The shortest way between two points being the straight line, Pascal Dombis never draws straight lines. Such preliminaries will certainly not convince anyone who has seen the artist’s works, even as mere reproductions and yet, it is true: after thirty years of artistic achievements, Dombis has never turned against such a rigorous and Epicurean itinerary. A spiritual heir to the atomists, and to Lucretius in particular, Dombis knows only too well that any vertical fall, not to mention any other kind of movement – whatever its course – is accompanied by another force that modifies it, sometimes imperceptibly, but always relentlessly, from what is expected to be its pure Euclidian trajectory. It abides to some law of nature, or at least to that of sexual desires and cremastic vibes, as shown in the paintings by the truly great sensualist painters, from Michelango Buonarotti to Pablo Picasso. Incidentally, this is also in the nature of things. De Rerum Natura!
A state of affairs, which would not be so astonishing, should Dombis’s sensitive, raw, complex and mathematically discreet work not be as conceptual and non-representational as it is! Nothing in his artistic production aims at either entertaining us with subjective or ex-centric story-telling, or making us fancy more or less shady and unidentifiable objects of desire, or overwhelming us with some hybrid unheard-of concepts of what Beauty might be today. Almost in real time, the art of Pascal Dombis delineates the timeless imprints of our optical and æsthetic perceptions. In other words, it unveils the visual archaeologies of our own sensitivity and sometimes, of our libido indeed. The whole mystery dwells on that. To quote his own words, “hacking technological time” is top of the list on his artistic agenda. But as far as we are concerned, we also recognize in his gestures a post-digital version of the Fuck the system principle present in the long 20th century anarchist tradition initiated by Felix Fénéons and Octave Mirbeaus turned into Genesis O’Porridges or Iggy Pops one hundred years later. To be frank, Pascal Dombis is a closet punk. Patrons of the Villa Tamaris, in la Seyne-sur-Mer, still remember the shocking apparition of an unexpected semiotic sign right in the middle of the huge mural composition entitled Rizong III, working as a major and unforeseen anacoluthon since nobody (artist included) had imagined or designed it to that effect until it revealed itself in Spring 1999 during the installation.
His most emblematic creations (be they pictures, sculptures or video installations) usually display lines, traces, tracks, grids, tangents, or slightly oblique vertical or horizontal diagrams in a chromatic spectrum that ranges from black to white (even when they are in colour, their colour is not pre-determined but the accidental result of very peculiar aleatory processes). They show forms that do not illustrate or represent anything in particular, no personal history, no compassionate or spiteful expression of subjectivity, no self-indulgent reverie, no allusion to cheerful or heart-breaking anecdotes which still establish romanticized emotional links among today’s visual artists, viewers, curators and amateurs. Immediately attractive or repulsive, these constructivist forms are difficult to swallow in a gulp, contrary to representational motifs in today’s or yesterday’s mainstream art or to the interior decoration and ornamentation features of our aestheticizing Western societies. At the very moment of our perceptions of them, we cling to them, we do not switch to the next one because these forms work like mirrors reflecting our own gaze – Lines which obviously tell the story of the eye! When in Documents Georges Bataille analyses horses in prehistorical and Roman frescoes (“The Academic Horse”), flowers photographed by Karl Blossfeldt (“The language of flowers”) or “The Big Toe”, he wants us to react and feel horse-like, to breathe and grow flower-like, and to feel the world and the ground with our big toe. Thus, it becomes needless to conjure up the far more obscene scene of the One and Hundred Pieces torture whose photographic reproduction haunted and enraptured the author of The Accursed Share to convey the ultimate experience of what ecstasy might feel like. A few decades earlier, in his manifesto From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, Kasimir Malevitch had already pointed out the artistic monstrosity of Michelangelo’s David: “Angelo’s David is a deformation <…> All the masters of the Renaissance achieved great results in anatomy. <…> But they did not achieve veracity in their impression of the body.” Plenty of realistic details in these almost animated bodies, with their beautiful and confusing little blue veins, will never make you forget that.
Finally, one is back at it, slightly more unnerved and more excited by the recurrence of arbitrary motifs striking combinatory and artificial poses. Yet, at the same time, the latent stillness of it all triggers off unbeschreiblich sensations Moreover, one has no longer control over the point on which we focus our gaze. One draws nearer, one craves to see more, one feels like touching, one is even invited to do so, one coils back, this will not happen again, and one goes back at it. Is there any chance we will ever return? One is in it, down within. One is absorbed.
The lack of distance could actually subtract us from the context, and brings us down to some violent urge to fulfil, with a vengeance, and why not, in the abstract. This is exactly what you feel when you watch his early spirals (one in particular, “untitled”, dated 1992, shows a form which is both a spiral and a maze, probably inspired by Solomon’s labyrinths, with blue-greyish shades glimmering under the effect of a multi-layered texture of Japanese papers glued together by erratic spurts of opaque or translucent resin substances), and more recent ones, made more complex because of the use of digital tools and serial printing devices (Antisana Virus, in the early 2000’s), or the Spin installations where the viewer’s other body parts are invited to set the whole process in motion, churning out more fascinating images, with a self-propelled desiring force in which desire itself gets lost… In other works of the same period (and especially in video installations where the viral proliferation is accompanied by accidental errors in pixelization that should spoil or postpone our pleasure), we reach a state which is not orgasm (even less so in our days when the visual pornographic material is so overwhelmingly and democratically present in every window of every screen in terra vulgaris), but a state of “musement”, to use the expression coined by American semiotician C.S. Pierce. Very close to hypnosis, musement renders conscience perfectly fluid while the object of focalization merges with the focalizer’s whole reality. In other words, the desired object, a pure gem or a mere trifle, crystallizes and absorbs emotional shocks. Those were the earliest invitations to a voyage into what the artist calls his Irrational Geometrics.
The human need to be immersed is quite hopeless and yet, variation is equally vital and viral. Dombis’s lines are like the narrow streets of “reconciliation” that Rimbaud so often took in the Ethiopian city of Harar, and where avoiding the Other is actually made impossible by the mere architectonics. There is no more choice but to divest oneself of one’s windy soles, dodge entertainment deceits, and confront forms of the absolute. In the late 80s, Pascal Dombis’s non-digital works had inspired the following commentary: “Opening up one’s eyes is the first step in self-destruction”, resonating not like an abstract metaphysical but literally hyper- or meta-physical elegy on non-linearity and perpetual rebirth, namely a matter of eXistenZ. Unlimited graphic, technical or philosophical proliferations and loops become symbolical as in David Cronenberg’s cinema because anything goes as long as tensions and thrills are moving us despite the arbitrary and undifferentiating choice of motifs: the arobe glyph, why not the inside of a thigh, one minimal emoticon, some erectile tits, the delightful segment of the letter M from a McDonald logotype, lips ajar, a corporate company’s acronym, hairs, iconic pics retrieved mechanically by a Google search engine, a curvaceous crack or rump, or the ampersand symbol. Nothing takes us away from the superior law: by hook or by crook, the pornographic technique is to be implemented, i.e. shrinking the distance between focalizer and focalized to a minimum. The process is quintessentially mental even if the manifestations are muscular. Very early in his career, Dombis initiated a systematic sabotage of squared circles and chaotic squares in works of arts that he was still painting by hand and with liquid paint, but the evolution of his art has for long headed towards more complexity with emblem-like new series: Square Belaga, Mikado, Hyper-Structures, and Xplosion.
Without detour, one might say that Dombis’s art is of a titillating kind. It titillates our eyes, because his art is not purely programmatic as most art pieces are solid, rare, refined and very much coveted, but it also titillates our ability to be disturbed. Everything looked so much under control, so formal and sober but at last, some tensions and a latent unsteadiness are looming among the forms that start moving. Is it our own impatient tendency to deceive ourselves with tales which sets dynamic mental images in motion, or is it our natural taste for hunting and violence that convinces us something is fleeting by, forcing us to react out of the ordinary to recapture what is getting out of hand? We soon unwillingly realize we want to score and put an end to the rush of adrenaline. A virtual suprematist, Dombis materializes sensations into a work of art by introducing an active agent that is entirely foreign to the medium: in Malevitch’s words, an “additional component”. For this post-digital artist, the additional component is the obstinate introduction of a glitch in an over-simplistic algorithm. This is apparently the secret of his bigger plan, and where the conceptual dimension of his art resides. Despite the cold neatness of the materials used, his art becomes haptic and sensual. A whole new artistic approach to the world is suggestively made available.
It must be noted that the artist’s most recent productions (since 2014, to be exact) include a certain number of deeply moving art pieces standing out from the rest of his earlier works because of a more epidermal feel and a surface that is so strikingly velvety, attractive and no less absorbing. Far away from, and quite alien to the technopornographics described in these pages, works such as The Limits of Control (first shown in Basel, exhibited later in Düsseldorf, Paris and London, and today retrieved from public view in a private collection) or Méta-Aura (put in display in the Modus Operandi collective exhibition at the “Société” gallery in Brussels in 2017), are taking Pascal Dombis along another time line, and in another reality which is both far more heterotactile and downright numinous.
Lonesome, taciturn, rough, sedulous and intent, the artist doesn’t falter: he is determined to go straight to the point and bite off more pixels than he can chew with his voracious algorithms, and with the help of his restless active hand. It is something of a curiosity to realize that whatever their theoretical, paradigmatic or political approach, art critics inevitably end up commenting on Dombis’s celebration of Man’s Hand and its capacity to do and change the world around. Do and Shut up. Just do the Job! seems to be his creed. His Grids exhibitions, in the early 2010s, involved the viewers’ corporeality. At the Arousing Walls in Bogotá, in Toowoomba, or in Patrimonio – of all places, their hands played with lenticulars to decipher something, before their whole bodies tried to position themselves in spaces with neither centres nor frames, as in his glass public installations, for example. Pornography, it must be said, except for a few onomatopoeia and interjections, has always praised silence and avoids referring to discourses of any kind. This is also why Dombis is able to develop his own creative language from the perspective of formlessness so cogently explored by Rosalind Krauss.
Aside from its near ubiquity in the work of those artists who thought of themselves as avant-garde—their numbers include Malevich as well as Mondrian, Leger as well as Picasso, Schwitters, Cornell, Reinhardt and Johns as well as Andre, LeWitt, Hesse, and Ryman—the grid possesses several structural properties which make it inherently susceptible to vanguard appropriation. One of these is the grid’s imperviousness to language. “Silence, exile, and cunning,” were Stephen Dedalus’s passwords: commands that in Paul Goodman’s view express the self-imposed code of the avant-garde artist. The grid promotes this silence, expressing it moreover as a refusal of speech. The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its antireferential character, but—more importantly—its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.
Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1985)
Formlessness, though, is not just an aesthetic characteristic to describe an object without a contour or whose volume defies definition or measurement. In literary history (whatever the genre, philosophical tales, detective novels, graphic novels, tainted love-stories, epistolary letters or gothic novels…) it can take many equally obscene forms: some rebellious youth, totally devoid of self-consciousness, some kinky and usually disgusting de-circumstanced detail that superimposes itself on the image of the beloved (or the beloathed for that matter), or the unfathomable memory of some unspeakable desire distorting a present reality. In all these circumstances where the narrator (and quite often the author him/herself) projects a broken self and encounters difficulties in getting hot, a rearrangement of bodies is necessary to expose the nature of our relations to others in all their possible geometrical possibilities: between the two (at least) idealized and reified characters, between the voyeur(s) and the model(s), between the viewers/readers and the scene re-ordered. Such an entanglement of multifarious manipulations would be inhumane, disembodied, gratuitous, if there were no accidents or perversity introduced by antagonistic forces played upside down. We would be in the realm of sublimated, unreal, open eroticism, and not in the far more hazardous limbo in which the minutest heterogeneous detail might turn the sexless object identical to itself into the Real, by essence erogenous and heterogeneous.
In Dombis’s art, and more especially in his Post-Digital Mirrors (I am thinking about the piece exhibited at the Venice Biennale of 2013 in particular), “formless forms” are what is shown: folds, waves, brims, overspills, holes, “light driving darkness before it” (V. Woolf, The Waves), a multi-layered texture of images that the viewer tries to penetrate once the visual confusion is gone or overwhelmed. Dombis’s aficionados have always strived hard to understand his pictures in their depths, fuelled as they were by their illusory multidimensional presence. Such a deep field of vision, where sometimes our gaze gets lost, is pregnant with literally immaterial forms and yet clearly visible, and just as ghost images open up our consciousness to new horizons. To quote Malevitch’s words from 1915, “this is possible when we free all art from philistine ideas and subject matter and teach our consciousness to see everything in nature not as real objects and forms, but as material, as masses from which forms must be made that have nothing in common with nature.”
This is precisely where the pornographic paradox lays and hides. By insisting on reducing the distance between oneself and what is looked at, by refusing to contextualize them in realistic narratives, and by condoning the mechanical reproduction of well-greased combinations to debunk the triggering detail that will rejuvenate desire through clicks incidents, glitches and any other form of ipseity. An unbridgeable heterological gap is then established in one’s relations with objects and with the world. When poet-essayist Hans Bellmer describes the mechanism of obscene images in “The Sodomy of the I in You”, from the Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious (1957), he quotes Joë Bousquet’s Le Mal d’enfance to remind us of Tristan Tzara’s great lesson (“Thinking enacted in and by the mouth”): “There is no more obstacle to elucidate the vaguely accursed smell of reversibility, even in the realm of words”. Freud once said that contraries tend to merge and to be represented by the same object, and one may notice that is true too in the case of linguistic hermaphrodism since in the early stages of the evolution of most languages, a certain number of antagonistic realities are signified by exactly the same phrase, word or expression.
It has now been demonstrated that an incomplete reality exists, and that you can oppose it to its image by adding a dynamic element that unifies the real and the virtual in some superior unit. Whether you introduce a looking-glass in movement, or a whip to keep the spin going again, or expressive organic reactions, we are grasping the same law that can be encapsulated in the old saying: OPPOSITES ARE NECESSARY FOR THINGS TO BE AND TO PRODUCE A THIRD REALITY
A proliferating artist and for a while a fractalist, Pascal Dombis was doomed to find himself at grips with some of the greatest taboos in the visual arts, namely human language, words and syntax. One thing leading to another, he encountered the unclassifiable writings of William Seward Burroughs in particular. The third reality mentioned by Bellmer echoes the title of a confidential publication, The Third Mind, where the literary and visual experiments of the author of Naked Lunch, in collaboration with Brion Gysin at about the same time, were gathered. Added to it, many other obscure literary toenails of the same period filled an alchemist’s cauldron in which Dombis has often dipped his digital and organic fingers over the past few years. After trying his hand with spams found in his mailboxes (SpamScapes), processing endlessly defyling texts (Text(e)~Fil(e)s), manipulating copulating syntgams (Gott ist Tot – ¿De dónde venimos? – What is Next…) or antitheses (RightRong – Hell Heaven – Capitalism Communism – Dual_Beyond…), Dombis found in what Burroughs considered his written pre-recordings of the future the sexy tautoligical statements which could ideally serve as arbitrary motifs of another kind in his more recent works: Image is Time – Time is Junk – The Limits of Control – I am Right. You are Wrong etc.
One tends to overlook the fact that the most anti-literary American author has nurtured a feeling of disgust, or at least some distrust, for what is often presented as humans’ privilege, namely language. His European equivalents include strong individuals such as Arthur Cravan or Francis Picabia, but Burroughs was unique in the sense that he was the last censored writer in the United States until the 1970s on account, precisely, of the ‘pornography’ to be found in the Naked Lunch. What Burroughs actually resented most was “the falsity of the emotions expressed” in written manuscripts. Born in 1914, Burroughs had been hanging around like a “stray woolf” in Harvard from 1932 to 1936, when he went to Vienna where he studied medicine for a while and followed courses in psychology. On his return to America, he studied anthropology and archaeology and followed five conferences delivered during the Summer of 1939 by the new director (and founder) of the Institute of General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). A Polish aristocrat from the House of Abdank, made an American citizen, originally an engineer and expert in intelligence systems, and a philosopher, Korzybski challenged many of the founding principles of Aristotle: “A Map IS not the Territory it Represents”… These talks had a lifetime influence on Burroughs and marked his definitive farewell to alternative thinking (either or) or so-called thinking laws which he reinvented drastically and ferociously. He did not consider himself as a writer but a reader of signs and a recorder-decoder and he considered that written words came first, then spoken words, and inscriptions are more essential than transcriptions. In the days of an electronic revolution to come, Burroughs prophesised that the virus would be “a very small unit of word and image”: Word Begets Image and Image IS Virus.
As for words and their signifieds in a mass-communication context, it is vital not to waste time or risk your life: Conceiving a subversive algorithm that will impoverish, deplete and deprive language of its coercive and controlling functions by rubbing, multiplying, and reordering words ad nauseam are Dombis’s response to Burroughs and Gysin’s experimental practices and seminal statements, updated or downgraded to the post-digital age. By collecting and recycling skyrocketing volumes of spams, tons of cinematographic end-scene footage and numberless pictures mechanically retrieved by an infamous search engine with the help of a couple of more than basic keys, Dombis is cutting up big data at yottabyte scale, using techniques not dissimilar from the flickering Dream Machine.
Dombis’s technopornographics (I mean the creative process at work) is a routine in fact, flouting and trying the limits of a system that prevails in contemporary art, with exhausting saturation and aporia as its horizon. If one is ready to take a few steps back to consider state-of-the-art techniques and devices available to the post digital artist, a profound questioning of our contemporary episteme (ἐπιστήμη) flourishes: “What are, indeed, today’s conditions to find access to knowledge?”
At the brink of the abyss, a few minutes before the end of the film, a few pics away from a black-out to come, Dombis’s art pieces do materialize and meet with their final form at the very moment when they crack the time line, a time line which a few moments before was thought to be perpetual. When you take part in the destabilizing video installation Crack, when you gaze at the multifoiled glass-panels of the immaculate Time Is series (some of its layers being physically hand-broken on purpose) or if you plunge in the lenticularized spectacle of numberless different “cracks” (from the exhilarating drug to the anatomical crack seen from every possible angle), you will not fail to witness the apparition of actual cracks in the art piece, revealing much more essential cracks in the overall system, including your own mental and neurological system. Prone to all sorts of syncope, but extremely firm in his gestures, Dombis combines strength and vulnerability. Like the female character in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s articles The Crack-Up (1936), Dombis invites us to an aesthetic feast which is ALSO an act of individualized resistance to global forces: “By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked—it’s the Grand Canyon”.
Didier Girard 2018