1 Voodoojora

Essay Bel 120

A genealogy of the contemporary sublime: Kelley to Tuymans

As of the early 1980s, many a campus beyond Paris was acquainting students with the concept of the sublime. Emerging from CalArts, the trans-media arts institute outside Los Angeles, Mike Kelley used the term as the title of a Longinus-citing performance in 1984. Transgressive performances, erudite texts, crude drawings, sculptural installations and post-punk amplified noise all came together in the work of this bricoleur-provocateur, with his focus on the truths that might be exposed via base materials, ranging from recycled soft toys to excrement. Kelley’s imaginative world turned around working-class life in his hometown of Detroit, and as such his sublime was very much an affair of the street, of youth culture. The limit point to articulate thought did not come from mountains and oceans. ‘For me,’ Kelley reflected in an interview,

psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness. That’s my starting point of the sublime.35

Kelley went on to suggest that such a sublime could be produced by ‘image clash, image resonance, things like that’.36 An instance would be his Silver Ball 1994 (fig.13), a big unshapely scrunch-up of cooking foil and chicken wire suspended above a gallery floor and attended by a sound system and baskets of plastic fruit. The UFO-esque anomaly is desperate to be ‘weird’, is desperate to be worshipped, is desperate, period; and in this has a kind of sad integrity. Such a bathetic endpoint of meaning locates the sublime once again in adolescence with its familiar terrains of science fiction, drug-taking and intensive, abrasive noise. Another artist emerging from the 1980s LA scene, Fred Tomaselli, offered a comparable interpretation: ‘In my life I have only ever been able to access the sublime chemically ... It’s a major subject in the history of art and it also happens to be the major component around drugs.’37 Tomaselli’s paintings, however – literally pill-studded variations on the final, ‘Beyond the Infinite’ sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey – are defiantly, exultantly (and self-consciously) whimsical in their subscription to mind-alteration.

They offer a wilfully naive descant on a scene in which bathos and shamefulness had come to the fore. The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday of the grunge movement in rock and of its art world equivalent, the vogue for ‘the abject’. Exhibitions dealing in blood, shit or viscera would habitually reference the Paris-based theorist Julia Kristeva and her 1982 book Powers of Horror. Kristeva took her cue (as to a large extent did Kelley) from Freud and his notion of the unheimlich or uncanny: the object which disturbs because it brings an individual into contact with matters that he or she has repressed. The overall shape of such a pattern of repression, for Kristeva, was an individual’s ‘symbolic order’, the foundation of their own self-definition – the abject being whatever it excluded. Kristeva found feminist and indeed more general political implications in this formula, which readily fell in line with the notion of the sublime as a limit to the comprehensible. It equally spoke to would-be avantgardists who sensed that their tradition had arrived at a defensive, dejected, historical low ebb.

Between Lyotard’s visually unspecified call-to-disorder and Kristeva’s backhanded picturesque of the repellent, between mass society’s ever-latent groundswells of spiritual dissatisfaction and articulate artists such as Kelley and Tomaselli who were finding new ways to emblematise them, there was every reason why ‘the sublime’ should prove a very convenient curatorial hook for a growing number of exhibitions from the early 1990s onwards, the tag being archly extended in many an ingenious direction. For all the thinkers I have just named, whatever was sublime must inevitably offend against taste – against, that is, received ideas of aesthetic decorum and discursive etiquette. And yet such exhibitions spawned their own loosely defined taste zone, proposing what might be an appropriate sensibility, what type of image-stock to use.

The catalogue illustrations to The Sublime Void, a show held in Antwerp in 1993, return repeatedly to emptied vessels (for example Rachel Whiteread’s object casts, or the dangling coats of Juan Muñoz ) and to forlorn, anomalous vestiges (Robert Gober body parts, Thomas Schütte putty figurines). The window-picture that is veiled or blurry (as in the paintings of Gerhard Richter) and the blocked-off receding road (as in the photos of Willie Doherty) would be co-opted in other exhibitions for the same triste symbolism of spiritual disappointment – often associated, as I indicated above, with the theologians’ via negativa. Back in Barnett Newman’s day, the sublime had still bristled with hunky machismo: no longer. It was now reassigned to keep company with ‘the trace’, that wistful sigh of the intellect so cherished by poststructuralist theorists.

The sheer scale makes the contemplation of this painting almost impossible: a vast canvas representing an absolute nothingness. Luc Tuymans chose the subject of still life precisely because it was utterly unremarkable; a generic ‘brand’ of ‘object’ rendered to immense scale; it is banality expanded to the extreme. The simplicity of Luc Tuymans’s composition alludes to a pure and uninterrupted world order; the ephemeral light, with which the canvas seems to glow, places it as an epic masterpiece of metaphysical and spiritual contemplation. In response to unimaginable horror, Luc Tuymans offers the sublime. A gaping magnitude of impotency, which neither words nor paintings could ever express.39

Tuymans himself positions his values on another level:

I’m not so much interested in the spiritual aspects of culture – ‘beauty’ or poetic descriptions of beauty don’t seem real enough for me. Reality is actually far more important than any form of spirituality. Realism. It’s much more interesting to crawl from underneath to the so-called top.40

To this author, both statements seem deeply misleading. Tuymans’s paintings gained their reputation owing to the fact that they are, in a melancholic fashion, extremely beautiful. Like the Belgian Symbolists of an earlier era – Fernand Khnopff, Léon Spilliaert – he revels in the poetry of cold, November-afternoon pastel tones and seems incapable of delivering an inelegant brushmark, even on the rare occasions when he tries. A fine judgment about how far to diminish and distance his motifs has been crucial to Tuymans in his attempts to conjure a frisson of menace from such exquisiteness. It deserted him as he worked up his response to the loud public agenda of 9/11: the result is neither ‘extreme’ nor ‘epic’, merely vapid and inert. In this case the vogue for the sublime delivered not merely inflated verbiage, but pretentious art.


Luc Tuymans

Still Life 2002

© Luc Tuymans, 2002

Image courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London

Luc Tuymans

Still Life 2002

Oil on canvas

3470 x 5000 mm

© Luc Tuymans, 2002

Image courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London

The doyen of such dejection was the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, whose work gained an international profile during the 1990s. He described his canvases, which have usually been modest in scale, as outcomes of a trace-on-trace process – of analysing and redrawing a photographic image until it was ‘entirely dead’ and then recreating it in paint.38 The ostensible content of the image would itself often be modest – some fraction of a human figure, some corner of a room. The title (and accompanying exegesis) might then propose that this small tamped down trace derived from something ungovernably large and hideous – the Holocaust, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo or the events of 9/11, as in the case of Still Life 2002 (fig.14), an unusually large painting of a fruit bowl. An interpretive text for Still Life issued by the Saatchi Gallery epitomises the tone of ‘the disappointed sublime’, as Simon Morley has termed this style in ‘artspeak’:

An electric bell is a mechanical bell that functions by means of an electromagnet. When an electric current is applied, it produces a repetitive buzzing or clanging sound. Electric bells have been widely used at railroad crossings, in telephones, fire and burglar alarms, as school bells, doorbells, and alarms in industrial plants, since the late 1800s, but they are now being widely replaced with electronic sounders. It consists of coils of insulated wire wound round iron rods. When an electric current flows through the coils, the rods became magnetic and attract a piece of iron attached to a clapper. The clapper hits the bell and makes it ring.


Interrupter bells[edit]

How it works[edit]

The most widely used form is the interrupter bell, which produces a continuous sound when current is applied. See animation, above. The bell or gong(B), which is often in the shape of a cup or half-sphere, is struck by a spring-loaded arm (A) with a metal ball on the end called a clapper, actuated by an electromagnet(E). In its rest position the clapper is held away from the bell a short distance by its springy arm. When an electric current is enabled to pass through the winding of the electromagnet (via a closing of the switch (K) i.e. pressing the door bell) it creates a magnetic field that attracts the iron arm of the clapper, pulling it over to give the bell a tap. This opens a pair of electrical contacts(T) attached to the clapper arm, interrupting the current to the electromagnet. The magnetic field of the electromagnet collapses, and the clapper springs away from the bell. This closes the contacts again, allowing the current to flow to the electromagnet again, so the magnet pulls the clapper over to strike the bell again. This cycle repeats rapidly, many times per second, resulting in a continuous ringing.

The tone of the sound generated depends on the shape and size of the bell or gong resonator. Where several bells are installed together, they may be given distinctive rings by using different size or shapes of gong, even though the strike mechanisms are identical.

Another type, the single-stroke bell, has no interrupting contacts. The hammer strikes the gong once each time the circuit is closed. These are used to signal brief notifications, such as a shop door opening for a customer, rather than continuous warnings.


Main article: Buzzer

An electric buzzer uses a similar mechanism to an interrupter bell, but without the resonant bell. They are quieter than bells, but adequate for a warning tone over a small distance, such as across a desktop.

A buzzer or beeper is an audio signalling device, which may be mechanical, electromechanical, or piezoelectric. Typical uses of buzzers and beepers include alarm devices, timers and confirmation of user input such as a mouse click or keystroke.

With the development of low cost electronics from the 1970s onwards, most buzzers have now been replaced by electronic 'sounders'. These replace the electromechanical striker of a bell with an electronic oscillator and a loudspeaker, often a piezoelectric transducer.

Single-stroke bells[edit]

The first commercial electric bells were used for railway signalling, between signal boxes. Complex bell codes were used to indicate the types of train passing between signal boxes, and the destinations to which they should be routed.

These were single-stroke bells: applying current to an electromagnet pulled the bell's clapper against the bell or gong and gave one chime. The bell did not ring continuously, but only with a single ring, until current was applied again. To sustain the tone, these bells were usually much larger than are used today with interrupter bells. Bells, gongs and spiral chimes could all be used, giving a distinct tone for each instrument.

A simple development of the single-stroke bell was the sprung bell. This had previously been used, mechanically actuated, for servant-call bells in large houses. Instead of working a clapper, the electromagnet shook the whole bell, which was mounted on a flexible spiral spring. The inertia of the heavy bell on the light spring would continue ringing for some seconds after the stroke. Although the sound would rapidly die away, the visible trembling of the bell could indicate which bell had been rung, amongst a panel of several.


Where a bell is powered by AC a different design, the polarised bell, may be used. These have an armature containing a permanent magnet, so that this is alternately attracted and repelled by each half-phase and different polarity of the supply. In practice, the armature is arranged symmetrically with two poles of opposite polarity facing each end of the coil, so that each may be attracted in turn. No contact breaker is required, so the bells are reliable for long service. For this reason they were widely used for telephone bells.[1]

Fire alarms[edit]

Fire alarm bells are divided into two categories: vibrating, and single-stroke. On a vibrating bell, the bell will ring continuously until the power is cut off. When power is supplied to a single-stroke bell, the bell will ring once and then stop. It will not ring again until power is turned off and on again. These were frequently used with coded pull stations.

Power sources[edit]

Electric bells are typically designed to operate on low voltages of from 10 to 24 V AC or DC. Before widespread distribution of electric power, bells were necessarily powered by batteries, either wet-cell or dry-cell type.[2] Bells used in early telephone systems derived current by a magneto generator cranked by the subscriber. In residential applications, a small bell-ringing transformer is usually used to power the doorbell circuit. So that bell circuits can be made with low-cost wiring methods, bell signal circuits are limited in voltage and power rating.[3] Bells for industrial purposes may operate on other, higher, AC or DC voltages to match plant voltages or available standby battery systems.[4]


The interrupter bell evolved from various oscillating electromechanical mechanisms which were devised following the invention of the electromagnet by William Sturgeon in 1823.[5] One of the first was the oscillating electric wire invented by James Marsh in 1824.[6][5] This consisted of a wire pendulum dipping into a mercury trough, suspended between the poles of an electromagnet. When current was passed through the wire, the force of the magnet made the wire swing sideways, out of the mercury, which broke the current to the magnet, so the wire fell back. The modern electric bell mechanism had its origin in vibrating "contact breaker" or interrupter mechanisms devised to break the primary current in induction coils.[5] Vibrating "hammer" interrupters were invented by Johann Philipp Wagner (1839) and Christian Ernst Neeff (1847), and was developed into a buzzer by Froment (1847).[5][6] John Mirand around 1850 added a clapper and gong to make the standard electric bell[5][6] for use as a telegraph sounder. Other types were invented around that time by Siemens and Halske and by Lippens.[5] The polarized (permanent magnet) bell used in telephones, which appeared about 1860,[6] had its beginning in the polarized relay and telegraph developed by Werner Siemens around 1850.[6]

See also[edit]


How an interrupter-type electric bell works.
Single-stroke bell for railway signalling
Polarised bell, circa 1903
  1. ^Kennedy, Rankin (1902). "Chapter IV: Telephones; Polarised Bell". The Book of Electrical Installations. Vol III (Unknown - the 'lamp' cover ed.). Caxton. pp. 126–127. 
  2. ^Frederick Charles Allsop. Practical electric bell fitting: a treatise on the fitting-up and maintenance of electric bells and all the necessary apparatus. E. & F. N. Spon. 1890. pp. 30-32
  3. ^Terrel Croft, Wilford Summers (ed), American Electrician's Handbook Eleventh Edition, Mc Graw Hill, 1987 ISBN 0-07-013932-6, sections 9.451 through 9.462
  4. ^"Archived copy"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2011-04-29.  retrieved 2011 April 29 Bell manufacturer cut sheet showing 24 V AC/DC, 120/240 V AC/DC bells
  5. ^ abcdefThompson, Sylvanus P. (1891). The Electromagnet and Electromagnetic Mechanism. London: E. and F. N. Spon. pp. 318–319. 
  6. ^ abcdeShepardson, George Defreese (1917). Telephone Apparatus: An Introduction to the Development and Theory. New York: D. Appleton and Co. pp. 315–316. 

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *