Aris Kalaizis

The Mystery of the Self as an Optical Illusion

In anoth­er cri­tique, psy­cho­ana­lyst Fotini Ladaki exam­ines Kalaizis’s paint­ing Kairos. Using this pic­ture, the author explores the dif­fer­ent sorts of com­pet­i­tion between human per­cep­tions in rela­tion to what we gen­er­ally call reality

Aris Kalaizis | Kairos | Oil on canvas| 39 x 71 in | 2017
Aris Kalaizis | Kairos | Oil on canvas| 39 x 71 in | 2017

“I have a dis­ease; I see language.”
(Roland Barthes)

“I know that I know nothing.”

In Kala­izis’ paint­ing Kairos, we see a man sit­ting oppos­ite him­self from both his left side and his right. In the reflec­tion of the two fig­ures in the back­ground, one of the heads is covered with a veil while the oth­er is obscured by shad­ow. Fix­ing each oth­er with their gaze, they both (the ego and the self) appear to be launch­ing an attack or a com­pet­ing, crit­ic­al look at each other. 

What’s this par­agone, this con­test all about? Surely the "Leipzig School" artist is invit­ing us to attend this self-reflect­ive spec­tacle com­par­able to a theatre per­form­ance? This self-reflex­ive endeav­our seems to show everything that’s import­ant and to con­ceal everything that isn’t. But who are view­ers sup­posed to relate to?

Hyper­meta­phor for human illusion

Are they expec­ted to ima­gine them­selves tak­ing the place of the painting’s sub­jects? Is this image a hyper­meta­phor for human illu­sion, an optic­al illu­sion, which accord­ing to Jacques Lacan is an import­ant part of painting?

The term ‘par­agone’ (stem­ming from the Itali­an par­agone delle arti) is used in art his­tory to denote the com­pet­i­tion for superi­or­ity among the arts, espe­cially between paint­ing and sculp­ture. This was a debate which primar­ily took place in the Renais­sance and the early Baroque. But what is the com­pet­i­tion referred to in Aris Kalaizis’s painting?

Hans Holbein t.Y. | The Ambassadors | 1533
Hans Holbein t.Y. | The Ambassadors | 1533

Could it con­cern inquis­it­ive­ness and the com­pet­i­tion between eye and gaze? 

Accord­ing to many philo­soph­ers and psy­cho­ana­lysts, des­pite both revolving around see­ing, being seen and inquis­it­ive­ness (the scop­ic instinct), the eye and the gaze are two sep­ar­ate entities. 

The sub­ject of lan­guage is not uni­form but divided. In the field of see­ing, the divi­sion of the sub­ject takes place in two ways: see­ing based on the eye, and see­ing based on the gaze. Could the title Kairos be trans­lated with a look or a blink of the eye, i.e. a moment? 

The Ambas­sad­ors, a paint­ing by Hans Hol­bein, is anoth­er prime example of the dis­tinc­tion between eye and gaze as well as the phe­nomen­on of ana­morphoses – dis­tor­ted images which can only be under­stood with the aid of a mir­ror or lens. 

Back in 1709, George Berke­ley wrote in his the­ory of vis­ion eat per­cipi est – “to be is to be per­ceived”. For him, being exis­ted through being perceived.

Lacan also addressed the eye and the gaze in his XI Sem­in­ar, includ­ing with respect to paint­ing and more gen­er­ally the image/​tableau. Accord­ing to Lacan, we are beings being watched in the per­form­ance of the world. Although see­ing from a single point, we are looked at from all sides.

Then again, the gaze may also have some­thing to do with an evil gaze. Accord­ing to Sartre, it pro­duces shame in the sub­ject being looked at. Lacan attrib­utes the gaze to the out­ward appear­ance and con­cen­trates see­ing and the eye on geo­met­ric see­ing. He thus attrib­utes pre-exist­ence to the gaze.

The func­tion of the pic­ture – in rela­tion to the per­son to whom the paint­er, lit­er­ally, offers his pic­ture to be seen – has a rela­tion with the gaze. This rela­tion is not, as it might at first seem, that of being a trap for the gaze. It might be thought that, like the act­or, the paint­er wishes to be looked at. I do not think so. I think there is a rela­tion with the gaze of the spec­tat­or, but that it is more complex. 

The paint­er gives some­thing to the per­son who must stand in front of his paint­ing which … might be summed up thus – You want to see? Well, take a look at this! He gives some­thing for the eye to feed on, but he invites the per­son to whom this pic­ture is presen­ted to lay down his gaze there as one lays down one’s weapons. 

There is a cer­tain illegible­ness for the eye, for what is seen remains mysterious

From the out­set, we see, in the dia­lectic of the eye and the gaze, that there is no coin­cid­ence, but, on the con­trary, a lure. … Con­versely, what I look at is nev­er what I wish to see. And the rela­tion that I men­tioned earli­er, between the paint­er and the spec­tat­or, is a play, a play of trompe‑l’oeil…. [W]hat was at issue was cer­tainly deceiv­ing the eye.” 

Accord­ing to this, the con­test appears to be won by Kalaizis’s paint­ing. The gaze tri­umphs over the eye by draw­ing view­ers into an optic­al illu­sion. Yet this optic­al illu­sion also seems to be sup­por­ted by the title Kairos. It ini­tially raises sev­er­al ques­tion marks, for the gaze trig­gers com­pletely dif­fer­ent asso­ci­ations. Titles such as The Mys­tery of the Self, The Hid­den Self or I See Myself seem equally possible.

The absence of a con­stant ego

At first, there is a cer­tain illegible­ness for the eye, for what is seen remains mys­ter­i­ous. But is it pos­sible that illegible­ness is the demiurge’s inten­tion? Is Aris Kala­izis offer­ing us an optic­al illu­sion, a trompe l’oeil? If so, we ought to exam­ine the concept of the self – and wheth­er self-exam­in­a­tion is some­times sub­ject to a cer­tain optic­al illu­sion. After all, the self does not offer abso­lute unity, since the sub­ject of lan­guage is divided and self-contained.

The void of being is the sub­ject of the chor­us “Not to be born is far the best scen­ario” in Oed­ipus at Colo­nus by Sophocles. This void was expressed dif­fer­ently by Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.” 
Freud spoke of the ego not being mas­ter in its own house, which was ruled by the uncon­scious, call­ing into ques­tion the absence of a con­stant ego. 

In his late note­books, Niet­z­sche also wrote about the “sub­ject as vari­ety” and as a “ren­dez­vous of per­sons”. For the hal­lu­cin­ated cer­tainty of an ego con­sti­tuted by the appear­ance of the body image or a name assigned to it does not give rise to an exist­en­tial cer­tainty of the exist­ence of a talk­ing subject. 
One cre­ates a semb­lance, a fic­tion, a void that has to be filled again and again. Lacan com­pared this dis­unity of the sub­ject with the corps mor­celé (frag­men­ted body).

What Hegel calls the ‘night of the world’ (the phant­asmagor­ic­al, pre-sym­bol­ic domain of par­tial drives) is an undeni­able com­pon­ent of the subject’s most rad­ic­al self-exper­i­ence, exem­pli­fied, among oth­ers, by Hieronymus Bosch’s cel­eb­rated paintings.

Not for noth­ing did Schelling assert nor­mal reas­on to be a “reg­u­lated madness”. 
The con­stant trans­form­a­tions of our con­scious­ness also make a con­stant iden­tity and unity appear to be fic­tion. This is why Beckett’s nov­el The Unnam­able served as a hyper­meta­phor for the fic­tion­al iden­tity of the talk­ing subject. 

Schelling asserts nor­mal reas­on to be a “reg­u­lated madness”

On a myth­o­lo­gic­al level, ‘the hid­den ego’, which can be trans­lated in the lan­guage of psy­cho­ana­lys­is with the uncon­scious, was thought of as a Tro­jan Horse secretly enter­ing and attack­ing us every day in order to seize and occupy our sup­posedly unac­cept­able Troy (the con­scious) without the Tro­jans being able to res­ist in time.

The Tro­jan Horse is of course also the sym­bol of cun­ning. How­ever, this cun­ning does not imply deceit or malice, but is regarded as the highest form of clev­erness, as Harro von Sen­ger reports in his book Die Kunst der List (‘The Art of Cun­ning’). He regards the west­ern world of our time as blind to cun­ning since the term has such neg­at­ive con­nota­tions. Cun­ning also exis­ted in ancient Greece, as the inven­tion of the Tro­jan Horse proves.

Is it per­haps dif­fer­ent from how we see it? There is in fact one world but many real­it­ies. The real­ity we see depends not least on the key­hole we look through. The com­plex world can be seen through dif­fer­ent glasses. 
The ego and the self are there­fore optic­al illu­sions. If we want to look them straight in the eye, we will dis­cov­er the strange­ness that laughs in our face and sim­ul­tan­eously jeers at us.

One world – many realities

One might just as well also pur­sue the nature of the sig­ni­fi­er kairos. Extract­ing from it the mean­ing of the favour­able moment, we are again con­fron­ted with the sig­ni­fi­er ‘blink of the eye’ – i.e. moment – and the par­agone between eye and gaze dealt with above. 

Return­ing to the word kairos, we know it is not identic­al to chro­nos, which refers to the meas­ur­ab­il­ity of time. In Greek myth­o­logy, Kairos (often spelled ‘Caer­us’ in Eng­lish) was the per­son­i­fied god of the favour­able moment, oppor­tun­ity, the timely decision. Miss­ing it leads to adverse con­sequences and pos­sibly even insur­mount­able losses. By the way, Kairos did not ori­gin­ate in Olympi­an gene­a­logy. He was only placed on Mount Olym­pus along­side Her­mes (the swift mes­sen­ger of the gods), Tyche and Nemes­is as the young­est son of Zeus by Lysip­pos, the court sculptor of Alex­an­der the Great. 

Miss­ing it leads to adverse con­sequences and pos­sibly even insur­mount­able losses

In Wiki­pe­dia, a dia­logue in poetry is repro­duced between the observ­er and Kairos, which was writ­ten as an epi­gram by Posidip­pus of Pella. The main char­ac­ter­ist­ics ascribed to Kairos are walk­ing on tip­toe, being as swift as the wind, hav­ing a single lock of hair on his fore­head, being sharp­er than a razor, and hav­ing no hair on the back of his head. At the end of this epi­gram, the fol­low­ing ques­tion is asked:

Why did the artist fash­ion you? 
For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson. 

Is Kairos him­self now the product of the artist? Or do his char­ac­ter­ist­ics lis­ted imply some­thing else hitherto only asso­ci­ated with the favour­able moment of an ima­gin­ary tem­por­al­ity? In psy­cho­logy, too, kairos is also the root of Kairo­phobie, the Ger­man term for the fear of tak­ing decisions in cer­tain social situations. 
Is this one of Aris Kalaizis’s inten­tions in this pic­ture? Any fixed decision is a mis­judge­ment, an illu­sion. A single inter­pret­a­tion spoils each sig­ni­fied meaning.
Beware, my friend, of the sig­ni­fi­er that would take you back to the author­ity of a signified!


Cix­ous Hélene: „The Laugh of the Medusa“: trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, vol. 1, no. 4 (The Uni­ver­sity of Chica­go Press), p. 892. 
Sen­ger von Harro: „Die Kunst der List. p. 41. Trans­lated by the author. C.H. Beck, 2016
Lacan Jacques: The Sem­in­ar of Jacques Lacan – Book XI – The Four Fun­da­ment­al Con­cepts of Psy­cho­ana­lys­is, ed. Jacque-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sherid­an (New York, Lon­don, W. W. Norton & Company)
Zizek Sla­voj: The Tick­lish Sub­ject: The Absent Centre of Polit­ic­al Onto­logy (Lon­don, New York: Verso, 2000), p. 35.
Sophocles, Sev­en Tra­gedies of Sophocles: Oed­ipus at Colo­nus, trans. Robin Bond (Uni­ver­sity of Can­ter­bury, Christ­ch­urch, 2014), lines 1224 – 25. (accessed 12 August 2018)

Trans­la­tion: Chris Abbey

F.L. between many realities ©2018 Fotini Ladaki
F.L. between many realities ©2018 Fotini Ladaki

Fotini Ladaki was born in north­ern Greece in 1952. A psy­cho­ana­lyst after Lacan and Freud, she works in her own prac­tice in Cologne. She is also a freel­ance writer. In addi­tion to sev­er­al essays on art and psy­cho­ana­lys­is, plays, stor­ies and poetry, she has also writ­ten ‘Mor­itz’ by Ger­hard Richter. About the hor­ror of see­ing the exper­i­ence of being. Her oth­er pub­lic­a­tions can be found on

©2018 Fotini Ladaki | Aris Kalaizis

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