Joëlle Tuerlinckx – Everything & Nothing: the Pre-History of Zero

Zero: “the number of things you have when you don’t have anything” – definition found by Joëlle Tuerlinckx in the Mathematics Section of the Museum of Science, Boston, 1996

Joëlle Tuerlinckx’ series of line drawings, Dessins Sous Zéro (2004) (literally translated in English as ‘drawings below zero’), started from the artist experimenting with the ‘compression’ tool on her computer. Unusually Tuerlinckx had been busy sketching what she describes as a set of “baroque serpentine”[1] drawings for an exhibition in Karlsruhe, in the “baroque berceau” region of Germany, when she pressed a key and the whole graphic confection collapsed, in a single moment, down to one single flat line. Reflecting upon this “moment zero” before her, which looked more like the very beginning of a sketch rather than the sum of her recent efforts, she was surprised by the realization that what appeared to be merely “the commencement of a drawing can have a long story before it starts!”[2] Subsequently Tuerlinckx refers to this notion as the ‘pre-history of language’.

The next surprise came shortly afterwards when she attempted to de-compress the drawing again, only to find that it re-emerged as a completely different, rectilinear pattern. The baroque serpentine drawing had been transformed into a strict geometrical set of lines, through the action of the computer processor. There was no going back. For Tuerlinckx, however, this strange revelation was a “wonderful discovery … that baroque and minimal[ism] touch each other”[3], an idea which became the basis for the ensuing series of works. Typically, the artist’s response to the corruption of her drawing by the computer system was to adapt her own methodology accordingly. As with the serial adaption of the title of her current exhibition, transiting from ‘work’ to ‘world’ to ‘word’, her method is constantly to be ‘in progress’, and so to remain open in, what Catherine Wood has described as, “a kind of continuous perceptual present where manifold possibilities of meaning proliferate.”[4] By responding, step-by-step, in real-time, to the formal disciplines and constraints of language – or to the formal conventions of the art institution, in real-space – Tuerlinckx nimbly manages to evade the regulation of reductive equivalence.

With regard to the notion of ‘reductive equivalence’, Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense puts forward the idea that all language is essentially a lie, because no two referents are strictly speaking identical.

“Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal.”[5]

Thus we lie when we call two different leaves ‘leaves’; we ignore some different characteristics, and focus on those that are the same. We notice traits held in common only because it is useful to do so. Language is made possible only by what Nietzsche calls a ‘residue of metaphor’, the dead ‘bony’ remainder of a metaphor, that is, of a word that was initially unique and referred only to a single referent. The momentary, unique conjunction of two different elements is codified and petrified by ‘useful’ language, and its ultimate perfection, science.

Tuerlinckx’ work can initially seem scientific, even mathematical, in its basic tone. Zero is a frequent point of reference. Diagrams of unknown objects and mysteriously specific measurements abound. The gallery space is often transformed into a kind of working laboratory, albeit one that operates within the artist’s own coded universe. Her practice seems to gravitate towards the creation of language, generating systems of signification that remain unexplained, just short of collapsing into meaninglessness. In this sense her work is rooted in the production of systems of signification or categorization, in the processes of abstraction.

In Nitetzsche’s critique, negativity is the essence of language. The word ‘tree’ is not the same as the tree that stands in my garden, but it is also not the same as any other tree. It is the negation of all particular real trees for the sake of an idea of a tree. The essential character of language is its power of abstraction; that is to say its distance from the reality of things. It is precisely this distance that provides language with the power to negate the actual, individual thing, for the sake of the idea of a thing. Thus literary theorist, Maurice Blanchot writes that, “speech has a function that is not only representative but also destructive. It causes to vanish, it renders the object absent, it annihilates it.”[6]

The ‘present tense’ of Joelle Tuerlinckx’ visual poetics appears to actively seek to elude the negativity of language, artfully evading the annihilation of its reductive equivalence by inventing its own parallel systems of difference and repetition. Impossibly, it seems to attempt to abstract our experience and, simultaneously, to immerse us in the physical materiality of perception, an encounter that is at once conceptual and phenomenological. A simple baton of wood has the word ‘Objet’ written upon it in pencil, placed next to a similar piece of wood labeled ‘A’, besides another baton labeled ‘a’ and a rough paint-stick marked ‘A’, that on closer inspection we discover is carefully crafted out of paper. In order to achieve such a state of elusive immediacy, of evanescence, the artist must constantly ‘duck and dive’, dancing on the border’s edge of language, mimicking its structures whilst deftly side-stepping its destructive ‘equation of the unequal’. Thus Tuerlinckx is continually devising her own individual taxonomies, her own idiolectic lexicon, her own embodied metrics – as a ‘subject-in-process.’[7]

In a statement, Borderline Notes, written to accompany her presentation of The Room of the Night as part of Manifesta 3 in Llubljana (2000), Tuerlinckx describes her predilection for the idea of borders, and “particularly the idea of a linguistic border”, saying that “there are limitations of words which force us to invent new words.”[8] She writes:

“I am interested in simple things. The simpler they are, the more interesting they seem.

Example: everything that happens while I am travelling from one point (a) to another point (a).

On the left wall I drew the letter ‘a’. On the right wall I drew another letter ’a’.

I connected these two letters with a string.

Usually two different things cannot have the same name. As a result of this we see space curving in front of our eyes.

From ‘A’ to ‘A’, or from ‘a’ to ‘a’ there lies the last space that cancels all borders except itself.

If we travel from ‘a’ to ‘a’, we experience a walk precisely along the border.

When the border is a passage, it becomes: space

(example of an object of space: glass of water)

(example of an object that is not space: a brick)

(example of an object of space: a pile of bricks)”[9]

Here ‘A’ is the textual equivalent of ‘0’ (zero). Curiously, Tuerlinckx seems to want to deliberately blur the boundaries between space and time, perhaps in the way that synaesthesia blurs the senses, just as she often conflates physical and optical perceptions, as if to persuade us to distrust our own bodily senses. The space between ‘a’ and ‘a’ is stretched. The measure is our own bodily presence. The temporary suspension of belief in standard metrics, along with a momentary mistrust in our own perceptual faculties, opens up a new elastic sense of space.

“The best part of space is not its centre.


This is the ‘crust’ of space.”[10]

In her concepts of Stretch Vision and the Theory of Walking, elaborated in the artist’s notes, AQUI HAVIA HISTORIA-CULTURA AGORA 0, a proposal for Documenta11 (2002) (referred to at length elsewhere in this publication), Tuerlinckx explores an elasticity of space that amounts to a philosophical mode of knowledge production based on action, movement and the event. The work is generated, step-by-step in real-time, by walking through a space. For example, the artist describes the installation at Documenta11 as “a room of 15 min. 7 sec., in 22 steps, around a found sentence”[11] (referring to the text of the title, a piece of graffiti she discovered in Lisbon, roughly translated as ‘History was here – culture now 0’). Tuerlinckx wrote a useful note about her approach to generating such a ‘spatial moment’ on the invitation card for her exhibition, What do you do if you are not a carpenter who are you? at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens (1999):

“I pass through space and I explore parts of time that are specific to each one of these forward movements, I see how these spaces come to me … basically I observe how the space crosses the human, and how the human contains these blocks of time themselves, contained in or spilling over from these spaces …

I’m working on understanding the phenomenon of the metrics of time, rather than on measuring and assessing these spaces. Needless to say, the more I work in this dimension, the less the study is convincingly understandable, so it is logical that I should carry on in this direction …

I tend to believe that there is a real ‘reality’ on one side and on the other, further below or above it, the words to describe this reality, as perceived within a ‘useful’ mode of language …”[12]

The full, rebus-like title of the installation at Documenta was Aqui Havia Historia-Cultura Agora 0 – a proposal for a room in the Friedericanum, with two doors and one open window: 15’ 07” width by museal steps length. Tuerlinckx’ measurement of the room in time also corresponded to the duration of the central film, showing the graffiti on the wall of a church in a leafy Lisboetan square. Other ‘stretch films’ were dispersed around this central projection, but this was the only one to have sound. When the film finished the screen went blank for three minutes and all the lights in the space came on. Crucially, the background sound from the film also came to a halt, to be replaced by the ‘real’ sound coming from outside, through the open window. Tuerlinckx likens this interruption in the spatial moment of representation to the ‘moment zero’, referred to earlier, also referencing the notion of ‘hors champs’ in cinema (a term that denotes everything that is not within the filmic image – the world off-screen): “Like the drawings sous zéro”, she says, “the story/history was already there.”[13]

In relation to Tuerlinckx’ notion of ‘sous zéro’ and the pre-history of language, Sigmund Freud used the term ‘pre-history’ to refer to the most remote past in a subject’s psychological development – the psychically innate – the time before the Oedipus complex when desire was completely unmediated by object relations or the reductive equivalence of representation. He also referred to this as the ‘already there.’ In this ‘primaeval’ state, Freud described the infant’s sense of boundless omnipotence as a primary narcissism, an all-consuming self-love, before any awareness of separation or individuation from the world, when the child is exclusively focused on its own bodily needs and the satisfaction of its voracious appetites. It is only with the intrusions and restrictions of a differentiated ‘object-world’ that the emerging ‘subject’ is gradually disillusioned of its magical super-powers, which hitherto had brought instant satisfaction upon demand, and instead the repressive, guilt-ridden regime of external reality is installed. For Freud, therefore, ‘history’ begins with Oedipus, as “it is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.”[14]

In his focus on sexuality, Freud’s use of the Oedipus myth essentially describes the process of socialization of desire. Jacques Lacan’s version of the triangulated Oedipus complex (mother, child, father), however, goes further by combining Freud’s theory with the ideas of structural linguistics. According to Lacan the idealised relationship between infant[15] and mother is only imagined in the child’s unconscious as something that was once self-contained and entirely satisfying, that has since been broken up. On the contrary, for Lacan, this process of separation is in fact the child’s ‘beginning’. Its pre-history is nothing but an imaginary desire, constructed through language. The child’s conscious experience begins with a feeling of something having been lost – a ‘lack’. The symbol of this loss is like a third term that has come between the mother and the child – the father. Lacan calls this third term the symbolic because it symbolises all relations. Entering into the symbolic realm of language is, like the Oedipal struggle, an engagement with the order of the ‘father’, in order to try to overcome a sense of lack and restore an imaginary union with the ‘mother’.

Lacan took Freud’s description of the unconscious, as a chaotic realm of constantly shifting drives and desires, and instead conceived of it as being ”structured like a language.”[16] Whereas Freud was primarily interested in how to bring those chaotic drives and desires into consciousness, so that they can have some order and meaning and be made manageable, Lacan says that the process of becoming an adult, a mature ‘self’, is the process of trying to fix, to stabilize, or to stop the fluctuating chain of signifiers, so that stable meaning, including the meaning of “I”, becomes possible. By contrast, within this frame of reference, the visual poetics of Joëlle Tuerlinckx could be described as a struggle to liberate the meaning of “I” from the oppressive symbolic order, so as to unleash the powerful, unmediated forces of ‘pre-historic’ desire, as a subject-in-process.

Revisiting these Lacanian terms, Julia Kristeva makes a distinction between the ‘semiotic’ and the ‘symbolic’. For Kristeva, the semiotic is closely related to the infantile, pre-Oedipal condition, as an emotional field, tied to our instincts, which dwells in the fissures and prosody of language rather than in the denotative meanings of the symbolic order. Actively resisting the discipline and containment of the symbolic, Kristeva’s notion of the subject-in-process is represented by the ‘semiotic chora’. This is the place of perpetual renewal in language (its being and becoming), a chaotic space that “is and becomes a precondition for creating the first measurable bodies”[17], Kristeva writes. A sort of “dancing body” (from the Greek khoreia, meaning ‘dance’), the semiotic chora is in perpetual motion. It energizes the sign (as well as the subject) by placing expulsion (of the ‘abject’ maternal environment) at the core of its structure. Just as dance allows the dancer to explore an infinite chain of body movements, the semiotic chora presents an infinite potential for creating signifying movements.

If the subject-in-process draws its chaotic energy from a pre-Oedipal sense of boundless omnipotence, then the reductive equivalence of the symbolic order, and the relational mediation of the object-world, actively works to reduce all of this limitless desire down to zero. The all-encompassing subjective reality, that hitherto contained everything, is compressed down to a single flat line, which marks the beginning of an orderly, Oedipal history. How are we to resist such a process of annihilation and re-connect with our ‘pre-history’? As Antonin Artaud put it, how can we learn again “to dance wrong side out as in the frenzy of dance halls”?[18] In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue that this will require “a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage”[19] and that the true goal of any revolutionary politics is the liberation of desire from the confines of the Oedipal apparatus. By contrast, Tuerlinckx employs a more subtle form of resistance, applying her twin concepts of Stretch Vision and the Theory of Walking to continue an exploration of the role of movement and time in space.

“What is my subject?

Here, by way of response, I refer back to the question I was one day asked and to one or two previous exhibition notes, in a way to say that it hasn’t changed, working on the awareness of a ‘spatial moment’ is still, for me (and I’d like to believe this more than ever), the only way to be political.

j.t.: – what is this stretch museum?

j.t.: – an application of ‘stretch vision’

j.t.: – what exactly is this ‘stretch vision’?

j.t.: – a way of living, a way of getting through

j.t.: – a manifesto?

j.t.: –  of?

j.t.: – of a desire

j.t.: – (thoughts based on STRETCH MUSEUM, exhibition notes)”[20]

Pas d’histoire, Pas d’histoire was the title of Tuerlinckx’ exhibition at Witte de With (1994), translated into English by the institution as ‘No Story, No History’. In her commentary on the project, Catherine Wood adds a third possible translation, ‘No Matter’, adding that it is “characteristic of Tuerlinckx’ work that she chose a title that functions as a riddle whose sum of meanings adds up to an emphasis on nothingness: no story, no history, no matter … [that] empties out the possibilities of content and consequence in present, past and future, creating a locked pocket of conceptual space.”[21] Here Wood is referring to the artist’s own statement, “When I am offered an exhibition space it is as though I receive a kind of parcel, a packet of air that I need to unpack.”[22] Within this hermetic space, the “excessive endlessness” of the items that Tuerlinckx systematizes and collects forms a kind of “spreading territory” that the artist describes as “hard to stop.”[23] What drives it forward, Wood surmises, might be “a peripheral awareness of what is outside of it: a fear of empty space or nothingness”[24] (the hors-champs)? However, where Wood at first observes a certain “passivity” in the artist’s reflexive reactions to the conditions of the exhibition space, “the more of Tuerlinckx’s work one encounters, the more the work’s apparent openness to the viewer’s perceptual discovery is turned inside-out so as to feel as if we are very much within, and pressed upon by, the artist’s manifest mind.”[25]

It’s just after the border that everything starts[26]

The apparent nonchalance of Tuerlinckx’ spatial moments, whether appearing to add up to a ‘sum of nothingness’ or reduce down to a single flat line, represent a border with the ‘pre-history of language’. Object Relations theorist, Donald Winnicott, described a ‘potential space’ that exists between the subject-in-process and external reality. “It is in the space between inner and outer worlds, which is also the space between people; the transitional space; that intimate relationships and creativity occur.”[27] On encountering the transitional spaces created by Tuerlinckx, which initially might appear playful and throwaway, we soon find, to the contrary, that we are consumed within an all-enveloping subjective reality, located at the shifting borderline between inner and outer worlds; between the interiority of absolute omnipotence and the external reality of reductive equivalence; between ‘presence’ and re-presentation. The elusive immediacy of this experience evaporates, however, as soon as it is contained within the fixity of representation, henceforth only to exist as an absence within the de-compressed history of its interpretation – the evanescence of the visual poetics of a subject-in-proc(gr)ess.

“The thing was there, we grasped it in the living motion of comprehensive action – and once it has become an image it instantly becomes ungraspable, non-contemporary, impassive … 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.”[28]

Maurice Blanchot, The Two Versions of the Imaginary, 1955

Joëlle Tuerlinckx

Joëlle Tuerlinckx

== Essay by Tom Trevor, first published in Joëlle Tuerlinckx: Wor(l)(d)(k) in Progress? by Walther Konig (2013), ISBN 978 3 86335 380 3, with Arnolfini, Haus der Kunst and Wiels ==

[1] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, in correspondence with the author, March 2013

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Catherine Wood, Stories of 0, Afterall journal, Issue 10, 2004, p.11

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 46

[6] Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, p. 30

[7] Julia Kristeva, The Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press, 1984

[8] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Borderline Notes, Catalogue: Manifesta 3, 2000, p. 175

[9] Ibid., p. 178

[10] Ibid., p.177

[11] List of Exhibited Works in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition, Catalogue Appendix, p.48

[12] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Notes Attached: The Project, After Having Seen the Space – Possibilities, Impossibilities, New Things, One or Two Observations about the Room + Intentions, in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition, Documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH, Kassel (eds.) Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2002, p. 591

[13] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, in correspondence with the author, March 2013

[14] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Leipzig & Vienna 1900, p. 262

[15] The word infant is derived from in-fans meaning ’before language’

[16] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, NY: Norton 1998, p. 48

[17] Julia Kristeva, Polylogue, University of Michigan 1977, p. 57

[18] Antonin Artaud, To Be Done with the Judgement of God, 1947

[19] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Paris 1972, p.371

[20] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Notes Attached: The Project, After Having Seen the Space – Possibilities, Impossibilities, New Things, One or Two Observations about the Room + Intentions, in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition, Documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH, Kassel (eds.) Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2002, p. 591

[21] Catherine Wood, Stories of 0, Afterall journal, Issue 10, 2004, p.11

[22] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Cahier #2, Witte de With, Rotterdam, 1994

[23] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, press release for BILD oder… mit dem Fuss in der Realitat, at Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2004

[24] Catherine Wood, Stories of 0, Afterall journal, Issue 10, 2004, p.11

[25] Ibid., p. 12

[26] Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Borderline Notes, Catalogue: Manifesta 3, 2000, p. 178

[27] Donald Winnicott, Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena (1951) in Collected Papers. London: Tavistock, 1958, pp. 229

[28] Maurice Blanchot, The Two Versions of the Imaginary, in G. Quasha (ed.) The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, Barrytown, NY, 1999, p. 418


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