The Terra Incognita of Catastrophe: Jorge Tacla´s Paintings

“Art…is a refinement upon an unceasing affective occurrence.”

Adrian Stokes

Painting and the Inner World (1)


“…Those who avoid contemplation even of Nature, are likely to have over-strong defensive attitudes against contact with their inner world, attitudes of denial…”

Adrian Stokes

Painting and the Inner World (2)


“Nature, in her incomprehensibility, has become the symbol of God who, according to Lichtenberg, is ‘incomprehensibility personified.’”

Max J. Friedländer

Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life (3)


“Thirst for space is the primary thing; the discovery of the laws of perspective only comes second”

Max J. Friedländer

Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life (4)


“Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced…there is no end unless the bottom of the trough has been reached, unless the thing feared has been experienced.”

D.W. Winnicott

Fear of Breakdown (5)


“…It is one more exploration destined to display a blind alley…because it arouses or will arouse fear of the unknown to a point where the protective mechanisms of the noosphere compel it to destroy the invading ideas for fear that they will cause a catastrophe in which the noosphere disintegrates into the no-amorph.”

W.R. Bion

Cogitations (6)




Jorge Tacla is basically a landscape painter: His real subject is the indeterminate space of a mysterious landscape. In tracing the development of his art from its beginnings in the mid-Eighties to the present day, one notices that his landscape comes more and more into focus and relief, as though it was being enlarged into hallucinatory clarity by an inner eye.

From being an inarticulate, generalized space it becomes a very particular, precisely delineated, even refined terrain. It becomes firmly self-evident, declaring its desolate presence unostentatiously but illimitably.

Nonetheless, Tacla tends to show it to us in fragments and glimpses, as though to impose limits on it so that it will be less terrifying; formalize it so that it will be less frightening. He contains and concentrates the terrain in simple geometrical shapes, essentially windows of revelation, as though he had drawn back the curtain of the blank canvas to see what was hidden behind and beyond its emptiness.


Slowly but surely Tacla reverses the usual priorities of pictorial space: The landscape is no longer simply the unimportant setting for an all-important figure or figure-symbol, but becomes the most meaningful dimension of the picture. Indeed, landscape no longer plays a small, anonymous, marginal part in it, but becomes virtually the whole picture. Landscape comes to dominate the picture-to engulf and absorb and transcend everything else in it. It is as though Tacla had to lose sight of the figure and the social reality it represents (which continues to exist only as a schematic, symbolic residue) in order to gain insight into the landscape-nominally that of a desert in his Chilean homeland-and what it subliminally represents: the eschatological space of the psyche.


However particular a landscape, it symbolizes nature at large. Usually nature is regarded-somewhat naively and utopianly-as the more or less reliable ground of support for civilization. Civilization enslaves nature, exploiting it at will without guilt: Nature presumably regenerate, showing no sign of its past abuse. That is, nature is held to be an inexhaustible source of life yet virginal: eternally young and fresh, even as it gives birth, again and again, to whatever we need to exist. But Tacla´s desert suggests that nature can die —our triumph over it can become a Pyrrhic, self— defeating victory: A time will come when nature will be too worn out to renew life. That apocalyptic time is rapidly approaching, brought on by ourselves —by our perverse attitude toward nature. Nature may be divine, but it too, however unexpectedly, can suffer: It is as vulnerable and mortal as we are.


Nature is an ultrasensitive seismograph, registering our ambivalence toward it: our worshipful respect for yet gross mistreatment of it. Torn apart by nature, we eventually tear it apart. As Adrian Stokes says, our attitude toward nature reflects our attitude toward ourselves, more particularly, the state of our inner world. Thus our ambivalence about nature-more precisely, our recognition of our dependence on it, but our desperate wish to be independent and expunge it, and replace it completely with civilization, which in effect becomes second nature —mirrors our ambivalence about ourselves. We mistreat nature the way we mistreat ourselves. We finally destroy it because we have destroyed our inner world. We turn nature into a desert —a kind of living death— to externalize the desert we ourselves have become inwardly.


The biblical prophets went into the desert to escape society —their social selves—and put themselves in the frame of mind necessary to know and face God, that is, have a vision of God. But Tacla´s fundamental vision is of the Godless desert itself. It is a space between God and society, neither of which makes sense to Tacla. His desert is a faceless landscape that embodies the paralyzing depression and emotional numbness —the feelinglessness implicit in the sense of hopelessness and helplessness accompanying depression— hidden behind the façade of contemporary life. Tacla’s static desert shows that it ceaseless hyperactivity is a defensive lie.


Tacla updates T.S. Eliot’s wasteland: It impinged on the lifeworld, soiling it; Tacla’s wasteland invades it, and finally overruns it —conquers life and the world. Eliot’s wasteland is an emblem of decadence: the self’s disorientation, enfeeblement, and incipient disintegration in the modern world. In contrast, Tacla’s desert symbolizes the postmodern numbness that is the final, irreversible stage of the disintegration of selfhood set in motion by modernity. In Tacla, neither God nor society can rescue —reintegrate— the self; indeed, they completely lack empathy for it, echoing its disbelief in them. Eliot was able to turn both for emotional sustenance and moral support and they responded in kind; but for Tacla, neither has any authority or power: They almost completely disintegrate in his pictures. Negated, they become ghostly apparitions-hollow shells, however haunting and memorable-as in Santiago Confessing, 1994, an imposing house of God; and in Topographical Notes, 1994, which reduces the city of Santiago, emblematic of society as a whole, to a mirage in the desert. They all but evaporate into the thin air of the desert, suggesting that the self is no longer invested in them —in anything. Both structures eloquently mirror by reason of Tacla´s synecdochic reduction of them to ironic illusions, the disintegration of the self. The self has also lost its power and authority, and can no longer claim to be immortal: It, too, has become a hallucination.


Tacla’s desert landscape does not simply become scenic foreground after being peculiarly obscene background. More ominously, the grounds conventionally constituting and differentiating pictorial space collapse into it, creating an effect of groundlessness. It becomes an undifferentiated, unchanging void. Tacla renders the desert in a very concrete, intense way; he is familiar with its every detail. But it remains peculiarly abstract perversely ineffable —despite his intimate description of it. He forces us to come close to it, to inhabit his vision of it, to experience its traumatic emptiness— its eternal, sterile solitude. It becomes shockingly —unexpectedly— personal: a pictorial projection of the desert landscape of our inner world, indicating our peculiarly abstract relationship to —our virtual absence from— our own existence.


Tacla’s image of an infinite, undifferentiated landscape is hardly new. However, such a landscape initially showed nature as a cornucopia rather than as a void. This occurred most famously in the 1511 Forest With St. George and the Dragon by Albrecht Altdorfer, the most important representative of the Danube School. As Otto Benesch writes, Altdorfer’s “astounding little picture,” the seminal work of modern landscape painting, shows an “extraordinary new feeling for nature.” (7) Tacla’s dissolution of the divisions of space into his desert landscape is completely different in spirit and import from Altdorfer’s diffusion of them in his forest landscape. In Altdorfer´s picture, space cannot be mechanically divided because it is organically alive. It is one with nature’s “exuberance and growth,” which overruns the picture, apart from a small opening. Through it we glimpse more dense, lush forest. Altdorfer uses the device of the opening —it does not become a substantial, sustained space— to show that there is more forest beyond the forest in which the picture places us; indeed, to suggest virtually endless forest, emblematic of nature’s infinite richness. Altdorfer’s forest is far from uniform, however alike the trees look. It is restlessly varied by the elemental energy that spontaneously animates it.


In stark contrast, Tacla’s desert is a bleak, barren, monotonously uniform entropic space, showing an exhausted nature. Space is of a piece because it is inorganic. Altdorfer’s forest and Tacla’s desert are rendered in equally intense, detailed ways, making them seem immediate and suggesting that they have been directly observed. But the former is a space of life, the latter a space of death. Tacla depicts a nature which has not simply lost its youth, vigor and creativity, but which becomes a rigid corpse. He in effect performs an autopsy on it. Dead, alien desert appears again and again in his art, as in A Hemispheric Problem No.1, A Hemispheric Problem No.2, both 1990, and in The Inside and the Outside, Fundamental References and Private Information “Borderline”, all 1991. One can say that Tacla’s paintings are a mediation on the desert —an in(tro)spection of the desert within.


Altdorfer’s forest turns into Tacla’s desert. Can the former be reconciled with the latter? Tacla’s nature has exhausted its promise, while Altdorfer’s “miracle of nature” has given us all that we expected and more. Indeed, it has given everything it had, while Tacla’s nature has nothing left to give. It is hard to believe that Tacla’s sterile desert and Altdorfer’s fertile forest, obviously at odds with each other are nevertheless linked. For the former is implicit in the latter. Having gloriously revealed itself in a peak experience, nature could only turn into the valley of the shadow of death. It had to become depressing-levelled.

The dissolution of nature into a “desert-ed,” groundless space—the scooping out of its being so that it became nothing—started to occur in Monet’s and especially in Turner’s impressions of nature. They are the beginning of the end of nature as a space of abundance. That is, they are the unwitting start of nature’s transformation from a flourishing, “extroverted” environment into a impoverished, depleted, involuted one— into a eschatological, introspective space (which is what desert has always been). Tacla’s General Bibliography for a Landscape, 1991, pictures this transformation from start to finish. Leafless, seemingly dead trees appear in the center panel, flanked by images of a flourishing forest. Their smallness suggests a dwindling nature and diminishing emotional returns from it. All these windows, with their miragelike revelations of nature, are embedded in an amorphous desert landscape. However subliminally, it dominates the picture.


Altdorfer’s landscape is untouched by human hands. He joyously merged with nature; he did not tamper with it. St. George is an intruder who is easily defeated by the dragon who is its spirit. But there are no dragons in Tacla’s desert: His nature has been conquered by man, and ruined. But it takes its revenge.


Tacla’s paintings, then, depict an uncreative, destroyed nature. This is one reason for their importance: They mark an epic moment. But, as I have suggested, they have greater significance: Their esthetic communicates what the end of the landscape means emotionally, that is, what the exhaustion of nature as an emotional center of gravity for life and art tell us about the modern and, finally, postmodern psyche.


In fact, Tacla’s paintings show us the underside of the postmodern psyche, the side no one dares admit let alone face: the side denied by the razzle-dazzle of sensations that postmodern culture superficially affords. (8) The postmodern is, in emotional fact, the bankrupt cul-de-sac of the modern: Postmodern sensations are more uniform —less differentiated— than one at first thinks. They are certainly not as subtly differentiated as the luminous leaves and branches of Altdorfer’s trees. Postmodern sensations are qualitatively inferior of those nature once afforded, and altogether insipid —they fall flat, and are socially state and emotionally unprofitable— compared to the desperate sensations of the disintegrating modern psyche. The postmodern is a desert disguised by an artificial forest of sensations-a forest of fake sensations. That is, the postmodern is entropic —a desert not unlike Tacla’s— but it hides its underlying uniformity and spiritlessness behind a spectacle of sensations. The “dissolute” signs that cover the surface of many of Tacla’s pictures brilliantly perform a double function: they synthesize heterogeneous modern sensations of anxiety and pseudofullness with homogeneous postmodern sensations of emptiness or nothingness.


However damaged, modern self was not completely destroyed; it suffered from annihilation anxiety, but it is not annihilated, only decaying. It is not the desert that the postmodern self is. It is the desert that Tacla’s paintings are ultimately and unconditionally about. They are an ingenious symbolization of the psychosocial catastrophe our civilization has become. It is a catastrophe that wipes out the landscape of the self so completely that it can only be symbolized by a desert —a space of such complete abandonment and absence of vital purpose it is unmeasurable by any scale. It is the sublime turned inside out: a terrain so devoid of divine purpose and human possibility it loses reality, so that it seems simultaneously abstract and concrete— a hallucination in itself, reducing whatever appears in it to its own hallucinatory state of being.


Just as abstract art, for all its ostensible antinaturalism, depends on the idea if not the image of nature and its vitality, so the modern self —to which abstract art bears profound witness— assumes nature’s abundance and power of self-renewal however often it is raped by instrumental reason. But the postmodern self is indifferent to nature, unconsciously and consciously, indicating that its inner world and affective life have become a disaster. It has committed suicide inwardly. Instrumental reason, perhaps the greatest achievement of the modern self cannot sustain it. It ultimately betrays the self that conceived it. For reliance on instrumental reason ultimately becomes self-defeating. It comes to dominate the self so completely —the self becomes obsessed with it to the extent that it becomes the self’s only serious valve— that the self becomes completely irrational. It can restore itself only by becoming completely instinctive —spontaneously impulsive— which is what Tacla struggles to do in his paintings. Since the beginning of modernity, painting has been an argument for the reasonableness of being instinctive as an antidote to the subtle poison of instrumental reason. It was then that instrumental reason took over the self that conceived it, much as the monster invented by Dr. Frankenstein took over his life.


Instrumental reason is symbolized in several ways in Tacla´s paintings, perhaps most evidently by Palladio’s consummate architecture, and the intricate geometry on which it is based. Santiago Confessing is an exemplary case. But Tacla also uses other structures to convey it, for example, the somewhat more primitive communal house of the Achuar Indians of Ecuador, which appears in Plan of a Communal House, 1994. However much this “natural” house symbolizes atavistic nostalgia for instinctive community, it also represents instrumental reason at its most constructive and socially useful. It may symbolize precolonial —presumably prelapsarian and simpler— times in comparison to Palladio’s intellectually sophisticated, elaborately fabricated, imposing and intimidating structures. Their magnificence no doubt ironically represents oppressive colonialism as well as enlightened civilization, but the Indian house also signifies, in however rudimentary form, rational social organization. Tacla represents it as a ghostlike blueprint —a diagrammatic fragment. While signaling that it is a lost world, this also indicates that it is a reasonable solution to the basic human problem of creating a social space in which a community can experience and confirm its unity —a space in which individuals can acknowledge a certain underlying commonality and conformity to one another. The intimate, informal, very personal Indian space is very unlike Palladio’s formal, universal, mathematically precise collective space. The individual seems irrelevant in it, even as it gives him a meaning as lofty and grand as its own. But both spaces serve the same basic human purpose. The Indian communal house is also a civilized and civilizing —rational and rationalizing—structure, or at least the start of one. That is, it is the raw beginning of what ripens into a refined climax in Palladio’s buildings. It should be noted that Tacla’s buildings are not always those of Palladio. Nonetheless, they are Palladian in spirit, if often more ornamental by reason of their baroque classical character. Thus represents the façade of a civic building in Santiago (Makes a Corner, 1993), the city of Santiago itself as a panoramic whole (Topographical Notes and Gradual Evolution), and construction equipment used in building (Caleta, 1991, and Physical Geography, 1994). The point remains the same: Santiago is a symbolic means for Tacla, not a representational end.


Thus, however physically different and opposite in spirit, Tacla’s ornate classical and simple Indian architecture are equally emblematic of constructive reason and communal space. But the important point is that the implacable desert stands opposed to both. The conflict between architectural space and desert space implicates deep psychosocial suffering. Tacla represents it by thorns; they often proliferate as far as the eye can see, suggesting that suffering will never end. Squaring the Circle, Inverse Operations, and Range of Points, 1993, are particularly salient examples. If an art becomes of consequence for us because it is able to construct a new contradiction that affords insight into our own contradictoriness —assuming that art exists to aid our self-understanding— then Tacla’s art is of major esthetic and human consequence. Its contribution is its power of juxtaposition: Its dialectic of architecture is the most public, “hospitable” of the arts and, as such, of inherent human interest, while the desert as an inhospitable, inhuman, lifeless place —embodies the debilitating contradiction between outer and inner worlds that haunts our lives. Tacla creates a double perspective that allows us to see each from the point of view of the other.


Tacla’s art is a profound psychosocial allegory: The conflict between architecture (social construction) and desert (dead nature) that informs it symbolizes the paradox that life has become in our civilization. We ostensibly live with others in society, but privately we live in a desert. We think we are rational and consciously try to love rich, fulfilling lives, but unconsciously —and not so unconsciously— we feel deserted, empty, purposeless. Today more than ever existence is haunted by the discrepancy —the rupture— between social, public life and the unconscious feeling of catastrophic isolation. The latter seems to reach to our roots, while the former is felt to be a façade. We are always surrounded by the architecture of society, but inwardly we live like hermits in an emotional wilderness, no longer even searching for God, any god —certainly not the one whose heaven has come down to the earth in the Santiago cathedral and simply waits for us to enter it. It seems welcoming, but when we are in it we feel neither welcome nor unwelcome, only indifferent —inwardly dead. Our sense of futility is overwhelming —an aura that anoints our whole existence— even as we go about our business in society.


This impossible, enfeebling contradiction, basic to modern human beings, has become incapacitating —a complete spiritual disaster— because it has become unresolvable: Recognition of this fact of psychological life —one’s own psychological life-is recognition of one’s postmodernity. There is no longer any way out of the contradiction, which is the irrational problematic of our lives and the beginning of the end of our civilization —the template of its decadence. It has become impossible to strike a balance between inner and outer worlds —the desert of emotional life and the architecture of society— and equilibrate them in a dynamic unity. It has even become impossible to escape from one world completely into the other, thus avoiding the contradiction —evading the living death which it is. One is trapped in it to the extent that, slowly but surely, the two worlds blur in mock fusion, so that the experience of the one becomes indistinguishable from the experience of the other. We see this ironical process in Tacla’s paintings. The inner world of the desert comes to inform and finally dissolve the outer world of architecture, and it comes to seem “deserted”. Isolation borrows the rational architecture of society like a homeless crab using a cast —off shell as a temporary shelter, and architecture seems to be an isolated statement in a void. Inner and outer worlds are neither balanced nor estranged, rather they are collapsed into each other in mock reconciliation. It is the ultimate entropic condition.


In short, Tacla’s juxtaposition of architecture and desert has several overlapping meanings. On the surface, it is an allegory of the conflict between civilization and nature. But nature has become a desert suggesting that instinct has been destroyed by reason. The architecture in Tacla’s desert seems abandoned, indicating that the self as a whole has been destroyed. There are isolated signs of construction —instruments of reason— but they are futile gestures in the void the self has become. (Tacla progressively eliminates the figure from his pictures as the desert grows in significance and resonance, so that the desert itself becomes the empty self.) There is no longer any friction between architecture and desert —not even enough to cause suffering. Thus Tacla’s desert is a dead space in which the ruins of civilization seem to be mirages. An ontological exchange occurs in his paintings: At first the desert seems to be a hallucination, but as it encroaches upon and finally engulfs the architecture, the desert appropriates its substance, reducing the architecture to a hallucinatory state. Architecture, a positive sign of civilization, becomes a shadow of itself-self-negating, as it were. The desert becomes “positively” negative-the very substance of negativity. But it was without negativity; it just “developed” one final step further. The physical basis of Tacla’s pictures is in fact the photographic negative, given added affective resonance —already by being replicated in a tactile if tentative way by paint. Tacla’s expressive painterliness seems to destroy the repression barrier, or at least makes it remarkably labile— certainly far less firm than it ordinarily is. His painterliness transforms the photograph into an emotionally charged memory the way Arshile Gorky transformed the photograph of himself and his mother into an abstract, affective, painting. (Gorky’s mother was dead at the time he made it, and he was no longer the boy in the photograph.) The epic negative becomes a lyric improvisation, as it were: Feeling is “improvised” out of a “negative” picture of the world —a kind of desert space (a negative has an aura of desertion whatever it signifies). The negative is, of course, a dark mirror of reality, and in “exploiting” its obscurity and seemingly “defective” character to make a subjective point —a point about the contemporary state of subjectivity as well as about his own subjectivity, which is inseparable from it— Tacla once and for all destroys its potential to become a “positive” picture of reality. More particularly, the process of “developing” the negative into a shadowy image projecting the catastrophic inner world confirms the bankruptcy or “darkness” of the outer world of society: It is of no help to the desolate individual. It cannot “lighten” the darkness he feels within himself, because it is even darker.


In short, Tacla breaks the photographic negative down, in effect disintegrating it completely. He turns it into a catastrophe that seems irreversible –the negative can no longer be reversed or developed into a positive picture of the world–in order to communicate the complete breakdown of inner and outer worlds. It seems impossible to build them up again –to give them a new architecture. But Tacla communicates catastrophe to give one an experience of it, so that to turn the static negative into an ironically dynamic process –for the chaos that results from disintegration looks dynamic rather than entropic at first glance– is a peculiarly healing activity. It is to touch bottom, as D.W. Winnicott says, and thus to realize the possibility of rebuilding: Tacla’s construction equipment may, after all, signal a fresh start. (No doubt Tacla’s feeling of the political and psychological catastrophe that Chile once was is implicated in his “breakdown paintings.” Also, the “breakdown” of his relationship with Chile, or at least his ambivalent relationship with it –he is no longer a boy who lives there, although he has clearly internalized it and to some extent identifies with it– probably plays a role in his pictures.)


Apart from the total negation of the photographic negative by means of the painting process that gives it ironically “positive” affective import, reduction to flatness –collapse of perspective– plays a major part in Tacla’s technique. Again and again he paints pictures of perspective –the symbol par excellence of rational, social construction and control of space– in the process of collapsing or evaporating into thin air, that is, flattening. Or else the world has already been flattened: Perspective drops in on it like a pointless non sequitur. For Tacla, flatness is emblematic of complete catastrophe, which means not only the leveling of existing construction and perspectives, but denial of any future possibility of construction.


Thus, in The Elements of Perspective No. 1, 1992, perspective hangs on for dear life –it has been reduced to a ghostly illusion, perhaps the supreme example of wishful thinking– in the face of the threat of the desert encroaching on it from the upper left and right corners of the picture. The positioning of the desert in the highest “register” of the work –its “coils” make it look like the picture’s brain– and the density of its texture in comparison to the filmy texture of the perspective construction, suggests its inevitable triumph. Mind cannot triumph over matter, which in the end overtakes it. The cathedral –emblematic of civilization as well as of the church– that embodies high-minded perspective is doomed. Tacla has in effect painted an ironical apotheosis and ascension of perspective as though it is a transcendental creation of reason –that is, an instrument of transcendence– which it is.


The tense juxtaposition –dramatic confrontation– between a symbol of “classical” reason (and of the Renaissance civilization that most embodied it) and the catastrophic desert verges on becoming violent in Study for an Angle, An Unknown Temple, both 1992, Project for a Classical Theme and Project for a Classical Problem, both 1990. It reaches climatic clarity and force in Classical Crisis, Simple Fracture, Storage Room, and Miscalculate, all 1994. In these works its basic meaning seems to break the bonds of its metaphoric construction: Tacla’s visionary contradiction between classical and desert becomes emblematic of what Michael Balint calls the basic fault, that is, the endemic process of splitting that separates and isolated the ideal from the destructive. The poignant A Day With My Wife, 1992, Tacla’s most personal work, is virtually the only one in which a balance of forces is achieved: She is emblematic of reason and light, however she is surrounded by desert stones, whose contagious grayness subtly infects her so that she becomes as diseased with disintegration as Tacla’s An Unknown Temple. (Tacla is a master of conveying the simultaneity of sacred integration and profane disintegration –disintegration profaning glorious integrity.) The tension heightens to such a point that the classical –civilized–rational disintegrates–splits–into randomly given, seemingly arbitrarily conceived, sign-relics of reason ad sign of suffering and “desertion,” as in Cone of Vision, The Box Method and Used in Duplication Surface, all 1993, and Burning, 1994. The desert finally becomes overtly dominant, a kind of harsh God, or at least an ironical Paradise, 1994.


Gray, then, comes to pervade Tacla’s classical, rational, seemingly miraculous constructions, infecting their integrity to the extent that it seems about to completely disintegrate. It certainly turns them into the proverbial pillar of salt. Gray is, after all, the color of ashes. But gray also represents incomprehension –the unthinkable, that is, what Winnicott calls an “unthinkable state of affairs.” Tacla’s paintings think the unthinkable, which in itself is catastrophic, an inner catastrophe –the ultimate agony. (9)


Thus in the end, the blind alley of Tacla’s desert –the primordial catastrophe, in effect the end of the world– becomes the primordial space of separation. That is, the psychosomatic space where abandonment is so absolute that it is inconceivable that human beings have inhabited it –that one could have existed there– even if it turns out to be an all-too-human space: the utterly raw, true inner sanctum of the inner world. It is a space of utter disillusionment, in which nothing can grow and be durably constructed –neither the eternal church nor any temple of rational thought and psychological idealism– and yet it is the logical space to personify the incomprehension of human being and Being as such.


Finally, the incomprehensible without its divine mask –which makes it perplexing, and thus emotionally as well as intellectually engaging– is death. It is ultimately death that is incomprehensible, even if it has already occurred inwardly –even it is beyond one’s control, and signals that one never really had a self of one’s own to control. Death is the ultimate “interruption” of one’s “ongoing sense of being.” (10) But it is experienced as the true symbol for the desert one suddenly finds oneself in –the sense of being completely “de-serted” and lost, so that one can never be recognized for oneself– at the moment of birth. Thus death is liberating and healing, which is part of the ironical point of Tacla’s desert.





(1) Adrian Stokes, “Painting and the Inner World,” Te Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, ed. Lawrence Gowing

      (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), III, p. 209.

(2) Ibid., p. 21.

(3) Max J. Friedländer, Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life

(New York: Schocken, 1963), p. 151.

(4) Ibid., p. 21.

(5)  D. W. Winnicott, “Fear of Breakdown,” In One’s Bones: The Clinical Genius of Winnicott,

Ed. Dodi Goldman (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), p. 42.

(6) W.R. Bion, Cogitations (London: Karnac, 1992), p. 320.

(7) Otto Benesch, “The New Attitude Towards Nature,” The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe

(London: Phaidon, 1965), p. 45.

(8) The usual argument is that in postmodernity “the medium imposes itself in its pure circulation,” generating an “obscene delirium of communication,” “a new form of schizophrenia,” in which there is endless “fascination, aleatory and psychotropic,” in the “sensory sphere.” (Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication,” The Anti-aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture. ed. Hal Foster [Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983], pp. 131-32) But this “new, ecstatic, and obscene” sensory fascination is a defense against the feelingless and depression caused by the “forced extroversion of all interiority” and “forced injection of all exteriority” (p. 132) characteristic of postmodern communication.


Baudrillard’s argument assumes that the subject cannot help but become the passive victim of communication, which in effect “constructs” it. That is, by definition the subject is unable to resist whatever society pours in and through it, for it exists only in the and through the medium of society. Thus the subject is bound to reflect society naively, that is, accept it uncritically. This argument underestimates the power of the ego –its autonomy and power of critical judgment– and in fact denies its existence, even the possibility of its existence.


No doubt society appropriates and reduces the ego’s resistance of critically to an esthetic and even criminal gesture –often simultaneously– thus nullifying its emotional purpose and import. Nonetheless, the subject its sense of being an ego –and with that the possibility of autonomy (however Sisyphean and ideal) and resisting through criticality– out of necessity that is, as a self-saving response. For sooner or later it experiences ecstasy of communication as a threat to its existence, to which it instinctively responds by insisting on its right to exist. This takes the form of a sense of being a critical, autonomous ego able to resist society, that is, not accept and escape the “ecstatic” terms on which it allows one to exist. And finally to live on different terms, if to come with it.


That is, sooner or later communication turns sour. Ecstasy disintegrates into anxiety; communication comes to be experienced as self-defeating rather than fascinating. And anxiety turns into critically –initially recognition that the ecstasy of communication is an insidious form of social manipulation– which is the spontaneous beginning of self-repair. Anxious critically is the basis of autonomy. That is, in the course of resistance to seductive socialized communication –communication which exists to engulf and deceive the senses, that is, deny them access to the reality that ecstatic communication exists to obscure– a kind of recollection and reauthentication of one’s own possibilities of being can occur, of one accepts the solitude that comes with critically.


One sees the struggle for critical autonomy in Tacla’s spontaneous, “instinctive” dissolution of the architectural instruments of reason into mirages of the mind, just as one sees his anxious acceptance of solitude in his critical use of the desert as a symbol of the subject. In the desert there is no ecstasy of communication –no socially shared, official sensory experience– which is why it is a radically subjective place. Only in the desert can one feel fully alive subjectively, for only in the desert can one escape the ecstasy of communication that robs one of one’s subjectivity. The ecstasy of communication is mind-numbing rather than mind-expanding, unlike the desert, where the subject envisions its autonomy –where it makes its stand against the world, and where the world never follows it.


It is worth noting that Baudrillard’s argument assumes that the subject has become obsolete in postmodernity. Indeed, he believes it renders psychological considerations moot: It is in effect post-psychological. This assumption elevates his own sociological approach to a superordinate position, all the more so because it falsifies, in the process of subsuming, such psychological concepts as schizophrenia.


(9) I am alluding to what Winnicott (p. 42) calls the “primitive agonies.” They include a “return to an unintegrated state,” “falling forever,” “failure of indwelling,” “loss of sense of real,” and “loss of capacity to relate to objects.” All are implicit in Tacla’s desert, a portrait of the living death of primitive agony.

(10)             Francoise Davoine, “Potential Space and the Space in Between Two Deaths,” The Facilitating Environment: Clinical Applications of Winnicott’s Theory, M. Gerald Fromm and Bruce L. Smith, eds. (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1989), p.585.



Donald Kuspit. 1995