The Poetry of Death Instinct in Jorge Tacla’s Paintings

The pleasure principle seems directly to subserve the death instincts.

Sigmund Freud

The Economic Problem of masochism

Signs of disaster proliferate in Jorge Tacla’s paintings. Death is everywhere, sometimes created by human beings, sometimes occurring naturally. Sometimes death is the result of violence—of man’s inhumanity to man, as in the case of Oklahoma City Federal Building destroyed by bombing—and sometimes death is implicit in the indifference of nature, which for Tacla is signified by the desert. Photographs of the destroyed building and the lifeless desert—both are remorselessly inorganic and inanimate, as their inert material indicates (concrete in the case of the building, stone in the case of the desert)—are the points of departure for many paintings, confirming his obsession with death, as a substance as well as an idea, a literal fact as well as subject for speculation.

Man-made death and destruction and natural deadness often overlap, as though in ironical marriage. And both always occur on an ironically grand scale in Taclla’s paintings. Death introduces us to nothingness and meaninglessness, and this nothingness and meaninglessness are foreshadowed in the huge, empty space that is Tacla’s basic subject matter: a cosmic space that promises no much, that seems so meaningful—recall Kant’s wishful belief that the pattern of the stars signified a moral order—but that, after all, is nothing and means nothing. Indeed, it is nothingness and meaninglessness ironically incarnate.

Tacla’s paintings make the panic of space tangible: the subliminal horror of death becomes manifest as the unnerving experience of void—the terrifying feeling of total emptiness. Nowhere in modern painting has the “agoraphobic anxiety of falling into a void—uncontained and disintegrating” (1)—a feeling that Pascal clearly had when he looked up into the night sky, and was not sure that he saw God—been pictured so directly and bravely. (Such anxiety—a kind of horror vacui—is the characteristic of modern emotional experience, for it signifies the sense of isolation, emptiness, and abandonment inseparable from modern anonymous, anonym society, which lacks supportive myths). Agoraphobic anxiety, a form of annihilation anxiety, is the death instinct at its most emotionally overt. Tacla depicts it in all its insidious glory and intensity, without once blinking in fear.

The death instinct makes its presence known through absence: the absence which Tacla’s space is, an absence that is all the more intense by reason of the grandeur of the space. Ironically, the wide open space of the sky, which religion has tried to fill with gods since time immemorial—which we all fill with our wish for eternal life and happiness, transcendence of time and suffering (they are always linked)—becomes the emblem of the closure and loss and finality that death brings with it. The sacred space—an idealized surrogate sky—of the cathedral suggests that heaven is possible on earth, but Tacla turns the allegorical space of the cathedral—a recurrent image in his paintings—inside out, as it were, showing that it is in fact a desert. Its space is, ironically, as grand as that of the cathedral, but the negative of it. The fantasy of transcendence that once made infinite space seem sacred with life has been replaced by the numbing sensation of nothingness and meaninglessness that death brings. Tacla’s immense, incomprehensible space is no longer the abstract heaven of aspiration, but the concrete oblivion that is our depressing, real fate. The space of Tacla’s paintings remains as allegorical as the space of the cathedral, but is symbolizes the failure of human nerve in the face of death rather than the emotional victory over death that religion represents.

Tacla does not simply acknowledge that reality and inevitability death. He uses the death instinct—the psychobiological tendency toward destruction and disintegration—in a creative, critical way, turning it against the society that denies it even as it workings reveal it. He uses the poetry of the death instinct to demystify the debunk society. He sees through its self-deception to the death instinct that informs its most deliberate efforts to celebrate and protect life. The collective death instinct—the way people move, like lemmings, toward death, without realizing it—is his subject matter, along with the collective delusions of grandeur—self evident in religious architecture for Tacla—that compensate for, it while at the same time ironically embodying it.

More specifically, Tacla subversively implies that the death instinct motivates the absolutist illusions of immortality and invincibility—dogmatic ideologies of everlasting life, as it were—that the authoritarian institutions of the Church and the military symbolize, defend, but use the threat of death—eternal damnation is the most uncompromising form of it—to defend life. But attempt to contain and control death—master and minimize its damage—but both betray life to death. Church and military architecture are equally intimidating—Tacla has depicted the Pentagon as well as the cathedral—as though to crush all difference of opinion and resistance to the supposedly infallible truth they embody. Tacla conveys the militancy of this architecture—both the cathedral and the Pentagon are dramatic symbols of brute power—but, more pointedly, he makes it clear that they are not what they seem to be: they are not life at its most resourceful, bat bastions of death. They have become what they meant to resist.

There is no escape from death, not in the illusion of transcendental life nor in the reality of military power. Tacla shows that transcendental life and military power come to nothing, and where nothing to begin with. His technique of “negative painting” annihilates the architecture of authority. The cathedral and the Pentagon seem to dissolve into nothing—fade away into absurd memories—right in from of our eyes, revealing the death instinct that motivates them. Tacla also implies that the Church and the military are the enemies of the spontaneous expression of life. Frail signs of spontaneity appear, unpredictably, in the barrenness of death that Tacla pictures. He has given us a new triumph of death—a more religious triumph of death than we see in traditional art. For Tacla death is not a menacing skeleton—as it is, for example, in Hans Baldung-Grien’s brilliant representation of it—but a complete void, that is, the nothingness the skeleton anthropomorphizes. This demystifies death, even as it makes it more terrifying and inescapable, for we cannot run from the void within our minds, at least not as far as we imagine we can run from the skeleton within our bodies.

Thus, in Ecuación de líneas y curvas, 1995, a square patch of desert—a grim place of natural death, ironically vitalized with color in Tacla’s rendering—is placed in the center of a cathedral as gray ash. The desert space and the cathedral space physically ad emotionally correlate, however much the former cuts the latter down to size, mocking it. In his heart, the cathedral is as dry desert. It too is empty and lifeless, for all its flamboyant appearance. It may look like a theater of transcendental life, but for Tacla show is over. Taken together, the empty desert space and the empty cathedral space create an overwhelming sense of deadness and nothingness—absolute void. Tacla conveys the traumatic nothingness of space, all the more traumatically nothing because it is a big lie. The cathedral space is purposely full of the invisible spirit of God but there is in fact nothing in it. It is a ruin of transcendence, for God has died, as the mournful grayness of the cathedral suggests. It is a depressing building, full of hollow hope, a faded symbol of authority and power, that was fraud to begin with.

Again and again Tacla reveals the hollowness at the core of social delusions of grandeur. The desert is the secret of spirituality, disclosing the unhappy truth behind it. The desert is the inner truth of the cathedral, suggesting that is has nothing to give. The cathedral is not an oasis of eternal life in the desert of death, but the disguise if the desert. One can never have a vision in the desert of the cathedral, however much its grandeur calls out to fill its emptiness.

In La distribución de los primarios, 1995, the Pentagon, that ominous symbol of military power and governmental authority, is as gray as the cathedral. Gray annihilates; it turns hard stone into soft atmosphere, glory into dust. What appears to be a hermetic fortress—a military universe unto itself, answerable to no one—dissolves into nothing, all but disappearing into a shadow of itself. It is no longer a positive force but a negative form—a ghost of what it once was. In Peso específico, 1996, a grand amphitheater, full of art and learning—a true triumph and symbol of civilization and community—suffers the same fate. (The structure is based on Palladio palace). The colorful Indian infant at its center, surrounded by spontaneous drawings full of primitive images, negates the amphitheater, in effect overthrowing it. In Forma energética, 1997, spores of life—stones seem to spontaneously metamorphosize into microorganisms, the alchemical miracle of death generating life—bloom in the desert, but most primitive—these primitive fragments of life change nothing essential. The desert is still the dominant space. The amphitheater, Pentagon and cathedral are all deserts-disaster areas—as the cathedral in Acsensor de pasajeros, 1996, once again confirms.

Again and again Talca sets up an ironical contradiction. Some colorful, intimate, elemental expression of life, existing in a small, hermetically structure, that seems to fill all of space with its grandeur. The fragment of primitive life makes the glorious sophisticated architecture seem like a hollow illusion—a façade with nothing behind it. Ironically, the fragment is an illusion, for Tacla’s paintings life is no more than a mirage, a final ironical proof that nothing in fact can grow in the desert which modern society has become.

One way or another, Tacla annihilates authority. Indeed, it is death incarnate; the annihilation of authority makes clear what was always the case. In Conceptos fundamentales, 1992, Christ is all but buried under an avalanche of rocs, which in effect become his attribute. They imply that he will soon be as lifeless as they are: his body will no the resurrected, but dissolve into matter as raw as stone. Something similar is suggested by Estudio de una transformación, 1992. Which places the virgin Mary, in the guise of a nun, and the dead Christ, supported by her—it is a quotation from a famous painting—in a desert. In Mi casa es tu casa, 1992, a cathedral is stripped to its bare bones, so to speak—reduced to a kind of blue-print, a meaningless skeleton or itself, a rubble floating in the desert of space, signified by rocks that are its attribute. In Operación inversa, 1992, the landscape is more dead than alive; the signs of colorful life are an illusion. The desert is again the hero of Línea al infinito, 1992. Even when primitive, irrational life—the spontaneous lines of Estudio para un problema irracional, 1992, are signs of it—seems to proliferate in the desert, it remains sullen and sere, that is, a dead space. On the surface, the desert is an apocalyptic place, but since the judgment of the apocalypse is a prelude to the resurrection, and there is no resurrection in Tacla’s paintings—however much the fragments of primitive life may suggest the possibility of one—the desert can only be a final resting place, a place that is the perfect objective correlative (to use T.S. Eliot’s term) of the feelings of nothingness and meaninglessness aroused by death.

Tacla’s paintings are full of death, almost fatalistically, but they are also beautiful, if in an absent kind of way. Does he find death attractive? Is he half in love with it, as Keats was? Something more subtle is going on, and it is especially evident in Tacla’s numerous paintings of the ruin of te Oklahoma City Federal Building, to my mind his most consummate articulation of agoraphobic anxiety and his most beautiful paintings ever. These paintings—Horizonte imaginario, Biología Interna, Organismos vivos, Mecanismo biológico and Materiales orgánicos, al 1996—are pictures of pure falling. They are masterpieces of abstraction—paradoxical images, which hover on the boundary between representation and abstraction. They seem to be abstract and representational at once, enhancing the ambiguity of their import, just as their mix of photographic quotation and expressive gestures does. One sees a ruined building, a symbol of civilization, built with such great difficulty and effort, annihilated by a single grand destructive gesture of a bomb: one sees a symbol of the facile barbarism that is always ready to destroy hard-won civilization. But one also sees an agitated maze of primitive gestures, the regressive residue of its destruction.

Tacla’s Oklahoma City paintings are all-over paintings, ingeniously carrying to a new height what already seemed to have reached an unsurpassable climax in Pollock’s all-over paintings. Tacla adds a new expressive dimension to all-overness, for his all-overness is an abstract image of agoraphobic anxiety, as its vertiginous agitation—obsessive, churning motion—suggests. It is an emotionally accurate image: agoraphobic anxiety turns the world into a terrifying fluid abstraction, an absurd quicksand of transient gestures—not unlike the avalanche of rocks in other paintings—in which there is no footing, only falling. They are the visionary substance of Tacla’s articulation of anxiety, death, destruction. In showing the gestural guts of the ruined building, Tacla flings death in our face—shows death flaunting itself. Indeed, the primitive gestures ate the chaotic movements of the dance of death.

But the point is that Tacla’s horrific images of death are beautiful—an epiphany of pure visual pleasure. Ironically, their ecstatic visual pleasure is in the service of the death instinct, to refer to the epigraph form Freud. The Oklahoma City paintings make death alluring is also lurid. They seduce us to death, without our quite knowing it. They overcome our fear of death by making it beautiful—in modern abstract terms, rather than in traditional terms, in which death often appeared as a woman, the proverbial femme fatale. (Indeed, Freud pointed out that death tended to take a female form, as though it was a return to the womb.) Tacla’s Oklahoma City paintings suggest that death can be pleasurable, not painful. It can be a pleasurable experience, which is why we should not fear it. The Oklahoma City paintings distance us from death by showing it as a dynamic abstraction, apparently full of spontaneous life. This suggests that they synthesize the life instincts and death instincts, according to León Grinberg the major task sign of ego (2)—of ego strength. This seems to be confirmed by Tacla’s titles, which ambiguously unite the organic and the mechanical. Nonetheless, these paintings, Tacla’s most seductive, invite us to die, which is why they are the final irony of Tacla’s obsession with death.


(1) Hanna Segal. Dream, phantasy and art (London and New York Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), p. 54.

(2) León Grinberg. Guilt and depression (London and New York Karnac Books, 1992), p.39.


Donald Kuspit. 1998