Not too long ago, I was turned-on to a curious little nineteenth-century volume attributed to one William Swinton called Rambles Among Words (1861). It’s a compendium of folk etymologies whose aim is to rehearse the roots and rhizomes of a specifically American idiomatic English in relation to its Anglo-Saxon past, and it’s suspected that Walt Whitman had a strong hand as Swinton’s ghost-collaborator. Eschewing scholarly philology, Rambles Among Words opts instead for the pleasures of anecdote and hearsay. Often, I’ll open this book casually and randomly, as one might do with the I-Ching, seeking a word or phrase to guide me thru the day. One morning, I opened to the entry “Hocus-Pocus” and was astonished to read:
‘Hocus-pocus’ is said to be a monkish muddle for ‘Hoc est corpus’ (the formula, ‘Here is the body [of Christ],’ etc.), a corruption of fantastic origin. And if it be true that the ignorant and juggling priests who gabble Latin which they do not understand, instead of saying ‘Hoc est corpus’ transformed it into ‘hocus-pocus,’ may we not legitimately form the word ‘hoax’ from this?
So the hoax of meaning arrives homophonically as language moves in the space between “hoc est corpus”—behold the body—and “hocus-pocus”—watch it disappear.
Take Gerhard Richter’s Decke (1988) as an illustration of what will never be illustrated here. Translated in English as “Blanket,” Richter’s work first renders and then conceals an iconic photograph of Gudrun Ensslin’s hanged body in a prison cell, an image that circulated widely in the German press after the alleged suicide of the prominent Red Army Faction (RAF) radical in 1977. Strung-out between abstract dematerialization and post-minimalist figuration, Decke absorbs the photograph and disfigures its referent. Working over its own rendered image corrosively, Richter’s paint becomes a cover, a screen, a veil. Whereas the photograph’s forensic conceit lies in its appeal to visual proof that the disputed event had indeed taken place (as if the body itself were able to speak its truth), Richter negates the photo’s presumed self-evidence—he even negates his own painting’s seizure of its mediatized image—and as everyone knew, the thing itself could easily have been staged to cover-up a state-sanctioned murder, a good bit of fake news, as it were.
I saw Richter’s Decke at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in the spring of 2010 as part of an exhibition entitled “Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image,” which situated Richter’s paintings beside those of seven other contemporary artists, but I was only riveted by this one work. My friends abandoned me to the gallery as I lingered there, straining to see what isn’t there to see. As my body inclined toward the canvas, I thought I could detect the recessed lines of a door frame whose muted gray tones become visible and white, while the fullness of Ensslin’s hanging body remains almost completely erased, leaving nothing but the faintest trace in the upper middle of the painting, as a chaotic pattern—all static and noise—eats away at the rest, and an etched grid emerges to replace a spectral vision. This is how the past irrupts in a present that isn’t present to see. Under the painter’s brush, the event—Ensslin’s alleged suicide—withdraws in the corrosion of image, both having become submerged in haze as a sheet of paint covers the figure the way a blanket or a shroud would cover the body.
I am writing this essay years after my only encounter with Richter’s Decke, and given that the painting has only been infrequently cataloged, I’ve often had to consult online images in an effort to reconstruct my vision, so who knows what I really saw. While I can recreate the movement of rooms across the gallery, and the placement of works on its walls, I really don’t know what I was seeing upon seeing Richter’s painting even as I imagine the feeling of its singular detail or punctum—the recessed lines of a door, the sole remaining trace of referential meaning—as though it were lodged inside my body somewhere between bladder and liver, a muted hum or shiver. But this is pure retrospection, a kind of necromancy. Here’s what I remember with the clarity of ice: As I stand in the gallery, I can feel myself longing for my friends to realize they had lost me, as all the energy of my thoughts and affections organize themselves like a spell to draw them back, to see me captured by this thing and wonder why.
The scandal of Richter’s fifteen paintings re-presenting the controversy around the RAF—a unified collection of works titled October 18, 1977—has been well-rehearsed, and while this sequence is in some respects beside my point, it’s worth noting that all the paintings in this collection bear denotative titles like Cell, Hanged, Funeral, Record Player, and Dead. I knew nothing of these paintings when, at the Palazzo Strozzi, I fell upon Richter’s Decke—or, Blanket—which was not included in the cycle of works that first showed in Cologne in the winter of 1989 as it’s one of his discarded renderings of Ensslin’s hanged body that he later painted over. Separated from the original sequence, Decke remains the cycle’s appendix, its afterthought, its commentary, its codicil. It’s also an outcast, a secret, a runt. In contrast to its privileged litter, Decke alone bears a title that is at once metaphorical, self-referential and excessive in its connotation.
From the vantage point of its composition, ten years after the events it recalls, Richter’s painting arouses a ghost, a specter of state violence and obstructed mourning, be it for the idea of a German nation or its revolutionary transformation. But the thing aroused is only ever a cover or a screen, indeed, a Decke, which could denote a bedspread, rug or quilt, while connoting concealment, protection, refuge, or even disguise, with figurative expressions like unter die Decke kriechen, to pull the covers over one’s head, to protect oneself by hiding, as if under a blanket. Then there is zudecken (to put a blanket on something or someone), bedecken (to cover something, like your body), and verdecken (to mask, disguise or conceal). At the same time, Decke denotes a ceiling or roof, a structural limit, which also suggests the painting’s frame, allowing some things to enter the picture while keeping other things out. There are expressions like es tropft von der Decke (there’s water coming through the ceiling) and even von der Decke hängen (to hang from the ceiling). As the figural and the literal converge, pivot, and invert, Richter’s pun achieves an extraordinary richness. My German friend Christian offered the coup de grace when he confirmed in an email from Frankfurt: “And when the police ask you about a suspect and you say that you don’t know this person or that you won’t say anything about them—this is jemanden decken. And verdeckt means ‘undercover,’ you know, like an agent.” Significantly, too, there’s the expression mit jemandem unter einer Decke stecken (to be in bed with), suggesting a kind of complicity—Richter’s? the viewer’s?—which is something the painter seems to be concerned about a great deal, especially in October 18, 1977, and in the case of this painting the question is unavoidable.
Returning then to this cover-up called Decke, I remember perceiving the vague hint of a linen sash with which Ensslin’s body hangs in Richter’s rendering of its photographic image—or maybe I just want to see this now—and while noting the way he covers this image twice, first in the sense of “covering” a pop song, and then by throwing a cover over the cover (covering himself like a gesture of shame?), I can still feel my gaze pushing up against the frame as if, were the ceiling only higher, the strain of seeing nothing might be relieved.
Richter’s approach to the politics of representation feels a bit like Warhol’s inverse and complement: Not a commercial image whose saturation in the public sphere of privatized communication is tantamount to the mystification of its referent—be it a celebrity like Marilyn or a commodity like Brillo—but rather a mystified image whose saturation in the social imaginary covers up its referent—by which I do not mean in this instance Ensslin’s body, but rather the State. Maybe Decke formalizes the way the omnipresence of state-sponsored violence is withdrawn inside every spectacular image wherein that violence becomes ungraspable, obscured, shrouded, taboo to even speak of it. I can’t help but wonder now whether the hygienic erasure of violence from discourse—by which I do mean the way forms of historical and structural violence often become unspeakable—conditions the delusion of a peaceful public sphere whose policing function can then assume its license undercover.
When first speaking to my friends of my initial impressions of Richter’s Decke, my tongue slips on the name “Ensslin” and falls on that of “Esenin”—as in Sergey Esenin—the popular Soviet poet who, at age 30 in 1925, took his own life, leaving behind a final “Farewell Poem,” written in the poet’s own blood, which concludes with the couplet: “In this life to die is nothing new / But to live, of course, is nothing newer.” Esenin’s romantic farewell was the occasion for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem, “To Sergey Esenin” (1926), a critical riposte that condemns Esenin’s sentimental attachment to suicidal sadness and its pathetic expression in bad verse: “Why make / the number / of suicides more?” While Mayakovsky’s poem seems to suggest that people might kill themselves because Esenin’s poem is truly awful, his larger meaning concerns the fact that Esenin’s bad verses actually moved people to suicide as an imaginary way to transcend social suffering by avoiding any real confrontation with its conditions.
Esenin’s poem is forensic, not because it is written in the poet’s own blood—the literalization of a romantic cliché—but because it organizes social knowledge that won’t reduce to private meaning. But while forensic evidence as a form of public testimony wants to preserve the documentary ruse of its purity and neutrality, it nevertheless betrays an intense subjectivity, a pathos of integrity, a falsely immediate meaning, just as personal emotion is always vulnerable to the social forces that put it to work. How can Esenin’s words—“Goodbye my friend you live in my heart”—be anything but clear and simple? If history is what really hurts, how can an expression of historical suffering be true and false at the same time? Mayakovsky’s ruthless rejoinder opens a space of contestation over the significance of that forensic information. This is the argument in How are Verses Made?, Mayakovsky’s book-length essay on poetry as a social good that uses “To Sergey Esenin” as its primary illustration: For a poem to be worth its salt, it must respond to real exigency—a political imperative, or “social command” as Mayakovsky calls it—in order to create a counter-fact that challenges the force of “common sense.” And one of the exigencies to which Mayakovsky’s poem responds is the urgent need to stem the rising tide of suicidal despair fueled by bad poetry.
In fucking with the forensic narrative surrounding Esenin’s death—lifting, mocking and turning its phrases, i.e., “In this life / to die / has never been hard. // To make new life / ’s more difficult / by far.”— I like to think that Mayakovsky’s poem anticipates Richter’s Decke, the way it wrests something seemingly evidentiary away from a repressive apparatus of meaning-making. For a more recent illustration of what I think of as a counter-forensic aesthetic practice, one might think of Claudia Rankine’s manner of fucking with the iconic image of a lynching in Citizen.1 Rather than paint over a painted representation of a photographed “suicide” as Richter does, or write over the bloody lines of a poem as Mayakovsky does, Rankine erases the image of a black body hanging from a tree, thereby turning attention instead on the social agents of that violence—bemused white bodies acting with impunity—rather than its spectacular effect. If all three of these works expose anything at all, perhaps it is how aesthetic codes confuse or conflate exposure and concealment, testimony and censorship, document and repression.
Just as the RAF reminded its German public that whatever economic well-being West Germany may have achieved by the 1970s was haunted by a historical violence it could no longer perceive, or preferred not to, Richter’s canvas uncannily materializes the very fiber of a social imagination whose abstractions had become the concrete material of everyday life. Decke’s gauzy screen is painted over a painting of a popular image ten years after its dissemination, and this is no mere minimalist trope, but the figure of what is paradoxically most present and whose documents have become profoundly abstract. In other words: Richter simultaneously materializes the persistence of the past in the present and the absence of the present in the representation of that past.
Decke contains a social wound where the false immediacy of communication has been interrupted as one’s sense of that immediacy becomes a keenly felt effect of its mediated decomposition. Richter paints the erosion of cultural memory on the very images that constitute it. In doing so, he becomes a kind of realist as the dissolution of history becomes visible in the very images that represent that history. One might say that the so-called “Event” is the image that displaces the historical fact by becoming it. In Richter’s painting, the withdrawal of the referent—be it history, state, or police—opens a void [ —— ] where the viewer’s sensorium feels strangely replete with the eroding sensation of what it can’t perceive. Still, a rhetoric of this image circulates through its withdrawal, in whose place emerges that void—let’s call it “the public sphere,” or merely its placeholder—where one can only express oneself clearly in bad faith. Richter’s Decke presents the viewer with the exquisite image of a social mirage—an allegory of the photograph’s absent content—and this becomes the painting’s substance. As the manifestation of a sanctioned cover-up that doubles as an inchoate national fantasy, Decke materializes the bad faith of good conscience while making legible a whole aesthetics of the public secret: the referent being a highly publicized hoax—behold the body!—whose representation neutralizes further investigation into its conditions of possibility. As if to say “This has nothing to do with that mirage!,” or, “Look closely and you’ll see the thing debunked!,” the painting allegorizes the procedure of the cover—Decke—like a kind of make-over, a rendering or revision behind which there is nothing more to see, the secret of the hoax being that there is no secret.
- I’ve adopted the concept of “counter-forensics” from Allan Sekula’s “Photography and the Limits of National Identity” (1993): “Counter forensics, the exhumation and identification of the anonymised (‘disappeared’) bodies of the oppressor state’s victims, becomes the key to a process of political resistance and mourning.” Quoted in Thomas Keenan, “Counter-forensics and Photography,” Grey Room 55 (Spring 2014).