‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological. I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can’t help but submit to’
Cropped to eerily lifelike scale, a spectral visage looms from Adrian Ghenie’s canvas. The figure’s mask of paint reveals the dark, blurred gash of a pair of eyes; his features are otherwise elided in cold, flat grey. Glacial streaks of cyan, purple and white are dragged over the work’s entire surface, further screening the image in depths of painterly static. Behind the shoulder of this sinister surgical countenance is another face, barely visible, gaze averted into the background’s abysmal blackness: distinctive outlines of beard and brow reveal his identity as Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology. These two specimens, fixed in layers of paint like insects in amber, are the subjects of The Surgeon and his Soul (Study for Kaiser Wilhelm Institute) (2011). The work is part of a foundational series by Ghenie that probes the notorious eugenics centre’s monstrous perversions of the field that Darwin created. ‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch’, Ghenie explains, ‘which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Living and working in Berlin, Cluj and London, Ghenie is fascinated by the impact of the Second World War upon Europe’s collective psyche: an interest fuelled by his own memories of growing up in Romania under the tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Ceau?escu. In the creation of this series, Ghenie was moved by the stark contrast between the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s claims to scientific advancement and the atrocities committed in its name. With deft distortions of face and figure inherited from Francis Bacon and a cinematic sensibility inspired by David Lynch, Ghenie’s brushstrokes act out the twentieth century’s drama of history, memory, and shame, taking the painterly surface itself as a site of near-archaeological spectacle.
Much like those of Gerhard Richter, whose squeegee technique finds a clear echo in the present work, Ghenie’s rich disturbances of paint are born partly from a suspicion of the photograph as a document of objective certainty. Any image can be used as an engine of fiction or deceit, and has the potential for mendacity, just as Darwin’s vision of life was seized and poisoned by agents of utter evil at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. In The Surgeon and his Soul, the slippage between smeared abstraction and classical technique foregrounds the illusive veils of representation that come to overlay history’s reality as time passes; evoking the haunting quality of printer glitch, worn old film footage and damaged sepia photographs, Ghenie’s work presents no clean or clear image, confronting us instead with a psychosocial palimpsest that posits the nature of evil as an intangible, all-pervasive force. ‘I am interested in the presence of evil,’ Ghenie says, ‘or more precisely, how the possibility for evil is found in every endeavour, even in those scientific projects which set out to benefit mankind’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in A. Akbar, ‘Adrian Ghenie puts fiends in the frame’, The Independent, 29 September 2011). To claim an image as a fixed truth would be a failure to acknowledge the ghosts, shadows and phantasms that stalk our visions of the past. Subjecting icons of history to near-dissolution in his crucible of paint, Ghenie shows us no soul but an oneiric mirage of rupture and terrible, fascinating loss.