I. Dan Davis does not believe in fairy tales: for him, there never was no once upon a time. Instead, such time is a principle internal to society, appearing when society is considered as if drowning. From such a perspective, humans—almost entirely absent in Davis’ recent work–begin to look decidedly less human, like creatures suspended in the down below or high above. Are they in hell? Are they in heaven? To answer the question might be to miss the point. For Davis is painting neither hell nor heaven, but society’s dissolution into these realms: its drown-ing rather than its being drown-ed. Kind of dark, one might say. But there is a peculiar consolation to it: as long as you are drowning, anything can happen. The game is only over once you’ve drowned.
Consider, for example, The Troubled Waters of Bethesda. The title refers to a spring-fed pool in ancient Jerusalem, whose waters were supposed to possess healing powers. An angel moved or troubled the waters at certain times, thus healing the sick. Davis takes on this tradition, and paints himself into the crack of the word “troubled”: under a bloody, dripping sky, we are invited to step into the mysterious waters, but it is not entirely clear what will result from this descent (which is also an ascent, given that one steps up, in the bottom right corner of the painting, only to step down again into the pool). As is often the case in Davis’ work, there are no people here. The plant on the left hand-side looks like it’s not to be trusted, like the infamous tree of life in the garden of Eden, the one from which we weren’t allowed to eat. The risk is perhaps not so much that we would eat of Davis’ plant (this is not a plant, after all, just like the pipe was not a pipe), but that the plant might eat us. There is a trouble that runs deeper here, a voraciousness that swallows up, like the waters in the painting, everything that is human, in the name of civilization.
II. Davis’ painting thus takes place on the fine line between heaven and hell, which might simply be the space of what is real. Crammed in between the promise of salvation and the risk of the apocalypse lies the human condition: neither up nor down, but facing the dissolution of its reality into these projections. But where do the projections come from? Davis suggests they take root in What We Call Civilization—a phrase that includes not just religion, but also architecture, science, the economy, and art. Sigmund Freud writes somewhere that even science is marked by a primitive belief, however minimal, that we are omnipotent, that we will overcome our humanity (read: our mortality) through our inventions. It’s from this view on the high above that arises our experience of drowning. Civilization is An Antenna To Heaven, plunging us head over heels into the abyss.
No wonder then that in Davis’ world, very little, almost nothing is left of “we” as we know us. Un-peopled, our constructions haunt us as the foundations of our obsession with the high above and the down below, fairy tales that makes us forget about the excessive here and now. On and On captures this reflection to great effect: reflected, civilization’s calculus leads to “hell.” It becomes troubled, Hell(ed). But hell is high up, too, in this painting, thus coming close to “heaven.” To be drowning thus comes close to becoming-saved—with Davis situating us somewhere in the in-between, in the closeness that marks the minimal difference between heaven and hell. For Davis, there is thus neither heaven nor hell, only the excessive potentiality of the present. It is perhaps this insight that stands at the end (for now) of his reflections, of the multiple reflections that make up his paintings and occupy the figures in it—from this insight, too, that his recent attention to the extraordinary ordinary in Chromium/Foliage and Hiding in the Light emerges.
Screenshot from Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990):
References: Arne De Boever, Charles Danby, and Joanne Lee. The Drowning World: Dan Davis, Michelle McKeown, Terry Shave. Stoke on Trent: Airspacepublications, 2010; Dan Davis, The Troubled Waters of Bethesda, oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cm, 2010; Dan Davis, On and On, oil on canvas, 140 x 170 cm, 2009.