You are permanently deceived
Finissage: 29.09.2017, 19:00
Opening: 19.09.2017, 19:00
With their squishy bodies, cephalopods (octopuses, nautilidae and squids) are extremely vulnerable in open water. They limit this danger by being masters of subterfuge, changing not only the colour but also the texture of their skin in order to seamlessly blend into their surroundings. Going one step further is the mimic octopus, first discovered in 1998, which alters its shape and behaviour to impersonate other underwater species, such as sea lions or sea snakes. What stands out about the mimic octopus is that, depending on the predator it’s trying to protect itself against, it can impersonate one of a number of poisonous species, leading scientists to believe that it’s a deliberate and evolved strategy.
This particular octopus gets its name, of course, from the word ‘mimicry’, or ‘mimesis’, meaning ‘to imitate’. The mimetic faculty is something that has fascinated many great minds over the ages, from Roland Barthes, to Theodor W. Adorno, to Jacques Lacan. Barthes proposes that our interest in mimicry starts early: “To begin with, children’s games are everywhere interlaced with mimetic modes of behaviour, and their range is not limited at all to what one human being imitates from another. A child not only plays at being a grocer or a teacher, but also at being a windmill or a train.”1 The fact that children’s games cross categories (human/non human; living/non living) suggests the positive potential of mimesis in promoting empathy between humans and their environs, but there is also a darker side to this tendency. For Lacan, “Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage…. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare.”2 In his view, mimicry is not merely adaptive, but – as with the mimic octopus – a deliberate and active strategy.
Trickery, intrigue and deceit are on display in Rainer Bros’ solo exhibition at fAN Kunstverein – although he reveals his hand immediately with the exhibition’s title ‘You are permanently deceived’. Over many years Bros has been working with camouflage, both the ‘natural’ camouflage of the animal kingdom and the manufactured camouflage of the military-industrial complex. For this exhibition he has staged two site-specific interventions (all works Untitled, 2017), which feature numerous panels of unique camouflage patterns displayed in two large rectangles on adjoining walls.
The characteristic splodges of colour used in military camouflage work through disruptive colouration (the act of breaking up the outlines of an object or human with strongly contrasting patterns) – a process that was developed from its use in nature. But unlike creatures such as cephalopods, who have pigment sacs that can grow or shrink to change their overall skin colour, humans must pick a ‘universal’ pattern. The varied iterations of camouflage in Bros’ paintings (which themselves at first glance appear similar if not identical) could be seen to remind us of the difficulty of this task. The current use of Operational Camouflage Pattern, for example, was a result of the United States Army deciding that Universal Camouflage Pattern did not adequately conceal soldiers in all of Afganistan’s regions. With each new war the background changes and the military must work again on ‘becoming mottled’.
Chloe Stead, Sep. 2017
1 Benjamin, Walter, Doctrine of the Similar (1933).
2 Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Line and the Light’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1978).