A Questionnaire on Splits

 Edited by Flora Brandl, Tobias Rosen, and Luise Mörke

Pseudomorphism—according to art historian Erwin Panofsky, the likening of images that are morphologically” similar yet “genetically” unrelated—is considered to be a scholarly faux pas: intellectually irresponsible, theoretically whimsical, and visually shallow. Allegations of pseudomorphism, however, lay bare assumptions that there are  “proper” and “improper” conditions for comparison, and a sharp dividing line that separates the two. In this questionnaire, we have gathered the voices of artists, curators, and critics whose work engages with problems raised by pseudomorphisms, such as surface similarity versus structural difference, through the formal strategy of the split. On a formal level, split images use the same doubling or side-by-sideness as pseudomorphic comparisons. Visual splitting may also be a ground for comparisons between artworks from different geographic and temporal contexts that might lack deeper causal connections. We therefore asked artists and creators:

How would you describe the relationship that forms in the split between two different images? How does the split help you figure connections as well as differences across geographies, times, identities? Is there a politics and/or an ethics of the split for you?

Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014, Super 16mm film transferred to Full HD video. 19 min. 02 sec.

Basim Magdy, Abstract Polaroid Painting, 2023, oil inside polaroid. 11 cm x 9 cm.

Basim Magdy

I'm currently holding in my hand a mineral specimen that my father collected decades ago while on a botanical research trip in the Egyptian Sahara. The scientific description of the mineral is Hematite pseudomorph after Marcasite. In this case it is a piece of Hematite, a commonly found iron oxide that takes the shape and outside structure of a Marcasite specimen. This is an example of a mineral masquerading as another. Every time I hold this specimen in my hand, I get emotional, there is something poetic about it, but there is also something that opens the doors of my imagination. It intrigues me, I want to know how this happened and the circumstances that led to its creation. It makes me think about the delusion of trustworthy historical narration and aspects of reality that may be masquerading as well.

When making a film I sometimes find myself obsessing over the transitions between shots more than the shots themselves, sometimes the light leaks on a 16mm film strip adds more to the sequence of frames it depicts than the subjects filmed in them. This is the space where other people's imagination can create their own narratives. Or maybe there is something new to learn about life if you talk about it while masquerading as a tulip.

If we all used the same logic, it will definitely be the end of human intelligence.

Basim Magdy is an artist and a filmmaker. He works with painting, photography, film, text, sculpture, installation and sound. He is very curious.

Sila Ulug

The split is the side of a frame; it is a frame seen sideways, it is you at my side looking linear
Rather than frame what it is that I see, it frames what you see from outside of my picture
There is no way to enter inside of my split, except to split its interior
You are one degree from everyone else, but you are ninety degrees from my center
A circle to me, a rectangle to you, together we form a triangle
I stabilize you; you destabilize me, I am your core, your edge and exterior
A crooked, oblique, rotation in space, you’ll never quite pin down my angle
I run parallel to me, but never to you, yet you all run parallel to each other
I’ll rotate in space seeming perfectly stable, but that’s because we rotate together
I’ll always be right to the side of you in the front falling left while you also fall backward
Together we’ll fall to a pinpoint in space, no more center, and only perimeter
An exterior point I am facing in space, you’re an image made only of pictures
Picture us this: a split to you, a frame to them, to me, absolutely indivisible

Sila is an artist-historian. She works on the history of security and art through the lens of performance studies. She is co-enrolled in the Film and Visual Studies PhD program at Harvard (as a visiting student) & the joint degree program in Art History and “Theater and Performance Studies” at the University of Chicago.

Irving Ramó

The relationship formed in the split between two different images is challenging, like a hunter aiming to capture two prey in a single shot. In the case of the Tailbone exhibition, particularly in the artwork Delusion of Power & Loop of Expansion the division of these images symbolically uses the standardized canvas space as a border or boundary. These works are constructed in various diptychs, triptychs and other configurations into constellations that simulate ‘flags.’

Irving Ramó, Delusion of Power, Oil and acrylic on raw canvas, 220 cm x 160 cm, 2023.

This division responds to divided realities that historical superficiality has made visible to some and disintegrated for others. In this collision space of 'genetically unrelated' worlds, perhaps the formal is a tool that can radicalize and speculate the limits of genetics.

I see the differences that Pseudomorphism poses as polarities that have naturally helped us understand our worldviews through differences. Similar to anthropomorphism, a primitive and innate human idea in the morphological representation in many ancient and present cultures, sought the mimicking and inter-space integration, understanding ourselves as beings in physical, mystical, and mental development. In these representations, our ancestors found a way to break this morphological division to comprehend differences and complexity as a broader totality in form and content. In this way, division is integration, comparing what is different to bring the other closer to a diverse reality.

To divide is already a political act. ‘Flags’ for example are both united and dividers. Division should aim to make visible the depths that a single image or two identical images cannot penetrate through their reflection.

Irving Ramó is a visual artist from Quito-Ecuador. He studied graphic and industrial design, turning his attention to art after graduation. He explores the boundaries created by humans, boundaries from where the human body starts to where it ends. Those are imaginary borders that limit bodies, places, ideas, politics, and social conditions. His works experiments and plays with historical power relations that shape current times. He currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany

LJ Rader
It’s important to understand what goes into making a successful post—the first step is looking at the sports image and determining what’s unique about it—what, if matched on, will elicit someone to say, “that worked.” This could be one thing or a combination of several—physical equalities in body position, matching facial expression, felt ‘emotion,’ a play on name, country of origin for the player/artist, etc.

Take this example.

@artbutmakeitsports, https://twitter.com/ArtButSports/status/1704485171154534837

There are several layers at play—the images match in composition as well as in emotion. In addition, it’s Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu, and the painting is called “Liberty Leading the People.”

My social media accounts play on the idea that ‘history repeats itself’ or ‘time is a flat circle,’ in such that I’m potentially comparing something that happened today to a painting that was conceived 400 years ago. There’s certainly a mental checklist and process that I go through to ensure that I’m accurately executing this through my work, but outside of how I distilled it down above, there’s a lot going on in my head that makes it impossible to explain how I do it, other than I’ve banked/memorized a significant amount of art, art history, and artist styles that I mentally crawl through as soon as I see a sports image.

I do think that @artbutmakeitsports is just one of those things that people ‘get’ as soon as they see it, as a majority of the posts aim to be a direct 1:1 (or as close as possible) between the two images. There’s oftentimes a humor in seeing two things that aren’t intended to be related put next to each other, and it makes the viewer re-examine their initial preconceptions about both the sports image and the art image. But at the same time, there’s a certain religious and emotional element oftentimes found in sports—where Caravaggio’s depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Matthew isn’t all that different in the violence, emotion, and physical positioning of two football players:

@artbutmakeitsports, https://twitter.com/ArtButSports/status/1751733382390640850

I think people appreciate my ability to have mentally stored that information so that it can be presented back to them, side by side, oftentimes within minutes of the event happening.

LJ Rader runs the popular social media account ArtButMakeItSports, primarily comparing images from sporting events to fine art. He lives in New York and works in Product at a Sports Data & Technology company.

Andrea Khôra, Ecstasis, 2021, courtesy of the artist.

Andrea Khôra

While deep into my research on the mechanics and cultural manifestations of psychedelic drugs and their collision with societal institutions, I have been thinking about apophenia as a method. Apophenia, though common, is considered a paranoid tendency in which the human brain makes connections between unrelated things, generally finding deep meaning in their relationship. Such thought patterns are symptomatic of the human condition, however, they exist in extreme forms within schizophrenic delusions as well as psychedelic experiences. Through my artistic practice, I sometimes play with pseudomorphism within the framework of apophenia. Finding surface likeness can be the initial spark in discovering deep and unseen connective tissue permeating much deeper than what is visible—or can it?

Andrea Khôra is a research-based artist located in London. Her current thesis by practice PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London examines the intersections of altered states, namely psychedelics, and their collision with societal institutions such as capitalism, medicine, and the military industrial complex.

Sammy Baloji

My choice to work with images as 'language' elements stems from my childhood experience of the French language, a mandatory language for education in the Congo. This language was imposed with the advent of Belgian colonial rule. It's the only way to acquire knowledge and be accepted as an intellectual. All local languages are banned at school, with the threat of physical and psychological punishment for anyone who ventures to express themselves despite the ban. We had to submit to the grammar, conjugation, spelling etc. of the superior language. The latter made us understand how far we were from possessing it (since it was foreign to our culture and our ancestors). We submitted to self-denial and the acceptance, through firm discipline, of the other culture and language as the foundation of thought and being.

Once I was at university, I chose images as a language tool. It was a way of separating myself from the superior language, for which I have so many ambivalent feelings, especially since it is with this language that I think and express myself. The image has its share of polysemy that has fascinated me from the start of my university studies in Information and Communication Sciences. Subjectivity and experience become the point of entry for apprehending or reading the image. The image lends itself to a context, to an experience, to a narrative; in short, to subjectivity.

To return to Erwin Panofsky and his notion of pseudomorphism, as you have passed it on to me in this questionnaire, the two concepts of morphology and genetics bring together form and time (gene, genesis, heredity). My Mémoire series is made up of 'genetically' derived images from the same continuous history (past, present) and the same geography delimited by colonial occupation, its extractive activity and its consequences. The image, within the confines of its frame (a rectangular or square photographic format, depending on the camera), freezes a moment in time, but the photographic medium can also pass through time and take on different meanings and values depending on the context in which it is used. The archival images used in the Mémoire series are visual media that have stood the test of time and which belong to the same environment that I photographed, many decades later.

The series Kasala. The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error is based on the foundations of Luba thought, philosophy, and the transmission of knowledge and traditions. I'm questioning the objectivity or subjectivity of art history as we know it today. In his book African Art and Artefacts in European Collections, 1400–1800 the art historian Ezio Bassani traces the presence of African Art and  artefacts in Europe from the 15th century onwards. The distribution and life of these artefacts in European collections has since then changed status. Some African objects were presented at the Venice Biennale in 1922 as works of art (“Negro Art”) alongside sumptuous works testifying to the history of Western art since the Renaissance (see the three tomes of the catalog for the 1922 Venice Biennale). After the 1922 exhibition, these artefacts reverted to their status as ethnographic or anthropological objects, which they had acquired in the 19th century with the advent of colonial science.

If I stick to the period of Erwin Panofsky's life (1892–1968), the political events of his time (the two World Wars) and the development of artistic currents under the shadow of the Cold War are certainly at the heart of his writings and reflections. It was also the time of the colonies. And art at that time, or at least as perceived from the dominant Western metropolises, only concerned the West and North America (a 1935 exhibition at MoMA drew a parallel between European and African art, while remaining polemical and hierarchical). It seems to me, therefore, that pseudomorphism applies to an artistic production that is Eurocentric and rooted in the epistemology of a Western experience and history of art. By choosing to take a conceptual and political approach to artistic creation based on the Luba mnemonic tools of Kasala and Lukasa, I'm opening up the field of knowledge production to a wider audience than just the dominant hegemony.

Sammy Baloji is a photographer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He works in Lubumbashi and Brussels, and has held exhibitions in Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Bilbao, Cape Town and Bamako.

Flora Brandl 

On Sue de Beer
As I watch Sue de Beer’s Making Out With Myself, it is hard not to think of Rosalind Krauss’ seminal definition of video art. Video’s medium, she writes in 1976, is the psychological state of narcissism.1 A body transfixed by its own image caught on camera, its own voice looped back to itself: this is the modern version of Narcissus mesmerized by his reflection in the pond. Two decades later, Sue de Beer seemingly takes this effect to its logical conclusion. She reaches through the mirror–across the split, which runs near-invisibly through the light green background–to make out with herself, with all its slobbery teenage connotations, enacting the state of autoerotic encapsulation that Krauss named two decades prior. In this narrative, the split always amounts to a psychopathology: it embodies narcissism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any other form of self-entrapment.

And yet, that’s not quite it. For de Beer infuses video with a degree of deceit that counters previous attempts to expose the medium’s magic. We can’t quite, at least not immediately, figure out whether there are one or two, or one-as-two actors in this scene; and if there’s just one, how the kiss could have been fabricated by a simple act of overlay. In fact, de Beer kisses not her own reflection (as we have all once tried, only to bump our noses against the cold mirror). She kisses a plaster cast made of her head. Her image is thereby not mirrored but inverted, so that the other side of her face could be mistaken, at first glance, for her twin. It is less a question of mirroring than one of bodily prostheses, and less a question of doubling than one of difference.

Making out With Myself does not perform a narcissistic collapse into sealed selfhood, where autoeroticism is the sole form of desire left. As de Beer reaches across the split to put her hand in her other self’s mouth, her touch complicates the pure visuality of reflection. Touch introduces an intimacy that is often missing from the self-aggression of early video work. And it is touch, even as self-touch, that eventually breaches the boundary of self-enclosure.

In de Beer’s work, the split is thus not a symptom of psychopathology. Rather, the split embodies an always-already breached separation, not only between self and other, but between intimacy and violence, love and loss, between artifice and authenticity. It is this breach that helps us think beyond the split as a simple mapping of binaries. I would like to imagine, therefore, de Beer’s lovers mumbling Luce Irigaray’s words, which read as another ode to intimacy, as they embrace: “We are luminous. Beyond "one" or "two." I never knew how to count up to you. In their calculations, we count as two. Really, two? Doesn't that make you laugh? A strange kind of two, which isn’t one, especially not one. Let them have oneness, with its prerogatives, its domination, its solipsisms: like the sun. Let them have their strange division by couples, in which the other is the image of the one, but an image only. […] You? I? That's still saying too much. It cuts too sharply between us: ‘all.’”2

Sue de Beer is a contemporary American artist working in film, photography, sculpture, and installation art. Her work draws motifs from a variety of sources, including science fiction, gothic horror films, and Italian Giallo thrillers. Infused with a sense of the mystical and supernatural, her films are often shown in galleries in immersive environments of her own design. De Beer's work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Kunst-Werke, Berlin, the Whitney Museum of American Art, M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and the Park Avenue Armory, New York.

Flora Brandl is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She received her BA from University College London and her MA in Performance Studies from New York University. Her research traces a genealogy of rhythm as an analytic framework and compositional device in 20th century visual art.

1 Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October 1 (1976): 51–64.
2 Luce Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” Signs 6, no. 1 (1980): 71, 79.

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024