In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche bequeathed the characteristically evocative, if gnomic, aphorism: “if you gave long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Interpretations of Nietzsche’s statement vary – what else should one expect from the man who also left behind the distinctly 21st century aphorism, “there are no facts, only interpretations” – but there is a ring of truth in the lines for anyone who has spent any significant amount of time contemplating life’s dark corners. Thus, it was something of a surprise that this line came back to me as I visited Buck Ellison’s exhibition, Modesty, at Weiss Gallery in Berlin which is, on the whole, a rather affable affair in its understated, self-consciously quotidian aesthetic.
Along the gallery’s south walls are a number of still-life images of seafood on ice from Berlin’s Kaufhaus des Westens. The images, inevitably, summon the ghosts of still-lifes past; inescapably, the work of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, with his ghostly rays silently screaming and his gleaming fillets drawing the attention of well-fed local cats, intrudes on the mind as one looks into the eyes of the curiously nonplussed-seeming fish Ellison documents as they lie on their icy beds indifferent to their role as signifiers of aspirational consumption. It was, however, the sections of octopus at the corner of these images, inverted or gnarled in on themselves amid the ice, that struck me most powerfully and drew the Nietzsche quote from somewhere in the memory files of my undergraduate years. Gaze long enough into the octopus and it gazes back into you. But it was not the octopus that gazed back, the creatures were so obviously dead, so completely estranged from life in these images that one reconstructs their previous existence as sentient, motile beings from context more than from the actual physical documentation of the lifeless cephalopods. You create the living octopus from its dead body. You, thus, become the creature, its biography and, perhaps, its legacy for a brief moment. Ellison’s compositional feel is particularly central to making these dead creatures speak from behind the seafood counter. In “Ethical Culture”, a star-like octopus lies at the bottom righthand corner of the image, at the littoral of a streak of ice and shellfish; it looks something like a shooting star, or perhaps even Wormwood, the star—as the Book of Revelation has it—that fell to earth and poisoned a third of the world’s water supply. In the midst of the pleasant acceptability—not to speak of accessibility—of Ellison’s images, it is in images like “Ethical Culture”, and its companions “Scientific Charity” and “Strenuous Life”, that a deeper resonance rises to the surface. To look into any image is to find something of one’s self in it. The message from these otherworldly occupants of our common earth, who literally breathe a different kind of air, is in part, at least, that there is something alien in all of us, indeed, it is perhaps the quality we as living beings most fully share.
Until 2 July
Images courtesy of Weiss Galerry Berlin and the artist.
Photo credit:Linus Dessecker