The Space in Between
Mallarmé est la source contemporaine... Il invente inconsciemment l’espace moderne [...] Un coup de dés. Ce serait un traité de l’art. Le dernier en date, celui de Léonard de Vince, a perdu son importance, car il accordait aux arts plastiques une place trop grande et on le devine aujourd’hui, à ses maîtres (les Médicis).
For landscape to come about, consciousness, beyond the separate elements, must form an entirely new whole, apart from the separate meanings of those elements and not automatically derived from the sum of those elements.
Casting the Die Why would anyone still want to applypaint to canvas? Although that question has been asked ad infinitum ever since the heyday of conceptual art in the 1970s, it remains crucial to every con- temporary painter. This is certainly the case when it concerns an artist who has emphatically integrated the heritage of conceptual artists into his own thinking and practice, and who subsequently takes it into his head to create paintings that seem to perpetuate the tradition of abstract and monochrome painting– one of the primary objectives of conceptual violence. So, once again, and all the more poignantly: what is it that remains to be painted in the abstract, or monochrome, and how? Does anything actually still happen in such painting, or is it simply remembering, repeating something that has already been done (thousands of times) in the past, and which is now a thing of the past? In the oeuvre of Jean-Marie Bytebier, we find a stubborn, hard-to-unravel paradox. In it, two important traditions come together, which, like cat and dog, still seem to relate to one another. First, there is the centuries-old pictorial tradition, which extends into abstract and monochrome painting, that of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich, to and including American abstract expression- ism, for example by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Despite the uncommon radicalism and ever more far-reaching reduction of abstract painting, that tradition is still there, serving as a window into the work of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, a window that looks out onto, or at least evokes, a ‘possible’, or ‘other’ world. In other words, a painting is always a vehicle that brings the viewer into a world that is different from the specific ‘here and now’ in which the canvas and the viewer coincidentally happen to find themselves. It is precisely this that fundamentally changed in the 1960s, with minimalist art and conceptual art that succeeded abstract expressionism. American minimalist art was at the time poignantly described by art historian Michael Fried as a form of ‘literal art’2, art that refuses to be a representation, refuses to provide an image that refers to some different world. Literal art is iconoclastic: the (total) image is destroyed in order to make way for an experience of space and time. The only space or time in the work of art is the concrete ‘here and now’. Indeed, this purely personal, particular experience or situation is the work of art. It is critical to this experience that the objects that are presented by the artist are conceived as nothing more than or different from a literal, banal object or thing, and that they remain so in the experience of the viewer. On the one hand, there are the objects (nothing other than impenetrable, meaningless matter), and on the other, the reflections and the projections of the viewer (nothing other than concepts). The ‘event’ that makes this situation a ‘work of art’ can only and exclusively find its origins in the momentary, ‘coincidental’ relationships between the objects, the viewers and the specific space or context in which they both find themselves.
Minimalist art and conceptual art, indebted to Marcel Duchamp’s Foun- tain (1917) and to the collages of Kurt Schwitters, not only were a reaction against the abstract expressionism of their immediate predecessors, but also marked a decisive break with a centuries-old pictorial and sculptural tradition. In the 1950s, Barnett New- man could still claim that his gigantic, almost monochrome canvases evoked ‘absolute emotions’ in his viewers.3 It is this kind of claim to all-encompassing truths, insights or experiences that binds monochrome painting with the age-old aspirations of purity and poetic truth. In the 1960s, in ‘literal art’, these were skilfully deconstructed and eradi- cated.
It is not only Marcel Duchamp who is referred to as the father of these deconstructions, but also the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. One poem by Mallarmé, posthumously published, is entitled Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance). The publication consists of a single, long poem, but there is no question of any linear narrative structure. The verses are strewn across the pages in a whimsical pattern. Words are displayed on the paper, sometimes within one and the same line, in various fonts and cases. The typography and layout are as reminiscent of a newspaper as of poetry.
In contrast to traditionally arranged texts, there is far greater emphasis on the formal and material aspects of letters, words, phrases and even the white spaces between them. Whenever he had doubts about the selection of a word, Mallarmé left an empty space where the word was meant to be. Johan Vanbergen claimed that the free verse of Un coup de dés appears like a constructed space, in which the tension between words and verses shifts to the white spaces between them. Like Vanbergen, Marcel Broodthaers (in the opening quote) also claims that Stéphane Mallarmé constructs a (new) ‘space’. The essence of space lies in the fact that you can never, ever, see it all or contain it all in a single (total) image. In this sense, pure space and pure image cancel one another out. The reader or viewer of Mallarmé’s poem finds him- self in a complex, heterogeneous space. The poet is part of that same space. Just like the reader or viewer, he never gains complete access, never has an overview. This blind spot, which cannot be eliminated, and which in Mallarmé’s poem manifests itself as white spaces between characters that are sometimes under tension, generates an empty space in the reader or viewer that can never be filled, a shortcoming that can- not be rescinded. To put it differently, a vision or an experience of the world can never come together with its object, with that world, and the subject of that vision or experience can never, ever, come together with itself. Another word for this chasm is ‘coincidence’. It is the impossibility, as a (rational, modern, individual) subject, of comprehending the world or the cosmos as a homogeneous object, in order to integrate it in its entirety into one’s own imagination or knowledge, making it one’s own. Un coup de dés can be read or seen in many different ways. No single reading or approach gives the reader or viewer a total picture. The world that forms itself in the reading of this poem, the world that looms up out of it, forever remains particular, fragmentary, incomplete, multifaceted. Its appearance flows in equal measure from the choices made by the reader or viewer and from those of the poet. An observation of the cosmos allows us, strictly or literally, to see as much as we see when we throw the dice: a coincidental constellation of dots. Coincidence is a whimsical unruliness against all forms of idealization, something that nonetheless does not prevent the human brain from imagining a cosmos in those dots.
A high-quality modernist work of art, according to Michael Fried, is the absolute opposite of the personal and fragmentary ‘experiences’ of literal art. It is at any time completely ‘present’, which is to say that it can be experienced and understood, by a fully alert viewer, in a single moment. In Fried’s opinion, a great many of the abstract or monochrome paintings in abstract expressionism fit this criterion. It is clear that not only the space-related and time-related situations or experiences of minimalism, but also Mallarmé’s heterogeneous and coincidental constellations of characters, are diametrically opposed to that notion. In 1969, Marcel Broodthaers produced his own ver sion of Mallarmé’s publication. He used black bars to ‘blind out’ the entire text. In its severity, this is Broodthaers’ most minimalist work. Readers can look at it the way a cow looks at a train, or they can allow themselves to be carried along with the rhythm with which the bars dance across the pages.
For more than two decades, Jean- Marie Bytebier has been creating paintings that are suspiciously akin to the abstract and monochrome tradition; one might even suspect him of being the creator of yet another out-of-date, pseudo-romantic version of abstract expressionism. However, his work has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that. A better acquaintance with Bytebier’s oeuvre makes it abundantly clear how much, from his early work in the late 1980s to his most recent paintings, he is indebted to the conceptual tradition, especially in the aspects illustrated above, and how, nourished by these insights, he makes contemporary pictorial images. How is it, then, that he is able to combine the interests of the image, of the space and of the concept, the autonomy of pictorial creation, and the specific here and now of personal experience? Here we find a stubborn paradox, out of which a coherent, yet at the same time exceptionally multi- faceted oeuvre has resulted. We will undoubtedly need a bit of concentration and tenacity to untangle the knot. Let us in any case begin by being forewarned: the painter who brought Marcel Broodthaers into contact with Mallarmé’s work, in 1946, René Magritte gave the 22-year-old poet a copy of Un coup de dés as a gift, was a notorious mastermind in inventing pitfalls.
In the photographic records of several of the young Jean-Marie Bytebier’s solo exhibitions from the late 1980s, it is immediately striking that not only the drawings, but the paintings as well, are small. At that time, this was by no means commonplace. In the 1980s, in a far-reaching reaction against the dominance of conceptual art, figurative, gestural and symbolically laden painting was experiencing a heyday. In the work of the German Neue Wilden, the Italian Transavanguardia and the likes of (in the context of Belgium or Ghent) a Marc Maet or Philippe Vandenberg, this primarily took the form of a strong narrative or mythological dimension. The need for expression demanded large formats, gestures or statements. Bytebier’s atypical preference for small canvases was something he shared with Bert De Beul and Luc Tuymans, among others, who were also beginning to exhibit their work in this period. In sharp contrast to these painters, however, Bytebier’s work has never found its sources in photographic material and nowhere is there a human presence to be found. Bytebier had no intention of reproducing some personal battle, or of evoking or exorcising trauma. His work never began with sensory perception. Bytebier creates constructions. His purpose or desire is comprised of creating autonomous forms in order to formulate very abstract ideas.
This early work is characterized by a thin layer of paint, a sober, reductive use of colour and an extremely elementary language of form. Initially, there were still traces of symbolism within these forms. The recurring motif of a stylized skull, for example, stands for thought, the leaf of a tree for nature and a chalice for religion. But most of the time, the leaps of thought that the artist took as starting points or principles for his paintings were so striking, personal, or even willfully naive that the original meanings are impossible for the viewer to trace. The forms automatically take on a life of their own. It may be that the painter gave himself the assignment of carrying out or presenting simple actions. Such assignments might sound a bit didactic or simplistic, but they are mostly painterly in character: ‘What if I were to double the horizon in this landscape?’; ‘What if I mount a frame on top of a canvas?’; ‘What if I move the painted image to the viewer?’ It is sometimes a strongly schematic product of a non-painterly act: ‘How can I climb into the crown of a tree? I can do that by carving indentations in the trunk.’ In a significant number of canvases, we see a collection of apparently haphazardly arranged stains. Ac- cording to their creator, they are about the experience of time and cosmology. Indeed, for Bytebier, it has to do with the way people try to experience and perceive the cosmos and the images and thoughts that such perceptions provoke in them.
In those earliest exhibitions, the small canvases or panels were arranged in groups, or ‘constellations’, alongside and above one another. According to their maker, each of these canvases meant very little on its own. It was Bytebier’s explicit and central purpose to ‘formulate abstract ideas in autonomous forms’. Nonetheless, this manner of presentation primarily revealed an artistic practice that fundamentally questions the autonomy of the individual painting and the possibility of making delineated and definitive statements within it. The individual painting is only one of the components of what is happening, which takes place in between the various canvases, the viewer and the specific exhibition space. Because it is impossible to take in the entire heterogeneous constellation in a single instance and the viewer is consequently coerced into zooming in on one or at most a couple of canvases, he or she loses the overview and then sets out to define his or her own visual trajectory along the different components of the constellation. Every experience of the work of art is by definition personal, fragmentary, momentary and provisional, in short, spatial and temporary. Here, the ‘empty spaces’ between the canvases, in other words, the concrete wall of the gallery space, is inextricably part of (the experience of) the work. In an exhibition catalogue published a little later, in 1991, the specific relationships between the paintings, the viewers and the space, and the resulting tension between image and space, the central paradox of Bytebier’s oeuvre, was particularly poignantly described: "Mais deux indices surtout struc- turent l’évolution actuelle de l’oeuvre, les toiles de 1989, 1990, 1991: d’une part, le sentiment que chaque tableau n’est qu’un seg- ment d’un tout qui rameute tous les autres, et d’autre part, l’unicité de chaque moment d’espace saisi comme en apesanteur. Contradic- tion? Non, car le recours à des filiations entre toiles et l’aspect aérien se conjuguent pour remettre en discussion les origines du faire pictural."
In the exhibition Broken Ideas (1989), the work of the same title held a central place. This was comprised of five can- vases, each of which expresses an important part of the relationship between man and the world, respectively, from right to left, ‘nature’, the ‘intellect’, the ‘phenomenon’, ‘religion’, and finally, with a greater space setting it apart, the ‘march of time’, which, according to Bytebier’s simple, almost didactic logic, must set the interaction between the four domains in motion. If we continue to pursue the logic of the artist, then the greater distance separating the final canvas symbolize the irreparable breach in the relationship between man and the world, the origin of the fragment, the impossibility of formulating or visualizing a unified image of the world. That ‘march of time’ will again take concrete form in, for the uninitiated, relatively unrecognizable and surprising ways, notably as a wooden frame mounted not around, but literally on top of an almost monochrome painting, and which usually bears a series of flecks or markings. These indicate the passage of time.
The engine that drives this body of work is the desire to visualize ideas. (When the word ‘idea’ arises, in the first instance, it evokes an almost self- evident reference to the core concepts of Plato’s philosophy and the Neo- Platonism that was so important for the Italian Renaissance and early modernity: all that could be perceived by the senses, every human creation or every cultural model, is changeable and transitory, yet forms a new version of the age-old, and consequently unchanging, essential forms or ideas. These last are the object of every true wisdom or every artistic masterpiece). At the same time, Jean-Marie Bytebier’s oeuvre is in fact permeated with the awareness that this desire to visualize ideas is impossible to satisfy. It is made up of an unceasing imagining of this unsatisfied and insatiable desire, in which it is precisely the perpetual postponement of the satisfaction, the doubt, the roaming and unavoidable failure that offers the possibility of trying something new, again and again, new touches, strokes, forms and images. It is from this logic that we can understand the seemingly naiveand sometimes even gullible direct- ness of the actions he sets himself. This is not the time for great statements. It is only in and through these (small, insignificant) actions that something meaningful can take place or appear in our extremely fragmented and heterogeneous world.
The Appearance of the Landscape That appearance no doubt forms a crucial point in Jean-Marie Bytebier’s oeuvre. How does the world appear, present itself, to us? How does this work, and what exactly is it that is happening? What do we actually see, and at least as crucially, what do we fail to see: what is it that avoids our gaze? In his usual, seemingly naive manner, the painter starts out from a simple analysis of the word in Dutch: Ver-schijnt (in German: erscheinen). In that word, he distinguishes the two concepts of ver (far) and schijnen (radiate, appear). Presented in the exhibitions of the late 1980s mentioned above were series of drawings which were mostly drawn over or retraced drawings and paintings. As backgrounds, there were printed images of the kinds of skeletons and skulls that were traditionally used in art academies. The knowledge of anatomy as a necessary foundation for a classical art training originated in the early Renaissance. The illegal anatomical studies by Leonardo da Vinci are infamous because it had hitherto been unthinkable that someone would cut up and dissect a fellow human being: such knowledge was the exclusive domain of God. From the seventeenth century, a large number of scientists, philosophers and artists began to share the conviction that the entire universe, including mankind itself, was ‘enlightened’ by human reason, and could therefore be transparent and knowable. In Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, human anatomy was linked to geometry, and together they formed the key to (the knowledge of) the universe. This is the foundation of classical aesthetics and the vision of the world that has dominated Western thinking and imagination since the Renaissance. Jean-Marie Bytebier began using printed illustrations of skeletons and skulls after his grandmother died from an embolism. This shocking event made the artist think about the way in which experience, knowledge and imaginings of the world are made. He became more aware of the complexity of these processes and of the fact that the foundation of the Western view of the world, René Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, is as precious as it is fragile. For Bytebier, this insight and the questions it raises would remain a continual source of fascination and painterly activity. He has continued to work in series, through to the present, series in which he starts out from a given action or motif. This is repeated in diverse works in which, with small shifts and subtle alterations, the painter explores the possible consequences of his initial choice, curious where this will take him and his viewers.
In his 1991 exhibition, 9, organized by the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art Association, Jean-Marie Bytebier presented nine works which could be seen or read in nine different ways. His point of departure was a story about nine crusaders who set off from Constantinople in 1119: Their quest is a secret. Their task will reveal itself during the journey, which is comprised of nine steps. The landscape is indeterminable and infinitely deep. Beyond forests and hills lay paths that lose themselves in wide plains.
This would be the last time that Bytebier explicitly refers to a story. The evolution of his work is such that it increasingly leaves behind this narrative dimension, and the human figure also disappears with the story or history. What remains, as suggested in the quotation above, is the landscape and all the diverse, possible journeys that lead through it.
The appearance of the autonomous landscape, the landscape that assumes enough importance or value for it to be depicted on its own, was an exceptional event in the history of Western art. It had hitherto always formed a background, a decor for the story identified in the title of the work which takes place in the foreground as the primary subject. Paint- ers from the Lowlands and Germany, however, were less encumbered than the Italians by histories of great deeds and glorious events. In these regions, in the first half of the sixteenth century, land- scape was allowed to take an upper hand over human figures and their deeds. Hieronymus Bosch and Joachim Patinir are frequently mentioned in this context, and the German Albrecht Altdorfer was a fascinating figure. In one intriguing painting (Saint George in the Forest, 1510), the perspectival panorama, that powerful instrument of early modern vision, which gave that vision the ability to conquer the virtual space of the image as well as a large portion of the world, is all but completely blocked and removed from view by a wild wall of treetops brought close to the surface of the image. Between the plane of the image and the interlocked blankets of leaves stand a horse and rider that are, visually, almost indistinguishable. It is completely unclear what they are doing there. In the same way as the powerful, yet at the same time apparently meaning- less, bundles of leaves from the hand of Altdorfer, in the confusing collections of actions and interactions in the canvases of Hieronymus Bosch and (somewhat later) Pieter Brueghel, the will full deed of the new, modern individual (who takes over the space and makes history) is stubbornly contradicted and over- whelmed by the unbridled, incomprehensible profusion and heterogeneity of a purposeless, introverted, autonomous nature or world. This evolution continues in the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape. We first see it in the expressly fragmentary dune landscapes by Jan van Goyen, painted with muddy ochres, watery greens and metallic greys, in which human figures carry out obscure actions or sit in the mar- ram grass alongside a cart track whose origin and destination are left unexplained, and later in the fantastic clouds in the skies of Jacob van Ruisdael, who employed what is for landscape a highly atypical vertical format. Both the fragmentary Van Goyens and the majestic Van Ruisdaels evoke one and the same feeling: that nature, separate from mankind, leads its own autonomous and unfathomable existence. Perhaps, in this seventeenth-century Dutch landscape art, the sense of the sublime (nature that is completely unknown to mankind) first assumed a concrete, visual form. In a number of Rembrandt’s landscapes, which are characterized by the same strongly reduced and sombre use of colour, it may also be possible to discern a sublime dimension.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by way of Thomas Gains- borough, these influences were picked up by John Constable. Ultimately leading to the beginnings of the actual abstractions of the twentieth-century avant-garde, it may well have been Claude Monet who was best able to approach the representation of abstracted ‘emptiness’. According to Jean-Marie Bytebier, Monet’s Water Lilies create overall views that leave their onlookers utterly speechless.
Jean-Marie Bytebier’s landscapes of the early 1990s were painted in the same drab, sombre colours that had sparsely bedecked his earlier canvases. The green that was becoming more and more evident in his paintings refers to the colour of the Leie (or Lye) River in France and Belgium. His decisions to paint exclusively on linen, and with the help of rainwater, were the result of his decision to avoid, as much as possible, the influence of human activity and of materials with any express social or ideological connotation. Many of these paintings seem to find themselves in a state of suspended animation. A landscape seems to appear from stains applied to the canvases, but before the viewer has the chance to be certain of that, the contours that he or she thought they recognized have already lost their definition. Several of the paintings produced during this period are referred to by their maker as ‘underwater landscapes’. The powerful play of light and shadow traditionally referred to as chiaroscuro, combined with the dull tints, is reminiscent of Rembrandt, among others. Depth is created by covering a landscape with a suggestion of bars or a veil of thin strokes of paint. In the midst of shadowy and vague forms, one can often indeed unravel internal contradictions – for example in the spatial relationships between foreground and background, or when the horizon seems to double itself, so that the viewer does not succeed in ‘closing off’ the composition, in order to be able to ‘comprehend’ the image in its entirety.
In his exhibitions, Bytebier’s works have from this point forward been presented not in the form of constellations, but more individually, or at most in pairs, but he continues to put his viewers to the test. In a landscape in which all trace of human presence or activity has been systematically eradicated, so that it appears as if nothing ‘is happening’, the viewer is thrown back on him- or herself. Because of that vagueness, the lack of clarity and the incongruities of what is being presented, the initiative in projecting ‘something’ that means something into the image is left up to the viewer. That viewer is being directly challenged by Jean-Marie Bytebier. He or she is given an important responsibility in achieving the work, at least as far as we naturally assume that this viewer has an understanding of what happens to him or her while looking at a painting. It is of course the brain of the viewer that Bytebier is aiming to reach. In popular science books or magazines, in drawings illustrating the workings of the brain, the human head is often populated by one or more tiny figures that operate the ‘machinery’ that registers our sensory perceptions. (The eye, for example, is a camera; the ears a tape recorder.) These beings are called ‘homunculi’. Again and again, Jean-Marie Bytebier intensively sets these homunculi to work.
In the mid-1990s, several of Jean- Marie Bytebier’s paintings were en- titled Landscape. This was an explicit confirmation of the crucial importance of the central position that the land- scape had by now for some time held in his work. It would never again relinquish this role. The edge of a forest, the thick cover of foliage that halted the conquering gaze of five centuries of West- ern modernity, is from this point for- ward a motif that is ubiquitous in these landscapes. Bytebier’s Près du feuillage (Close to the Foliage) series, which extends over a long period of time (including works from 1998 through 2009), is the most explicit expression of this. In some of these works, it is the title that transforms a dark, monochrome field of colour into a bushy cover of leaves. This is precisely the position that a canvas by Jean-Marie Bytebier assumes, in between literal and subjective, between matter (paint on canvas) and image. It is in turn up to the observer (or the brain of the observer) to take his or her own position and engage in a relationship with the painting.
From 1994, windows become a systematic presence in Jean-Marie Bytebier’s paintings. They had by this time become one part of a permanent arsenal of visual elements that, in their repeatedly returning presence and in the way in which they are combined, make up a personal style. The window often takes the form of a white border, sometimes with black strokes or bands. In one case, it is very fine, and in another, it consumes what is by far the major portion of the canvas. It occasionally has the optical illusion effect of a frame, and in one canvas it is in the form of an actual wooden frame. In a number of recent works, it takes the form of a trapezium. The canvas is stretched in relief, so that the image moves towards the viewer and not, as is usually the case, held back, deeper within a frame.
Fifteenth-century painting teems with windows. It was by way of the inferred architecture that the then- new relationships between the individual and the world, between here and there, between inside and outside, culture and nature, man and God could be investigated and given shape, in endless variations and delicate nuances and transitions. It was also by way of the window that the landscape first appeared in these presentations. Landscape is not a universal cultural phenomenon. Communities of Indians or farmers do not recognize or create landscapes. Instead, they speak of ‘the land’ that they, dispersed and unawares, experience as a mythical thing. They themselves are too much in the midst of the space to be able to perceive it as an isolated image, and consequently to create ‘landscapes’ of that land. City dwellers were the ones who, from the distance that is essential for an aesthetic perspective, saw landscapes appearing through their windows. The individual and the landscape both appeared at about the same time in early modern Western painting, with the one presuming the other. In the Middle -Ages, it was only God who looked, saw, gave meaning and created. It was because mankind began to look at the world through its own eyes, and because it brought that hitherto unconsciously experienced landscape forward from the back of the human mind, laying it out before itself as an autonomous object, that mankind itself became an autonomous subject.
Jean-Marie Bytebier stood glued to the floor when he first saw Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Dominican monastery in Florence, painted directly onto the wet plaster there in 1443. It was no doubt because the exchange between godly space and human space, between the natural and the supernatural, was being subjected to so much pressure as a result of the successful conquest of the new, scientific perception, that there were so many annunciations painted in the fifteenth century. The visit of Gabriel, as messenger of God to Mary, was also depicted in the most subtle architectural relationships. But all of this was not what sparked Jean-Marie Bytebier’s interest. All of human history, as he had learned from Walter Benjamin, was a lie, because there are too many hidden agendas, intentions and interests. His own integral interest was captured by a tiny, barred window in the wall behind the Madonna. Bytebier was so thoroughly captivated by that single element that he literally took the entire scene that was taking place before him, the entire narrative that traditionally plays out in the fore- ground of a painting, and definitively left it behind him. In this way, he removed the window from its place in history and put it in the here and now, which is to say on a one-to-one footing with himself and what the window allows us to see: the fragment, represented as an almost monochrome, green field. A fragment without depth and without any trace of human presence.
Jean-Marie Bytebier refers to this as the Garden of Eden. On the one hand, he presses his and his viewers’ faces against the non-existent glass of this window, so that it exclusively demands our attention. It should also be noted here that the rastering of the bars also evokes associations with the rectangular raster of cartography, the instrument with which early modern man was about to conquer the world. On the other hand, the viewer is held radically outside of what he or she is looking at (because of the total intolerance of human presence), and is consequently thrown back on him- or herself. That world on the other side of the barred window is not accessible to the viewer and moreover offers very little grip for his or her, nonetheless, exclusive attention.
Fra Angelico was painting at a period in time when early modern man was standing at the threshold of a staggering conquest of knowledge and space. Armed with this scientific perspective, he was already highly efficient at embracing the space of the image. That little piece of landscape within a window in fact forms the rest of the perspective, subtly distancing itself from the conquering gaze. The point of escape from the central perspective with which the entire scene is constructed is nonetheless found right in the middle of that window. Beyond this point, a space opens up which is situated on the unfathomable, ‘other’ side of the perspectival, scientific construction. Jean-Marie Bytebier, painting in an age in which conquest by the Western world is definitively behind us, and at the moment that he laid eyes on this fresco, was immediately and fully drawn into that little window, pulled, as it were, sharply against the hard surface of that non-existent glass. He refers to this experience as ‘disautonomy’. In the absence of a well-defined, fathomable object, the observing subject discovers him- or herself in this ‘disautonomy’. Over the last several years, Bytebier has completed a series of paintings that he has entitled Disautonomy.
The machinery of the modern perspective has no doubt never been more poignantly visualized than it was by Albrecht Dürer, in his series of woodcuts on geometry, Unterweisung der Messung (Four Books on Measurement), completed around 15. In the best known of these prints, a man sits at the head of a table, looking through a kind of viewfinder held directly in front of his eyes by a vertical support. His gaze passes through a vertically placed window, which is divided into smaller rectangular panes, to observe a reclining female figure with her eyes closed. He is drawing on a horizontally placed sheet of paper that has been divided into the same rectangles as the window. It is such aids as these, associated with cartography, which will later be further developed and applied in theatres and cinemas, in still photography and film cameras. In this ‘looking box’, what is crucial is that the subject of the scene is not so much a human individual, but that he has been simplified into a looking and measuring (therefore thinking) Eye. This Eye rationalizes the object of its focus by dividing it into measurable rectangles, consequently fragmenting and abstracting it.
Protagonists of twentieth-century modernism, such as the American art historian Clement Greenberg and the French architect Le Corbusier, used this logic in far-reaching attempts to be able to retain the machinery of the modern gaze, carrying it to extreme consequences. Greenberg, in his dogmatic defence of abstract art, wanted to safe- guard the absolute autonomy of the image by reducing the viewer to nothing more than the Eye. He viewed this extreme reduction and fragmentation of the senses as a necessary intervention in order to safeguard high-quality art in the midst of social and ideological con- fusion and violence. In Le Corbusier’s sketches, we often see isolated, giant eyes. They symbolize the mechanism of looking, which he installed into his buildings and of which the buildings’ residents are automatically a part. His intention was to pre-install a distant, ‘forearmed’ gaze, among other things by means of the fenêtre-en-longueur, a horizontal window that cuts away the foreground and consequently presents viewers with a somewhat photographic image, which is as flattened and as strongly aestheticized as possible. He also built walls around his roof terraces, through which he allowed only highly directional, framed views of the surrounding environment to penetrate. The similarities between the severely fragmented cut-outs of the surrounding environment from Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, from which only flattened, almost monochrome images of treetops can be seen, and many of Jean-Marie Bytebier’s paintings are striking and revealing. Bytebier also gives virtually exclusive attention to the crown of a tree, not the rest (which he cuts out of the painting), to the skull and not the rest of the body, to the choir and transept of a church, not the nave. In this context, Bytebier refers to several passages in the film The White Diamond by Werner Herzog, noting that, thanks to its sequential character, film appeals more to him than photography does. In The White Diamond, treetops are visible on top of a mountain. Its animal inhabit- ants, because of the absence of natural enemies, live in an earthly paradise.
This might give one the impression that Jean-Marie Bytebier has inherited the desire for purity and the absolute of an imaginary, self-invented ‘else- where’ from his historical, modernist predecessors in abstract art, whereby the radical alternative of minimalist art, the playful deconstructions of Marcel Broodthaers and the often vehement reactions against the modern fragmentation of the body in performance art during the 1970s, all seem forgotten. Barnett Newman as well, in a sharp reaction against the myths, histories and stories associated with European art, wanted to create a direct relation- ship between a particular viewer and the absolute. As indicated above, there is a crucial difference between Jean-Marie Bytebier and his modernist predecessors in the fact that he, although he does not wish to sacrifice desire, considers its fulfilment, or any ultimate deliverance from desire, impossible. We must not lose sight of the fact that Bytebier, in sharp contrast to the proponents of abstract expressionism, consistently chooses to use a smaller format, in most cases presented vertically, something diametrically opposed to what we might take for granted for the landscape. Moreover, since 1994, the window has never been absent from his work. It was, however, definitely absent in several centuries of Western painting. After the eighteenth century, the Western model of observation, Dürer’s window, was so self-evident that its ‘machinery’ simply disappeared from the image. By once again showing the window so explicitly and repeatedly, the space of the image is fundamentally split up into a discontinuous ‘here’ and ‘there’. It always remains heterogeneous. The position of the viewer is moreover always taken into account and brought into question, so the viewer can never simply dive with abandon into the virtual space of the image.
Take, for example, Bytebier’s Disautonomie series, painted in 2009 and 2010. At the bottoms of these paintings, treetops are painted over by a rectangular, slightly lighter green band, which means that the viewer is immediately prepared to see a field of grass in this abstract, bar-shaped element, and consequently the edge of the forest in the darker green above it. Looking at it a little longer, you may begin to doubt yourself, wondering if, instead of the continuous virtual space that you believed you had completely mastered, visually and mentally, this image may instead be comprised of two abstract colour fields, between which a break, an in-between space, delineates itself, a space that escapes the grasp of perception in perspective. You experience the moment when the image threatens to fall apart before your eyes.
In the spring of 2011, in the Roger Raveel Museum in Machelen-aan- de-Leie, Belgium, a group exhibition took place entitled Tussenruimte. Het onzichtbare zichtbaar maken (In- between Space: Making the Invisible Vis- ible). The exhibition was an initiative of and a collaborative effort by Jean-Marie Bytebier and the Brussels-based instal- lation artist Jan De Cock. In addition to works by each of these artists, the exhi- bition included works from the recent and not so recent past in contemporary art, by Lucio Fontana, Roger Raveel, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Antoon De Clerck, Raphaël Buedts, Günther Förg, Guy Mees, Joëlle Tuerlinckx, David Claerbout, Michaël Borremans, cinema figure of Christ rises up, serves as both as bottomless chasm of death and an unexpected source of hope. Another intriguing image in this context is of- fered by one of Piero della Francesca’s frescos of The Resurrection (1463). The painter allowed the horizon to correspond exactly with the top of the tomb of Christ, so that it looms out of nothingness, from an unseen chasm or discontinuity in what is otherwise a homogeneous space.
There is another striking example. In 1991, as a part of his extensive Tableaux series, the French photographer and installation artist Jean-Marc Bustamante produced 22 large-format photographs of an unbroken screen of cypress trees. These are located precisely over and under a stone wall, which corresponds with the surface of the image. The position and function of this wall is relatively analogous to that of the tomb in the above-mentioned fresco. There are only extremely minimal differences between the photographs, which on their own have no meaning whatsoever. These images call to mind the Altdorer landscape mentioned above. In a general description of the Tableaux, which often present what we might call ‘places without characteristics’, we read the following:Bustamante often alludes to the type of relationship he would like to see introduced by his work, a non-directive relationship, based on a form of fruitful indeterminacy that he calls ‘in between’ (entre- deux), and which puts the onlooker in the position of becoming ‘equally responsible for the work’.
Bytebier reminds us that his work has nothing whatsoever to do with photography. In his opinion, photography happens from the outside inward, whereas in painting the process of creation is the other way around. This does not mean, however, that, according to the specific laws that apply to each medium, the in-between space can- not manifest itself in the most diverse artistic disciplines.
Although the ability to perceive this in-between space, because of the extremely fleeting and unmanageable nature of the beast, is something that is very difficult to put into words, let alone confine in fixed definitions, I would nonetheless like to attempt to look more deeply at how it functions. For Jean-Marie Bytebier, the landscape is the ultimate place where in-between space can manifest itself. In The Philosophy of Landscape (191), Georg Simmel asks how a landscape comes about (we are concerned here with the experience of a natural landscape, not its artistic representation). He believes that this takes place at the moment when an exceptional entity sets about grouping the natural phenomena that are found alongside one another on the surface of the earth: ‘It is distinct from the unity that the originating thought of the educated thinker, the religious feelings of the nature lover, the goal- oriented perception of the farmer or the strategist embrace in their fields of vision.’ According to Simmel, it is the mood that is the most important carrier of the content of the landscape, but how can the mood, as an instinctive human process, be taken as a quality of the landscape?
That would be completely illusory if indeed the landscape in reality consisted of trees and hills, water and stone, which are simply ar- ranged alongside one another. But is it not the case that the landscape, in its own turn, is a mental formation? [...] It only exists due to the power of the spirit that makes it into a single whole, as an inner intertwining of the empirical fact and our creativity, whereby no single random comparison can reproduce that intertwining.
Simmel notes further that mood is not an abstract concept towards which many different, concrete moods can be generalized. One would never confuse the mood of a landscape with that of another landscape, although you might perhaps feel them both as falling under a general concept, such as nostalgia: ‘Mood refers to a general character of a given landscape, separate from every specific element, but it is not the general characteristic that you find recurring in many landscapes.’ In its uniqueness, the landscape has a striking amount in common with a work of art: ‘If we really see a landscape, and no longer a gathering together of objects from nature, we can speak of a work of art in statu nascendi,’ claims Georg Simmel.
Let us now view the way in which we experience, perceive and process our environment, as the ground from which art is produced, as the engine that drives the work of Jean-Marie Bytebier. Jean-Marie Bytebier asks what would happen if one were to remove the horse and rider from the Altdorfer landscape, or if you literally leave out everything that happens in front of the window in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. This seems very similar to the question of what would happen if you remove the homunculi from their respective tasks. The homunculus is a naive thing because it is literally just a logical concretization of an anthropocentric and mechanical vision of man and the world. The classic sciences analyse nature on the basis of linear relationships of cause and effect. On this foundation, they can predict the future (which is in fact no future as it has already been completely determined ahead of time) and deduce the characteristics of the whole from the analysed components. Some philosophers and academics, Giordano Bruno, a great many eighteenth-century Enlightenment adepts and nineteenth- century positivists, for example, nurture the totalitarian dream that, on the basis of this model, the entire cosmos could be made homogeneous and transparent for and by human reason. In this vision, the universe suddenly fits together like clockwork: it is only a question of time, and by way of simple calculation, before all of the spokes of the entire mechanism are known. It was in this way that deism came about in the eighteenth century. Man wanted to liberate himself from God, but it proved to be not quite possible, because, at the beginning of the endless chain of cause and effect, from the boundless dissections and analyses of the very smallest components, one still had to deal with a prime mover, an initial source or cause: a homunculus for the cosmos, some- one who would wind up the clock, strike the spark that starts the fire. When Jean-Marie Bytebier, with the intentional naïveté of a sorcerer’s apprentice, re- peats this bygone model, for example when he literally mounts a ‘timepiece’ on top of a monochrome painting (‘un- formed matter’, ‘cosmic dust’), in order to set it all in motion, he is longing for some short-circuiting that will generate this construct.
The in-between space emerges at the point when the homunculus and the deus ex machina have stepped down off the world stage, when the brain and the landscape have to make do without external help, surviving on their own. If we are to believe Georg Simmel, they do not do this by folding in on themselves (as in the radical separation of concepts and material in minimalist and conceptual art), but, indeed, by intertwining with one another. That is the point at which classical, mechanical science stumbles into its own limitations, forcing it to silence. In his Critique of Judgement, also known as the ‘Third Critique’, Immanuel Kant first wrote about the judgement of art, then about the judgement of living, organic nature. Neither of the two can be determined or explained with pure reason, unless they are characterized by a ‘circular causality’ in which everything, means and objective, cause and effect, all be- long to one another. One must either remain silent, or, if you want to say any- thing at all that makes sense in either of these two domains, you are forced to add meanings of your own, create your own constructs, in the awareness that they will always remain personal judgements and can never be definitive explanations. Kant also made intriguing comparisons between the work of art and living nature. If we find something beautiful in our natural environment, then it is as if it were a work of art. If a work of art is truly powerful, sovereign, autonomous, then we do indeed understand that it is a work of art, a human artefact, but at the same time it seems to be as if it were nature. It is in this remarkable realm of shades of the as if, of the ver-schijn-ing, that the in-between space opens up. Kant goes even further in his study of the inter- change between art and nature. What is it that distinguishes the work of art from (ordinary) products or artefacts? What distinguishes the fine arts from applied arts? The autonomy of the fine arts finds its origin in the existence of aesthetic ideas. Here, the imagination, which sets to work with sensory impressions, engages in direct exchange with reason, which brings about unity in our thinking, without intervention from the intellect. In their autonomy, the fine arts are capable of being like nature, of even surpassing it, thanks to the contribution of the genius. In the genius, nature puts its laws into the care of human acts.
What does all this theory have to do with the work of Jean-Marie Bytebier? A great deal. His ambition is to ‘create autonomous forms in order to formulate very abstract ideas’. From the above, we can be satisfied that Bytebier’s works of art are never the completion of ideas formulated in advance. On the contrary, the motivations for beginning a new work consistently sound simple, even wilfully simplistic. They place themselves in the realm of the literal, elementary, banal act, as indeed do the objects of minimalist art. I am convinced that, again and again, Jean-Marie Bytebier begins painting in order to experience that phenomenon, perhaps even to fish out how these banal actions and components develop the ideas, aesthetic ideas, which in turn lie at the root of autonomous works of art that function on their own. Is this to say that Jean-Marie Bytebier sees himself, in the best Renaissance tradition, as a genius? I think not. Nowhere did Kant actually identify the genius with the artist. In Kant’s vision, the practitioner of the fine arts needs to participate in the genius, because it would otherwise be impossible to create a work of art that appears to be as autonomous as nature itself. I do not have the impression that Jean- Marie Bytebier refutes the principles of modern, Kantian aesthetics, the way ‘literal art’ so radically did. Moreover, I do not have the impression that he whole- heartedly or dogmatically affirms it. His position is instead one of asking questions, with the curiosity of the sorcerer’s apprentice. He is extremely fascinated by these questions, which have driven human thinking and the creation of art for as long as mankind can remember.
Jean-Marie Bytebier investigates that in-between space, the space between ‘thing’ and ‘work of art’, between image and space. He clearly does this, let there be no doubt about it, with a great deal of pleasure, with the fantastic touch of the pur sang painter who knows how to seduce the viewer with a single stroke, set us on the wrong foot or, indeed, entice us straight into his trap. See, for example, how, with a single spatter of paint, he suggests the presence of wind, or uses a glimmer of light to freeze life into a monochrome wall, thus evoking an entire world, if just for a moment. It is, however, always advisable to be on the lookout for the snares that lie ready to strike, in among the harmless leaves. Do not forget: in its stubborn indefatigability, the in- between space remains, even for the painter himself, who takes part in it by applying it to the canvas, a source of shortcoming, of ultimate failure, again and again. The in-between space inevitably always remains a space, which, also in terms of the one who puts it on canvas, never allows itself to be captured in an image. It is precisely here that the autonomy of the work of art lies. It is a work of art that is autonomous, not the artist. There is no prime mover. The work of art is created by an internal, circular causality, in which one can take part only from the inside and which can never fully be grasped, by either the artist or the viewer, from the outside. In contrast to literal art, the paintings of Jean-Marie Bytebier have not brought the autonomy of the art object into the realm of fable, but, in contrast to the desire to conquer and the dogmatic assertions of many modern artists, that autonomy takes on a new meaning and position.
In the Middle -Ages, mankind was not permitted to add anything new at all to what already existed. Michelangelo, the prototype of the modern genius, was the very first person to whom the term ‘to create’ was attributed. From then forward, man could create his own world. As the universal man, he was even directly capable of creating an entire universe. He was now at the point at which he could determinedly, like a god, hold himself apart from the domain of his creation, from which he had a total overview of a homogeneous domain that essentially belonged to him. That position has now radically changed, both in the sciences and for a great number of artists.3 The observer makes up part of the terrain he or she observes, and can therefore never completely see it as a whole, never get a grasp on anything more than fragments within his or her own framework. Artists who are truly aware of this translate this in the ways in which they present their work and in their search for dialogue or confrontation with the viewer. It is precisely from the impossibility of ever being able to fill in that in-between space, in that fatal incompleteness, in the failure of the artist, that the true freedom and autonomy of the work of art can appear. In my opinion, Jean- Marie Bytebier’s in-between space is no frightening, sublime abyss. It can never be completely won over, never fully commanded. Anyone who takes it liter- ally experiences an emptiness, a speechlessness, a null point. Marcel Broodthaers calls this ‘le degré zéro’. But this inability to oversee generates dialogue, inter-subjectivity. It is simply and only in these shared, inter-human experiences, reflections and opinions, in that open, dynamic, never-to-be-finished and heterogeneous process, that a free, autonomous art can exist. As long as Jean-Marie Bytebier continues to paint, he keeps that possibility open.
Frank Maes, 2011