THE ART OF DESTRUCTION
by: Maria Barnas


Gert Jan Kocken presents photos of traces of the Iconoclastic Fury
Gert Jan Kocken discovered that the number of artworks which survived the Iconoclastic Fury – and have retained visible traces of the damage – is extremely small. He decided to capture the best possible visual record of those last remnants. His photos of these mutilated artworks demonstrate that one can behold the destruction caused by the iconoclasts as if they were choices made by an artist.

At the Venice Biennale there is a painting on show that is no longer a painting. It is a scorched canvas, Portrait of a Procurator, dating from the 16th century, by the School of Tintoretto. One can still see the shadow of a man on the charred canvas, in his arm the outline of an elongated object. Face, object and background have been damaged beyond all recognition.
The man who had once been immortalized has become a shadow. The remarkable thing is that this specimen is the first 16th-century portrait that has held my attention. It is as if I have one last chance to observe this ghost before he definitively retreats into history, and it renders visible the verge of something as unfathomable as eternity. I cannot take my eyes off it.
Its insertion in the midst of a major survey of modern art makes it a provocative work that elicits questions about the nature of art. How long should an artwork endure? Should everything be restored? And is the intention of the artist actually relevant? For an artist it is confrontational that an image which has no intention of being art is so powerful. There is almost nothing of this painting remaining, yet it is still provocative. How is it possible that something which is barely present can spark off so many things in my mind?

If there is someone who understands how to address to these questions then it is the artist Gert Jan Kocken (born in Ravenstein, the Netherlands, in 1971). For him the image is never just the image itself; he presents pictures as an incitement to think.
We are standing in his studio in Amsterdam, surrounded by mutilated artworks, or rather photos of them, although Kocken’s man-size photographs evoke the sense of a confrontation with the original works that survived the Iconoclastic Fury of the 16th century.
My attention is drawn to a photo of an open book in which someone has made a drawing. As I move closer I notice that these lines are scratches which someone has scored through passages on the page. Here theologians from Louvain have ‘corrected’ a copy of the Omnia Opera, the collected letters of Erasmus from 1520 and 1521 on the subject of Luther. It is intriguing that the passages were not rendered illegible; as a reader you are allowed to see what has been censored. The lines are like the tape that cordons off a crime scene: you are not allowed to approach. But it is these particular lines that I want to read; it is what is happening behind the ribbons that holds the greatest attraction.
Kocken discovered that the number of images which survived the Iconoclastic Fury – and have retained visible traces of the damage – is extremely small. There is hardly anything extant of what the Reformists destroyed in the 16th century on the grounds of the Second Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth.’ Not only have the images disappeared, but almost all the traces of their history as well. It is as if the breaking of images has itself been rendered invisible.
While conducting his research into the Iconoclastic Fury, Kocken was struck by the repeated use of the same illustrations in history books. If you search the internet for ‘Iconoclastic Fury’ then you will soon come across them: men on a ladder wielding an axe in their assault, but carried out good-naturedly. If you were unaware that they were busy vandalising things then you might think the church was being refurbished. With a little dog alongside and a woman with a basket on her way to market to colour in everyday life: it is as if the narration of how people did something is considered more important than the consequences, the reality.
Kocken went in search of the last relics of the Iconoclastic Fury in Europe and ended up visiting Näfels, Geneva, Norfolk, Suffolk, Münster, Zwolle, Utrecht and Breda. He decided to capture the best possible visual record of what he encountered, turning the spotlight on paintings hidden in dark corners and printing off the photos enlarged to their actual physical formats. The technique used by Kocken – he previously made a series of photos of ‘Disaster Areas’, such as the Mont Blanc tunnel (in which a lorry caught fire, resulting in 39 fatalities, in 1999), the site of a block of flats in Amsterdam’s Bijlmer district (into which a cargo-laden jet crashed in 1992, killing more than 40 people), and locations in the Dutch capital where murders and suicides have taken place – is in any case aimed at rendering every detail optimally visible: he takes photos using a large-format camera on 8 x 10 inch negatives. It is as if you can discern more in the photos, in which neither the slightest scratch on a lens nor a speck of dust is tolerated, than you would be able to perceive in reality with the naked eye.
The precision with which the imperfections are recorded and the transplanting of the works into a new setting where they no longer have to vie with the architecture of a church means that you can view the image-breaking of the iconoclasts as if you are observing the choices of an artist. For example, in a Madonna with Child wooden relief from Geneva Cathedral (where Calvin was to preach in later years) you can discern where the hand of the iconoclast began to tremble as he thrust his gouge into the Madonna’s head. And you can see how he was most enraged by the depiction of Jesus.
The outline around Mary’s head has been preserved, making it possible to imagine a face. In the wooden relief there is now a bowl-like indentation at the spot where the Christ Child must have figured; Jesus has been obliterated. This is targeted rage; this is hate. Here the Iconoclastic Fury, which until now had for me been but an abstract narrative, came home to roost.
Kocken’s work also reveals that it is what has been wrecked which possesses a great beauty. The vague patches, the tears and the apertures resonate with an aesthetic that is familiar from modern art: abstract art in which omission and intentional vagueness are meant to stir the imagination, such as the almost imperceptible paintings by Maaike Schoorel, as well as art that employs destruction as a technique within the work, such as the Fontana canvases that he slashed with a knife.
‘The iconoclasts were not concerned with the creation of beauty, but they recognized and exploited the power of the image to convey their message. They knew precisely what they were destroying, what they were leaving intact and why,’ says Kocken.
‘The Reformation was of fundamental importance for modern art. Many people began to reflect on the meanings and impact of images, and on their use. Before then artists were primarily depicting and reproducing biblical scenes. In this work you see the wrath that an image can provoke, but you also see the emergence of an unintentional aesthetic which reveals interfaces with modern art.’
One of the works in Kocken’s studio is a photo of the Mass of Saint Gregory, which he will be showing in his solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. This painting depicts the legend of the apparition of Christ that Pope Gregory experienced while celebrating Mass. The entourage in the tableau were attacked with a vengeance by an adept iconoclast: their eyes have been crudely chiselled out, like holes in a pumpkin meant to represent a Halloween face. Besides the depiction of Christ, the picture also presents all the instruments of torture with which he was tormented, which makes the torture of this painting all the more apposite.
There are several layers of reality in this work: the layer of torment within the depiction, the layer of the illusion or apparition of Christ, and the factual layer of the defacements. Allowing one’s gaze to shift back and forth between those layers has a dizzying visual impact: why were the eyes of Christ not gouged out? He appears on the canvas three times: as a bleeding apparition, as a facial imprint on the Veil of Veronica, and he stands depicted on the back of a priest’s robe. Did they not dare attack him? Were they afraid of losing their place in heaven? Or would they have noticed that the blood is already dripping from his crown of thorns, that there was no credit to be gained from the presence of a mutilated figure? Another possible explanation is that the wrecking was not intended as an attack on Christ, but the way in which he was being looked at by the onlookers: his admirers had to be blinded.
Besides capturing traces of the Iconoclastic Fury, in his series about turning points in history Kocken has also photographed watercolours by Adolf Hitler, which are guarded in the Pentagon as if they were weapons of mass destruction. After a year and a half of insistent requests, Kocken was eventually granted permission to photograph the watercolours, in a cellar behind three vault doors. They are charming village scenes, made with an extremely patient brush. No matter how boring the outcome might be, there is a perverse satisfaction in being able to work out what kind of creative impulses moved a mass annihilator. It is striking, for example, that Hitler hardly ever painted people, and if he did then he reduced them to doll-like figurines. It is impossible not to compare the Führer’s destructive urges with the watercolours he painted in his free time: the pictures are meticulously detailed; this man left nothing to chance.
Whether you would notice all of this if you were unaware that these small paintings are by Hitler seems unlikely. The knowledge you possess when looking determines to a great extent what you see. This basic principle is manifest in all Kocken’s work. He photographed his ‘Disaster Areas’ series at places long after the disaster in question had occurred – nothing at these locations betrays the past, but beholding them still holds something poignant. Memories of the disasters persist in replaying themselves in one’s mind, even in the absence of traces.
Kocken’s work makes you realise that it might be impossible to observe without the shading of your personal knowledge and perception. You know too much, expect too much and consider too much, for in each chiselled-away head you see a face. In the hewn-out space in the arms of the Madonna lies a child. In the scorched Procurator I see a wise man who entices me into the eternal hereafter.
In the exhibition that he is staging at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam Kocken presents only a selection of the images that represent a turning point in history, leaving out the watercolours by Hitler, for example.

‘I envisioned a space in which nobody looks at you any more. You enter and contact is automatically broken. There are no eyes that seduce you: the image has to speak for itself,’ says Kocken about the Mass of Saint Gregory. As a beholder of this work you have no option but to make personal contact with what the artist proffers. This makes me aware that I am mistaken when I think that history is something abstract or lifeless. If I fail to use my eyes then with regard to the past I am like the men whose eyes have been gouged out.
Kocken uses modern art to allow the past to speak again, confronting you with your personal mode of thinking, because it eventually becomes evident that the figures are not faceless: they all have faces which your imagination calls forth. Kocken presents ways of looking at images rather than the images themselves.

de Volkskrant, september 13, 2007
GERT JAN KOCKEN
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