GW    TE    2009






“Every painter is Perseus.” These words are attributed, of course, to Caravaggio. The full quotation is: “Every painting is a Medusa’s head; every painter is Perseus.”

This is not some precious, tortuous formula, a poetic image, a mythological and heroized literary portrait of the artist. Behind the seventeenth-century laciness of its exterior, it is the brutal definition of an art of combat.

A radical insight, far from all lyricism, hard and cutting like steel, stunningly precise and deep, it applies not just to artists of the past but concerns them all, in all ages, including our own. Especially our own. And so it can be said today that Alain Declercq is Perseus.


Caravaggio’s formula not only embraces artists, it summons them, calls them, or recalls them to the demands of art. Each work could be thought to accomplish the act of exhibiting the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa. Of course, we all hear Caravaggio’s affirmation as an imperative, even an injunction: every painting should, every painter must. The universal proposition that “every painter is Perseus” may bear witness to Caravaggio’s extreme generosity towards the community of his fellow artists, who are thus collectively and graciously raised to the rank of heroes, but it also assigns an ideal, a danger that threatens them in their being, by obliging each one to measure up to it: and if he failed to recognize himself, if he judged himself unequal to the figure of the hero, should he not consequently abdicate all claims as an artist – his very identity?

Not everyone can be Perseus. Or an artist. We need to debunk the whole Western, the film that stars playing in our head the moment we hear talk of heroes. It could lead us astray. There is no adventure in sight here. Perseus the artist is an essentially discreet hero; in fact he is rather peaceful. No sound and fury. Caravaggio is not talking about some sublimely dangerous action, even if, for him as for Alain Declercq, engagement and physical risk are a part of their life and work as artists. But in order to be Perseus there is no point in the artist exchanging his brush against the curving steel sword that, it is said, Hermes offered to Athena’s champion. He needs no other weapon than his art to carry out his mission impossible and bring back the head of the Gorgon Medusa, the snake-haired monster whose gaze turned men to stone. If Caravaggio himself lived a tumultuous life, settling his disputes at night with knives, if he went to prison, if he was mixed up in crimes, killing the Medusa is still something he did with brushstrokes, in his paintings.

And he did it in one picture in particular – a painting, rather: Medusa, dated 1598, kept at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. If we bear in mind his affirmation, then this painting becomes paradigmatic of all his art, and thus of all art in general. Of art that does not retreat.


To kill Medusa is an ethical act that the artist is supposed to perform in his art. Which means that he is supposed to carry out the murder in each work, to endlessly repeat it, every day. The artist is a serial killer.

But what he kills each time is death.


For a while I wondered why Alain Declercq’s series Hidden (2008) was made up of round images. I knew he had used an apparatus that he had converted into a basic camera obscura, with its statutory circular hole by way of a lens (a hole is round by essence), but that wasn’t enough. The technical explanation could not satisfy. The idea of the eye shape was already more interesting. Each photograph would thus have been like a hidden eye observing through a hole (the black edges of the image serve to delimit it, to indicate its presence). The gaze sliding through a hole into a forbidden zone. Why not?

But one thing need not exclude the other, and even if the artist’s intention in this respect is neither expressed nor explicit, if he makes no reference to it, if nothing indicates that he has even thought of it, I still can’t keep myself from mentally juxtaposing the round images of Hidden with Caravaggio’s Medusa which, as we know, was painted on a round shield (with a diameter of about 55 cm, while each Hidden Camera Obscura measures 50 x 50 – it’s amusing, but let’s not make a big deal out of formal similarities. There’s no need to make round images as Caravaggio did to be Perseus).

Commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, then the painter’s protector, the shield, in poplar wood, completed a suit of parade armour that was to be presented to the cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando de’ Medici. Hence a detail that should be observed in the way one describes the work, for it is not without its usefulness: namely, that what hangs in the Uffizi is not a Caravaggio painting but the shield, painted by Caravaggio, of a man of power, master of a powerful Italian city and prince of the Church. The object often seems to be forgotten, reduced to a simple support for the image, yet if we are to grasp what is really at stake in the painting, we should not so easily dismiss the fact that it is a “real” parade shield, meaning that it was on a pure symbol of power, of might, that Caravaggio painted the most powerful image, the Gorgoneion, the head of the Gorgon Medusa, the sight of which was thought not only to terrify but to literally petrify whole armies. We may indeed recall that in the myth Perseus mounts Pegasus and quickly brings the head back in a bag to Athena, the goddess of war, wisdom and arms, and that she placed it at the centre of her shield. Thus it was that, in the image of this goddess, his act was repeated throughout history by the greatest masters of war and that Louis XIV, for example, the dazzling Sun King, carried the face of Medusa on his weapons.

To represent Medusa on a parade shield is to perform a political action. To say that “Every painting is a Medusa’s head; every painter is Perseus” is to draw attention to the political stakes in the work of art. Medusa has “death in her eyes.” She therefore has power in her eyes. And so, to offer the Medusa’s head to a goddess or a prince is to put more than a symbol into their hands, it is make them the gift of the gaze as absolute power. The master of the Gorgoneion will be the master of the world because he will be the Master of Death.

That is why Caravaggio took care to paint Medusa with her eyes looking to the side and not directly out, as her power demands and as tradition imposed (for the Greeks, Medusa’s was the only face that was represented frontally). No tourist, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been turned into a stone statue when walking past this painting in the Uffizi.


Caravaggio cut off the Medusa’s head, cutting it off at the same time as the deadly effects of her gaze. Like Cellini’s Perseus in Florence, a stone statue standing in the Loggia dei Lanzi, standing opposite the Palazzo della Signoria, the artist brandishes Medusa’s bloodied head, exhibiting this figure of power-through-the-gaze, but with the gaze deactivated and neutralized. By cutting Medusa’s head, in fact, the painter takes power over his own gaze, putting it at a distance.
In Ovid the triumphant Perseus is enjoined to “Put away your monster, remove your Medusa.” (Metamorphoses, book V, 216-218).

The painter accomplished the action of Perseus, but it is important to register that he performed it fully, which is to say that from the hero he also took cunning, the necessary, vital cunning that, in his uncertain mortal combat, enabled him, thanks to the clever use of the mirror, by means of the indirect gaze and virtual image, to keep the monster at a distance and never see the Gorgon face to face, never to meet its gaze. By the cunning use of the mirror he was able to keep the monster both far from his eyes and close to his hand, and was thus able to sever its head and to stay alive.

To sum up, one could say that the genius of Perseus lay in managing to metamorphose Medusa into an image. If we think about it, then ultimately that genius is a genius of painting. With a certain surprise, thanks to Caravaggio, one could rightly say that Perseus is a painter. It was therefore logical to expect the painter to be Perseus.

In his treatise De Pictura, dating from 1435, Alberti wrote of Narcissus as the inventor of painting. According to this philosopher, architect and painter, every painter was a Narcissus. Now here was Caravaggio declaring that every painter is a Perseus. In place of the melancholy artist who, in his painting, seeks to embrace the lost gaze of the loved one, Caravaggio introduces a painter as fighter, conqueror of the gaze, who cuts off the monster’s head and tears away its murderous mask by sticking it into an image.

The painter / Perseus may be seen to embody the Aristotelian alchemy of the artist: “We take delight,” wrote Aristotle, “in viewing the most accurate possible images of objects which in themselves cause distress when we see them (e.g. the shapes of the lowest species of animal, and corpse).” (The Poetics, 3.1.) We may allow that in the modern age of mass death, industrial and technological death there is every reason to thoroughly rethink the image and horror, the visible and the invisible, the representable and the unrepresentable.

It would seem that this has not escaped Alain Declercq.

It so happens that Medusa, the work by Caravaggio, was once violently projected into contemporary history. On 27 May 1993 a bomb went off in the Uffizi. There were five victims, including the museum curator, and the blast from the explosion seriously damaged two hundred works, including Caravaggio’s painting. During the investigation there was talk of the Mafia, but even today it is not known who was behind the attack. The painting required extensive restoration and was not put on display again until ten years later, in 2003.


Medusa’s face is murderous. The image of Medusa’s face can be seen without danger. Caravaggio has wrested death from her eyes.

Caravaggio handed Medusa’s head to the prince, but it was the painter who had conquered the power of the gaze, and he kept that for himself. Too bad for the cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany. The artist is master of the gaze. Too bad for all the princes of the world, the mighty of yesterday and today.


Tearing death out of the eyes.

This is where are struck by the genius of Caravaggio, that painter whom Poussin thought had “come into the world to destroy painting.” It is here that he reveals all the power of his affirmation, the acute sense and incisive, essential issues of “Every painter is Perseus”: like him, artists were able to avert the fate of Medusa.

Thus they are masters of the gaze, but to become that they must master their own gaze, that is to say, confront horror, ward off fear and anguish.The master of the gaze is one who dares confront the gaze that kills.

To accomplish his act, to triumph, Perseus was thus a Master of Terror. That is what the Greeks called Perseus: mestor phoboio. The artist is mestor phoboio. This is where it brings us.

“Every painter is Perseus” – Yes, but they must become him.


There may be no Western in view no frenzied epic, but there is a kind of courage on the part of the artist. Not the courage of the muscleman. It can be spoken in words other than those of heroism, while closely following Medusa-like logic: the artist has to confront the gaze of the Other. In one way or another. Which is to say that all this can be perfectly weaponless, without the slightest violence, but not without strength. And he cannot dispense with it.

It is clear that in talking about artists here we are not talking about inspiration, style or talent, or even about themes, genres or invention, but about courage.

To confront the gaze of the Other is the act of an artist, however it is done.

The ways may vary, but it would seem that they ultimately divide into two types. Once again, it is Caravaggio who can guide us here. Strangely enough, or perhaps not as strangely as all that, at pretty much the same moment as he was painting Medusa, he painted a Narcissus, a stunning picture which is at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. If you go to see it, you will observe this: that the young boy, the tragic hero of love and mythological figure of the painter, is bending over a source as deep as Hades to meet a gaze, the black gaze of absence and, it seems, of death. This is the melancholy confrontation of two opposing gazes, in which the bodies will remain forever separate, wretched, in the suffering of a desperate desire.

Narcissus and Perseus, sex and power. Perseus and Narcissus ultimately embody the two great human passions. In their respective ways, Narcissus and Perseus both imply facing up to the Other’s gaze. And if, in line with what Caravaggio suggests, Perseus can, with Narcissus be elevated to a founding myth of art, we could then imagine a great historical division, between artists working in the direction of Narcissus, and artists working along the path of Perseus. That would be an amusing game.

I think that Alain Declercq has resolutely opted for the path of Perseus. With him, the confrontation of gazes is political. One could see here the outline of a kind of principle whereby the style of a work would be defined not by its genre, themes or aesthetic options, but precisely by the choice of Other that the artist has chosen to confront.

In the case of Alain Declercq, that Other would seem to be not so much love as power.


The Hidden series is a perfect example. Here Declercq is Perseus as mestor phoboio.

He exposes images of that which, in theory, has no image, of that which must not have one, that which is forbidden.

But what is hidden here is rather complex, rather tortuous, since what these images show is not something we could never have seen, something new, which is always interesting, but something we might well have seen in the streets of New York, but without realising what it was, and that, in the name of strategic defence, was prohibited. So, in the first place, Hidden shows not something invisible but something visible that we did not know it was forbidden to make visible. In this sense these images do ultimately perform the primary, elemental and fundamental role of art: to show. Or, to put it in the style of Paul Klee, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.” After all, to stand by the roadside with a big panel bearing the words “ATTENTION RADAR,” as Declercq did, is an artistic act perfectly in keeping with Klee’s definition – providing, of course, that there really was a radar there, that this was no fiction, a rumour claiming the existence of a radar when there wasn’t one.

But we can take this further. Apart from the sublime bridges of New York, which also labour under a somewhat absurd ban (although there can be no doubting that they would be a sensitive target for a terrorist attack), what tourist would get it into his head to go and photograph the sad façade of what turns out to be a prison? Declercq makes no visible revelation. The hidden resides in the fact that the images show us what we didn’t know we must not see. You see that? Well, get this: it’s out of bounds. That is what each of these images says. In other words, while there is no shock or surprise in these photos, we view these insignificant cityscapes with fresh eyes, as the saying goes. These photographs are in this sense the opposite of sensational journalistic images. And, in the end, even if we are talking about the bridges of New York, which have been filmed and filmed every which way ever since we can remember, we still look at them differently after seeing them in the photographs of Hidden, in that they have become forbidden images. It is not the thing in itself that becomes revealed in this way, it is the thing and the prohibition behind it, or that covers it. The hidden that is shown in these images is the visible itself, insofar as the visible is itself a cache.

One could say that these images are images that alert; they are addressed to the beholder and their specific operation is to add knowing to seeing by tricking the master’s gaze, to open our eyes to what we see.

Federal banks, prisons, bridges and tunnels: these are not exactly fun images. At the same time, I cannot help thinking that behind the Hidden project there is a smart, curious kid, the kind who, when his dad says, “Whatever you do, don’t go looking in there!” and points to the parents’ bedroom, can of course think of nothing better to do that night than go and put his ear to the keyhole. The precious and marvellous thing about the prohibition on seeing is that it immediately points to what is interesting to look at and creates careers for voyeurs. Declercq is a serious artist concerned with serious matters, but he is also, fortunately, a bit of a rascal.

And the fact remains that he has thus laid out a novel map of New York, an inventory of the seventy locations in the city that are not to be looked at. In the capital of the twentieth century, a place whose beauty makes it the ultimate object of gazes and images, in the city that never sleeps, he produces a topography of blind spots.

That said, there is something clearly paradoxical about describing these spots as blind because, while out of bounds for alien eyes, they are no doubt under intensive video surveillance, bursting with eyes pointing in all directions, thoroughly scanned by cameras that can leave no dead angles, so as to ensure that every passerby is seen, no doubt making these blocks the most closely surveyed areas in the whole city.

This brings out one or two other dimensions of the hiddenness here. There is, first of all, somewhere in the city, the bank of screens where the images of the approaches to these forbidden places are continuously visible in real time. And with this bank goes the gaze of the policemen, soldiers and technicians whose job it is to survey the surveillance screens, with the eternal problem of knowing whether there are enough eyes to see everything that these countless batteries of cameras can see.

But, with regard to this surveillance eye, the other hidden element in these photographs from the Hidden series is simply the photographer himself, in his act of taking photographs. It is his own gaze that is hidden, this look hinted at in the round hole of the eye of images. The value of these photographs has to do not so much with what they show as with the fact that, in order to make them, the photographer himself had to enter the Other’s field of vision, to place himself within the Other’s gaze, under the eye of the surveillance cameras. You have to imagine, when you go to the Loevenbruck gallery in Paris to see the seventy photographs taken by Declercq in New York, that there are, at the same time, somewhere in the same city, in a NYPD archive, or that of some defence agency, seventy video sequences featuring a rather slim guy just under six feet tall, seventy times this same rather slim guy standing with a strange square box on the ground at his feet (that’s how Declercq went about getting the image onto his film).

In other words, the stolen images of Hidden imply that the artist personally braved the surveillance cameras, the gaze of the Other. This is not a secondary fact, it is a necessary given, because the Hidden series would absolutely not have the same meaning or value if the forbidden images had been taken “virtually,” by sampling the images of these places (if that is conceivable) from the Internet, from Street View (although one supposes that the prohibition on images also applies to Google).

We must therefore assume that in taking these photographs Declercq not only defied a prohibition on representation, but that he also confronted the gaze of control: nowadays it is not New York, it is not so much the city that never sleeps, so much as video surveillance. I would thus say that the artist set out to make a hole in the Other’s all-seeing eye. It is a way of blinding that Other. And, finally, with the little round hole of his camera obscura, by making seventy photographs, he managed to make seventy holes in the gaze of the Other. Seventy little round holes pierced in the Medusa’s eye.

Yes, Alain Declercq is Perseus.


The artist’s involvement, his requisite presence, is no mere idea or construction.

First of all, of course, it is a fact, but the value of this fact in my eyes, as I have said, is that it is necessary. The artist’s presence is fundamental to the very “concept” of the work. But it so happens that a material element of the device includes the artist’s presence, imposes it and bears witness to his physical, corporeal involvement in the work. These images bring into play a body and an object. This effectively has to do with the Declercq’s choice of a camera obscura as his photographic device.

I have already alluded to this basic optical box when evoking round images, in the shape of an eye or buckler. But what justifies the presence of the camera obscura in this business is surely not primarily the shape of the image that it produces.

What is it that makes a young artist go over and play the spy in New York, photographing protected buildings from the street using an apparatus that is as cumbersome and clumsy as it is approximate? A Tintin complex? Affectation? A taste for difficulty? Love of antiques? Some ecological intention? A desire to uphold the homemade? A homage to Vermeer (who used a camera obscura in his studio)? An appetite for exploits? None of the above, I believe.

The camera obscura is quite simply the opposite of modern high technology. This immediately takes on a precious meaning for us, because it signifies that this apparatus calls for the human hand. Automaticity is an almost constitutive characteristic of modern technology. That something should work on its own, be constructed on its own and function on its own is a modern ideal. Things must tick over on their own. This is the modern ideal of the robot. In contrast, in its homemade crudeness, the camera obscura calls for human presence and human action. Starting, no doubt, with when it is made (there is a good chance that no camera obscura has ever been produced industrially), but also in making it work – carrying it, positioning it, angling it, inserting the film, estimating the exposure time, opening and closing the lens, etc. As machines go, when compared to the digital camera, which can be programmed, which sets its parameters all by itself and goes off all by itself, the camera obscura is handicapped.

To this must be added the fact that the camera obscura constitutes a separate eye that is apart from the seeing person’s body. It is an eye that sees on its own, but also, because of its rudimentary structure, it is an eye in which the seer does not see what it sees, except after the event, with all the uncertainties and surprises that this may lead to in the framing. But, at the same time as it sees on its own, as an apparatus it is effectively handicapped: it does not work on its own, but needs a hand in order to take a photograph.

We can thus see a first, possible reason for choosing this object. Expected to operate in zones of maximum electronic surveillance, Declercq’s camera obscura, like the image that is formed inside it, appears as something inverted, as the absolute reverse or opposite of the video surveillance camera. For, beyond the matter of its optical capacities and technological sophistication, the key definition of electronic monitoring, in keeping with the hypermodern ideology, is that it needs no human presence to function: the robot eye, the complete automaton. I have referred to the remote and invisible bank of screens that is part of the video surveillance system, and the need, ultimately, to have someone somewhere to see what all these cameras see, but this question is itself becoming irrelevant: software has now been conceived to equip other cameras whose job it would be to monitor the surveillance screens and trigger an alert in the case of incidents, accidents, attacks or what have you. The electronic eye watched by another electronic eye. The subject really doesn’t need to get out of bed.

Now, the whole question put by Declercq in these basic photographs seems to fit within the following: the desire to reintroduce into the huge, anonymous and, in every sense, inhuman, even monstrous machine that is the super-powerful modern state, a simple subject. Being, in this instance, the artist in person. In this gigantic machine that is supposed to be working at full capacity, the subject can appear only as a blot, a disruption, a snag (those few little spots, the little dots lined up along the edges of the images in Hidden, which are I think the traces of the clips used by the photographer, in fact represent him very well).

In fact, Declercq’s work is not about ideological contestation or political opposition, but about sticking out, about infiltrating – by cunning or by fiction or by some other means – a subject into a system or a space that does not provide for or want its presence, where it has no place. He will thus generate a perturbation in the system, even if only a tiny one, a perturbation that can, at any rate, be seen: he will, in sum pierce it. It is there, for me, that Declercq’s artistic act is concentrated. Declercq is a driller and disrupter, an artist who stains and contaminates.

But at the same time, by going with his little box to take photos of forbidden places in the heart of New York, what he is ultimately showing, with these images sneaked away from the most watched buildings in that city, is a chink in the system.

Along with the pleasure of tricking an ultra-sophisticated surveillance network with just a ridiculous little box, for me there is an ethical reason behind the use of the camera obscura. The value of the artistic act rests, in the end, on the resources it does without. Instead of competing, of bringing one sophisticated technology to bear against another, the artist chose to take it on almost barehanded. He thus confronts the electronics of a hyper-power with a poor, homemade, DIY, primitive object; against the defence systems of the “military-industrial complex” he puts forward a little painter’s instrument (because it is true, after all, that Vermeer used a camera obscure in his studio); in the end, he pits his body and his wits against security state high technology. Declercq is a bit of a David against Goliath. The camera obscura as revolt.

In that sense, pointing the camera obscura at the CCTV security system of New York constitutes the same gesture as aiming a revolver at a B 52. That is the subject of a photo Declercq took in 2003, a kind of homage to Chris Burden’s act of shooting at a Boeing 747 in the sky over Los Angeles, when America was in the middle of the Vietnam War. Except that what we see is not a declaration of war against the American army, a replica of what Vietnamese fighters did, firing their rifles at bombers, any more than a reproduction of Burden’s gesture. For one thing, the Vietnamese soldiers really did shoot planes down in this way, and at the end of the day they inflicted on America a defeat whose traumatic effects are often underestimated. As for Burden, even if he wasn’t expecting to win the war, he really did fire a bullet at a plane. Declercq didn’t: he just made an image. In fact that is why I can talk about it. Because I do not wish for the military defeat of America, and because what Declercq in fact shows is an artistic gesture, an image, that of the infinite distance between a little revolver and an enormous B 52. What the artist fires at power is an image, not a bullet. The image keeps the thing at a distance. It is another figure of David and Goliath, in its artistic version, the Caravaggesque one of the brush against death. And the little blurred photo of Hidden against the society of surveillance.

And so, once again, when Declercq gets out his camera obscura to shoot the portrait of that which embodies power in a city like New York, seeing the holy simplicity of the machine with which he seeks to spotlight the power of the defence system of the most powerful state in the world – and at the same time the flaw in the defence system of the most powerful state in the world – what comes to mind once more is the simple device of the mirror used by Perseus to confront the Gorgon Medusa and, in the end, to defeat her. In both cases the image keeps things at a distance.

In other words, by making an image of what is permanently monitored and controlled by the Other, in Hidden, Declercq also shows us that he is keeping us – we viewers – from being seen. To protect beholders from all danger, Caravaggio turned Medusa’s gaze askew; Declercq screws the video eye. The point being, in both cases, to neutralise the gaze of the Other. Which is why we can go peacefully to the museum and look at dangerous things, painted by Caravaggio or photographed by Declercq, in perfect peace of mind. In both cases, the work of an artist.

I just hope that Alain Declercq likes Caravaggio.

Gérard Wajcman is a writer, a psychoanalyst and professor in the

department of psychoanalyse of the University Paris 8. He manages

the  Center of Study of History and Theory of the Glance.  He is

the author, among others, of The prohibition, The Object of the century,

Window, and The absolute eye, published by Denoël in 2010.