PRINT November 1990


IN THE CIMITERO DEI CAPPUCCINI in Rome, a forbidden fruit of lapidary style, I found myself tipsy with a morose and peculiar vision—overwhelmed, engulfed, supersaturated. The designs and mise-en-scènes of this ossuary as art are arranged from innumerable human bones, the skeletons of over 4,000 of the Capuchin monastic order’s 17th-century brothers, displayed by their survivors as an unashamedly ornamental attack on death. The syntax is so rich and evocative as to border on logorrhea. The style is so purple as to spill over into ultraviolet.

The monks whose bones create this macabre installation were true if bizarre artists, yet their crypt is little known today outside a rarefied circle of horror devotees. I searched for more than 45 minutes to find it, though I knew its address. No signs. No help from the guidebook. No lines of tourists outside. How could this be? At some time or another we’ve all read Poe, with his abominable landscapes of dank, subterranean dungeons. The Capuchin crypt is a Baroque version of the Poe or Gothic novel—and it’s one you can actually enter. Furthermore, the strange semblances of countenance in this place are hideous simulacra of expressions from the art history on which we the living feed. At the same time, this magical cave resonates with a dream of the fearful faraway beyond the border—a fecund, silken, opulent dream of the ages before and after the human moment, a place beyond our space. What we have here is a real death cult.

And yet, at a time when our critical abilities have been systematically bastardized by media saturation and bludgeoned by decades of commerciality, the Capuchin monks’ convoluted visual style and depraved fantasies are to most Americans what a Robert Ryman painting is to a teenage connoisseur of New Kids on the Block. They are merely noise, impenetrable and irrelevant at best, or, just as likely, disturbingly alien. More’s the pity, because the Capuchin crypt speaks with a voice both compelling and complete. It sings an epiphany that palpably influenced my life. The crypt is such a powerful icon that it thrashed out of me my skepticism about the limits of eerie fantasy. I felt about me a disembodied, naughty, skinless silence. The skeletons seemed to stir and quiver as they seethed about abhorrently. Behind them poured others in countless array.

We live now in the age of the electronic picture, when representation, if not exactly deconstructed, is diffused and dissolved into the media network. Everyone knows this, but it’s my impression that many artists today haven’t really registered the death of the old paradigm. They’re still repeating Andy Warhol–style simulation—the contemporary esthetic status quo, as I see it. I’m thinking of those artists who merely push some sort of kitsch into one of the various theorizations of the post-Modern. This kind of art has a very superficial glamour (one of the things that ties the work back to Warhol), but work like this is easily assimilated by the forces of bland conformity.

The Capuchin crypt may have a similarly overdetermined narcissism, but there narcissism consumes itself. The effect is not melodramatic but tragic, and as such it shames the contemporary art that merely illustrates the status quo. The crypt offers an insight into vanity’s nothingness. Its flower-arrangement-like nihilism may seem remote from the concerns of today’s media-sensitive artists, but there’s obviously a connection between this fatal attitude and the present-day phenomenon of the death of the image through hyperbolic overuse and its attendant disintegration anxiety. The crypt posits art as a multilayered ruin of literally dead signs. That ruin speaks to us of the release of the flesh (of the image) from object into millenarian field.

As in the recent reconcentration on the body in art, an artistic response to the AIDS catastrophe, images placed in the crypt’s semichaos and ferment create a paradoxically vital emotional release. Blood, excrement, madness, ecstasy, all join in the great flow of life and death through all living or once-living bodies, through all matter. The place made me feel that anything that falls short of this spectacle, anything less terrifying, less crazy, less intoxicated, less contaminated, is counterfeit art. It dissolves form, the human body, into a weirdly formal kind of chaos, a combination of Baroque elegance with a sense of the great discordant rout toward death and dissolution. Like the wastes of our own day, this crumbling monument to human self-awareness, with its crazy maggot dance, is a great ready-made fresco of our time.

Contemporary art’s reification of the image is in part an attempt to remystify the image system—to admit that the superficial repetition of empty signs is all we have left to us, and then to find meaning in that repetition. But this art of pure sign exchange needs some sublime horror like that of the Capuchin crypt to protect reification from being just that. Whether excessive or reductive, images need to make their peace with the indistinctions of chaos, the ultimate integration of form into its original unmarked ground. To me, the death of form in contemplative vision signified by the mingled bones of the crypt is a terrific configuration of art. This encounter with the limits of image-making creates the opportunity for the transgression of those limits, for an ecstasy of thought and action. The dominant force and the real religion of our time is the technical specialization of society, but the more overwhelming and restrictive the social mechanism becomes, the more exaggerated should be the resultant ecstatic reactions. Such elaborate, rich expressions of unity and continuity, reconciled under a single formal aegis in post-post-Modernism, would take today’s spliced-genre style of art to a new and grander synthesis.

Observing the dissolution of all self-representation in the promiscuity of the communications network, today’s meta-Conceptual art offers us a new image of self that counters the old notion of the isolated bourgeois subject. My sense of this new construct was enhanced by my visit to the crypt, which seemed to me to collapse the traditional idea of the distinction between self and other in the realization that we are all but schematic information. Similarly, the crypt made me feel that the precarious glittering life of today’s representations is made up simply of all the images they have succeeded in disintegrating and recomposing. The eye can scan and identify them only because their structure is the dark, concave, inner side of past images. The crypt is, in a sense, the representation of all representations—it is an attempt to represent the unlimited field of representation. It urged on me the idea of a picture in which what matters is no longer any identity or any distinctive character, but great hidden forces. In such pictures, things and bodies would be represented only from the depths of this density, perhaps blurred and darkened by its obscurity, but bound tightly together, inescapably grouped. Human forms, their connections, the blank space that isolates them and surrounds their outline, all these would be represented to our gaze decomposed, already articulated in that nether darkness that ferments us, with time, into a continuous, unrestricted expansion of self. This would be a process of representation that would not construct and maintain sexual and other difference. It would work against the completing, reassuring, mystifying representations of ideology. Its immense burden of meaning and awe would loosen and humble traditional self-definition. I hope it would reveal our inner states—our pieties, and our convictions of final and real meaning.

Nonrepresentational representation like this, inevitably, would also attest to bodily loss and decay. It is perhaps an unimaginable image, which we nevertheless must imagine. The crypt’s majestic, ponderously intense terror, its postapocalyptic subliminal power, offers us today a sweeping view of our ultimate destination, complete with long, painful, beautiful washes of feeling and realization. Both supercoded and anticoded, it presents us with the fact that there is an unpresentable that art must try to present.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist who lives in New York. A collection of his writings was published recently by Editions Antoine Candau, Paris.

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