There is a rather large and forbidding object currently on display on the second floor of the New Museum.
More than 9 ½ feet tall and 6 ½ feet wide, it is made up of two sections: an upper level comprised of three cabinet doors, one of which has been opened to expose a set of gearwheels; and below, a mattress equipped with leather wrist and ankle restraints. Twenty-five cables hang between the two levels, terminating in large, hair-raising needles.
It is identified by its wall label as “Reconstruction of the machine from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony,’ 1914,” and its maker is designated as “Unattributed.”
The label further explains:
Realized in Ateliers des Grands Magasins Loeb SA, Bern (Werner Huck and Paul Gysin, in collaboration with Harald Szeemann) for the exhibition “The Bachelor Machines,” 1975–77, initiated by Harald Szeemann.
Harald Szeemann (1933–2005) was the legendary Swiss curator known for his transformative international exhibitions, such as the 1972 Documenta and the Venice Biennale’s Aperto section in 1980. He organized The Bachelor Machines for the Kunsthalle Bern, and it later traveled to the Venice Biennale and to museums and galleries in Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, Malmö and elsewhere.
“Reconstruction of the machine from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony,’ 1914” is part of the New Museum’s current exhibition Ghosts in the Machine. Its orphan status, with an undisclosed creator but a known place of birth (Ateliers des Grands Magasins Loeb SA) and distant — or distanced — progenitors (Huck, Gysin and Szeemann), raises a number of tricky questions about signification and intent.
The machine that “Reconstruction of the machine” reconstructs is called the Harrow, an apparatus that is unforgettable for anyone who has read the story. For those who have not, the wall text provides a handy synopsis:
The centerpiece of Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” [written in 1914 and] first published in 1919, is an elaborate execution machine known as the Harrow. Under an inscrutable and irrational justice system, characteristic of Kafka’s fiction, those condemned to die in the machine are neither informed of their charges nor are they presumed to be anything but guilty.
The prisoner is not simply executed, but subjected to twelve hours of hideous torture, in which “the condemned’s crime is transmitted to them by way of an embellished decree inscribed on their body with needles, which burrow progressively deeper into their flesh”:
… after the sixth hour of torture the condemned is said to undergo an ecstatic epiphany in which their crime (and, by extension, the ultimately “just” nature of their punishment) becomes intuitively understood.
The text goes on to explain yet another twist in “Reconstruction’s” DNA:
In 1954, the theorist and historian Michel Carrouges wrote a text entitled “The Bachelor Machines” that discerned structural similarities between Kafka’s Harrow and a host of other machines from art and literature imagined by Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” (1915–23), also known as “The Large Glass,” which is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is of course one of the seminal works of Early Modernism — a nine-foot-tall sculpture divided into upper and lower halves, with enigmatic imagery made from lead foil and wire on two panels of glass. After the piece’s first exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, the glass was cracked during a transportation accident, which added nasty, spider-webbing fractures to the mix.
Made around the same time that Kafka wrote “In the Penal Colony,” “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” according to the wall text, was “[o]f chief importance” to Carrouges.
He applied Duchamp’s “metaphorically charged machine” with its “two distinct ‘realms’: an upper realm devoted to the titular ‘Bride’ and a lower realm […] devoted to the nine “Bachelors” attempting to court her,” to Kafka’s Harrow, reading it as a construct that “intermeshed the opposing terms of male and female, machine and body, sex and death.”
Enter Harald Szeemann, who “used Carrouges’s essay as the basis” for the exhibition The Bachelor Machines, “for which he commissioned full-scale models of each of the machines analyzed in the original essay, including Kafka’s Harrow.”
And so, to recap, we have an unattributed object at the New Museum that was ordered up by Szeemann for an exhibition almost forty years ago, which was based on a 1954 essay by Carrouges, who filtered a story by Kafka through a sculpture by Duchamp.
(And, in a bit of further compounding, the press image of “Reconstruction” issued by the New Museum, above, is not a current picture but a photo that appeared on page 233 of the catalogue for The Bachelor Machines, published by Rizzoli in 1975.)
From what I can gather, “Reconstruction” in its original context was not considered a work of art, but rather a visualization of an idea, a prop in Szeemann’s theoretical and literary scheme. But things have changed since ’75, when one could say that Conceptual Art was Conceptual Art, hewing as closely as possible to the immaterial, whether it was a line of text stenciled on a wall by Lawrence Weiner or a set of instructions issued by Sol Lewitt for an unmade drawing.
“Reconstruction,” then, would be closer in intention to what the Quay Brothers call their décors — the diorama-like settings they use to make their films — which they don’t consider art, but artisanal. (The credit to Ateliers des Grands Magasins Loeb SA on “Reconstruction’s” wall label would seem to support an artisanal interpretation.)
At the New Museum, however, not only does “Reconstruction” look like art, but it’s one of the most imposing and interesting pieces in the show, and in a way it falls in line with the literal realization of an idea that is the lingua franca of international Neoconceptualism. Would it be a stretch to suggest that the passage of time has transitioned a Conceptual artifact to a Neoconceptual artwork?
Nowadays curators sometimes speak of themselves as artists who use other people’s work to create artworks of greater complexity and ambition, otherwise know as exhibitions. This development is directly traceable to Harald Szeemann’s innovations and his concept of an exhibition as an integrated work of art. But he also had a deep respect for the vocation of the artist and the artist’s personal vision, which persuades me to believe that if he were working on The Bachelor Machines today, he would still have been reluctant to view himself as the artist behind “Reconstruction,” or the work itself as art.
The press release for Ghosts in the Machine implicitly upholds Szeemann’s original perspective by listing among the exhibition’s attractions, “reconstructions of lost works and realizations of dystopian mechanical devices invented by figures like Franz Kafka.”
Kafka is here given credit as the designer of the machine, just as artists of any stripe are credited for the objects fabricated by others according to their instructions.
The difference, of course, is that Szeemann came up with the idea of turning Kafka’s fiction into a thing. This visualization-after-the-fact essentially casts “Reconstruction” as a three-dimensional illustration of a literary text. This does not make Szeemann an artist but an illustrator, and illustrators customarily play second fiddle to writers.
As an illustration, “Reconstruction,” unlike a presumably open-ended work of art, is bound to the narrative, leaving little room to move.
But, hypothetically speaking, what if it weren’t identified with “In the Penal Colony”? What if it were simply called “Structure with Gears, Cables and Bed”?
The unwary viewer might note a resemblance to works by Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois and Edward Kienholz, and the Kafka fan would be delighted by its correlations with the story, but left with a delicious frisson of doubt as to its real connection.
In the same way, I have always sensed (but have never found evidence to support) that Balthus’ painting “The Mountain” (1936–37) alluded to the last paragraph of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the Samsa family, freed of Gregor’s horror, takes a tram “into the open country on the outskirts of the city,” where, at the end of the ride, his sister Grete, having “blossomed into a good-looking, shapely girl […] got up first and stretched her young body.”
In contrast, the intention behind “Reconstruction of the machine from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony,’ 1914,” according to the wall text, is very specific:
Adding an optimistic twist to Carrouges’s initial theorization, Szeemann declared that these machines stood for “the omnipotence of eroticism and its negation, for death and immortality, for torture and Disneyland, for fall and resurrection.”
Actually, the wall text gets it wrong. It is true that the passage about eroticism, death and Disneyland is from Szeemann’s catalogue essay for The Bachelor Machines (p. 7), but it is a direct quotation of Carrouges’ original text. An easy mistake, thanks to the book’s eye-crimping typeface and layout.
But doesn’t that slip-up, in a turn of events that could be forgivably branded as Kafkaesque, feel haunted by Kafka’s loathing of authority?
The museum’s attempt to spin “an optimistic twist” to Kafka’s torture device is inherently false, and not simply due to a mistaken citation. The misattribution is merely the tipoff.
In context, Szeemann’s quote of Carrouges emphasizes the machine’s “splendid ambiguity” over what they “stood for”:
In their splendid ambiguity the Bachelor Machines stand simultaneously for the omnipotence of eroticism and its negation, for death and immortality, for torture and Disneyland, for fall and resurrection…
In the preceding passage (separated by Szeemann with three dots), Carrouges writes:
It would be foolish to assume that the greatest geniuses of the early [twentieth] century are busy amusing themselves with unreal games, hiding their ideas behind metaphors. However bizarre their games may seem to us, there is nevertheless revealed in them in letters of fire the myth in which the fourfold tragedy of our time becomes evident: the Gordian knot of interferences between machinsim [sic], terror, eroticism, religion, or atheism…
Carrouges concludes by positing that the Bachelor Machines embody “the denial of women and even more of procreation as a basic condition for a break with cosmic law […] and still more as a condition of enlightenment, freedom and magical immortality.”
There’s more than a little postwar Existentialist end times rhetoric here, but even with license for cultural context, “the denial of women and even more of procreation […] as a condition of enlightenment, freedom and magical immortality” hardly sounds like an optimistic outlook or desirable option.
Still, it is worth contemplating the difference between “hiding […] behind metaphors” and bizarre games that “nevertheless [reveal] in letters of fire” the myth that plays out the “tragedy of our time.”
“Reconstruction,” with its shifting sources of signification from 1914 to 1954 to 1975 to now, speaks to the persistence of myth as well as its ceaseless evolution — a dual platform that accommodates a more durable “condition of enlightenment, freedom and magical immortality” than the denial of procreation.
It is a platform that categorizes nothing and assigns no meanings, allowing artists — and the occasional self-effacing curator — to slip the confines of interpretation and metaphor, escape closure and light out, with the Samsa family, for the open country.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
“Reconstruction of the machine from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony,’ 1914” (not dated) is currently on view as part of the exhibition Ghosts in the Machine, which continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 30.