text and photography by CARSTEN HÖLLER
a letter from the artist sharing his ideas about the art of isolation, sent from his brutalist house on the cliffs of cape coast, ghana.
Because when there is nothing urgent to be done, when you’ve made it clear that there is nothing urgent to do that couldn’t be postponed, what happens with the boredom that then comes within reach, as a result of this lack of urgency? Humans get restless. Standstill is something for the sick and the depressed. Healthy standstill is not on the agenda. Something always has to be going on, and when nothing is going on, and I can’t get something going, I become melancholic. Yes, perhaps, but only for a while, right? What’s behind the boredom, more than laziness? Is it perhaps a state like the one that seems to fill the great enlightened? Jesus never got bored, even if he never smiled, much less laughed. Revolutionaries aren’t boring and don’t get bored. It’s not on their agenda, or perhaps they just haven’t tried it yet.
I’m sitting quietly doing nothing. I’m not hungry or thirsty, and I don’t have to go to the bathroom. No one is demanding my attention in this moment. My left temple itches, I scratch it. A tooth on the lower right hurts, but not too intensely. The noise in my head won’t stop, my thoughts are restless, there’s a constant drizzle as in certain cities like Charleroi that are already catastrophically ugly per se, and where loudspeakers attached to ornamental street lamps painted Burgundy red spray out complaisant music, just as a farmer on his tractor sprays out his pesticides.
And so my thoughts race along with it nonstop, whether I want them to or not. They can’t be measured, either, and they can’t cancel each other out. The restlessness of what has been liberated from necessity is first and foremost a restlessness of thoughts — they just can’t let go. Their penetrating, unsolicited rawness has something dull about it, like the waves throwing up one after the other, enfeebled, on the shore, which look as if they were alive, animated — animal, they move, but they are nothing but a raw material for the life within. The ceaseless thoughts are just as animated (by what?) and condition one another, shoving one another, one in front of the other, overlapping, some more robust in nature and others wasting away, and not vomiting in the same direction like waves but lashing out, unpredictably, wildly, or sluggishly in all directions, like branches of mistletoe, a plant without apical dominance — that is to say, it’s not the highest bud that dictates the growth of the entire organism, but rather it can grow freely in all directions because mistletoe, being hemiparasitic, sits on the branch of a tree and can therefore grow downward or to the side just as well as upward, and it does just that, which accounts for the almost spherically round form of this plant — not animated, not an animal, too slow — which is like thoughts, if you ignore the fact that thoughts don’t even have a center like the mistletoe that sits at one place on the host and takes root in its branch there, where the mistle thrush has shat out the incredibly sticky seeds after eating the white spherical fruit of the mistletoe. It needs to be sticky because otherwise the seeds can’t take root there on the branch, which is why people cleverly used mistletoe berries to produce bird glue, with which, in turn, the thrushes have been caught. In France, until recently, such a chasse traditionelle still took place in Provence, but now the sicko Macron has forbidden it, which is good for the thrushes but also a shame because of the now interrupted cycle of mistletoe berries with sticky seeds that are being spread by the thrushes, which get caught in the same stickiness. Moreover, it is contemptuous of the animal as long as there are mouse glue traps in every imbecile hardware store. Mice, which are mammals, after all, like you and me, will be stuck and immobilized — deanimated — and, fully conscious, will watch their animality fade away. Hardware stores are hell for animals. The English kiss under sticky mistletoe branches, but what the hell, kissing is gluing as well. The stickiness of thoughts, in turn, is a conspecific one. They stick as if glued one to the other, a sticky slime that can harden into a real multicomponent glue, like one from the hardware store, but all these comparisons are not much use, thoughts and their incessantness are not like that.
When you’re sleeping, the thoughts are gone, replaced by dreams, and it’s a pleasurable state when you manage to experience the transition between awake and asleep. It happens so fast, but it can be stretched out by various methods that I will talk about in detail elsewhere. What particularly interests us here is the quality of the thought, which clearly changes, indeed detaches, as soon as the waking state loses its hold and is replaced by sleep. The final thoughts before sleep are often the craziest, liberated not only from sense, but above all from memory because, like dreams, they cannot be retained and possess only the value of the moment. Indeed, the less they can be retained (the more quickly they are forgotten), the wilder they get, freed from the authority of my listening and directing Ich, which, during the day, still gives them some direction. In the morning, it’s easier: the process of waking can easily be slowed, as long as you refrain from immediately being shaken awake by profane information, the time, the weather, and who wrote what while you were sleeping. Keep your hands off the phone while still waking up! I make myself a very weak coffee instead and drink two cups of it in seclusion in bed, and while doing so, I can best follow the morning dance of thoughts. I force awakening like a wedge into the breach of the thought structures now becoming ordered, though the order is still unencumbered by the necessities and fake necessities with which I have to bandy myself about the rest of the day, in the form of activities and fake activities. The coffee is very helpful here, as long as it’s weak enough not to stir up the process too much, and, when traveling, I always take my little coffee set along, so that under almost any circumstances, I perform this little ritual that’s so indispensable to my peace of mind and mental health.
I’m in Ghana, all alone in our house, for more than four weeks now already, and I can give in more freely to the undisturbed flow of thoughts than would have been possible in Stockholm, where I also live but where I’m much less alone. I’ve made the following observations:
(a) The flow of thoughts can, as is widely known, only be stopped by sleep, coma, or death. Even in the greatest heat and with physical exhaustion or pain, it continues unabated. Not just that, the rapidity or rhythm of the internal thinking processes seems to me to be constant within a certain range — a rather limited range, I might add. Only the thought itself can be influenced qualitatively; the constancy of its production, hardly at all.
(b) The thoughts revolve around certain thematic complexes to which they return again and again.
(c) There is an authority listening, as mentioned above. This authority is mysterious in nature, and the subject of numerous observations by others long before me. The authority is quite strict with the thoughts as long as I’m awake, but when I dream, it permits the most monstrous escapades. It’s not the generator of those thoughts, which is unknown; it’s the strict nun, supervising her mischievous pupils with an iron hand, but some nights, the nun gets shit-faced on devilish stuff.
(d) From that follows that the thoughts come from elsewhere, and that can only be a mixture of the already experienced and known, what can be remembered and all its interpretations, and everything that has been thought about it with the current state, the present that always has to be new, but in essence consists mainly of rather small deviations from what is already known.
(e) In that sense, the shock or the horror is meaningful because that’s when the authority is suspended in order to produce an automatic reaction as quickly as possible, unrestrained by reflections.
(f) And that’s the thing: the flow of thoughts is like the flow of blood, a continuous one, driven by a pumping organ not known to science, which reaches even the last convolutions of what is thought and provides it with an oxygen-analogue elixir that has not been described, either. Just as the heart stops from shock, so, too, the thought pump abandons its highest rank when things have to move quickly.
A thought generator operates incessantly when a person is awake. Can I then — now, at this moment, in real time — write down here what plays out in my head? What I think, then write, then read influences in turn what I think, then write, then read. But I am hardly distracted at all. I am all attention. Nothing annoying really, just some inexplicable marks like striped burns around the knee on both legs, a slight headache. Otherwise, everything is pretty good, it’s warm, and sometimes I do exercises for a pinched nerve that restricts my movements. I’m thinking about what sense it makes to write down these unsteady flows of thoughts. I am writing from a need to do something, contradicting my project, my project to subject myself to the automatism of my train of thoughts without the distractions and fake activities otherwise employed. A form of capitulation: I hand power over me to my thoughts. They can do what they want. No, they can’t because the authority is still there — because without authority, no thoughts. Apart from that, the sensory impressions, the memories, the knowledge, and the predictability that go along with it (it will get dark tonight). A life: a restless upturn and a downturn again and again, and then the big Feierabend.
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