The vibration of affects: Pietà (deconstructed). On the work of Emmanuelle Wilhelm:

The works of Emmanuelle Wilhelm produce irritations in the best sense. For the paintings are haunted because the photographic film resonates eerily through the picture. Wilhelm has captured the transience of the digital image and gives it an intensity through the intense oil colors. It is also an experiment to rethink the relationship between digital photography and painting. W.J.T. Mitchell assumes that we are trapped in a magical, pre-modern attitude towards pictures, because we experience that pictures demand, provoke and seduce reactions and are thus to be seen as actors in a context of action. Even the decommissioned digital image as a painting is always part of a global movement of images. Yet the individual image remains mobile. Unnoticed, Aby Warburg steps onto the scene in Wilhelm’s painting. Using Aby Warburg’s method of attaching pictures, film stills, photographs or paintings to a canvas to measure their energetic potential, he wanted to rearrange the pictorial material and bring it into ever new combinations. Wilhelm is concerned with a similar procedure. In our visual culture, with its infinite pictorial landscapes, as well as in the designed world of images, it is a matter of relating images and measuring their specific intensity and affect content. This is more than just a reminder of passing images – I am thinking of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which traces the afterlife of antiquity in new modern configurations – but always also a kind of affect cartography. Wilhelm is also concerned with the single image in its singularity, and it recalls important traces of Roland Barthes. As a starting point for the analog photographic age, Barthes offered a simple yet highly complex statement for understanding the emotional content of images: “I leafed through an illustrated magazine. A photograph held me down.” This phenomenon has shifted to the Internet and to smartphones and other mobile devices in the course of the digital image world. There too, images capture. Sometimes these individual images have a special acting quality. Mitchell pointed out that images are not just a special kind of sign, they are rather something like an actor on the stage of history, a figure or character of legendary status in a historical context.

Wilhelm’s painting reflects the problematic distinction between a frozen painting and a moving digital image and in doing so brings out a characteristic feature of film: the movement of color. I would like to understand the shining of these paintings, their luminous surface, as a parameter of the melodramatic media image, when the seductive, highly fetishistically charged picture surface acts and releases its potentiality in the sense of being moved and the possibility of being seized by the picture. Wilhelm is aware of the volatilization and liquefaction of affect in the digital image and would like to test this affect potentiality and intensity in the medium of painting.

This is at the same time a test case of the Pietà and its pathos formulas. The following seems interesting to me in Wilhelm’s paintings: Wilhelm’s iconography of the present works with broken gestures of pathos. For, as Aby Warburg has already pointed out, Christian pictorial aesthetics have a tendency towards pietà, mercy and healing gestures. That is far from Wilhelm. In her works there are less formulas of pathos circulating, but rather manifest representations of spirals of violence, which make it clear to us that the political events of this world always present themselves as images. In short: politics is always bound to a image space. The dead boy in the arms of a man is the significant iconographic dimension of the melodramatic image, but also part of the inconspicuous, time-based images in melodramatic mode, which immediately disappear again. Iconographic are the images that lead a life of their own, i.e. that spread, are reenacted or affect other images and create pictorial events. In Wilhelm’s work we encounter the temporality of melodramatic images, their division into different aggregate states in terms of the duration of the affect. Melodramatic images as self-active agents have only a limited duration. It is a melodramatic situation that arises and disappears again. This seems to me to be Wilhelm’s bold experiment in showing us these depth dimensions.

In addition to the affective power of these images, Roland Barthes assumes that the image is a place of vulnerability. Even if Barthes thus focuses solely on the capacity of photography, Wilhelm also shifts these operations to painting, making it clear that it is actually about the modes of operation of melodramatic images per se – beyond genre boundaries. For Wilhelm’s pictures are also sometimes over-constructed. But the melodramatic picture primarily wants to mobilize. In contrast to other picture types, it is therefore directly connected to movement, to an “in order to move”. The melodramatic picture is involved as a quasi-actor in actions, when the picture itself produces events of anger, grief and joy in the pictorial act. When images become self-active agents, thus quasi-actors, they have a special penetrating power, which means that these special images strike like missiles without killing. At the same time, and this is made clear by the digital culture with its so-called liquid images, images are always in a process of becoming, which is also alluded to by Gilles Deleuze, who bound these images to the control society paradigm of the “coils of a snake” in order to mark their fluid character and their dazzling power effects. The image of the dead boy from Wilhelm’s Pieta series refers to a discourse within a specific political period; this is the limited temporality of the melodramatic image. Wilhelm now gives these supposedly flat images a different persistence, i.e. a prospect of prolonging their power. Wilhelm’s artistic achievement thus consists in showing this effectiveness of political affect in the pictures – in the medium of painting, which does not, however, make any claim to absoluteness as a pleasure.

Aljoscha Weskott