- “Film,” David Lynch says, “is really like voyeurism. You sit there in the safety of the theatre, and seeing is such a powerful thing. And we want to see secret things, we really want to see them. New things. It drives you nuts, you know! And the more new and secret they are, the more you want to see them.” The object mimes being in possession of a secret that the eye searches to see but is never able to attain. A body, genitals, a mask, a pair of shoes. Each functions not as the index of a hidden desire but as the (proffered) flesh of the image itself – the image through which, and by means of which, we seek to apprehend the secret it seemingly contains the way a mirror contains a reflection.
Cinema, photography, are here irreducible to the commonplace “pornography” of that which merely explicates or merely depicts – even if what is depicted ultimately remains an enigma. Indeed, despite much assertion to the contrary, there is very nearly nothing enigmatic about Lynch’s work itself: it conceals no “secret message,” no enveloped “content,” no revelatory “schema,” but is comprised almost wholly of surfaces, formal textures, découpage. Lynch’s work is structurally lucid in the way Thomas Ruff’s photo manipulations may be called structural, or De Chirico’s paintings, or the novels of Robbe-Grillet. Like dreams, they articulate rather than “depict”; or, in spite of what they “depict.” Their logic is the already deconstructive logic of a de-piction.
With the exception of the 1992 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, this is perhaps nowhere more explicit than in Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire, with its fragmentary, collage-like narrative, its recursive image-hysteria and its relentless “foreignness” (in the manner of a type of Alice through the Looking Glass). Inland Empire is a type of visual prosthesis of itself and of Lynch’s oeuvre as a whole. Shifting between the Hollywood studio setting of Mulholland Drive and post-communist urban-industrial Łódź in central Poland, the texture of the second half of Inland Empire recalls the disquieting work of photographer Marc Atkins, whose 1998 series The Teratologists, and 2001 series Equivalents, both echo and anticipate Lynch. Atkins’s “shadowed portraits” evoke a mode of seeing whose objects stand for, and therefore symbolize, an absence which, at the same time, they seek to disavow. A body or a room translated into the “previously unseen activity” of the camera, the dark place behind the eye, the “escaped frames from a film.”
These objects are the “Teratologists” that inhabit the technics of the photographic image the way the “mystery man” in Lost Highway inhabits the “continuity” of Lynch’s cinematography – as a type of prosthetic agent directing the way we see. The Teratologists, Atkins says, are “creators of uncertainty and desire. Within a dark room, a place of memory, a curtain momentarily blows open. The glance of light from beyond the window exposes the previously unseen activity of the room: sculptural forms, shadowed portraits, escaped frames from a film…”
- In Equivalents, Atkins – working between abandoned factory locations in London and, as Lynch later would, Łódź – creates interior parallel worlds, images within images, lost, obscured or reconstituted, their contours bleeding, visually over-saturated, into a “de-pictive” space or “de-pictive” time that has no other location than the image.
The image of the flash obliterates the identity of the model. An auto-portrait of the photographer whose face is held close to an illuminated lightbulb (this motif repeats elsewhere) lies on the floor. (The illusion here of a staged reflexivity, that we must come to recognise that the image of the camera is no more the spectre in the photograph than this “double” exposure is in the camera…)
A torn photograph of a woman’s face nailed to a brick wall above a heavily eroded sign: “AMONIAK.” One half of the face is entirely in shadow, the other half over-exposed. The shadow of the nail falls across the sign, cancelling it out: a cancelled sign, an anti-portrait…
But where Lynch enlists his setting to relentless hysteria that drives Inland Empire, Atkins explores an entirely different sense of “menace” which stems not from the dissociative proliferation of “parallel realities,” but from an invasive entropy. The light that unexpectedly exposes the “action” within the room, is in fact a kind of rigor mortis whereby the image, as Atkins says, is held. The visible assumes its cadaverous form. If The Teratolists invites the spectator to envisage a crime-in-progress, or a crime-about-to-happen, Equivalents evokes a crime-scene, forensic photography, missing persons bureaus, the placards and portraits of the “disappeared” worn by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (or anywhere that “disappearance” isn’t a metaphor but a general condition). With their neo-noir, colour-saturated aesthetic of motel rooms and venetian-blind chiaroscuro, Equivalents’ images-within-images create a topology of implied or implicated space in lieu of “presences.” The image is withheld. If Teratologists reads like a writ of habeas corpus, Equivalents rests (or rather unrests) on the false adage that for there to be a crime, there has to be a corpse. Where Teratologists gives the impression of having been recorded (staged) in a single studio, Equivalents distributes its locations globally: London, Łódź, Berlin, Paris, New York, Stuttgart, Cambridge.
In a recent series published in VLAK magazine, entitled Journey through a City, Atkins extends this conceit in a series of locational shots that, at first glance, appear entirely bereft of life. These images no longer evoke crime scenes in which a photograph-within-a-photograph stands in for the missing body, rather they suggest themselves as parts of some larger body: not a body-in-place, but a body of dis-place-ment (a psychogeography in celluloid stitched together with surgical twine – the “teratology” of this ab-normal anatomy). Again, as in Equivalents, the “locations” are dis-placed: London, Warsaw, Paris, Munich, Katowice, Bratislava, but this time the aesthetic resonance is less neo- than proto-noir, strongly suggestive of tarnished daguerreotype, or early photogravure, but predominantly urban: the remains of habitations after all human life has disappeared, perhaps. The word “exposure” looms large here, evoking the mortuary timescale of Daguerre’s Paris or Fenton’s Crimea, in which the entire dynamic of the image spirals out of a type of internal entropy: the high visibility of these images seems born out of a paradoxical (it seems) cannibalisation of presence. Journey through a City, with its deep-focus black and white (the very opposite of Lynch: think Citizen Cain meets Louis-Ferdinand Céline), embodies a contradiction that the spectator cannot help but experience from the very first: the exquisite detail captured by Atkins’ lens digitally overlaid by “tarnish”: traces, if you like, not simply of an implied body (absent) in (or from) “place,” but a time-body. Where Equivalents employed a form of montage to produce its effect, Journey through a City draws upon a “base materialism” which is both of the medium and ALSO a simulation of itself. “Through images as cracks in the superstructure,” Atkins writes, “I will suggest to you more than you immediately see.”
Where Lynch’s work makes explicit appeal to the pornographic image as mannerist “fetish,” and exploits that level of desire (and disconcertion) in his viewers, Atkins puts on view the necrophiliac impulse that ultimately underwrites all such appeal: the object of desire, unattainable as it may be in conventional wisdom, is always mortified, or rather a mortification: a mortification, so to say, of desire itself. This adds to the implied meaning of “equivalents” in Atkins’ work – echoing, for example, the equivalence in Warhol achieved in juxtaposition between the “Death and Disaster” series and the “Marilyns” – exposing the capacity of entropy to surround itself with light (like Warhol, Atkins’ work might also be read as a “critique” of commodity death, if it weren’t also much more than that – entropy, after all, is impervious to critique, the real difficulty is understanding its omnipresence as possibility and as the limit of the possible: time and the irreversibility of time… the held image). In short, Atkins works at the limits of representability – as all good artists must – but in his case, the question is not simply one of acceding to or resisting one or another mimetic ideology, but of examining what gives rise to the impulse to “represent,” so to speak, or equally what makes it (“representation”) impossible: why it is that the history of photography is not so much the history of an illusion, but of an “unrealisable desire” (the only kind, in any case).
- Just as pathology implies the idea of the normal, so the “uncanny” implies a habitude, and a habituation – yet these terms are in no sense opposable. The mark of the perverse is not a descent into aberration, but the obsessive, domineering work of correction; of discipline; of normalization, and hypernormalization, in the service of an ideal object. The sexualized logic of taboo and transgression venerates order and derives its pleasure principally from it; but order in a ritualistic, stylized and austere form which masks its own ridiculousness. Just as, in the economy of the pornographic image, what is on view is not some obscure object of desire but precisely its conventionality, its generic rationalism, its fetishization by way of a type of “autistic cult” of signs.
But what does it mean to speak of a pornographic image, if by pornographic we mean an image which merely depicts; an image whose form is laid bare to expose a forbidden “content” and is in fact nothing more than a veil of insubstantial signs superimposed upon the thing itself (the pornographic idée fixe)? There is obviously no point in naming or attempting to catalogue what this thing is: it will always ultimately escape us, however banal it may be made to appear; knowing that this fascination with anatomical detail conveys nothing but a pseudo-physiology, whose eroticization is fugitively metaphysical.
If such a thing as the pornographic image exists, it could only be an “image” whose form, whose very technicity, lays bare the “cause of desire in which the subject disappears” – annihilated, as Jean Baudrillard says, by transparency. Not a transparency which allows us “to see with clarity,” but which puts on view the very operations of seeing, in the conjunction of porneīa and graphē: the libidinal economy of visible signs.
This eroticization of seeing is first and foremost technological. The “object” is not some thing we perceive by means of a picture or image – as though films, photographs or “mental concepts” are mere instruments – it, the object, is rather an imaginary prosthesis. Just as we might say the ego is a prosthesis of the unconscious. Which is to say, of a certain “libido” whose operations take form at the level of a fantasised real – as a type of “videodrome.” Such a view calls to mind Bazin’s well-known observation that “the quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological” – a misunderstanding exacerbated by the production of images by mechanical and “automatic means.”
Photography accedes to the pornographic at that instant in which it is no longer seen as a mere depiction of, or even substitute for, the so-called real, but as its expropriation – its de-piction within the operations of the visual – a “transference of reality,” as Bazin says, leading him to observe that the “photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it… it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.” It is not for nothing that Marx had earlier defined the logic of the commodity in similar terms, or that Guy Debord will have synthesized these two views in his dialectical ontology of the spectacle. Nor that in each case the expropriatory function (of the photographic image, of the commodity, of spectacle) will have come to be equated with that of the fetish.
- A camera. Lights and smoke. A body defined by increments. Mouth, legs, breasts, eyes blacked-out like the eyes in a crime scene photograph. A warp of the lens, a blurred movement, a smear. Exposures multiply, overlaid with shadows. A décor in weird chiaroscuro, building the oppressive density of an image.
In 1994, Lynch produced a color photo series entitled “Nudes and Smoke,” one of several projects that extend Lynch’s preoccupations beyond the confines of cinema. The photographs, highly textured, explore the paradoxical obscurity and clarity of smoke captured on film, and its capacity to transform bodies and objects into compositions of surface and depth, both spatially and temporally. The figure of the nude is redistributed as a quality of the medium as such, rather than of the pictorial “object.” The body is rendered as a locus of intensities, shadow and exposure, doubled in the framing and arrangement of the image’s “décor,” and by the infinitely complex topologies of smoke.
In short, “Nudes and Smoke” achieves nothing less than a photographic articulation of its supposed subject. The words “nude” and “smoke” could just as easily stand for the texture of the image as image – not as terms designating exterior objects, but as a poetics of light, aperture, celluloid, retina; the whole complex of technical operations by which we come to perceive an image and not (or not simply) a verisimilitude of objects fixed on a type of screen. Nor just to perceive, but ultimately to be visually aroused, through that curious and disquieting conjunction of apprehension and apprehensiveness: the eye’s desire to possess and consume, and the evanescent, fleeting, yet fixed, overwhelming and threatening aspect of that desire itself made manifest before us.
The “image” for Lynch is this whole pornographic drama of desire played-out, as it were, in the theatre of the eye. “A dream of strange desires wrapped inside a mystery story.” The framework of the image becomes a stage in which the object functions primarily as a type of prop: the aim here is not depiction in any straightforward sense, but rather an embodiment. The pictorial object, the “model,” is here the prosthesis of the explicitly photographic body. Its objecthood is expropriated (de-picted) to the fetish economy of the image as image. But if we choose to entertain the idea that Lynch’s work, his photography and also his films, participates in this perhaps eccentric notion of pornography, then it is easy to see the danger implicit in the many attempts to view Lynch (in Blue Velvet, 1986; Lost Highway, 1997; Mulholland Drive, 2001), as more or less illustrating a psychoanalytical orthodoxy.
- Myth, Roland Barthes once wrote, “is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones.” It is for this reason, Barthes continues, that anything at all may be a myth. Myth is realizable not in the things themselves, but as a potentiality to signify; which is to say, discourse. And this potentiality is both medium-bound and generalizable, as a formal condition. Even if we attribute a certain formlessness to media per se: the necessary degree of formlessness of situations in flux, of evolutionary pathways.
Myth, discourse, evolve, just as media evolve. Or just as technology and neuroses evolve. It is for this reason, too, that myth stands at the horizon wherever a future comes into view, as an expressible idea. But the future, naked of fantasy and hypothesis, has no content, only potentialities, or rather probabilities. It is the formalization of ideas that conveys “content.” The medium – as what Barthes calls a semiological system – not only constitutes the message, but inaugurates it.
“There is no point identifying the world,” says Baudrillard. “We cannot even identify our own faces, since mirrors impair their symmetry. To see our own face as it is would be madness, since we would no longer have any mystery for ourselves and would, therefore, be annihilated by transparency. Might it not be said that man has evolved into a form such that his face remains invisible to him and he becomes definitively unidentifiable, not only in the mystery of his face, but in any of his desires?”
How to see with clarity that, after all, it is the mirror that is the face of the world? And on the other side of the mirror: no things, but forms of transparency, radiating into myth. The error is in believing that anything here is no longer. Nothing evolves into a form; evolution is form. Formalization – the desire for system – is simply the restitution of a primal objecthood, the reification of myth into cliché and archetype by way of inversion (the message is the medium). The desire for identification, “to see our own face,” becomes the horror of “transparency.” Defending our “selves” from madness, we cling to mystery. And from mystery to necessity, “evolving” towards a definitive state of unidentifiability. Which indeed bears all the hallmarks of the pathological, not because it implies that the sole defense against a type of madness is to relinquish the idea of reality, but because it insists upon an idea of the normal.
What we are confronted with here is this invocation of a redemptive perverse. That in the face of “reality’s” dissolution, or of some empirical limit of our knowing anything about it, a condition of the “normal” can nevertheless be reconstituted through the dogmatic? hysterical? assertion of its impossibility. Veiled in signs, the real becomes that unknowable thing that sends forth its avatars in the guise of a “system of objects.” But objects which have always already disappeared. We live, says Baudrillard, on the basis of an unreality. Reality “itself” does not take place.
- In March 2007, Lynch commissioned well-known couturier Christian Louboutin to design some shoes for an exhibition he was curating for the Cartier Foundation. In return, Louboutin proposed a collaboration with Lynch for a second exhibition, for which he planned to create a series of extreme fetish shoes which Lynch would then photograph. The resulting installation, entitled simply Fetish, opened 3 October in Paris, in Pierre Passebon’s Galerie du Passage, near the Palais Royal. The exhibition comprised five limited edition pairs of shoes and signed photographs of the shoes modelled by two nude dancers from the Crazy Horse cabaret (“Nouka” and “Baby”).
While Lynch’s photographs for the Fetish exhibition have been compared to the work of, among others, Guy Bourdin and Francis Bacon, they retain a particularly Lynchian quality, though only in part due to the familiar vocabulary of constricted space, color-saturation and lighting (“a décor populated with shadows”). If in many of Lynch’s films the moving image often appears weighted down to the point of immobility, the tableaux in Fetish exhibit a weirdly ethereal kinetics. Kinetic not solely by virtue of the similitude of effect (the movement of the camera, the distortions of a warped, unfocused lens, the use of multiple exposure and stop-motion), but through the disjunction between the agitated visuality of the images and the rigid constraint imposed by the eponymous fetish as both object and idea.
Louboutin’s shoes (10 inch stilettos, Siamese heels, spikes on the instep, etc.) by themselves represent a type of functional enigma – recalling Meret Oppenheim’s “Ma Gouvernante” (1936) and “La Couple” (1956), in which the aesthetics of rigid constraint and bodily distortion are allegorically condensed into the sculptural transfiguration of the “shoes” themselves.
Like Oppenheim’s “sculptures,” the forms of bondage implied by Louboutin’s shoes are no longer those of a body subjected to a sort of sadomasochistic discipline, but rather those of a fixation. Like Moira Shearer’s red ballet shoes in The Archers’s 1948 film. We witness the accession of the thing to the status of autonomous object – mysteriously acting on its own behalf, and not only acting but subjecting us to its “will.” In Red Shoes, Shearer’s character is, as it were, traversed by a type of alien ego: her shoes dance her. Her own actions become intransitive, as though some demon in the shoes had come to inhabit her against her will, exposing the horror of a mind trapped, imprisoned or in bondage, doll-like within a body, a situation or environment which acts for it, like a secret, irrational, external intelligence.
In Lynch’s photographs, this logic of the fetish as both object and agent is transferred onto the images themselves. Louboutin’s shoes become merely conventional signifiers of a fetish genre, for which the naked bodies of “Nouka” and “Baby” serve as compositional props. The images summon forth a paradox, between an excess of conventionality and excess as such, evoking a kind of vertigo. There is something in these images that recalls Roquentin’s moment of epiphany in La nausée – the eye’s disquietude, its mortification, its uncharacteristic inertia, brought to the verge of something that contradicts and overwhelms it. Something that renders the eye naked.
- “I like to remember things my own way… Not necessarily the way they happened.” In Lost Highway, the eye that sees is constantly under threat of its gaze being returned by some externalized agency: images on a video tape, the Mystery Man’s camera, the feedback loop of telephones, intercoms, interior architectures, parallel worlds, doubles, reflections, reality gaps. Inertia, entropy, static blur the division between memory and “what happens.” There are ghosts in the cinematic machine: the eye becomes the prosthesis of an inverted desire to see, an automaton into which it is absorbed by way of an unrelenting enervation.
Early in the film we “see” – at the end of a long tracking shot – Fred Madison kneeling beside the naked, bloodied corpse of his wife, Renée. We “see” his silent scream. Something splitting apart. The footage is from a video tape – one of a series of three – that has mysteriously turned up on the doorstep of the Madison house. According to the script:
On the tape is the same night-time interior of the house, accompanied by the DRONING SOUND. The camera moves eerily down the hall toward the bedroom, sliding at a high angle. The camera turns slowly into the bedroom – looking down.
BLOOD is splattered over the floor, bed, walls. The camera drifts. THE DEAD BODY OF RENEE lies on the floor at the foot of the bed. She is badly mutilated. Fred is hovering over her on the tape, ON HIS KNEES, A HORRIFIED, UNBELIEVING EXPRESSION ON HIS FACE. On the tape, Fred turns away from Renee – his hands raised, dripping blood – her blood. His movements are almost mechanical, constricted, as he strains strangely upwards seemingly against his will, as if feeling some enormous pressure. He looks directly at the camera, his face a ghastly grimace, contorted, just before the taped image goes to snow.
The video image remains opaque, almost impenetrable, as though what is being presented has nothing whatsoever to do with the two figures in the frame. The camera’s point of view, high up near the ceiling, creates a type of anamorphosis which seemingly distorts what we see at the same time as it “reveals” the geometry of how we see. The nakedness of the corpse becomes the “sign” of a more deadening nakedness: the mortification of the eye exposed to its own interior illusionism. The image is no longer simply that of a naked object, but also of the rigidifying fixation of the eye’s “desire to see more” – from Elysium to basso inferno.
If the brief video footage of Fred beside Renée’s corpse suggests an allegory of Madison’s divided personality, it is also a kind of allegory of this division of seeing, in which the image stands as an immoveable blind-spot that we encounter only by indirection – a topology of dislocated affect. And yet it is solely by means of this blind that we see. Nothing, no “truth,” is lost in the medium, as it were. It is not a question of verifying or not verifying that what we see in the video of Fred and Renée’s corpse is what we think it is, or what Fred thinks it is.
Like Isabella Rossellini/Dorothy Vallens’s body in Blue Velvet – and the “blue velvet” that acts as its metonym – we are never close to the nakedness it seems to present to us more than at the moment our own seeing enters into the obsessive, violent iteration of the object coupled to its negation: Dorothy’s unnaturally red mouth juxtaposed, in Jeffrey Beaumont’s disturbed memory, with the distorted mask of Frank Booth’s psychosis. Here we see at work the particular violence by which a radical decoupage evokes an equally visceral and intellectual sado-masochism; its alienation-effect constituting the spectator (the voyeur) as subjection to – we might say – the desire of the image.
The nakedness of the image is always an interstice – something into which the visualization of desire is constantly projected in a type of pornographic monomania. Within this economy it is the medium itself which is the “fetish” – the invisible deus-ex-machina whose myriad avatars traverse the surface of the eye in an unrelenting equivalence of a de-picted pure object, of an “object which is not an object.” But this “object which is not an object” continues, as Baudrillard says, to obsess “by its empty, immaterial presence” while threatening at the same time to materialize its very nothingness.
This then would be the essence of the pornographic image: that in place of a “subject” there is only subjection; in place of an object there is only this prosthesis of seeing, absorbed into itself in the form, perhaps, of an impossible exchange; the libidinal economy of an eye that desires only what it cannot see.
Louis Armand is the Director of the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. His books include The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013) and the novel Breakfast at Midnight (2011), described by 3:AM magazine’s Richard Marshall as “a perfect modern noir”.
 David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley (London: Faber, 2005) 145.
 Its cast alone is a pot-pourri of earlier films: Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Laura Harring, Naomi Watts.
 Marc Atkins, The Teratologists (London: Panoptika, 1998).
 Louis Armand, “Equivalence Relation,” Interstice (London: Panoptika, 2002).
 Marc Atkins, “Journey through a City,” VLAK 5 (2015): 282.
 Jaques Lacan, Écrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966) 10.
 Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1996) 7.
 David Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1983.
 André Bazin, What is Cinema, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) 12.
 Bazin, What is Cinema, 14.
 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995).
 Lynch’s description of Blue Velvet (1986) in Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley (London: Faber, 2005) 138.
 We are in fact confronted here with a kind of revelation that the fetish is not a sign that masks a “lack” since, in any case, a lack is always symbolic. Rather, it masks the “absence” of a lack (the fetish is only castrative, to borrow the Freudean term, in the absence of castration). The fetish’s ritualisation of desire displaces and reifies into situations the very logic of the mask, by which the image assumes what we might call a persona.
 Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Vintage, 2000) 109.
 Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime 7. My italics.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).
 Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, 6.
 This transcendental weirdness has its echoes, too, in Lynch’s off-screen presence – by way of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. One recent example would be the surrealism of the Taufelsberg fiasco and the subsequent efforts of Lynch’s lawyers to remove footage of the event from the internet under section 512(c)(3) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.