The Happy Clown
Aspects of Ugo Rondinone’s Work between Slow Motion and Authenticity

Jan Winkelmann

Slow Motion
Last week I was at the dentist’s. And as I lay there in the dentist’s chair, observing the cloud-bedecked sky outside the window, I felt – despite the obligatory anaesthetic – a dull pain in the nerve of the tooth that was being filed down for an inlay. The sitting lasted three hours. On such occasions one has time to reflect on many things. One thinks of everything and nothing at the same time, just as one does when driving down the motorway. As I continually caught myself opening my eyes to contemplate the undramatically grey November sky outside, registering once more the flickering of that seemingly far-off pain, the situation suddenly appeared very familiar to me. It reminded me of a basic sensation which I have experienced at nearly all of Ugo Rondinone’s installations, without, however, reflecting on the similarity at the time. It is a sensation of time slowing down, of reality becoming hesitant, and of its perception becoming a kind of existential slow motion. The world around one sees to come to a halt, to stand still for this moment in time. In this state of consciousness one is granted a revelation of the entire range of one’s own existence. That faculty within one which normally regulates perception of outside reality is for the moment suspended, the self freed from the parameters that otherwise constitute its being. In his novel The Stranger (1940), Albert Camus has this moment of the protagonist’s coming into consciousness culminate in an absurd act of murder, committed by chance. Just before the crisis, the hitherto sober, almost dead-pan narrative style changes pace to a lyrically slow-motion account of events: “At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded by the curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver.” (1) Within the action of the novel this moment marks the point at which the protagonist recognises for the first time the reality of his own existence. Such moments are also a part of Rondinone’s installations, causing the observer to pause in his or her individual career, to break out of the routine of everyday existence – an existence which for reasons of psychological economy the self does not register as such. Whereas in Camus’ novel the shimmering heat of the Algerian sun triggers a spontaneous, completely unjustified reaction in the “stranger”, resulting in his experiencing himself with utter immediacy for the very first time, Rondinone makes use of artificial information sources, derived from the world of contemporary mass media, such as pop songs, videos, found footage, and photographs, which he concentrates in his complex installations to create “real” experiential spaces. The fiction, the artificiality of the installations is not veiled over; on the contrary, it is emphatically presented to the observer. Rondinone’s works are, despite all the formal and aesthetic differences between them, to choose a rather off-hand metaphor, like tranquillisers which slow down the linear flow of being and thus our perception of reality, opening up an experiential space which on the one hand allows an emotional identification with the latter and on the other hand allows for distanced reflection.

In an age of data highways with no speed limits, of information overkill and of the progressive consumer fetishisation of our environment, Laura Hoptman’s “contemporary grail-like search for an authentic experience” (2) appears almost like an altruistic yearning for an immediacy which has been lost in the heat of combat. To many observers of the contemporary scene, the rise of techno culture since the early nineties, though now degenerated to a mainstream phenomenon, appears to be based on a nostalgic reaction to our current directionlessness, while at the same time feeding upon its own nostalgia. The comparison may sound unusual, but it appears to me that it is possible to make, if not an immediate, at least an indirect comparison here, in order to differentiate the longing for authenticity, as it appears in the works of Rondinone, from a contemporary, affirmative hedonism that still enjoys such a high reputation among young people, even in this post-techno era. In the latter, authenticity manifests itself through the tones of loud bass music, through ecstatic, trance-like dancing, and not least through the supportive effects of synthetic drugs. In comparison, the experiential potential of Rondinone’s installations, as far as their medial realisation is concerned, is as many-sided as techno’s obsessive search for authenticity – through its mechanisms of amplification – is one-dimensional. Music is one of these mechanisms, dancing another, and since together they are not enough, the experience of authenticity is further intensified by the use of synthetic drugs. The effect aimed at by Rondinone could very well be compared in its structure with a similar state of euphoria – without taking this comparison too literally. For Rondinone’s installations foster the experience of the self using a range of mutually supportive medial and narrative components, operating not so much on a superficial, sensual plane as an aesthetic, reflexive one. The result is the fiction of an immediate reality trip which in the case of club culture takes place primarily in the here and now – in Rondinone’s experiential spaces on the other hand in dimensions over and beyond that. The full psychological potential of his installations, and thus their power, is often revealed after one’s experience of them is over. A further not insignificant difference in this respect – and here we once again touch on the phenomenon described above – is the sensation of time, which in the one case increases almost exponentially and in Rondinone’s works slows down almost to a stop, thus allowing the immediate experience of reality qua reality.

In connection with this hunger for authenticity, it is interesting to note the dismantling of all sexual taboos in our society, together with a radicalisation of sexual practices. One sees this trend celebrated every day in countless talk shows and evening programs which, in showing and telling all, precisely foster exhibitionism. As an immediate expression of a yearning for the ultimate kick, this freeing of sexuality from the corset of convention may justifiably be seen as yet another consequence of the causes mentioned above. The individual ego, a product of an overinformed world that has lost all sense of identity, almost inevitably develops, so it appears, mechanisms to help it deal with the aggressive conventionalisation of that area of human intimacy and personal individuality which, precisely because they are intimate and personal, has always hitherto been considered inviolable. Rondinone’s latest photographic series uses motifs from the world of S&M and patent leather fetishism – a world in which the immediate juxtaposition of oppression and submission, the limits of pain and pleasure, the simultaneity of inwardness and extroversion, are concentrated in an exemplary manner and thus represent a sublime experiential zone of immediate authenticity, such as can seldom be experienced so ambivalently and existentially in other areas.

The Dandy as Clown as Sisyphus
Many essays on Ugo Rondinone refer at length to the role of the dandy, in both Rondinone’s own life and in his works: the dandy as a subject born of melancholy, the dandy as bon viveur, enjoying life’s refinements, and the exquisite aesthetic experiences they afford him – and the dandy as a reflecting, distanced observer of himself (3). In this connection, reference is often made to Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel Against Nature (1884), as an example of decadence par excellence. (4) Without doubt, Floressas des Esseintes, with his flaunted ennui, fleeing from the world, and misanthropy, linked with his craving for singular aesthetic experiences, may be a “classical” dandy – and in this sense a comparison with some of Rondinone’s works is absolutely justified. Yet it appears to me that another figure closer to our own times provides an equally revealing point of comparison, a figure that, as far as I am aware, has not been mentioned in this connection: Andy Warhol, the dandy of pop culture par excellence (5). Many of the attributes mentioned above undoubtedly apply to him, with the difference that Warhol sought to flee from the world not so much by retreating into seclusion but by plunging into the centre of things.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of evidence in this respect is Warhol’s A. A Novel, which appeared in 1968, and which is based entirely on transcriptions of tape recordings. Warhol recorded everything that anybody said during a 24-hour period in the Factory and then had the tapes transcribed in their entirety. The result is a novel that consists of endless conversations and thus constitutes a direct record of its time, providing a wealth of information on the milieu in which Warhol lived and on his legendary Silver Factory. The aimlessness of the conversations reflect not only the boredom of the countless people who hung around the Factory day and night, the artists (of life), the junkies and other members of New York’s underground whom Andy Warhol had declared to be superstars. It also demonstrates in an exemplary way how Warhol compulsively tried to make a record of just about every moment of his life. The moment of reflective observation characteristic of the dandy is – through this manic recording of every tiniest detail of his life and the heaping up of information – inflated by Warhol ad absurdum. Rondinone’s work Days Between Stations, a compilation of – at the last count – 300 one-hour videos which has been evolving as a work in progress since 1993, may stand as a reflexion on Warhol’s project. The artist recorded his immediate living area in real time using a fixed camera, and then played back the result without sound. The simplicity, banality and eventlessness conveyed by the videos, besides establishing a cross-reference to Warhol, once more recall that process of the slowing down of time, since when they are played back in real time, narrated time and time of narration coincide, enveloping the observer in this continuum. Certainly, the generally valid reputation of Andy Warhol as a workaholic constantly delegating tasks to others may not correspond to the ennui of the classic dandy. But behind the facade there slowly emerged over the years not only a shy but also – from the mid-seventies onwards – an increasingly bored, world-weary Warhol, as Bazon Brock put it in an obituary, the “personification of characterlessness.” (7)

In their monotonous eventlessness and their turning their back on the world – in the centre of it all and in the middle of nothing – the clowns (8), which constantly appear as a leitmotif in Rondinone’s work, can be seen as an image of the contemporary dandy as archetypically embodied in Warhol. Their boredom and the manner in which they are cut off from the real flow of time is on the one hand an expression of their characteristic melancholy, which they embody primarily in their role as interface and intermediary between the real world and artificial reality. On the other hand, their function of holding up an ironic mirror to society – as could that ancestor of all clowns, the court jester, without fear of punishment – may, in the light of Warhol’s comprehensive oeuvre, be put forward as evidence for the assertion that Dandy Warhol is indeed the clown par excellence. Further evidence is the very fact that we know so little about the individual behind the facade that the artist so carefully staged and tended. If we continue this train of thought and stretch it maybe a little further by assuming that the clown is fully conscious of the role he plays and permanently reflects upon it, we could cite The Myth of Sisyphus – to bring Albert Camus back into the discussion again – to put forward the hypothesis that the clown is not so much a melancholy individual as an extremely happy one, throwing a completely different light on the motif of the clown in Rondinone’s work.

In his philosophical essay (9) Camus refers to the story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, citing Sisyphus’ fate as the epitome of the absurd in human existence. Starting from the premise that the world exists without rhyme or reason, and that life is consequently absurd and without hope (10), Camus represents the existence of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to push a rock up a mountain for eternity, as the archetype of absurdity. Starting out from the premises of existential philosophy, Camus deduces that the true tragedy of Sisyphus lies in his consciousness of this fact – in which respect he may be compared with both the clown and the dandy in their self-reflective roles on the fringes of society. The sentence that has been imposed by force on Sisyphus also brings him incredible freedom, for his consciousness of his fate also provides the means of surmounting that fate. “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” (11) In this paradox lies Sisyphus’ hope and in the last analysis his salvation. The same applies to the absurdity of the clown’s hybrid existence, located between the real and the artificial, and therefore the clown too has a similar opportunity of overcoming the contradictions of his existence. To end with an adaptation of the last sentence of Camus’ essay: One must imagine the clown happy.

(1) Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), page 59.
(2) Laura Hoptman “Against Nature”, Parkett, No. 52, page 133.
(3) See Jan Verwoert in Parkett, No. 52, page 125.
(4) The most extensive treatment of this theme is by Christopher Doswald in his “Oh Dandy, Oh Dandy...”, in Ugo Rondinone. Where Do We Go from Here. Catalogue of the International Biennale of Sao Paolo, unpaged.
(5) It would be an interesting exercise to analyse the – at first glance not very apparent but nevertheless manifold – allusions in Rondinone to Warhol in a separate essay.
(6) Andy Warhol, A. A Novel, (New York: Grove Press, 1968)
(7) See Art. Das Kunstmagazin, No. 4, 1987, page 11.
(8) See Pierre-André Lienhard, “Portraits of the Artist as a Clown: From Flight to Immobility” in Ugo Rondinone. Where Do We Go from Here. Catalogue of the International Biennale of Sao Paolo, unpaged. This essay presents a comprehensive analysis of the role of the clown in Rondinone’s work and the development of this motif in general in the history of culture.
(9) The original appeared in 1942 in the Librairie Gallimard (Paris) under the time Le Mythe de Sisyphe. The first English translation, by Justin O’Brien, appeared in 1955.
(10) See Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, New York, Knopf, 1955.
(11) Ibid., page 123.

(Translation: Stephen Richards)

Published in: Ugo Rondinone. Guided by Voices, Cat. Kunsthaus Glarus und Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (Cantz-Verlag), 1999.

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German version