Grounding the Work of Art: The Case of Icarus

by Caldon Mercieca

In a seminar delivered in 1982, Michel Foucault proposed a definition of what can be considered to be the all-encompassing human task, generally described as ‘the art of living’. This is presented by Foucault, under the rubric of ‘technologies of the self’, as a kind of knowledge which allows ‘individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality’.(1) In this brief essay, my aim will be to investigate the art in ‘the art of living’ by offering some reflections on the recent work of Icarus Performance Project (Malta).

By way of a preliminary observation, it appears important to me to refer to the conceptual names which have been self-ascribed by Icarus to the Second Phase of its project: ‘performative – improvisational – structural’. I take these pointers as indicating the three determining aspects of Icarus’ work. Firstly, we have a projective, and thus perspectival, framework which delves deeper than the mere detached performance. Secondly, a method focussed on the actor’s attention to the present, and therefore an acting which is constantly attempting to be pure presence. Thirdly, a conscious effort toward the self-grounding of the work, and therefore a structure emanating from the work and in turn structuring the work from the inside. These appear to be the three determining parameters of the work: the projective ek-static character of the work, the manifestation of the work in the ever-present presence, and the structural self-determination of the work through constant self-grounding. Where does art come into the picture? How is this related to ‘the art of living’? And what is being understood as constituting art if the Icarus Project events are supposed to throw light on ‘the art of living’?

The key term here is tekhne, which derives from an ancient Greek understanding of art, essentially placing art in the context of truth (aletheia), and grounding truth within the general framework of activity (praxis) and life (zoe).(2)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies five ways by which the soul arrives at the truth, one of which is the knowledge know as tekhne. ‘Every art (tekhne) is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being, and the cause of which is in the producer and not in the product.’(3) The practice of a tekhne is the practice of a knowledge; it is to be distinguished from the production of an object, which is poesis. Poesis can only happen where a tekhne is available to a tekhnites, an artist. Moreover, tekhne is oriented towards ‘bringing into being something that is capable either of being or of not being’. Now, that from which beings emerge into the open ground of unconcealment and manifestation is known as phusis, the reserve of being and non-being. Aristotle immediately clarifies the function of tekhne with regards to phusis thus: ‘it is not with things that are or come to be of necessity that art is concerned, nor with natural objects’ but with things leading to poesis, human production. This statement points to the Greek understanding of phusis as encompassing all beings, the nature of which is manifested either through self-disclosure or through a process leading to their production (poesis).

We have referred to the manifestation of beings as disclosure or unconcealment. Be it through self-manifestation or by means of human production (poesis), unconcealment, that is, the irruption of beings into the openness of existence is the coming to the truth, a-letheia, of those beings. A-letheia, un-concealment, is that by which the irruption of beings from the reserve of phusis takes place. Truth, understood as the disclosure of beings into the openness of manifestation, is thus a happening, an event. This permits Heidegger to make the following statement: ‘Art is truth setting itself to work.’(4) This statement, just as the relation between tekhne and ‘the art of living’, cannot be understood outside the Greek experience of truth and art.

Phusis – Tekhne – Poesis


What we have referred to above as the self-grounding of the work can be also understood in terms of the dynamics of this process of disclosure of the work of art. The work’s poetic manifestation is presented through a performative projection which is in turn rooted in a technique determined by the ground from which this knowledge, this tekhne, arises. We have determined this ground as the phusis, the reserve of beings which can become manifest, and therefore disclosed as to their truth. The question arises: what constitutes this ground of being, what constitutes the ground for the truth which happens whenever tekhne makes (created) beings manifest?

My answer, and indeed, my real aim in this essay, is to propose some indicative considerations concerning this ground suggesting that, both in the case of the Icarus Project’s manifestations, as well as in the human ethical project of transforming life into a work of art, this ground is the Nothing.

Heidegger provides us with the following apposite guiding statement: ‘[T]he more original a philosophy is, the more purely it soars in turning about itself, and therefore the farther the circumference of its circle presses outward to the brink of nothingness.’(5) In the light of what has been stated above with regards to phusis as the ground of beings, one can venture to state that at the level of the ground understood as source, the ground is pure Being. Thus, the grounding of beings is a self-grounding where pure Being and pure Nothing are identical.(6)

One must note that we are here no longer tied to the understanding of being and nothingness as conceived by the ancient Greeks, for whom nothing could come out of nothing (ex nihilo - nihil), and which therefore understood the Nothing solely as non-being. Nor are we within the parameters of the Christian understanding of the creation of beings out of the Nothing, wherein the Nothing serves as the counter-concept of God, which is the only uncreated being.(7)

‘All creation is a drawing, as of water from a spring ... Poetic projection comes from Nothing, in this respect.’(8) The manifestation of the work of art, originating in the self-grounded identity of pure Being and pure Nothing, brings to the fore and holds forth to be witnessed the Nothing from which the work has been out-sourced. ‘All things are created out of nothing, therefore their true source is nothing.’(9) To the extent that the same grounding in the Nothing grounds both the work and its witness, one can state, with Meister Eckhart, that ‘that which embraces is that which is embraced, for it embraces nothing but itself.’(10) No fundamental difference exists, at this level, between the practitioners within the Icarus Project and their observers, given that both stand on their self-grounded stance with respect to their being. ‘In the altogether unsettling experience of this hovering where there is nothing to hold onto, pure Being-there (Da-sein) is all that is still there.’(11) This is the fundamental encounter permitted through ‘the unsettling experience’ of witnessing a work of art which does not want to be seen as a disembodied performance, but which holds in transparent manifestation its made-out-of-Nothingness.

Heidegger’s pronouncement that ‘the new thinkers must attempt and tempt’(12) must be placed against this original self-grounding of the work of art. We have seen how the work and its witnesses stand on the same self-grounded Nothing of their being; but we have also indicated the self-grounding of the work through the self-determination of its structure. In his contribution for the first Icarus Project manifestation, Frank Camilleri refers to the from-withinness of this self-grounding work: ‘The principal method adopted for conducting sessions was mostly from inside the work.’(13) This determination of the work from the inside underlies the work’s intrinsic dependence on a Nothingness which stands not only at its source but in every instance, and stance, of its manifestation.

Rilke probes on this from-withinness when confronting Cézanne’s work. ‘Insight is only within the work … It’s as if every place were aware of all other places … a colour will come into its own in response to another, or assert itself, or recollect itself … Various intensifications and dilutions take place in the core of every colour, helping it to survive contact with others.’(14) The interdependence of the elements with which the work is structured, their mutual self-grounding, is reflected here as a wholeness which becomes manifest within every single instance of the work. Indeed, the from-withinness of the work is indicative of the work’s wholeness as a poetic drawing from the spring of the Nothing. It is over and against this grounding Nothingness that the work can stand as a whole, as poesis, and therefore as completed work. However, in as much as it originates and will always stand on its self-determined ground as out-of-Nothingness, it will be always witnessed in projective (performative) manifestation, and never as disembodied performance.

Is there still space for phusis at this stage? Does the determination of the ground of beings as Nothing retain a positive determination for the constitution of the work of art, or, indeed, for the whole art of living? There appears to be not only space for phusis but a need for it: a phusis which is equally ground-as-Being and ground-as-Nothing. It is a phusis which stands as pré-posé (or better still, as arche) of the poesis and of the tekhne developed by the Icarus Project. This constitutes its positive determination – or should I say pre-determination? The definition which Michel Serres provides for the pré-posés can be considered in the light of this Néant-Préposé, or Officiating Nothingness: ‘As personifications of prepositions and figures of the divine rhetoric, they create God’s style … Already present - always and everywhere - when the need of a transformation begins to be felt. Weaving space, constructing time, they are the precursors of every presence … In fact, dare I say it, the pré-posés are there even before the fact of being there.’(15) One can here refer to Frank Camilleri’s emphasis on spirit rather than on form, as well as on the availability which must be constantly maintained by the actor who is set on the task of freedom from distraction, and therefore of freedom to respond to the demands of his or her being’s phusis or spiritual pré-posé.(16)

In conclusion, I would like to return to Eckhart’s questioning of man acting on the basis of his self-established ground. I have attempted to position the Icarus Project’s Tekhne Sessions and TWO manifestations within the context of the development of a knowledge, or tekhne, which is in turn grounded on ‘the unsettling experience’ of Nothingness. ‘Only on the ground of wonder – the revelation of the nothing – does the “why?” loom before us. Only because the “why” is possible as such, can we in a definite way inquire into the grounds, and ground them. Only because we can inquire and ground, is the destiny of our existence placed in the hands of the researcher.’(17) The manifestation of poesis establishes the happening of truth, understood as disclosure. The ‘unsettling experience’ of Nothingness determines not only the work being made manifest, but also its witnesses. As witnesses, our being-there is equally grounded on a Nothingness which, if made available to the actors’ presence, will determine the genuine happening of the truth of the performative.

(1) Michel Foucault, ‘Technologies of the Self’, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1: Ethics, ed. by Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1997), p. 225. 
(2) Cf. Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, trans. by D. Farrel Krell & F.A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 115 ff.
(3) Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 208. 
(4) Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. by A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 39. 
(5) Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volume 1: The Will to Power as Art, trans. by D. Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 16.
(6) Cf. Hegel, Science of Logic: Volume 1, cited in Martin Heidegger, ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 108. 
(7) Cf. ibid., pp. 107-8. See also Luce Irigaray’s Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. by G. Gill (New York: Columbia UP, 1991) and The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, trans. by M. Beth Mader (Austin: Texas UP, 1999) for a critique of the traditional understanding of ‘ground’ as a solid, unshakeable foundation.
(8) Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, p. 76.
(9) Meister Eckhart, Sermons and Treatises, Vol. 1, trans. by M. O’C. Walshe (Shaftesbury: Element, 1987), p. 118.
(10) Ibid., p. 121. 
(11) Heidegger, ‘What is Metaphysics?’, p. 101.
(12) Heidegger, The Will to Power as Art, p. 28.
(13) Frank Camilleri, ‘The Deadalus Experience: Mastery as a Matter of Discovery’, in ICARUS 4, ed. by F. Camilleri et al (Malta: Icarus Performance Project, 2003), p. 21.
(14) Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne, ed. by Clara Rilke, trans. by Joel Agee (New York: Fromm International, 1985), pp. 78 ff. 
(15) Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth, trans. by F. Cowper (Paris & NY: Flammarion, 1995), p. 146. 
(16) Cf. Frank Camilleri, ‘Facing the Sun’, in Id-Descartes: Identity of a Dramaturgy, by F. Camilleri and J.J. Schranz (Malta: Groups for Human Encounter, 1996), p. 61. 
(17) Heidegger, ‘What is Metaphysics?’, p. 109.