance to facial authority. (…) And this jockeying between the authority of the face and bodily affect would come to characterize the dialectical field of modern painting in the centuries that followed. (…) Daniel Marcus, “Eyes in the Heat: On figuration in Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith,” Artforum (Summer 2011), p. 366-376.

[17] “In his famous book the King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Ernst Kantorowicz illustrates the historical problem posed by the figure of the king assuming two bodies simultaneously: one natural, mortal body, and another official, institutional, exchangeable, immortal body. Analogously, one can say that when the artist exposes his or her body, it is the second, working body that becomes exposed.  (…) One may think that only the working bodies of contemporary celebrities are exposed to the public gaze. However, even the most average, “normal” everyday people now permanently document their own working bodies by means of photography, video, websites, and so forth. And on top of that, contemporary everyday life is exposed not only to surveillance, but also to a constantly expanding sphere of media coverage. Innumerable sitcoms inundating television screens around the world expose us to the working bodies of doctors, peasants, fishermen, presidents, movie stars, factory workers, mafia killer, gravediggers, and even to zombies and vampires. It is precisely this ubiquity and universality of the working body and its representation that makes it especially interesting for art.” Boris Groys, Going Public (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 133-134.

[18] “But when we confront things themselves, if we stare at a face, a corner of a room, doesn’t it also sometimes happen that we abandon ourselves to what we see, that we are at its mercy, powerless before this presence that is suddenly strangely mute and passive? This is true, but what has happened is that the thing we are staring at has sunk into its image, that the image has returned to that depth of impotence into which everything falls back.” (p. 80) The thing was there, we grasped it in the living motion of a comprehensive action – and once it has become an image it instantly becomes ungraspable, noncontemporary, impassive, not the same thing distanced, but that thing as distancing, the present thing in its absence, the thing graspable because ungraspable, appearing as something that has disappeared, the return of what does not come back, the strange heart of the distance as the life and unique heart of the thing. (p. 80-81) “(…) At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image. (…) The cadaverous presence establishes a relation between here and nowhere.” (p. 81) “The cadaver is reflection making itself master of the reflected life, absorbing it, substantially identifying itself with it by making it lose its value in terms of use and truth and change into something incredible – unusual and neutral. And if the cadaver resembles to such a degree, that is because it is, at a certain moment, pre-eminently resemblance, and it is also nothing more. It is the equal, equal to an absoulute, overwhelming and marvellous degree. But what does it resemble? Nothing.

This is why each living man, really, does not yet have any resemblance. Each man, in the rare moments when he shows a similarity to himself, seems to be only more distant, close to a dangerous neutral region, astray in himself, and in some sense his own ghost, already having no other life than that of the return.” (p. 83-84)

Quotes from: “Two Versions of the Imaginary”, in Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill, 1981).