Madness is something rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, peoples, ages, it is the rule.
A streak of madness appears to run through today’s politics, environment, and visions of human subjectivity. It is tempting to imagine that its kernel might be discerned, and perhaps removed. Christian Fogarolli’s STONE OF MADNESS
explores this desire through a process of (historical) displacement. Through a series of works that situate an archaic technical and psychological paradigm within an up-to-date stylistic frame, his first solo exhibition in Berlin stages a strange explanatory logic—perhaps casting new light on our own unreason.
The photo works and sculptures that feature in STONE OF MADNESS
draw inspiration from a belief, common in Northern Europe’s late Middle Ages and Renaissance, that certain derangements were the fault of a small stone forming inside the brain: “Soul imbalance,” namely, insanity and social deviance, was thought to issue from the presence of this foreign body. A host of questionable surgical techniques for “extraction” were associated with treating this problem, as documented in contemporaneous engravings and literature. Paintings memorializing such operations include Hieronymous Bosch’s Extraction of the Stone of Madness
(1494) and Pieter Huys’ Surgeon Extracting the Stone of Folly
(1561). Further back in history, practices of opening up the skull to allow for the efflux of malign “spirits” were common, as mentioned by Hippocrates, and uncovered by archaeologists.
The works which comprise STONE OF MADNESS
turn around the visualization of interior life, and corporeal analysis. They comprise found objects, such as instruments and archival photographs, as well as stones with unique properties: The exhibition begins with a physical model of the human brain, originally designed in 1885 by the Czech anatomist Prof. Chr. Abey, and Swiss engineer A. Büchi. The first pupportedly representative model of the organ’s nerve fibers and ‘emotional areas’ to be made available for educational purposes, the model was a great success, acquired by teaching institutions in over twenty cities. Fogarolli’s faithful reconstruction of this model greets the visitor, foregrounding the physicalist vision of the mind as brain, setting up the excavation of its attendant poetics throughout the rest of the exhibition. With its various candy-coloured elements, the redeployment of this model as an art object seems to imply the seductions of this theory of mental properties; a temptation to reduce complex mental phenomena to chemicals, neurotransmitters or connections between neurons, as though these occurrences resided in some discrete physico-chemical locus. The retro character of the sculpture, now crude, if not outdated in terms of current medical science, indicates the historical character of thinking through emotions, sanity or madness in this way.
On the walls surrounding the brain model are a series of found black and white photographs in frames, arranged in pairs. One photo in each depicts anonymous hospital patients suffering from amnesia—their eyes conveying blank stares. The others feature archaic stone carvings from a south-east Asian archaeological site. The photos themselves are held in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, but the carvings that they depict are lost to history (the site forgotten by a quirk of archaeological record keeping). In both motifs there is a certain inscrutability, which seems to demand that the audience offer some kind of resolution. Both the statues and the patients contain buried memories, and yet the viewer cannot entirely excavate or penetrate their meanings. The association of these two ‘found’ types of lost memory performs a kind of formalism, with respect to the disconnection of a complex thought from the historical-genealogical context that would make it intelligible. When one considers this dysfunction in light of the explanatory promise implied by the brain sculpture, questions arise as to the adequacy of the static physical model. Might mental phenomena demand, rather, a process based description? In what sense does the mind reside in the material substrate of the brain, rather than in the dynamic fluctuations of the nervous system over time? Amnesia, as pictured here, offers an image of just how mad it may be to sever, even in theory, the physical structure of the brain from the historical process of its operation—a diagnostic insanity stemming from a fetishistic desire to set memory in stone.
Another work, titled X, employs a mirrored magnifying lens to create the appearance, through a hologram effect, of a stone levitating in space. The stone in question is a fragment of a triangular boulder, located in the Swiss alpine town of Sils Maria, where the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent much time authoring his late work and, finally, succumbing to madness. In an 1881 letter, Nietzsche writes that a vision of this boulder inspired his theory of the eternal return, as well as his book Also Sprach Zarathustra
. Was Nietzsche’s vision of this particular stone a cause or effect of his madness? Fogarolli’s sculpture might seem to propose the answer as free-floating, but the performative nature of his mining operation at Sils Maria suggests otherwise. Going there to retrieve a fragment of Nietzsche’s intellectual touchstone implies that Fogarolli, as an artist, does not undertake this forensic project in the sole interest of assessing another’s delusion. Rather, in this strange investigation, we glimpse signs of his own: throughout the exhibition, STONE OF MADNESS
appears to foreground a specific aspect of inspiration proper to art, which is nothing less than thinking through objects, a thinking which need not express itself in words.
Words. Words are how we give an account of things (a narrative)—a process fundamental to the construction of identity and history (as distinguished from mere counting). In terms of philosophy, words are fundamental to the principle logic and reason itself. The ancient Greek logos
means “word”, “reason” or “plan”. What lies outside of this sphere if not unreason, and madness? Cast in a theological light, we must note that the key text of the Abrahamic faiths starts thus: In the beginning was the word
. In the same book the primary myth of morality establishes commandments written in stone
. But the notion that there may be reason, morality, or enlightenment in the stone itself (without the mediation of a linguistic inscription) edges the matter into the domain of the alchemical—that heretical wellspring of early modern art and science. In alchemy, the quest for the so-called philosopher’s stone pursues the reality of transubstantiation, often figured as lead into gold but more specifically seeking the reconciliation of truth (Platonic logos) with matter. Does an artist really recover the sculptures from the stone (that is, recuperate something that already existed within it—as is often proposed of Michaelangelo’s Prigioni
)? To think with objects, must the thought abide in the object? Is the artist, or philosopher merely someone wielding the right instrument (as Nietsche said, philosophizing with a hammer
), or do reason and unreason, matter and form, pursue each other in a cycle of eternal return?
It might seem that these are esoteric speculations, but to observe this is to approach a key problematic of the social madness of our times. For what is the silcon chip if not stone in another form? At least part of today’s crisis in public values centers around a dispute between those who imagine that morality, identity, and sense may emanate from the computer as philosopher’s stone—and whom would happily see the societal fabric reorganized around computational memory and its affordances. But while the screen may appear to be cultured (to possess a human face, so to speak) it is by no means assured that it can offer anything like an account of ourselves, to say nothing of itself. The computer computes. It counts, in zeros and ones. Its traffic with the word may not so much free the human from the stone as act as a kind of medusa, trapping us within it. Perhaps the contemporary stone of madness is what is often invisible in plain sight: the cognitive enhancement supplied by mineral-electric planetary-scale counting machine; which makes so much visible that it can seem impossible to operate on it effectively. In series of works from a series titled Nootropic
, Fogarolli’s work conflates madness and improvement. These works feature photographs with individuals with fluorite stones affixed to their heads. Fluorites borrow their name from the Latin fluere
(melting). When exposed to ultraviolet rays, some of these stones present the phenomenon of fluorescence, which takes its name from them, disclosing an aspect of their nature otherwise unseen. Some beliefs attribute healing powers to this class of stones—which are said to ward off loss of memory, disorientation and lack of concentration. In conflating the symptom with a kind of cure, Fogarolli stages a paradox—that the doxa of visibility and technical reason may, itself, be part of the problem.
Fogarolli’s exhibition invites viewers to peer more deeply in the social and mineral body of madness, and to seek new instruments to discern its causes. Further, to meditate on the material underpinnings of collective intoxication, including the mineral substratum of digital imaginary (our so-called collective intelligence). STONE OF MADNESS
probes the pharmakon
of contemporary unreason. It is a procedure, and a dreaming.
The author wishes to thank Dr. Dehlia Hannah, philosopher of science, for a rich discussion that has informed this text.