J’ai mal à l’autre

The slowest kiss in history takes place, with heavy and soft movements, on the floor of a large museum. The public looks in awe at the scene that seems to happen outside the sphere of reality. This “constructed situation”, as its author defines it, is The Kiss, created by Tino Sehgal in 2003.

“To sigh: “to sigh for the bodily presence”: the two halves of the androgyne sigh for each other, as if each breath, being incomplete, sought to mingle with the other: the image of the embrace, in that it melts the two images into a single one: in amorous absence, I am, sadly, an unglued image that dries, yellows, shrivels.” (Barthes 2014, p. 35)

The days when physical distances could be reduced seem far away. We have never been taught how to redefine the spaces that our body can occupy, nor can it be summed up in an endless sea of rules. A meter and a half can mean an infinity of lost details, of missed encounters.

In the private domestic sphere, we put this anguish aside and get as close as we can to the image of the Other, often nailed and enclosed in a screen. Our fingers slide quickly over the keyboard and our eyes impatiently scrutinize the shapes that emerge from a black background, a total darkness. The bodies move fast and the breaths intertwine; we sweat and our heart beats faster.

Tino Sehgal, The Kiss, 2002, exhibition view at MoMA, New York.

The observer’s gaze flies from one form to another, feeling everytime more and more inside that image.
The Other, the Others, is us; we are all part of the same body. I smile and think about Lacan’s mirror theory which states that the child feels the lack of the mother’s breast as the impossibility of satisfying his own needs (Lacan 1974). In the sphere of autoeroticism one is never alone, we depict other beings in our mind with so much strength that it is possible to believe that the hands are no longer part of our body. And at that point we don’t coincide anymore with ourselves.
In this way the chiasma of perception [1] theorized by Merleau-Ponty explodes. We open our eyes and that image disappears, but it’s still us. We are not alone in the world but we form it; we are the flesh of the world, set up for an external spectator.

As Hal Foster says in The Return of the Real, on the one hand Lacan distinguishes between looking (or the eye) and the gaze, and on the other he approaches Merleau-Ponty in placing this look in the world (Foster 1996, p.140). For Lacan the gaze still exists before the subject, which, looked at from all sides, is only a “stain” in the “spectacle of the world”. More than Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Lacan challenges the old privilege of the self-aware subject of one’s own sight (also known as the “I see myself seeing”, a fundamental aspect of the phenomenological subject), and at the same time goes beyond the approach according to which the subject should be accorded a privileged position in representation. The Lacanian subject finds himself in a double position: the scholar illustrates his idea of vision by imagining two cones, the usual cone of vision emanating from a subject and a second one emanating from the object in the direction of the subject’s gaze.

The first cone of the image is the most familiar, it can be directly traced back to the Renaissance perspective: here the subject masters the object, arranged specifically for his gaze. Lacan, however, points out that the first cone is not simply oriented towards the geometric point from which the image emanates, since it is redesigned at the bottom of the eye, generating a cone in the opposite direction. The image is thus found within the eye of the subject, and the I is inevitably found within the image (Lacan 1973, p.89). This statement is equivalent to saying that the subject is at the same time subject to the gaze of the object. For this reason Lacan presents an overlapping of the two cones, which involves the overlapping of the gaze, the subject and the screen image. The last term is obscure for Foster: “the screen image” is understood as a surface or thin layer that mediates the gaze-object for the subject, but at the same time protects the subject from the gaze-object (Foster 2006, p. 141).

Foster says that for Lacan the animals are captured by the world’s gaze, they are there only on display. Human beings, on the other hand, are not reduced to “imaginary capture”, because they can access the plane of the symbolic, the screen intended as the site of showing and observing images, where we can “manipulate and moderate our gaze” (Foster 2006 p. 141).
The man in fact knows how to play with the screen, manipulating this mask behind which he hides his gaze. The screen is therefore the place behind which the subject can observe the object without being blinded by his gaze, without being touched by reality.
This being in the world together with others, being other-than-yourself has a direct impact on our willingness to look at images in which other people’s bodies erase their limits, and merge into new forms.

The nature of the pornographic image has changed a lot in recent years, from 1950s playboy newspapers, VHS movies or those broadcast at night on some pay-channel, to streaming or live video. The act of viewing moving images is conditioned by experiencing them as close to reality, as direct producers of a corporeal or embodied vision.
Furthermore, videos produced by the pornographic industry and easily accessible on the web are shot with equipment that offers high definition image, using sophisticated sound recording techniques and sets created for the occasion. The dramaturgy that characterizes them, the simple dialogues that give life to our most hidden fantasies, surprise us with a shocking impression of reality. The world bursts into our private lives.
In particular, the use of certain shooting planes makes the identification between subject and image so strong that the body of the Other could be ours, we can even play with the possibility to go beyond our own body and feel the sensations of genitals and genders that don’t belong to us. I think of all the fellatio shots in which, often framed from above, we can see how the person performs the act. There are several cases in which the shot and the chosen cadrage allow us to have a look at the situation that would have been impossible otherwise.
The subject becomes the bearer of an omnipotent gaze and enjoys the privilege of being everyone and no one at the same time, a sensation exacerbated by the fact that we observe while we masturbate. It is here that the apex of the unions between the bodies is recorded. It may happen that we no longer perceive our hands as appendages, we become the Other in the image. We are both spectators and actors in a scene that takes place simultaneously in our home and on the screen.
One could therefore says that masturbation constitutes a way of reading pornographic images, generating a certain way of interpreting them (Ullen 2009).

In this text I wanted to combine the expression “screen image” used by Lacan with the technological device that allows us to enjoy the images. The sensation of being catapulted into reality, through the display of hyper-realistic images, triggers the illusion of a mental journey in which we leave the room to be one with the screen.While pornographic videos mimic reality by pretending that the mediation of the camera does not exist, another way to consume pornographic images can be through photographs. Photographs, however, operate by fragmenting the real in a series of moments, making it a statement that will not be reachable [2].
Here lies the paradox: it is precisely the moving images that are often the most mediated, but it is those who simulate reality in a greater way. In the gap between these two types of images Thomas Ruff’s series of photographs Nudes is positioned. In this text I retrace some elements of photography with a brief analysis of semiotic inspiration in which it can be observed how the German artist creates a break, wounds the pornographic image through a screening technique called blurring. The action of “eliminating the fourth wall” typical of the pornographic industry is here overturned and questioned thanks to the plastic qualities of the work, which offer a different meaning than that usually given by the figurativeness of photography [3].
Ruff presents a series of photographs depicting sexual scenes of different kinds which were found on the Internet and then edited in order to make the figurative representation of the act difficult to be recognised.
Ruff observes the proliferation of images of sexual nature on the web in the early 2000s, which have such a low resolution that they do not satisfy the illusion of truthfulness sought by the user in viewing them.
The artist chooses to apply a blurring that prevents the easy and direct recognition of the figures, which limits the vision and makes difficult the observer to connect the forms, which constitute the plane of expression, with the corresponding concepts on the plane of content.
The blurring here stands as an element or punctum [4] that erases the enunciative component of photography.
The glance between the figures, the look from the photograph is cancelled, and with it the inclusion of the observer in the text. In addition, the shades of colour are grouped into plastic formants [5] that erase the figurative representation of the photograph, combining bodies, gestures and speed into shapeless spots that do not belong to our world. The flat surface of the photographs is material, dissolved with brushstrokes of fresh paint, as Richter does in some of his Fotobilder.
Although photography has historically been thought of as a means of faithfully representing reality, the Nudes series is the perfect example of the reasoning here. As Foster writes, “Thus a perfect illusion is not possible, and, even if it were possible it would not answer the question of the real, which always remains, behind and beyond, to lure us. This is so because the real cannot be represented; indeed, it is defined as such, as the negative of the symbolic, a missed encounter, a lost object (the little bit of the subject lost to the subject, the object a)” (Foster 2006, p. 159).
Moreover, superrealism “is also involved in this combat, but superrealism is more than a tricking of the eye. It is a subterfuge against the real, an art pledged not only to pacify the real but to seal it behind surfaces, to embalm it in appearances.” (Foster, 2006 p. 159).
On the other hand Lacan elaborates a theory of trauma proposed in Séminaire, where he defines the “the traumatic as a missed encounter with the real. As missed, the real cannot be represented; it can only be repeated, indeed it must be repeated.” (Foster 2006, p.137).
The blurring action performed by Ruff in the series is therefore a visual operation that represents our missed encounters with reality. These signs, which seem almost accidental, are repetitive and automatic, acting as punctum that tears the screen and allows the real to break in.

And we remain catapulted into reality, alone, watching all these caresses and missed encounters.


[1] In The visible and the invisible, Merleau-Ponty overcomes the Sartrian dichotomy of the relationship between subject and object to arrive, through a phenomenological “ascent”, at a condition of being that is shared between man and the world. Man and the world are made of the same flesh, they are in a relationship of continuity, since the subject is simultaneously object, sentient and felt, touching and touched. In Perception Phenomenology Merleau-Ponty will state that it is this fact that allows every consciousness to be perceptive consciousness, that is, that consciousness continuously reveals an area of primary and original sharing between consciousness and the world around it.

[2] Although in linguistics the enunciation is defined as “the passage from the virtualities of the language to the enunciated discourse” seen from the perspective of generative semiotics it becomes: “the enunciation is the semiotic instance responsible for the passage from semio-narrative to discursive structures”. According to Algirdas Julien Greimas, the enunciation is not pertinent to semiotic theory: the concrete act of production of meaning, in itself, is unattainable to analysis so the simulacrum of that enunciation can be analyzed. Generative semiotics takes up Benveniste’s three categories “I”, “here” and “now” and for this reason it is said that the enunciator, in his “making enunciation”, introduces the paradigmatic categories of the person, space and time, in a syntagmatic form in the enunciation. Through these categories a text becomes autonomous respect to the act of enunciation, a process that Greimas defines as débrayage or defusing.

[3] The semiotics of the visible and the generative path of meaning proposed by Algirdas Greimas analyses texts taking into account that planar or three-dimensional artistic images have a figurative language and a plastic language. The figurative language is the one that allows to recognize the objects of the world reproduced by the artist, while the plastic language is the one that allows to obtain meanings in the image beyond the imitation of the reality it represents.

[4] “The punctum is a detail that strikes and kidnaps the observer, it is the effect produced by a unique and sudden event that takes the observer away from the more or less codified reading of the photo, putting him in immediate contact with himself, arousing an irreducible emotional reaction to every order of speech.” in Intorno all’immagine edited by Pina De Luca, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano 2008, p. 25.

[5] Following the figurative analysis, a plastic analysis can be carried out, within which three fundamental components are identified: the topological or spatial organization of the picture, the eidetic organization and the chromatic organization. The plastic formants are the graphic traits, coloured areas or lines that evoke a meaning within the composition.


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Calabrese, O 2008, Come si legge un’opera d’arte, Mondadori Università, Milano.

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Foster, H 2012, Il ritorno del reale, Postmedia Books, Milano.

Lacan, J 1973, Le séminaire, libro XI, Edition du Seuil, Parigi.

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