Dissent into Hell
Adam Geczy

     And now, behold the beast with pointed tail

that passes mountains, annulling walls and weapons, 

behold the one that makes the whole world stink!

     His face was that of an honest man,

It shone with such a look of benediction;

And all the rest of him was serpentine

—Dante, Inferno, Canto XVII


A little known fact about exhibition logistics is that curators and some artists shun red paint because it is the hardest to remove. It requires the tiresome commitment of numerous coats of white paint for it finally to disappear. This may be technical trivia, but it bears ironic weight on Brad Buckley’s installation, Every Great Idea Begins as a Heresy, whose most striking attribute is that the entire space is painted a deep, encompassing, prepossessing and unequivocal red. In its social and political implications it speaks for a recalcitrant condition. For despite warnings and testimonials to the contrary, states continue to have their sovereignty ignored, religious tolerance is tenuous at best, and rights of the weak are only observed if the strong know they will themselves benefit or will be brought directly into account. The red in this exhibition is deeply ambiguous: the blood of perpetrators and victims; the ideologies of self and other; the colour of passion and despair. 

Buckley’s work for over two decades has concerned itself with the distribution of power between individuals (which can be felt in sexual politics) or governments (in war, sanctions embargoes etc). As thinkers such as Bataille, Lévi-Strauss and Foucault have shown, these systems all share the same dialectical structure albeit with no discernible kernel. Art, like any other form of thought, at best seeks to articulate the point at which power is most clearly unlocatable, for it is only in the process of exchange that power is made visible. 

Buckley’s works operate within an overarching schema entitled The Slaughterhouse Project, which, a bit like Yves Klein blue, is an aesthetic armature, a strategy used for aesthetic infiltration, or infection. As the name implies, the Project is a conceptual device of cauterization, a way of exploring taboos, for investigating political anomalies, for venting dissatisfaction with social injustice. 

In 2003 Buckley staged the installation Etiquette, at Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney. Red on entry, the interior black, its graphic centerpiece, delineated in Buckley’s now signature thick outlines, was a nineteenth century curio of furniture, the siège d’amour, a nice sounding word for a rogering chair (c.1890) used to support clients in tricky positions. On the wall were several texts, including ‘war is peace’ in block capitals. The excerpt on the opposite wall related the inner dialogue of a man in the early throes of sexual seduction. The trajectory of the work was clear enough: sex and war are both sites of domination and exploitation. Not to put too fine a point on it, the U.S. is literally screwing Iraq. And since then, we can only say how true this is. Iraq is a cesspit of violence on a hellish Dante-esque scale. It is now riven with so much sectarian violence that predictions of future peace are vain. Like its microcosm, the mind of someone who has suffered multiple rape, the situation is a mess.

As I write I still have fresh in my memory the leaked unofficial footage of the taunted leader, unshaven and disheveled, atop the scaffold, made into a martyr. The lasting image is not his perfidy but his defiance, his angry fearlessness which in death translates to courage. Another botch. The death penalty eclipsed debate over the extent of Saddam Hussein’s crimes. But the war in Iraq has left us with a question that is hard to face let alone to answer: maybe Saddam was like one of those parasites that, when excised from the body, causes the body to fail more swiftly and terribly? It is a question that is appositely posed to anyone against the injustices of fundamentalist Islam, of any outside agent that thinks it has the right to disrupt an alien status quo. Colonization and Christianity have a lot to answer for in this regard. 

The text for this exhibition, Every Great Idea…, is lifted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a work which, in its superior way betrays an ambivalence to colonialism. In the quote, emblazoned on the wall in white type, the narrator sounds a whistle and its piercing screech causes panic, ‘Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the sombre and glittering river’. This, the last line of the excerpt, is maybe less grandiose in its exoticism for today’s readers than it was a century ago. ‘Barbarous and superb’, the woman is transformed into a religious idol, with its sublime mixture of the stately and the hideous, casting her hands aloft, unperturbed, as if under a spell. Her attractiveness lies in her curiosity, not her familiarity. 

There is no need to rehearse the main points of this book, which numbers among the cardinal pieces of writing of the last century, except to remind the reader that it is set in the Congo which was the most iniquitous hell of all subjected African nations, all the more egregious because Belgium’s Leopold III said that he was doing the Congo a service, describing it in 1885 as ‘the noblest and most self-sacrificing scheme for African development that has ever been or ever will be attempted’.1 Seen from this angle Buckley’s title seems to drip unctuously with irony: the victors write history, alas, and their ideas brook no criticism. The rhetoric is that ends justify means; we know better, and pain, their pain, is for a good cause. The Bush administration defends its belligerence with advising the world that it is we, the conservative U.S. minority that has introduced democracy to Iraq. 

The Belgians’ singular ‘innovation’, soon copied admiringly by the British, was to force men to work by removing them from their families, with the only promise of return with a few years labour. It decimated the nation and Congo, now Nigeria*, would never recover, for it broke up the entire social fabric and left only alienation, anger, and instability which has perpetuates the culture of death in so many parts of Africa, and which makes Conrad’s tale still so relevant today. Edward Said in his comments on the book is perhaps right to gloss over the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s famous condemnation of it—Achebe argues that art built on ethical grounds is not worth the name, in Conrad’s case his objectionable description of the indigenous population and his patronizing Eurocentrism—on the grounds that from Conrad’s ‘pitying contempt and exoticism’ there seeps out a ‘corrosive scepticism’ that threatens to eat at everything.2 Conrad’s negativity is already presaged in the ‘darkness’ in title of the book which permeates everything, the recesses of the land and its people, down to the very soul of the protagonist, narrator, Marlow.

Buckley’s installation tropes two direct responses to Heart of Darkness, each pastiches in their own way. The first is America’s very own ‘heart of darkness’, Vietnam, for which Iraq seems nothing less than a carbon copy, a grisly recrudescence. Each time America took it upon itself to free the land from tyranny, then to its surprise found itself rebuffed yet pressed on, to the detriment of everyone involved (and through all the visible scars the Vietnamese still justly voice pride at having defeated the Americans). For the seminal film about the hell of the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now, Coppola virtually transcribed Conrad’s novel. It is a film that describes like no other the loneliness and terror that can inhabit our finite souls and that reduces the self-named saviours to a state far worse than those they purport to save. 

(It is also worth pausing to consider another looming catastrophe in the growing tension between the U.S. and Iran. The right wing media who concentrate on Iran’s pig-headed defiance, ignore the earlier chapter in that in early 2003 the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Bush a detailed proposal for negotiation. Iran agreed to make concessions about its nuclear program, adding that it would address the concerns about Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. In return they wanted Washington to draw back from its destabilizing interventions in the Middle East and to lift the longstanding sanctions. Needless to say Washington rebuffed the offer. And needless to say the present Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in no position to make a similar one.)

The second trope, less obvious than the first, is to be found in the somber, incantatory tones that echo from an unknown source within the installation, which is a reading of Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’. Written in 1925, the poem has the subtext: ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead’, referring to the district representative of the enlightened European power whom Marlow travels to meet. Eliot maintained a lasting relationship with both Dante and Conrad with whom he joined hands in his own nihilist imagination. Before he deleted it in favour of the dedication to Pound, ‘The Waste Land’, had initially had as its epigraph ‘The horror! The horror!’ from Heart of Darkness. As its allusion to Kurtz allows us already to presume, ‘Hollow Men’ is dedicated to conspirators of all kinds, from Brutus to Cromwell to Guy Fawkes. But taken in a broader way, the poem is a contemptuous warning to anyone with the hubris to think they can intervene on history and change it. The poem is laced with a bewilderment at the ‘yawning abyss’ of being, as Kierkegaard called it in the Concept of Anxiety, that point when one finds that we are inadequate to the world, and that the securities of habitual identity will betray us in the end. 

So the import of the poem is for us to stay humble. The analogies that Buckley is trying to make are clear enough, and his lens is trained first at Bush jr. and to Australia’s current leader for whom he, amongst many, shares a deep loathing. Both posture as patricians but are bereft of culture, sorely wanting in beneficence, as neither spare a moment for real empathy for those in underprivileged distress—‘Remember us—if not all—not as lost/ Violent souls, but only/ As the hollow men/ The stuffed men’.

This is how, then, we might come to think of the amphibious, floating-falling figures in Every Great Idea…, as they embrace at once the murderer and the murdered. They embody the country of the repressed and the faceless individuals who are parachuted into strange lands to repress them; they are the civilians who get caught in a blast and the leaders themselves who presume too much. Indeed these white, ghostly silhouettes, suspended in an abyss of red, are emblems of the fundamental metaphysical condition of mortal anxiety described by Kierkegaard as ‘the dizziness of freedom which arises’ once it gazes down on ‘its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness’.3  It is the end-point of the perception of inner darkness. And there are certain circumstances that hasten the process, that drive us to that darkness more quickly, like the death of someone close to us, or the actions of false righteousness.

A planned circumstance of this installation is that the viewer will turn automatically to the text, because of the normal reflex of gravitating toward what might explain the unknown, in this case the work of art. Although I have already derived a good deal from it, it is worth emphasizing the void that the text opens up.   Anxiety comes from the perception that true agency, the real source of power, is outside of us. It is a formula that goes back to Kant who argued that there is a reality beyond the formal boundaries of our perception. Since then the fundamental question for artists has been how to represent this external quanta. Hence Buckley’s use of appropriated text as the metaphor of a consciousness, or of a whole world, that escapes our grasp. Appropriation is a false plenitude that registers a lacuna within the surface of knowledge; it is a consolation, an Ersatz possession. The text here hangs like a false possession, a foundling, and an epitaph in memory of past and looming disaster.

The other linguistic dislocation is in the climax that the passage describes, the terror caused by a banal mechanical screech, a bit like the Aztecs who treated as gods Cortez and his thugs because they had guns. For Buckley this sequence is not just a metaphor for violent conflict, it is the also non-concurrence that is at the root of its cause. The choice of Conrad is critical here, because Conrad was Polish and his use of English was, debatably, pragmatic, because as he said, it broadened his public. Curiously enough, English critics, challenged by Conrad’s heady syntax, exclaimed that he would be better read in translation and that he was a man ‘without country and language’.4

We might recall Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts on Kafka who also wrote in a foreign tongue, though perhaps not as remote from his home as Conrad. German is for Kafka a ‘deterritorialized language’, comparing the linguistic decentredness to ‘what blacks in America today are able to do with the English language’. They also speak about Kafka’s adoption of the foreign tongue as a line of flight, or escape.5 As opposed to willingly corrupting the language, the decentred user responds to language in a more material (or what Deleuze and Guattari would go so far as saying, schizophrenic) way. Beckett, for his part, eschewed English in the end so as to get away from its ruses, the conceits of artfulness. 

Analogously, Buckley’s appropriation of text is as a readymade, a deracinated external element that has been recontextualized and manipulated. By being placed out of context and without attribution, the text is all but turned upside down and refashioned like Duchamp’s urinal; but like the urinal, it still stays a urinal, through its potential to return back to its original use; without the threat of that reversal it would cease to be a readymade. As with Conrad and Kafka (or the American blacks), the uses to which Buckley puts his estranged language, realized in his readymade texts are not intentionally disruptive to the fabric of the language itself except to dilate its potential, to reclaim it in a different name. Thus Buckley’s is an alternate kind of appropriation from the forms which rely on ironic distance, assuming autonomous critical distance from the images being subverted. Instead, here as in other installations of Buckley’s, there is a far more authentic relation to the irony attendant in any appropriation, as one feels that the artist is internal to and implicated in the critique. It is an ethical stance whose outcomes are often by necessity unpleasant. Buckley’s approach in this installation and others in The Slaughterhouse Project concur with what Eliot in The Use of Poetry explained to be the gifts, and the duty of any artist, which was to reveal ‘the horror’: 

It is an advantage to mankind in general to live in a beautiful world; that no one can doubt. But for the poet is it so important? We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.6

The final refrain has a particularly Conradian touch. The artist must give blood and reveal blood.

The blood red in Every Great Idea… room deserves a concluding remark. In a story familiar to an American audience, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tell Tale Heart’ tells of a man, the narrator, who kills another and conceals him under the floorboards of his home. Soon after he begins to hear the disconsolate pounding of a heartbeat, like a drumming tinitis in his ears to which others are oblivious. Eventually it overwhelms the man who, half-insane, reveals his crime. I like to think of the red in this exhibition in these terms, as a visceral substance that is hard to obliterate, and even when it eventually disappears it lives on as an inalienable truth, as a conscience, as a reproach that repeats itself as farce, and then re-repeats as an exasperatingly idiotic tragedy. 


  1. Cit. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993), London, Vintage, 1994, 200. []
  2. Idem. []
  3. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte with Albert Anderson, New Jersey, Princeton U.P., 1980, 61. []
  4. See Robert Lynd’s review of A Set of Six in The Daily News in 1908: ‘Had he but written in Polish his stories would assuredly have been translated into English and into the other languages of Europe; and works of Joseph Conrad translated from the Polish would, I am certain, have been a more precious possession on English shelves that the works of Joseph Conrad in the original English, desirable as these are.’ Cit. Frederick R. Karl. Joseph Three Lives, New York, Farra, Strauss and Giroux, 1979, 648; see also Colm Toibin, ‘A Thousand Prayers’, New York Review, November 30, 2006, 53. []
  5. Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975), trans. Dana Polan, Minneapolis, Minnesota U.P., 1986, 17, 26. []
  6. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, London, Faber & Faber, 2nd edn., 1964, 106. []