Unpinning the Butterflies: 
At the Threshold of Art and Anthropology
(Lecture, 2012)

Let us start this lecture with the images - the photographs I took during my two anthropological field researches as a young student in Serbia: of the one at it eastern border at Stara planina in 1998, and the other one at its south-western border of Pester high in 2000.

What they both have in common is that I have never written a word about them, as usually expected after these kinds of research. In possession of tones of visual and sound material I could use, analyze, and write about, I still have a problem to write things down. I have never fully reflected on this until now, and still cannot pinpoint the true reason for that. What I can say is that from the beginning, I had a feeling that anything I would write would not be able to contain the reality of my experience, nor the reality of the lives of those people, hence would always be on the edge of being fictional. Taken more than a decade ago, with faces and places that most probably are not there anymore, anything I would write now would not only be a fiction of their reality, but the fiction of my own past as well. Nevertheless, what I have discovered by looking at them again after all those years, is that those photographs are able to trigger my memories that would allow me to spend hours telling you about all important and unimportant details from those trips - and we should address this aspect of images in both direct and indirect way. 

The announced topic of this talk promises a discussion at the threshold of art and anthropology, of a place where I find myself for more than a decade now. During most of this time of working in the arts, I believed I have left for good the field of anthropology, my initial field of education. Nevertheless, the first reflections on my practice in the art field recently let me to a conclusion that I actually have never left it. In retrospect, this became particularly evident in my approach in working with the artists. This need to be practically active in the field one researches about is one of the main definitions of an anthropological field-research: participation with observation, or the other way around. In a way, I can even say that the art world became the 'tribe' I was trying to learn about. What soon became clear to me through this self-reflection was that twenty years ago, it would have been almost impossible for an anthropologist to work in such an easy way in the field of art, bringing me further to a conclusion that the art world must have changed in such a way to make this possible.

According to several authors, the 1990s in Europe were significant not only on a political level, but market a new moment in the development of curatorial practices as well. This new kind of curator suddenly had to become an expert not only on history of art, but on local cultures as well. In the moment of re-canonization of Western artistic practices, new tools for understanding the art from all over the world were needed. Curiously enough, it seems that they were found in anthropology. What is even more significant is that at the same moment, anthropology has reached its methodological crisis, questioning and abandoning the very same tools of representation of the Others now transferred to the field of contemporary art.

Many take as a turning point of this shift in the exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" that took place at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989. I would suggest here that we first take a look at a short and, at this moment, the only video document from the preparation of this exhibition:

Without going too much into details and the analysis of this video, it might be interesting to make a first note here and try to understand how the concept of contemporary art has been defined here. We see three collectives of people - from Australia, Tibet and the USA, as representatives of what we could call traditional art practices; the only individual here comes from China and seems to correspond the closest to the canon of what is called contemporary art; even in his explanation, the artist states that his motivation to participate here was to confront his own practice with the Western artists. In case of the 'art collectives', it seems that they have been abruptly taken away from their original context and placed in the proclaimed neutral space of the white cube, a sort of a 'democratic' platform where different artistic practices will be compared among each other. Although a small fragment, and almost an accidental testimony of this exhibition, it does not give us any information about the other, lets say Western artists participating here. A case-study of its own, I will skip now a deeper reflection on the totality of this show, but what becomes obvious from this small excerpt is that contemporary art has been understood in its most literary meaning, as an activity of producing art in the present, contemporary moment.

Nevertheless, my own understanding of contemporary art differs strongly, and I will offer it to you here so that you could follow more easily the following investigation. I see contemporary art as an independent genre of art making, strongly embedded in the framework of the white cube (as well as the attempts to escape it), a Western modernist invention of the XX century, with a strong canon and linear narrative, where curators have become to have a decisive role in defining what will be included in the canon. As it has been shown by many, this whit cube is everything but neutral, and everything placed within its clean walls has strong ideological roots. What this big machine of large-scale events does, in museums and elsewhere, is to make order in the new collections of subjects and objects, but also serving as one of the main wheels in the capitalist machinery. 

Let us now go back to the nineties: when we think about the art production and the exhibitions of that time, including the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word that defines this period, the concept that inevitably comes to mind is 'identity'. In the times of new shifts and global invasion of liberal capitalism (popularly named 'globalism'), the definition of clear ethnic identities in art and politics had become one of the most important traits of human beings to be worked upon. As we have seen, the field of contemporary art had become one of the main collaborators in this project, and suddenly the key to understand different artistic practices was found in the domain of culture and cultural identities, more often in the origin of the artists than in the art schools they have attended. As it seems, we are to believe today that all this has been resolved, at least - try to think about when was the last time you have heard the word 'identity' in the arts? What is important to repeat at this point is that at the very same time, the anthropological theory had officially reached its crisis. This happened after the discovery that its approach, its methodology, only exoticized the Others it was researching about, being used as an extended hand of colonialism and having devastating consequences on the political level for those Others. As it seems, the art world did not have any problem with taking over the production and reproduction of the images of all those strange Others, turning them into a main product on the art market. The avatar body of the dark side of anthropology has found its new materialization, using this opportunity for the production of the new spectacle.

There has been much discussion in the previous decades about the problematic Western definition of stable fixed identities, as well as the role of the Others in this. The short summary (thanks to Stuart Hall) is as follows:

1. The first school in one of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who had concluded that 'difference' matters because it is essential to meaning; all meaning is relational and without it, it would not exist; our language and culture operate in binary oppositions; from his side, the philosopher Jacques Derrida adds that there are just a few neutral binary oppositions: one pole of the binary is usually the dominant one, the one which includes the other within its field of operations.

2. Mikhail Bakhtin's school sees the need for 'difference' because we can only construct meaning through a dialogue with the Other; for him, meaning does not belong to any one speaker, which allows us to enter into a struggle over meaning.

3. The anthropological explanation states that the culture depends on giving things meaning by assigning them to different positions within a classificatory system; the marking of 'difference' is the very basis of the symbolic order we call culture [therefore, what unsettles culture is 'matter out of place'].

4. The psychoanalysis sees the Other as fundamental to the construction of the self, to us as subjects, and to the sexual identity; Lacan goes even further and states that we are never fully unified as subjects; we are formed in relation to something which completes us but which - since it lies outside us - we in some way always lack.[For more details, please see Chapter 4 in: Stuart Hall, work cited at the end].

And it is on this lack that the collections of objects seem to be created upon as well. At this moment, I would like to show you one more shore clip, this time a trailer for the 1965 movie entitled 'The Collector'. 

The disturbed young man from this movie has a long lasting passion for collecting butterflies and we see several times his rich collection. He has wan the lottery, has become a very rich man and the only thing he lacks to make his world perfect is love. Hence, he decides to kidnap his teenage love, now art student, and hold her in captivity waiting for her to change her mind. Of course, this does not happen, she will unfortunately die from illness; what is interesting is that he survives it all, and at the end of the movie we see him capturing a nurse, his new love butterfly: the collectors desire never ends.

This same logic seems to be haunting the world of art as well: the collections are never complete, and this frightening split in our identities needs more new victims. We capture and collect those poor butterflies, believing that by capturing their beauty, by possessing them, we will make them love us in return. What we fail to see is that once placed under the glass, they are already dead.

If we go back to the first insert we have seen, one of the important aspects of these exotic artistic practices is their ephemeral nature; if you have noticed, their material is sand, used in three different ways. After the show is over, there is nothing left behind to be sold at the market. By fixating the identities in the art world, this new collection of exotic wanders testifies not only about the ongoing project of erasing everything different from the Western traditions [by giving them the place in the museum, things are already seen as on their death bed] - it also testifies about the fact that since there is nothing there we could turn into a product and sell on the art market, the only thing left to be turned into currency and traded are their identities.

The Unusual Story of Aby Warburg 

In my search for different ways of experiencing (and surviving) the encounter with the Other, as well as what it means to be on the threshold of art and anthropology, I stumbled upon an unusual story about Aby Warburg, a thinker who preferred to be turned into a roaring lion than to become a collector of rarities.

Born and lived in Germany, 1866 - 1929, he is usually referred to as an art historian and cultural theorist who founded a first Library for Cultural Studies (later "Warburg Institute"), a library that was created when he exchanged his right to be the heir of a banking empire with his brother in return to be bought any book he wanted in his life. He was an active part of the intellectual scene in Hamburg, where he lived most of his life, being able to conduct independent research and push the limits of the analysis of visual representation in new directions. Warburg "was disgusted by a purely formal, aestheticizing history of art which was unable to understand images "as biologically necessary products of religion and the exercise of art"" (Raulff 1998: 64). Instead, he combined anthropology, ethnology, mythology, psychology and biology to overcome disciplinary boundaries.

In his valuable insights about the work of Aby Warburg, Giorgio Agamben marks the birth of a nameless science: of "a discipline that, in contrast to many others, exists but has no name,", a "diagnosis of Western man," and a "historical psychology of human expression that has yet to be written" (Agamben, 1999: 89-91).

Warburg saw a Western man as being essentially schizophrenic, being trapped between the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts. He understood our culture as based on and obsessed with history, hence the key concept for understanding the present is in understanding of what he named Nachleben, or survivals. According to this, the elements of our culture are unconsciously being transmitted from one generation to the next, an insight that deletes the usual distinction between 'civilized' and 'pagan' rituals. In this process of transmission, the artists are defined as the crucial agents of turning signs into images:

This is why Warburg often speaks of symbols as "dynamograms" that are transmitted to artists in a state of great tension, but that are not polarized in their active or passive, positive or negative energetic charge. [...] For Warburg, the attitude of artists toward images inherited from tradiiton was therefore conceivable in terms neither of aesthetic choice nor of neutral reception; rather, for him it is a matter of a confrontation - which is lethal or vitalizing, depending on the situation - with the tremendous energies stored in images, which in themselves had the potential either to make man regress into sterile subjection or to direct him on his path toward salvation and knowledge (Agamben, 94).

By approaching images as visual traces, Warburg believed artists should be seen as 'seismographs' that help us decipher the state of turmoils in human imagination and soul inscribed in art.

In 1895, Warburg visited the USA and, after being confronted with a new, modernized, society on the rise, "in the Smythsonian Institution, he discovered that it was possible to revitalize art history by opening it up to anthropology (178)." Hence his decision to go to the final frontiers and visit Hopi villages in New Mexico and Arizona. What is significant about this 'field research' is that it had an enormous impact on his work and understanding of art, but that he never wrote about it until a particular moment almost thirty years later to which we will return. 

The experience of observing and participating in the Hopi mimetic dances, as well as the analysis of the images their children drew for him, made Warburg reach a new and original interpretation of Renaissance art as pagan antiquity; and by paganism he meant a "psychological state, the state of surrender to impulses of frenzy and of fear" (Woodheld 2001:282). In other words, the encounter with the rituals of a culture whose language he did not speak but fully understood, "the exotic motif, allowing the historian to understand and control the operations he set into play, ceased to be simply the object of research and became its reflection, opening knowledge up to the consciousness of otherness" (Michaud 35). Following this, Warburg saw figural representations to be the translation of mimetic powers in a new medium, hence one of the names we could perhaps give to his unnamed science is the science of gestures. 

The experience of observing and participating in the Hopi mimetic dances, as well as the analysis of the images their children drew for him, made Warburg reach a new and original interpretation of Renaissance art as pagan antiquity; and by paganism he meant a "psychological state, the state of surrender to impulses of frenzy and of fear" (Woodheld 2001:282). In other words, the encounter with the rituals of a culture whose language he did not speak but fully understood, "the exotic motif, allowing the historian to understand and control the operations he set into play, ceased to be simply the object of research and became its reflection, opening knowledge up to the consciousness of otherness" (Michaud 35). Following this, Warburg saw figural representations to be the translation of mimetic powers in a new medium, hence one of the names we could perhaps give to his unnamed science is the science of gestures. 

The exact moment when Warburg did publicly present his ethnographic field-research was April 21, 1923 at the Bellevue clinic in the Kreuzlingen sanatorium, after almost six years of psychiatric hospitalization. Namely, at the very end of the First World War, in 1918, in a psychotic episode, he took a gun and threatened to kill both himself and his family, due to a danger he saw coming to get them all. Wrongly diagnosed, he spent years in several institutions, while his condition was seen as incurable. Nevertheless, after many years and slow recovery, a second opinion of another doctor has also brought a new diagnosis, this time a bipolar condition instead of incurable psychosis. Therefore, the reason for Warburg to deliver this lecture in this particular setting and situation was in order to prove that he has regained his sanity and the ability to deliver a talk written in a linear narrative.

Nevertheless, his lecture on the Pueblo Indians' serpent ritual belongs to the field of theoretical fiction, as it was "born of the universe of documents, not from direct experience, and, strictly speaking, is lacking in ethnographic value" (Michaud 215). We must notice here that his perfect narrative of a scientific paper only problematizes the value of any ethnographic work, as well as the question of the possibility to translate the experience of the Others without turning it into fiction. As we know today, this problematic was acknowledged by the anthropologists decades later, and can be considered a process that initiated the crisis of anthropological research we still encounter.

I am aware of the importance of being careful when approaching someone's biography and taking this as a framework to interpret someone's theoretical work, but somehow I was drawn into this story about Aby, and it became clear to me the level to which his personal experience of things was strongly interwoven with his work. His subjective tragedy stands clearly as a testimony that merges together the story about interdisciplinary movements in humanities, the experience of the Other, the definition of the scientific narrative, and of one's identity.

His experience of Hopi Indians prompted such transformation in his experience of world, ritual and art, and made him completely restructure the way in which he used to understand Modern human being as well. From this, perhaps we could see a true experience of the Other, when the self becomes transformed from its deep foundations. Nevertheless, the role of the ethnographic lecture he gave in the sanatorium has a different context, the context of the dismantling of his own personal identity. For most of his life, Warburg saw himself as a German, he strongly rejected the Jewishness and tradition of his family, and strongly believed in the superiority of German culture. What the end of First World War brought was the defeat of this cultural superiority, and suddenly, he has also been forced to define himself as Jewish. Seeing in the communist victory the threat to the existence of Jews in Europe, he wanted to shorten the coming torture of himself and his family. Confronted with this impasse, he simply broke down; he was not able anymore to be himself, he was not able to tell a linear narrative about anything, his research included.

After his release from the sanatorium, Warburg begun a new project that was never finished, a particular atlas of photographs he named Mnemosyne. Initially made by his assistant, Fritz Saxl, to welcome him in his library and help him start forming narratives from this free combination of images, Warburg took this further and used as a central point of his recovery and new research. He called it an "art history without a text" (240) and "a ghost story for adults" (242). 

On panels with black cloth, he would arrange various images of art objects and human beings, constructing the possibility of comparative analysis that breaks historical and geographical limitations of discursive practices. What he was interested were "tensions, analogies, contrasts, or contradictions among them" (244), of images as ""engrams" capable of re-creating an experience of the past in a spatial configuration" (255). As Agamben rightfully noticed,

Because these researches were conducted by means of images, it was believed that the image was also their object. Instead, Warburg transformed the image (...) into a resolutely historical and dynamic element. In this sense, Mnemosyne atlas, with its two thousand or so photographs, which he left unfinished, is not a fixed repertoire of images, but virtually a moving representation of the gestures of Western humankind from classical Greece to Fascism. Within each section the individual images are treated more as the frames of a film then as an autonomous reality (1993: 138).

Following this, the gesture is defined as that which breaks the static, petrified nature of an image, and the image becomes liberated in the gesture; we should interpret gestures "as frames of a lost film, solely within which would they regain their true meaning" (139). Through the language of signs, the humankind breaks the limits of the language, "through the language of signs, “civilized” man engages in an intradiscursive communication that opens him to the consciousness of otherness" (266):

The atlas presents itself as a collection of the Pathosformelen, the pathos formulas, used in art to form a mute language freed from discursivity. The analysis of expressive gestures opens up an unusual, intuitive path to the figures of the past and allows one to identify their recurrence in contemporary imagery (270-271).

One of Warburg's gestures or, more correctly, unrealized gestures was recorded in his medical journal at the sanatorium, that of having visions of a nymph as a beautiful butterfly escaping him:

The most beautiful butterfly I have ever pinned down suddenly bursts through the glass and dances mockingly upward into the blue air. (...) Now I should catch it again, but I am not equipped for this kind of locomotion. Or to be exact, I should like to, but my intellectual training does not permit me to do so (173).

In this reflection we can see the manifestation of a deeper logical deadlock, of him being supposed to catch this wonderful butterfly, to pin it down and include in his collection of images, at the same time killing it with his "naturalist pin" (Huberman 2004: 14). Nevertheless, Warburg seems to be stopped to do so by his new intellectual training.

What this event shows is that instead of confinement, we should look for the ways in which to liberate the image, to liberate the Other, and reach the paths of understanding not through the procedure of dissection, but of mimesis and reflection. What we might gain is, in Warburg's words,

This comparative search for the eternally constant Indianness within the helpless human soul. The images and words ought to be a help to those who come after us, in their attempt to reflect on themselves in order to defend themselves from the tragic aspects of the tension between magical instinct and discursive logic. The confession of an incurable schizoid, deposited into the archive of the doctors of the soul (Michaud 191).

It is exactly this new science whose name is less relevant that its experience and practice that will allow, in Agamben's words, "Western man, once he has moved beyond the limits of his own ethnocentrism, to arrive at the liberating knowledge of a "diagnosis of humanity" that would heal it of its tragic schizophrenia" (100). Only by learning how to unpin our butterflies we might begin to change the fundamentals of our approach to the Other, and to the paths of knowing ourselves. The only proof of a true event of the encounter with the Other is to be found as a trace in the self, in the transformative power it has on the self, and any attempt to document it, to represent it, is doomed to fail. And, instead of being an expensive collection of fetishist objects we can buy and sell, the art still has a chance to make this happen through its inherent poetic power. When it comes to seeing the role of anthropology in this new light, we might even claim it was created as a shield against the true experience of the Other, a stabilizing narrative and a proof of Western sanity in the midst of threats of the destruction of our stable, fortified identity.

Works cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities - Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Didi-huberman, Georges. "Knowledge: Movement (The Man Who Spoke to Butterflies.)" In: Michaud, Philippe - Alain. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

Hall, Stuart  ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: SAGE Publications & Open University, 1997.

Michaud, Philippe - Alain. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

Raulff, Ulrich. "The Seven Skins of the Snake - Oraibi, Kreuzlingen and Back: Situations on a Journey into Light." In: Cestelli Guidi, Benedetta and Mann, Nicholas ed. Photographs at the Frontier: Aby Warburg in America 1895 - 1896. London: Merell Holberton Publishers, Warburg Institute (1998): 64-74.

Woodheld, Richard. "Warburg's 'method'." Woodheld, Richard ed. Art History as Cultural History: Warburg's Projects. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International (2001): 259 - 293.

This text is a transcript of a lecture given in the framework of the project "Charlois Frequencies" by nõde, held at Wolfart Project Space, Rotterdam on April 15, 2012.  

The lecture is a part of research kindly supported by Fonds BKVB, now Mondriaan Fonds.