Empathic viewing in Mieke Bal’s Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances

A gallery space with several TV screens showing artist films. Benches can be seen in the background.
Mieke Bal, Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances (9 January - 14 February 2020), Leeds Arts University. Photo: Memory Potifa. © the artist.

In his recently published book focusing on the possibility of the future, the Italian philosopher Bifo Berardi writes, ‘the perfect rationality of the abstract computational machine, the inescapability of financial violence, has jeopardised the consciousness and sensibility of the social organism, and frustration has reduced the general ability to feel compassion and to act empathically’.[1] In his introductory chapter Berardi assigns various symptoms of psychosis to contemporary society. Societal schizophrenia, as he calls it, is characterised by painful and chaotic distress, but can also be seen as the vibration that precedes the emergence of a new cognitive rhythm.[2] The installation ‘Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances’ (2019) by the influential cultural theorist, critic and video artist Mieke Bal, restores compassion and empathy and simultaneously performs a genuine appeal for togetherness. It also questions the notion of madness and proposes several approaches that might help to shape its formlessness.

‘Don Quichotte’ is a work of art and cultural-literary analysis, in which form and content are inseparable. It presents and performs a domain of agency where affective engagement with the present can be realised without excising the past from that present. Walter Benjamin’s thesis on images of the past, ‘every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’[3] is explored in ‘Don Quichotte’ as well as in Bal’s previous video works. The quote relates to Bal’s concept of preposterous history, which blocks the process of forgetting and puts what came ‘chronologically first (pre-) as an aftereffect behind (post-) its later recycling’.[4] Bal’s work includes a meta level in a form of critical reflection, a catalogue describing each scene, and essays authored by the artist herself. The artist’s written analysis is arguably an inseparable aspect of the work, one that materialises in every part of it as rigorous explanatory language.

A gallery room filled with TV screens on metal legs and wheels. All are screening different videos. Benches are provided to sit.

Mieke Bal, Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances (9 January – 14 February 2020), Leeds Arts University. Photo: Memory Potifa. © the artist.

Sixteen monitors with eight-minute video loops, a set of thirty-two photographs scattered throughout the gallery, and a cacophony of sounds immerse the viewer in a chaotic and vertiginous state. Although the first impression might be as unintelligible as the present world, with its ‘psychotic deterritorialisation of attention’[5], as Berardi calls it, the installation cares for its participants. The disorderly form inspired by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine suggests that ‘the viewers are making their own narrative out of what is there and their own baggage’[6]. Simultaneously, it is clear what the viewer is supposed to get out of the experience: to empathise with people, whose actions might come across as crazy, but are, in fact, expressions of the effort to process trauma caused by violence. Though the work possesses certain attributes in common with relational art, such as the emphasis on dialogue and collectively elaborated meaning, it differs from it as it shows a clear preference for contemplation rather than interactivity. The work also clearly adopts a position and is political, rather than merely captivating the viewer in the perpetual flux of its wilfully unstable identity.[7]

Traumatising forms of violence include deprivation of one’s freedom, which may be demonstrated through captivity, gender stereotypes, communication difficulties based in differences in educational levels and social backgrounds, or even the effects of today’s extreme form of capitalism on people’s lives. In ‘Don Quichotte’ Bal analyses Don Quixote, a novel in two parts published in 1605 and 1615, known as the first modern novel and proclaimed as the most meaningful book of all time.[8] The novel is madly fictional with an inserted semi-autobiographical novella and is analysed as a reflection of Miguel de Cervantes’ own struggle to process his traumatic experience of five-and-a-half years of slavery in Algeria. The installation reflects the books’ non-linearity, its chaotic structure and the ‘madness’ of its author. Instead of representing the consequences of trauma for a viewer-voyeur, Bal proposes showing and witnessing them as a companion-listener, a form of engagement against the indifference of the world. The semi-autobiographical aspect of the work intensifies this experience. Throughout the exhibition, the subtitles appear variously in multiple languages, reflecting the multilingual nature of this project, and Mieke Bal’s practice more broadly, which is in French, Spanish, English, Dutch and Swedish.

The viewer is provided with the means of concentration necessary for the emancipated navigation of one’s path. Thanks to the provided seating, the installation invites the viewer to perform ‘durational looking’, i.e. looking in detail that enables experiencing and engaging affectively and empathetically with Don Quixote. A floor plan and assigning numbers to the videos does not constrain the viewer’s own agency in navigating the non-hierarchical and non-linear set of episodes; the path works as a suggestion rather than an imposition. More important than the path is the time a viewer spends with each episode. The double emphasis on extended temporality and selected imagery is designed to solicit ‘empathic vision’ based on ‘an integration of cognitive, intellectual, affective engagement with the present world, an engagement that is mindful of the past from which the horrors seem to be so constantly repeated’.[9]

The focus on temporality of looking is linked to the artist’s aim to connect theatre studies and museology. The form of the installation subverts traditional museum displays, where walking and standing govern the temporality of the viewer’s engagement and attention span. By inviting visitors to sit, listen and look, the museum becomes a theatre to which the artist attributes the opportunity, in her words, to ‘sit, relax and concentrate.’ The work encourages stillness and concentration, contrary to the dominant trend highlighted by some theatre studies scholars, towards increasingly popular forms of immersive and participatory theatre that mimic our neo-liberal values and need for entertainment. Rather than proposing standing, walking and various forms of what audience engagement consultants call ‘active participation’, [10] the work advocates for what I would term contemplative proximity. I define this as a state of thoughtful and reflective closeness. Through slowing down the act of viewing, Bal aims to facilitate affective attachment, an intense and activating embodied experience, in the viewers.

In relation to psychotic behaviour as an outcome of a certain form of violence (recognisable in individuals as well as the social organism, according to Berardi’s thesis), ‘Don Quichotte’ suggests concentrated affective attachment and the helpfulness of listening, as a means to counteract the repetition and return of the abuse and violence.  Unlike increasingly popular forms of theatre that somehow mimic what Berardi calls the fragmentation and acceleration of the flow of info-stimulation, thanks to its grounding aspects and rigorous theoretical underpinning, Bal proposes a different approach. Perhaps it is in the contemplative and empathetic attitude encouraged by the work, that we might start to give shape and form to the formlessness of the traumatic state in which our society exists at the present moment.

A view of a gallery filled with TV screens and benches.

Mieke Bal, Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances (9 January – 14 February 2020), Leeds Arts University. Photo: Memory Potifa. © the artist.

Mieke Bal: Don Quichotte: Sad Countenances, Leeds Arts University, Leeds, 9 January 2020 – 14 February 2020.


Jaroslava Tomanova is a writer based in Leeds.

[1] Berardi, F. (2019). Futurability. London: Verso.

[2] Berardi, F. (2019). Futurability. London: Verso.

[3] Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis on the philosophy of history quoted in Bal, M. (2019). Don Quijote: Sad Countenances. Växjö: Trolltrumma. p. 27.

[4] Bal, M. (1999). Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[5] Berardi, F. (2019). Futurability. London: Verso.

[6] Mieke Bal (2019) mentions Francoise Davoine as having an ongoing influence on her films in the exhibition catalogue Don Quijote: Sad Countenance. Växjö: Trolltrumma. p. 27.

[7] ‘Perpetual flux’ and ‘wilfully unstable identity of an artwork’ are terms used by Claire Bishop in her criticism of relational art (Bishop, C., (2004). Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. October Magazine).

[8] Chrisafis, A. (2002). Don Quixote is the world’s best book say the world’s top authors. The Guardian. Accessed online:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/may/08/humanities.books.

[9] Bal, M. (2019). Don Quijote: Sad Countenances. Växjö: Trolltrumma. p. 45.

[10] Brown, A. S., & Ratzkin, R. (2011). Making sense of audience engagement: A critical assessment of efforts by nonprofit arts organizations to engage audiences and visitors in deeper and more impactful arts experiences. San Francisco, CA: The San Francisco Foundation.

Published 28.02.2020 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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