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PLUMBUM – SPECULUM / Elisabeth von Samsonow

The alchemy and aesthetics of reflecting and absorptive surfaces. On Eva Schlegel’s installation at the Secession.

The world has a certain age of which we have no idea. The Greeks therefore invented a deity who was meant to be as old as the world. From then on, there existed the title “The Ancient of the Days,” intended to be understood as an honor. It was held by Chronos and by Demogorgon and then by the Christian god, to whom this title is respectfully attributed in a text by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In the Genealogies of the Gods by Giovanni Boccaccio (famous as the author of The Decameron), Demogorgon is named as the main god of the Arcadians who spent his life inside the Earth. Originally, presumably based on his knowledge of the composition and life of the planet, Demogorgon is said to have taught the Arcadians how to cultivate the land, due to which he is sometimes shown with a sickle or scythe. In Latin, this god of the Arcadians or Master of the Golden Age is known as Saturn. In the form of Saturn, he lost the older, earth-related meaning and increasingly became the planet whose orbit formed the outermost boundary of the solar system as it was known at the time. What he retained was the connection with time, more specifically with drawn-out time, with tedium, with time as an endless burden weighing down like lead. His attribute of the sickle or scythe recalled not the Golden Age but the “Grim Reaper.” Since then, the meaning of Saturn and of the metal associated with him, lead, has been highly ambivalent. Alchemy, as it blossomed in the Middle Ages, saw Saturn / lead as an active being that synchronized the organs of the earth that were believed to make metals “grow” and certain corresponding organs and fluids in the human body. Lead from the Earth and from the leaden planet corresponded in the human body to the substance that was also somehow “poisonous” (in the German double meaning of the word “giftig“ as “hazardous” and “to be understood as a gift”), i.e. black bile.

This black bile was the cause of what Marsilio Ficino described, in lengthy texts that were widely read at the end of the Quattrocento, as the “Saturnine disposition”, i.e. melancholy (which means literally “black bile”). At the Warburg Institute, Klibansky wrote the comprehensive book on this topic, explaining the extent to which precisely this disposition to black bile is the founding temperament of European culture. Ficino assigned to melancholy the tendency to brood, but also the gift of insight and philosophy; in any case, it is the disposition (humorist pathologists would say: complexion), that arises from cultured life, out of saturnine tedium. In this sense, Heidegger considered tedium to be the true ontological base state, the state of existence that is present when existence as such is modified and altered by the onrush of events and necessities. The melancholy deriving from tedium is due to the poison, the culture-generating gift of Saturn that opens up the realm of philosophy and art. In a famous engraving, Dürer rendered the muse as a “depressed angel” as a Saturnine figure, her heavy head resting on her hand, luxuriating in boredom. If the god of lead and tedium stood at the beginning of the stories whose ambitious aim was to capture a world that seemed to drag on and on, he is also on hand when cultures make the transition to civilization. He commands memory, citing the inscrutable origins of time, which also refers to the fate of possessing a body that is derived from the earth’s bodily quality. For the body, protracted, tedious time (as the historical genesis of the earth) signifies a degree of density that is symbolically and physiologically expressed in the viscosity of black bile.

In the secondary context of our bodies, the Saturnine / leaden echoes the age of the greater earthly body. This echo then forms the basis for the speculative gift, speculation (as the Great Act of Seeing): cosmological, metaphysical, tragic, existentialist, critical, skeptical, and even romantic visions are “fired” by black bile.