At the show with the artist: Brendan Michal Heshka’s psycho psychoanalysis of the Fin-De-Siècle Museum

Piero Bisello and Brendan Michal Heshka

We came across the work of Canadian artist Brendan Michal Heshka in Brussels at the independent art fair Poppositions last April. A few of his pieces were presented in the booth of AGENCY AGENCY, along with what we now think is the perfect introduction to his multifaceted practice: there, laying alone on the table, a book dragged our attention, a soft cover with a strange pattern of classicist sculptures, black squares, abstract symbols, Duchiampian artworks, all floating over an ocean of art deco-looking ornaments. Browsing inside, one found a theater play, a series of dialogues between a successful curator, a psychoanalyst, and an alien. The title, “An Alien Odyssey to Creative Freedom: Towards a Theory of Artistic Research; from the Abstract Maybe to the Concrete Real”, might sound rather abstract in the first approach. Once finished reading though, the content of the book is clear, straightforward, and incredibly ambitious: how can we define art within the art world (the curator), for the sake of the “most other” Other (an alien), while looking for our own subjectivity in the world (the psychoanalysis)? No one can really answer this question.

Or maybe no one among the living. In one of his most recent projects, Heshka tries to reach the spirit of Marcel Duchamp, asking him to come down from the artist heaven (or hell) he must reside now to answer a few a questions that we, poor alive art enthusiasts whose life he has made slightly more complicated, need to get through with. Still not familiar with emails and apps, the elusive Duchamp could instead only be reached via medium, a psychic contact that Heshka has translated into text, performances, theater pieces and even framed work – an example is his own portrait mutating into the one of Duchamp.

As mentioned, another aspect of the book is psychoanalysis, a topic Heshka has investigated at length. One of his biggest projects titled Psychosculpture takes psychoanalysis away from the field of pseudo sciences (to which, we think, it has always belonged), to re-contextualise it in the much freer and more suitable field of the arts.

Psychosculpture takes shape in different ways. For instance, the artist gives proper therapeutic sessions to fellow artists and curators, letting them talk about their life experiences and, by means of this participation to the project, turning them into artworks. Another way has been the study of the architectural and interior design aspects linked to the discipline: the artist’s studio becomes a sort of physical apparatus, in which all the elements of the space can play a specific role in the activation of the “therapy”.

For this installment of “At The Show With The Artist”, Heshka came with us to visit the Musée Fin de Siècle in Brussels. This museum covers the historical period when psychoanalysis was first formulated and the one after it became popular. Both its collection and the architecture, a multi-storey underground space, show how much the new bourgeois individual of that time, looking to reach unknown corners of the mind in a quest for the true him or herself, took a “downbound” direction.

Heshka feels at ease selecting artworks by others to trigger a complex symbolism linked to his Psychosculpture, an artistic strategy we will also see in a coming exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta. For our visit at the Musée de Fin de Siècle, his selection of 8 artworks remains within the space of a written article and previews his Psycho-historical performative museum tours, creating a conceptual museum guide. This functions as a sort of deep analysis of what we can call a subconscious of the hoard, an approach to art objects that treats them as they together could constitute a mind away from the strictly human. Not unlike ours, this mind of the hoard looks like a labyrinth…

“Je est un autre” “I is another”

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels invites me to come visit and tour the exhibition. I find this calling and invitation to discuss my work there very interesting, as none of the paintings in the collection actually carry my signature, and to most eyes, except the most highly trained, it is not obvious that my work is actually to be found entirely throughout this cavalcade of historic painting. I take this as a good omen and decide to allow myself a break from my work here in the studio. The current contemplation of my skillfully tied rope into the classical form of the hangman’s noose, the admiration of its new placement hung from the center column of my office studio and the way its materiality physically brings me closer to death and makes me simultaneously feel more alive, will have to wait.

So I go along and begin to tell what I know about the museum:

The curation of Belgium’s Fin-de-siècle museum does not attempt to manufacture meanings; it prefers to maintain things in their state of meaning. The function is an attempt to make things remain as they are: safeguard the images, uphold the heritage and royalty, maintain the glories with their sunbursts, hide the treasures, record the confessions, suppress the declarations; in short keep history under glass.

The Belgium collection from 1868 – 1914 is an important one, as it comes during the same time that the young independent nation of Belgium itself is established and struggles for its identity. So here you could say, is a document to identity, and what it shows of itself appears as a dark one at that.

In exhibition construction, just as in psychoanalysis, meaning is everywhere, there is no such thing as coincidental, in the symbolic order there is no such thing as chance, pure contingency only exists in the real. So I look to see what’s here beyond the works of art themselves. I look to see the mechanisms behind the symptoms. The architecture, lighting, circulation, locations, organization of things are all on exhibit for us to see, their system and constellation reveals, whether it’s intentional or not.

The Musée Fin-de-Siècle is constructed in the structure of a classical labyrinth. There is but a single path, which passes you down lower and lower and still deeper and deeper into the underground of Belgium’s Burgundian soil until you finally reach its |”-8”, the terminal floor of the museums descending architecture. It is no coincidence that this collection is held and hosted deep below the ground. For it openly hides great secrets beneath the surface. The interesting thing about a labyrinth is that we can be completely lost in it even though there is but a single path. And I am. Lost. I give myself a conceptual architecture for making sense of the world. And I begin to understand the demented horror of my trip down. I wonder what such a collection can reveal about its collectors, who they are, and what would be the motivations behind any man, woman, country or institution gathering such a hoard and presenting it in such a way. The darkest most twisted collection I have ever encountered. Sincerely. I reach the end and am terrified; I can do nothing else but turn back, exhausted, making my way back out, try to make sense of what I’ve seen, and seek a mode of recovery from this little trauma.

I am sitting at the easel looking at all the work on my walls and table. But then the scene immediately changes. I’m in what looks like a typical pastoral landscape where there’s not a sign of a single man or animal for miles. But it doesn’t feel the way it should from the looks of things, but more turbulent. It feels, smells and sounds like I’m standing at the sea, and there is something that is lying under this sea-that’s-not-a-sea, like a great shipwreck, or? Now I see, here beside me, a small flock of migratory marsh birds, they are tall white-bodied storks. There is something quite beautiful about them, but again I get the sensation something is not quite right. They slowly seem to become more and more human, not in their appearance, but in the way they posture and move, but most of all its something in their eyes and how they gaze into me demanding. I move closer to them even though I definitely have the feeling I don’t want to. And together we sit down onto the grass to share a meal, I don’t know how I know that that is our reason for gathering and sitting together the way we do, but I know, even though there is actually no food. We are hungry and tired and have been working hard, the sun is beautifully glowing and the land is green but still there is nothing for us. All of us look and examine the faces and moods of each other silently, and I really begin to get the feeling like I’m supposed to be the one that is feeding all the other birds. Now I can make out a procession of people that follow a trail over and down from a hill beyond, they slowly approach and I see that they’re all, except one old man at the rear, women. They wear long flowing archaic dresses from maybe the middle ages. I watch them approach until passing directly in front of us. Some play music, others spread flowers, all are pretty, but at the same time all equally seem drained of life. I wonder where they go, or whether they’re even really moving at all. It can’t be a happy destination, it seems like a marriage and a funeral merged into a single right of passage. There is not a single sign of this somber procession noticing the presence of my group, my family, they simply pass by. Until one of these witches, the second from the last, in a nude color gown drops out of the cue and lowers her fiddle. She places a glowing green apple down in front of us. Now this is all I remember, this glowing green apple that seems to take our hunger away without us even eating it.

In psychoanalytic terms the labyrinth is the perfect metaphor to map the post-Freudian consciousness. I create a floorplan using the classical seven-turn single-path labyrinth. The same structure that appeared in ancient Greece where the hero Theseus must find, confront, and kill the Minotaur. In Lacanian terms we internalize this same labyrinth structure to house at its core, our own “Fundamental Fantasy”. Each of the descending circling rings relates and shows aspects of this fundamental fantasy that defines the subjects most basic relations to the Other or stance and respect to the Other. As mentioned earlier, here our subject is the Belgium identity (or that collective body that works, collects, and signs in her name), and I treat her as the protagonist of this complex structure. As we walk the path of the exhibition we see her desires, each gallery another level of fantasy in relation to her struggle for identity. We experience the myriad scenarios, daydreams and masturbation fantasies that run through Belgium’s mind, paintings that present singular facets of this fundamental fantasy, albeit in a disguised form.

At the outset of the exhibition, marked by Saying Grace by Charles de Groux – 1861, the fantasy at the core is experienced as insufferable; she cannot bear the thought of the fantasy that gives her satisfaction– she can not bear to think about what gives her enjoyment– for she finds it so reprehensible, so contrary to everything Belgium feels she stands for. “She wants to know nothing about it”.

My psycho-historical museum tour leads us along this downward spiral of Belgium’s fantasy exploring the symbolic masquerade and interpreting each of her meandering galleries until it rounds the final bend where we abruptly meet what’s at her end. A repulsive saturated red canvas that can only be the devil and of course it is, Satan’s Treasures by Jean Delville – 1895. Sharing the core of the Belgian museum with the Devil stands Immortality by Paul de Vigne – 1884, a pure white marble figure, a statue that bows an elegant bended knee towards the red canvas in an expressive curtsy, a symbolic gesture of courtesy and respect.

But what does it all MEAN?

It is the structure of the labyrinth that upholds the museum, as if it were a matter of eliminating everything that goes into theatricality, to let appear as visible on stage only the shadow play of the secret.

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory.
Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor.
I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed.
I let myself fall until I am bloody.
At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy.
Sometimes I really sleep.
But of all the games, I prefer the one about the ‘other’.
I pretend that you come to visit me and that I show you my house.

November 16, 2022