Tim Martin


In a curious coincidence, in September 2005, the Tate Modern staged Denkmal 53 by Jan De Cock at the same time as the exhibition Open Systems, showing the work of 1970’s conceptual, political and institutional critique. Visiting Open Systems meant passing the large, attractive work of Jan De Cock outside on the north terrace, set against the architecture of Giles Gilbert Scott’s converted power station.


From the riverside, these constructions peek and poke out of the trees. They could be temporary kiosks, distribution points for sandwiches or information, or temporary housing for artists and critics. It takes time to walk to them. And this time is taken up by puzzling over their function and appreciating their aesthetic form. They look like big Donald Judd sculptures with continuous surfaces punctured by architectural openings. Up closer, however, they begin to thwart any ascription of function. The openings are in odd places, and all that can be seen inside them is more of the same. They appear as inner ‘expansions’ of themselves.


De Cock’s sculptures are made of sheet industrial material, fibreboard laminated with plastic of the type found in institutions and kitchens, and increasingly used as an architectural cladding. The material is mechanically cut to expose the inner fibres to the eye and to the weather. They won’t last the winter. Their unprotected cut edges will swell, freeze and crack. Their thick vertical planes of semi-mat colour are irregularly punctured by openings with box frames, sometimes flush with the vertical outer surface, sometimes projecting forward and back. Looking through these openings, it appears that a second similar construction stands immediately inside. The openings in this second layer reveal a third construction, leading one to assume that this repetition continues all the way to the centre.


A large Denkmal stands by the riverside entrance, and next to it on the left is a medium sized one, and then a smaller one. These volumes are not unpacked from each other, since each is stuffed in the same way, as deeply as the eye can penetrate. On the right, the vocabulary changes. Now the material is built into an opening in the massive wall of the museum and closed off by a pane of glass. The effect is that of an empty, white Constructivist shop window, with an eye-catching oblique mirror at the back. From here it takes only the slightest turn of the head to see the window of the real museum shop, with its colourful baits and lures.


It takes an effort of concentration and memory to catch the effects of the different Denkmäler. From the first encounter they have no functional identity, yet appear to be functional. If one were hungry, the Denkmäler might look like sandwich kiosks; if one was lost, they might look like information kiosks; if one needed a place to stay the night, they might look like temporary accommodation; and if one needed to shop, well there would be that too. For a time they have the quality of being whatever it is that one wants, of containing whatever it is that one desires. The work plays on the ‘motivational impulse’ that inhabits all visual experience. As one nears the work to discover that there are no functions, all that is left is what has been put inside them by our own motivations: projections, wishful thoughts and fantasies. These large constructions took not only great effort and manpower to make, the energy with which they are filled by the spectator’s own desires is equally remarkable.


To get to the Open Systems exhibition the visitor must walk past a Denkmal on every floor of the museum’s circulation space. This experience has a lingering effect within the exhibition. There, sculptures by Donald Judd, Hans Haacke and Robert Smithson are casually crowded into a small room, making them seem like strange, forgotten objects from the institution’s attic, somehow holding in condensed form all that has been encountered thus far on the walk. A Smithson Mirror Vortex thwarts vision, slicing the room and the spectator into a hundred triangular kaleidoscopic spaces. Next to it an early Judd sits on the floor like a condensed assertion of the ideas that have generated the design of the whole of the museum’s interior architecture. Stepping through a Mel Bochner ‘measurement room’ into Marcel Broodthaers’ Winter Garden, vitrines and pot plants fill the middle of the space. This installation seems incomplete without the architectural spaces of a nineteenth century museum like the Tate Britain or Broodthaers’s own Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where the work was initially displayed in 1974. This installation manages to make a commentary on the effect of the commodity in the production of insincerity – where both the spectator and the commodity effect a ‘bad faith’ exchange – through the memory of its earlier, institution-specific installation in 1974.


A walk among the Denkmäler and through the first rooms of the show can be quite exhausting. The flagging spectator may choose to chase through the remaining rooms, past a Dan Graham and a Bruce Nauman, to push at the exit door and seek relief in a café on the other side. Here, the visitor encounters another Denkmal and this time is too exhausted to invest it with any energy. As a result this one, unlike the others, takes on a distinctive quality of aggressivity. Its horizontal formica-like surfaces may help disguise it as a harmless piece of institutional furniture, but its spatial qualities are now more insistent and obstructive. A glimmer of hostility emerges, as well as the distinct impression that one is caught, in this experience, in a chain of symptoms that is more than a coincidence.


Repressing these symptoms is a possible option. Avoiding such a fate adds a certain urgency or determination to find a principle at work in the chain of symptoms between the Tate Modern, the Denkmäler and the works in Open Systems. This requires a return to some of the work in the exhibition, and then a look at the Tate Modern as a building. This analysis will be guided by several psychoanalytic concepts, particularly those of cathexis, libido and aggressivity. A cathexis is an expression of an instinct. Cathexis (besetzen) is a psychical intensity or motivational impulse, the direct expression of libidinal and aggressive drives which, by way of transformations such as displacement and condensation, energise the entire mind.[1] Aggression and libido include in them the notion that emotional energy is part of a circuit that has its source in the psyche, thrusts or flows into or around an object, and then returns to the psyche to render its aim of satisfaction. Against the backdrop of an old electrical energy station, the Denkmäler become the object of a cathexis, particularly through their attractive materials and by promising to provide for one’s needs and wants. The concept of cathexis is important here because it speaks of the ‘end state’ of an expression of the instincts, and, as my description above has shown, it is usually only in this ‘end state’ that the spectator becomes conscious of the motivational impulses that inhabit vision. Inside the museum however, the cathexis continues, but differently. It is no longer the spectator but the sculptures that, though smaller, seem to have completed their own cathexis. Given that this charge of emotional energy has been more noticeably aggressive, it leads one to ask: ‘Just how has this museum been occupied?’



Marcel Broodthaers was ambivalent about the museum, and participated in the revolutionary artist occupations of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1968. He then distanced himself from this act, making the claim that culture is an ‘obedient material’ that cannot survive without a commodity system. Art earned him his income and tied him to a system. He questioned the naiveté of artists who thought they could bite the hand that fed them. But the act of occupying the Palais was a gesture he had initially made without much hesitation. Afterward, his aggression against the museum was diverted toward his fellow occupier-artists, the ‘mes amis’ of his public letters. The revolution may have held forth an attractive ideal, but it had turned into a frenzy aimed not at the real object of the museum, but at an object of fantasy that was being projected onto and into the museum. Having struck out at the museum, Broodthaers moved on, quickly, to demonstrate an identification with the institution. Aggressivity in Broodthaers was part of a cathexis that allowed him to stamp on the museum the objects of his own making, but with this twist: it was to be a collection that demonstrated the beauty and banality of the eagle as a representation of aggressivity.


As a young critic, Donald Judd was ambivalent about the art that he was sent to review. The aggression in his art criticism was palpable, leading to his decision to become the artist who made the work he wanted to see. He then changed his object; it was no longer art and artists, but the museum and the curator. The tone of ‘Specific Objects’ was carefully calculated to elicit a response, which he could imagine even before writing. It was an aggression that thrust at an imagined aggressor, represented to some degree by a stereotype of the critic or the museum curator, but ultimately based on his own identity as a critic. Many artists understood that the aim of Judd’s essay was himself, and that this was necessary to the expression of his enjoyment of ‘specific objects’. But when the art critic Michael Fried bit back at Judd’s provocation, by famously declaring ‘war’ on Minimalism’s theatricality, he put himself in the position of this imagined aggressor. In the astonished silence that followed, Robert Smithson was the first to reply. Fried, Smithson inveighed, had fallen into a trap by failing to understand the reflective nature of Judd’s aggression, and its object. The thrust of the instinctual drives is not just directed toward a real external object or person, it can be directed to a mental representation too. But Fried’s attack on Judd’s literalist theatricality was itself an act of representational theatricality. In rejecting the literal and tangible object, he had lost himself, like a ‘mannerist’ in the dangerous territory of the cathexis and anti-cathexis of representations. To demonstrate this, Smithson cast Fried into his sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers in order to duplicate Fried’s mirror image infinitely to a vanishing point. Smithson concluded with a principle not unknown to Derrida or Freud: “Every war is a battle with reflections. What Michael Fried attacks is what he is”.[2]


Like Broodthaers, Judd repeatedly used an aggressive cathexis in aid of a libidinous one. Judd was not only attached to objects, but to spaces as well. This is nowhere more clear than in his last essay, ‘Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular’. Written on his deathbed, he claimed that much of his work was made in order to create different types of space.[3] Judd was beset not just by ‘specific objects’ but by ‘specific spaces’, whether it was the space within the angle or the space beyond the angle, or the enclosed space of a pipe, or the space of the Texas prairie; Judd loved specific spaces.[4] And like Broodthaers it got him what he wanted – a museum with a very specific quality of object, space and spectatorship. His was in a remote military base in a Texas town that had first tantalised him while travelling through to enlist in the army. Competitive, narcissistic aggression worked in the service of his libidinous cathexis, ultimately enabling him to turn a whole town into his loved objects.



The architects Herzog and de Meuron have incorporated a substantial part of Judd’s work, including the ‘metallic space’ it creates in its installation in Texas.[5] They studied Judd’s lessons and the galleries of Tate Modern manifestly bear the signs of it. When planning the restoration of the turbine hall, a space of industrial-imperial dimensions, they made the decision to leave the hall empty, thus creating a uniquely paradoxical museum space, a “non-place” for the non-exhibition of art.[6] The turbine hall was not intended for exhibitions, but as a particular type of entrance to the museum. When empty, it can be experienced as something of a place of primordial concours or coming together. As a public space it may induce the most primitive stage of identification, that of transitivism, where boundaries between people are broken down.[7] It may be a therapeutic ‘intensive care’ room precisely because it is a place where the boundaries between inner world and outer world, self and other, lose distinction.[8] It may also become a space that charges up the spectator’s cathectic energy before entering the galleries on grand escalators that bypass the Denkmäler. But, as a space of extreme dedifferentiation, of oceanic oneness, the spectator may be left bereft of the differentiation required by critical thinking. One of De Cock’s achievements has been to provide an alternative to this entrance to the museum, one that is, as I have said, carefully staged to help the spectator to distinguish his or her acts of cathexis, rather than regressing the spectator into a primitive, infantile state of non-reflective emotional reaction – where almost any candy will make the baby smile in affection.



When De Cock was invited to submit work for the series ‘Untitled’, he was offered an opportunity to show several works in a small exhibition space near the second floor riverside entrance, the Level 2 Gallery. He then expanded the original brief. As demonstrated in his earlier participation in Manifesta 5, he had a productive capacity far in excess of the Tate’s original request. The Denkmäler seize the circulation areas, the roof, and the terrace. Inside the building they are not so much ‘on display’, as ‘taking up space’, dominating a space while being conciliatory in the pose of furniture (figure 2j), display kiosk (figure 2a), member’s clubhouse (figure 6a, 6b and 6c), museum shop (figure 2d), or multi-functional sheds. Using a single formal vocabulary De Cock has found ways to occupy seven different areas, in each case filling up about five per cent of the total space. The work occupies space like an abstracted version of that favourite 1968 form of institutional critique, the ‘sit-in’.


Individual Denkmäler seize a space, and repeat this act over and over, each time filling more space. Their aggressivity resides in the outward expansion of the innermost construction. Collectively, the Denkmäler march on the museum, first taking the forecourt entrance, then breaking into the walls and invading the internal space. If, like the work of Judd and Broodthaers, they beset, occupy or ‘cathect’ the museum, they do so in a way that discloses the instincts. As De Cock has put it, “You have to work on your instincts. But to be able to trust your instincts, you have to create frames for your work beforehand within which you can work instinctively. […] the museum is also a frame, you must create an atmosphere in it that encourages the instinct, makes it sharper.”[9]


Judd used his aggression and libido in making his objects and in acquiring his museum. Through these acts Marfa is beset by real objects and spaces, not by their representations. Judd made cathexis tangible in order to make it conscious. By a similar process Broodthaers too obtained a museum, but he most famously filled it with images of the eagle as representations of aggression, power and dominance. Broodthaers made cathexis visible as representation, in order to make it conscious. He pointed to the power of the image to represent aggression.


De Cock pursues a valuable and timely combination of these strategies. Like Judd he makes his instinctual, unconscious love objects into something real and tangible. The vibrant luminous colour and raw, cut edges of the laminated fibreboard may declare this most clearly. As in Judd’s work, there is a cathexis of space, albeit a more aggressive one. But, like Broodthaers, De Cock also deals with representations of aggressivity, particularly in his formal references to the Constructivist and Open Systems art of political activism. He makes a museum for adults, as a nexus where a play between a representational and a tangible object-space cathexis can be distinguished.


De Cock’s work at the Tate occupies the museum, introducing a new model of good spectatorship. He theatricalises the cathectic nature of artist and spectator in a psychoanalytic tradition of self knowledge. This cathexis of the object and the museum indubitably returns to the satisfaction of De Cock, but also to the spectators, giving them an important critical ground on which to occupy the museum.


  • [1] Donald McIntosh, ‘Cathexes and Their Objects in the Thought of Sigmund Freud’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41, part 3 (1993): 685. Cathexis is the English translation of Frued’s “besetzen”, which may be variously translated as ‘set’, ‘beset’, ‘occupy’, or ‘besiege’. Similarly, a woman may rebuff a suitor by saying that she is already ‘besetzen’ or spoken for – these instincts have already been expressed. The noun form ‘besetzung’ usually means ‘purposefully mobilizing’ or ‘selective activation’. See Darius Ornston, ‘The Invention of ‘Cathexis’ and Strachey’s Strategy’, International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 12 (1985): 391-398.
  • [2] Robert Smithson, ‘Letter to the Editor’, Artforum (October 1967). Reprinted in Jack Flamm (ed), Robert Smithson: Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 66.
  • [3] Donald Judd, ‘Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular’, in Donald Judd, London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2004, p. 148: “The work is a great deal of knowledge about space, which is necessarily related to the space of architecture. This knowledge is, to me, particular and plentifully diverse; to almost everyone it doesn’t exist; it’s invisible.”
  • [4] Elsewhere, I have proposed that Judd had what may be called a “space-cathexis”, a libidinous attachment to certain kinds of space similar to the libidinous attachment to toys seen in children of the age of five. Tim Martin, ‘Judd’s Badge’, in Brandon Taylor (ed), Sculpture and Psychoanalysis, London: Ashgate Press, 2005.
  • [5] Herzog and de Meuron, Philip Ursprung (ed), Natural History, Baden and Montreal: Lars Muller Publishers and The Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2002, p. 83.
  • [6] Peter Osborne, ‘Non-places and the Spaces of Art’, The Journal of Architecture, 6 (Summer 2001): 183-194.
  • [7] Transitivism is that state where whatever happens to one person happens to all – a place where ‘I’ cry and laugh to see ‘you’ cry and laugh.
  • [8] In this moment of reversion, projections and introjections greatly increase until they stir up drastic cathectic shifts. See W.W. Meissner, “Projection and Projective Identification”, Projection, Identification, Projective Identification, Joseph Sandler (Ed.), Karnac Press, London, 1989, p.31.
  • [9] Milovan Farronato, ‘Interview with Jan De Cock’, Tema Celeste, ?