Thursday, April 17, 2014


 The Year Zero was done in 2007 as a study for  the set of the crucifixion section of a
performance of the Bach Johannes Passion. It is based on photographs of the ossuaries
of the remains of those dead at the hands of the Khymer Rouge. In one of the photographs that
I worked from, there are three small children looking over a fence into the pen
where these bones lie. I have sometimes wondered what they thought..
 The choice of such subject matter was prompted by the New Testament description of
Cavalry as a "gehenna" or Hell, the place of the crucifixion being described as  shaped
like a skull. (And, indeed, the vernacular Phillips translation describes it as "Skull Hill").
On a deeper level, I wanted to interrogate my own relationship to atrocity.
 In my youth, I had  broached near anorexia over the course of my twenty-fourth and twenty fifth years ,
trying to comes to terms with my  incomprehension of the Nazi death camps. My sense of ethical incongruity
was severe enough that I gradually started starving myself, and indeed starvation became a kind of addiction, with addiction's downward  pull to oblivion. The Well Tempered Clavier of Bach was one of the things that aroused  me from this  state, and years later I felt that I might  brave my questions again in Bach's trusted company.

It was a perilous enterprise, I now see in retrospect. The painting is done of four different layers of screening, 
with  the skulls  on the horizon started first, the skulls in the more remote mid ground added to them, the skulls in the forward mid ground added to them, and the skulls on the foreground added to them. In brief, I found myself orchestrating a sea of skulls. 

What was distressing was how each skull  on inspection became a missing personality, whose life had  come to a foul end.  

What was different from the horror of my youth was the horror of adulthood, or a growing sense of complicity with these terrible deeds. I have never murdered anyone in actuality, but often  in my heart. Somehow, though this is impossible to demonstrate, I feel sure that this is my part in  abetting

Certainly, this came home to me while painting this painting, and I wept often doing it, which is unusual for me.

The intense migrainous sensation of doing it is also something I recall, though this now seems serio-comical.
Throughout the process   my  cranial-fissures were felt keenly, like tectonic plates migrating grindingly apart.
And when, in a moment of discovering a way of rendering the skulls more rounded---an instance of technique losing its relationship to the subject matter--I plunged my brush into the paint can of vermillion, and accidentally cracked   the brush- handle. 
This jolted me from my moment of aesthetic pleasure, and I recalled how the first  photographic documentarians of Auschwitz found themselves composing shots to distance themselves from the "subject matter".

I am entirely unconvinced, for that reason, that one might  claim that  art can act as testimony to atrocity. The instances
where it is an expression of vehement indignation seem to me to be almost an unintentional disclaimer on the part of the artist,as if to say,  in this I am an innocent.And as an innocent, I accuse you. But to speak of myself alone, I am not an innocent in my heart , and this knowledge extends  the questions I  may put to history or another people to the questions I  must put to my own heart. In the matter of atrocity, I must also stand among the accused  if I wish to change myself. Sorrow is another matter. And in sorrow and contrition, I  may find  some connection with humanity.
(The Year Zero; 2007)

1 comment:

  1. phillip - these are haunting and reminiscent of the ossuaries in Evora - H refused to accompany me inside but gthey were fascinating - would like to discuss w/you