Ouroboros

Ouroboros

By Rye Dag Holmboe, Art Licks, 2016

JocJonJosch’s Ouroboros formed part of an evening of art curated by Art Licks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in October 2014. The performance had already taken place once before on the occasion of an exhibition of the collective’s work at the Valais Art Museum in Sion, Switzerland. In the event, I was unable to see this presentation of the performance, but earlier discussions with the three members of the collective—Jocelyn Marchington, Jonathan Brantschen and Joschi Herczeg—suggested parallels with previous work. 

The first time the performance was mentioned, the four of us were standing in the small gardens outside Tate Britain’s front portico. The artists used pieces of gravel (which now sit on my bookshelf) to illustrate the movements of the performers. About thirty unclothed people, of which the artists numbered, would form a tight group of standing bodies. Whichever body was at its centre would struggle to the periphery. Having reached the periphery, that body would then struggle back. This process would be repeated numerous times by whichever body found itself at the centre of the group, such that each body formed a part in a continuously changing whole. Even at this initial stage, it was clear that the aim of the performance was to explore and develop concerns that have preoccupied JocJonJosch since its inception: the tension between the individual and the group, the difficulties inherent to collective decision-making, as well as the vicissitudes of the human body. 

When the opportunity arose for the work to be performed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the artists suggested that I take part. I have written about their work and collaborated with them for nearly four years, but always from the vantage point of a spectator and a critic. The idea was for me to experience the work from the inside and to allow for that perspective to inflect the text I am now writing. It felt like being asked to step inside an intensely animated painting. I accepted, but not without misgivings. However fragile JocJonJosch’s performances may sometimes seem, they are always physically strenuous. And I had little desire to stand naked in front of an audience or to be pressed against the anonymous flesh of other bodies. Yet at this juncture in life saying yes somehow felt necessary. So it was decided that I should attend the rehearsal, watch the first performance, then take part in the next two. 

As is sometimes the case with JocJonJosch’s performances, Ouroboros was not recorded. If these words offer a substitute, then it should be said at the outset that the work of memory has lent shape to an experience that was amorphous and fragmented in character and which, as such, is irretrievable.

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Ouroboros took place in a long, narrow hall with wood-panelled walls and a high vaulted ceiling. A single spotlight shone down the length of the room. At the far end of the hall, which the light barely reached, were a pair of screens behind which the performers stood waiting. 

The audience entered and aligned itself along the lengths of the walls. Once silence had descended, bodies emerged one by one and slowly made their way to the centre of the space. In the darkness they seemed almost ethereal. The first body was met by a second, which pushed against it. The two bodies were then met by a third, a fourth, a fifth, until a group of about thirty bodies had formed into a moving whole that seemed to gravitate around an invisible point. The precise nature of the movement was unclear. A body was sometimes thrust to the outside, where it seemed lost and vulnerable, until it forced its way back into the mass, which reluctantly reabsorbed it. The arduous and repetitive nature of these movements lent the performance a visceral and unexpectedly disturbing quality. It was as if each body were trying to dissipate its boundaries in the mass of flesh. The process continued for about ten minutes, a period of intense silence broken only by the slap of skin on skin and the shuffling sound of bare feet on the tiled floor. Then, one by one, the bodies left the whole and slowly made their way to the far end of the hall. 

The Ouroboros is a snake forever consuming its own tail. In The Book of Imaginary Beings, the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges provides a brief catalogue of its incarnations. The author writes that it was adopted by the Medieval alchemists as a symbol of transmutation. He also cites his friend the writer Martinez Estrada, who describes the snake as a mythical creature “that begins at the end of its tail”, thus invoking the possibility of infinite renewal. The Ouroboros’s most famous depiction, Borges tells us, is found in the Scandinavian cosmogony. In the stories of the thirteenth-centuryPoetic Edda, the Norse Gods thrust a malevolent snake “into the sea that surrounds the earth, and in that sea the snake has grown so large that it also surrounds the earth and bites its own tail”. Though most myths hold that the Ouroboros is a symbol of a lost plenitude or of an indissoluble oneness, this last example is apocalyptic. The beast heralds “the doom of the world”, Borges writes. “For when the Twilight of the Gods finally comes, the serpent will devour the earth”. 

The circle has often figured in JocJonJosch’s practice. It can be found in early photographic works like Coloured Circles, where naked figures seem to fly through anamorphic circles made out of pieces of coloured paper. Circularity also underlies the futile and often comic processes enacted by the collective. In a film titled Dig Shovel Dig, for instance, each of the three artists is seen digging a hole against the verdant backdrop of the Alps, only to fill the hole of another. Digging becomes the pretext for filling, and the process comes full circle. More recently, the artists designed a circular boat now on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. They named it Worstward Ho!, after Samuel Beckett’s novella. The kind of journey the work invokes is paradoxical and self-defeating, each stroke of the oar cancelling the other two out. Ouroboros follows in its wake. What motivated the work arose out of its processual character. There was no climax or resolution, no final resting point for each of the bodies. In this respect, the performance could be described as a non-event. Individual bodies came together only to come apart, and the work left behind no trace except for the recollections of those who saw it and the retrospective fictions they will tell.

But if Ouroboros was a non-event, then what exactly did not take place? The first time the performance was described, the artists invoked Borges’s image of the Library of Babel. In the eponymous story, Borges revises Blaise Pascal’s famous description of nature as “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”, and describes the Library as “a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible”. The Library is said to be composed of “inexhaustible stairways” and “an indefinite and perhaps an infinite number of hexagonal galleries”. Each hexagon is filled with a precise number of books, each containing an identical number of pages, lines, words and letters, though no book is the same as the other. Like the Ouroboros, the Library is “unlimited and cyclical”, such that “it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist”. For this reason some also believe it to contain a total book which contains “the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest”. To turn its pages would make one analogous to a god. But this volume has yet to be found, and the speaker has squandered and wasted his years searching in vein. The infinite Library does not lead to revelations but to a sense of formlessness and chaos. “Let heaven exist”, he writes, “though my place be hell”. 

The images of the Ouroboros and the Library of Babel help make sense of an ambiguity fundamental to JocJonJosch’s performance. Individual bodies were in constant motion and constant combination, at once attracted and repelled by the ever-shifting point around which they gravitated. The centre of the circle formed by the bodies was both everywhere and nowhere. In this respect, each body was akin to one of those “eternal travellers” that wonder the infinite corridors of the Library in search of a lost totality, like a centre in search of its circle. Yet Ouroboros only ever approached a transcendent image of unity. It never reached it. What prevented this transmutation was the sheer physicality of the process. This was emphasised by the experience of being inside the work, which was claustrophobic and exhausting. In each performance the sense and smell of anxiety was palpable. Bodies were under duress, at once aggressive and defenceless, pushing on towards nothing, for nothing. Through these movements they shed their symbolic guises. Individual identities were lost in a kaleidoscope of flesh—persons became bodies, faces heads, limbs protrusions. Everything seemed on the brink of collapsing into an undifferentiated mass. Thus what might have been a mystical experience of oneness veered into an almost psychotic failure of symbolisation. To borrow Borges’ words once again, Ouroboros was a “minor hell”.

For the destination towards which each body relentlessly tended was not a harmonious and peaceable kingdom in which a desired union was finally consummated. Instead, the repetitive and cyclical movements of the bodies were such that Ouroboros worked to undo itself. This allows for the conjecture that underlying the desire for a lost totality were the disruptive presence of the drives. The state of oneness intimated by the performance was perhaps none other than the state which awaits all of us at the end of our journeys, the oneness already promised by death. When seen in this admittedly unconsoling light, the decision not to document the performance visually seems appropriate. Like the Norse Gods that cast the malevolent snake into the sea and understood the inevitability of their future destruction, Ouroboros is an icon destined to fade away in the Twilight of the Gods.

Drawings, 2016 - present

Drawings, 2016 - present

Thinking in Circles

Thinking in Circles