Nick Whittle Artist


The Journey

To Be A Man

To Fly and To Root

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Whittle's Graphic Work

Nick Whittle's Graphic Prints and Poetry

Caliban's Metamorphosis

Caliban's Metamorphosis

In Plato’s “Symposium”, there is a tale from the dawn of time of powerful beings with four arms and legs and two faces. To decimate the strength of these creatures - and to punish them for challenging the Gods - Zeus cut them in half. Each half now longed so desperately for the other half, that they began to die. In compassion, Zeus then gave them genitals, thus making it possible for them for a brief moment to be one again.

The following reading of English-Barbadian artist Nick Whittle's work is based on the observation of striking (but unintentional) parallels between Whittle's ideas and basic concepts in Lacan’s theory of the “self” as a social and linguistic construct. The assertion is not, however, that Whittle in any way seeks to illustrate - or consciously exemplifies - Lacan’s theory. The concordance between theory and work simply vouches for the significance of these ideas, from whichever source they may derive.

The ancient tale from Symposium constitutes the point of departure for Lacan, who describes the moment of sexual differentiation within the womb as the first loss in the history of the individual. From being an androgynous whole, it is now reduced and “lacking” something. Likewise, the story accurately describes one of the elementary aspects of Whittle's work: the notion of forfeited wholeness. The essence of the early KISS series appears to be this yearning for regaining unity. Male and female figures reach out for each other and eventually merge in blissful lovemaking - a parable on healing the fragmented self: reaching outward is reaching inward. That the fundamental division is located within the individual becomes more evident in the TE AMO series, in which the notion of healing is internal, suggested by the singular, meditative figure, rather than external (as suggested by the couple).

After this series, Whittle abandons the quest for wholeness to commence a closer examination of the substance behind concepts like “identity” and “self”. This investigation, however, turns out to be a Pandora’s box, and Whittle's contemplation gradually leads him to a confrontation with language itself. Henceforth, the work becomes more speculative, less utopian. Duality is now seen as a principle, rather than as a challenge and the images are always self-portraits - an additional figure only the alter ego of the divided self. In various disguises Whittle, initially, seems to reconnoiter concepts like “self” and “love”; as the sun-crowned Zodiac, he is a fetus in the womb, not yet defined as man or woman (the “undivided” being, in a Lacanian sense). A peculiar ambivalence is conveyed by the paradoxical combination of prenatal images with “epitaphs” like “I lived for art, I lived for love”; the artist is probing into what lies before birth and after death - when is identity established?

As Harlequin, Whittle directs his attention towards the idea of love. Throughout the series, the figure looks increasingly tormented. For, if the “self” is not a stable entity, what, then, can be the meaning of love. In a sense love, as much as it is the only bid for overcoming the lost unity, is also a product of this loss. In the last pieces of the Harlequin series, the diamond pattern from Harlequin’s shirt loosens itself and becomes a grid-like structure in front of the figure. Thereby, the metaphor, which has served as a vehicle for Whittle's self-analysis, dissolves and imprisons the character instead: the tool has become an obstacle. The overall impression is of an individual, whose quest for meaning leads to his disintegration.

Already here, Whittle, indirectly, critiques language as a means of “unraveling” reality. The CHARCOAL series, reflects a consequential disillusion: hollow, mask-like faces are split into two halves, one awake and active, the other blind or buried. This configuration as well as the surrounding darkness, suggests division, paralysis and existential terror. As if in mocking rejection, one face curls up into a shell - the object of investigation has vanished between our hands, folded up and left us with even greater emptiness.

In one of the last images of this sequence , one half of the face, like the mirror-image of an inner-vision, forms a map of Africa, while the mouth and eyes are again in horror. The Africa-image invokes Whittle's upcoming focus on the colonial dialectic in the CALIBAN series. The island is suggested by a coastline with a statue, classical but for its erect penis, placed on the shore: the European legacy at yet another glorious moment of expansion - the penis being a metaphor for the penetration of new territory. In the second image, the statue’s face is unmistakably Whittle's, thus identifying him with the colonizers, while he undergoes a transformation in the third image. Here the penis is coupled with a shell (symbolizing the female and the island - the “receiving” modality) - the colonizer merges with the colonized, Europe with the Caribbean. In the last image, the female finally absorbs the male genitals and the skin colour of the figure is darkened: Whittle has parted with his British heritage and become a cultural hermaphrodite. The title of the last image “Full Fathom Five” derives from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ in which the archetypal native Caliban - Whittle's chosen pseudonym, and a common metaphor for the plight of the colonized - originates. Whittle, the Englishmen interestingly identifies with Caliban rather than with Prospero (the colonized, and thereby, in respect of his own situation, implies and inversion of Shakespeare’s relation between colonizer and colonized. This can be interpreted both as solidarity with the oppressed and as an identification of himself as such.

The Caliban-figure becomes the hermaphrodite in the following series - where Whittle addresses the complex nature of self inquiry, rather than the nature of “self”. The hermaphrodite is now accompanied by the face of an additional figure. One reaches out for the other, like the divided self seeking its other half, while an invisible shield seems to prevent another hand from reaching either of the figures: we can neither reach our “self’ from within, nor from without, nor can we, for that matter reach beyond our insular selves for which the island can also be a metaphor. Later in the series, the lonely face gazing at the moonlit ocean is met by his own defiant reflection, but fails to penetrate the surface and the underlying substance: his quest for “self” still produces only echoes, no answers.. Whittle here, once again, corresponds with Lacan, who equates self-comprehension with self-alienation in his description of the mirror stage (which is defined as the moment, when the child first sees itself in a mirror and learns to understand itself through an external image). In Lacan, this stage precedes the acquisition of language.

Similarly, Whittle's increasing concern with language, finally becomes the focal point in the MAP-series. By covering certain figures, like the body, the penis and the monkey-pot, with excerpts of maps, Whittle suggests, that we have no other means for grasping our own identity but those with which we identify our surroundings (as exemplified by the map). But our surroundings are defined as such due to their difference from us. Like a set of binoculars , language can give us an impression of a distant object, but it does not bring us any closer to it. Whittle's association of the colonial (the literal “mapping-process”) with the libidinal should not be overlooked. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the life-drive can assume the character of aggression, and the death-drive constitutes a yearning for release of tension, which is obtained - temporarily - in the sexual act. In Whittle's work, therefore the following axis appears: life / colonization / sexuality / death. The double symbolic value of the maps (referring to both the colonial project and to language) then creates a further link between language and death, a thought-provoking association considering that Whittle persistently has stressed the suffocating limitations of language. So far, the emphasis in the present analysis of Whittle's work has been on its affinity with Lacan’s theory of the self as linguistic construct. Satre expressed a related idea by defining “identity” as the product of a reciprocal act of recognition: we define ourselves through the gaze of the other. This particular idea, which is a prerequisite for the deconstruction of existing power-structures, was of fundamental importance for the colonial emancipation-discourse which evolved in the wake of existentialism. In this discourse, the importance of Caliban (named by the colonizers and forced into a dialogue in their language) is his potential insurgence against this structure: only for as long as he accepts the name (identity) given to him by his oppressors can they uphold their power over him. The idea, that Caliban, is not interminably destined for subjugation, but is attributed the ability to craft his own identity, may be the determining factor in Whittle's fascination with his figure, as an optimistic alternative to the notion of the individual’s inescapable contingency. Not surprisingly, Whittle’s most recent work indicates a position, which is fundamentally affirmative and existentialist. His investigation has revealed, that concepts like self and identity resist penetration. It may, however, not only be language, but our intellectual faculties, which prevent us from getting behind the appearance of things. Our perceptive apparatus, in the meantime, is less prohibitive: in Whittle's latest works the didactic analytical approach is replaced with a more sensuous open-ended orientation - a change which almost equals a disarmament. Although the quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (“O the dark wind of his breast out of whorled shell”) with its connotations of danger and androgynous sexuality resonates with Whittle's earlier work, the phallic figures are no longer symbols of aggressive penetration but lyrical collages. The image of open space has gained new significance and marks a liberating antithesis to the restrictive duality. Although storms are approaching, a sublime sense of harmony and symbiosis between the individual and the universe prevails. Perhaps this melancholic but determined receptiveness echoes Rilke’s idea of an “open” consciousness: the resolution to open our senses in order to embrace life in its totality, and no longer lament the duality, which pervades all aspects of our existence. While the KISS-series illustrated notions of hope and thereby made reference to a reality outside of the picture, the subsequent works, in a sense, operated within their own reality - addressing the symbolic by use of the symbolic. With the latest works, purpose and execution have merged. Even if increasingly hermetic, Whittle's latest works do not only express an affirmative stance, they manifest it.

Therese Hadchity

First published in Artheme No. 4, September 1999.