ESSAYS Mousse 71

On Psychotic Images and Other Visual Symptoms

by Aurélien Le Genissel


There is a recurring mechanism in Quentin Tarantino’s latest films, namely a repetition of certain images that is difficult not to interpret as a symptom or visual scheme beyond simple anecdote. Linked to the never-ending discussion about the limits of representation, this mechanism is paradigmatic of the diverse and fruitful techniques artists must employ today in our image-saturated world. The way they re-present traumas delineates the psychological demons of our society and the ways we’ve decided to deal with them.


Taboo and Entertainment: Kapò in the 2000s

Three of Tarantino’s last four movies—Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)—are presented as parodies and/or delirious reinterpretations of dramatic historical events: the Holocaust, slavery, and Sharon Tate’s murder, respectively. Each time the traumatic facts are denied, repressed, and replaced by cathartic and jubilatory scenes where the Jews kill the Nazis, the slaves take revenge on their master, and some strangely providential neighbors thwart Charles Manson’s murderous minions. And all is wrapped in an exponential narrative spiral, always culminating in a paroxysmal scene where the—redeemer?—fire seems to expiate the sins of the world. If a psychotic is a person who “completely loses touch with reality,”1 as Sigmund Freud said, in a denial (Verleugnung) by which he or she builds hallucinatory and/or fetishistic substitutes, I suggest calling Tarantino’s imaginary visions “psychotic images.”

These are a type of scenes we encounter more and more often nowadays, from the pop and surrealistic prosecution of Nazis in the recent Amazon series The Hunters (2020), to the liberating, redemptive last scenes of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), the kindhearted paranoia of Sense8 (2015-2018), or Park Chan-wook’s well-known Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005). There is obviously a strong link between these psychotic images and the happy endings of Hollywood metaphysical narrative—inherited from Aristotelian catharsis—where fictional truth serves as a palliative for disappointing or unbearable reality. In many cases, this system is only a rambling of wishful images in which the artist fantasizes an ideal universe far from the real world, as in the case of Wes Anderson’s hipster aesthetic or the hypnotic psychedelia of Joan Jonas’s videos in Moving Off the Land II, her exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019.

But here the work is more an expression of innocent desire than the representation of any trustworthy reality. Whereas with Tarantino, the images hide a sheriff kind of logic, a Western sort of justice, tightly connected with a neoliberal, biblical conception of revenge, as for example in Beatrix Kiddo’s vindictive quest in Kill Bill (2003-2004).2 This is also the questionable moral background of the reprehensible opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, which offers a simplistic parallel between a Western movie and Nazi persecution. Where is the conscience of Jacques Rivette and his eminent critique of Gillo Pontecorvo’s traveling in Kapò (1960)?3 Where is Claude Lanzmann’s categorical judgment of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993)? “Do we cry watching Schindler’s List? Yes. But tears are a way of enjoying, tears are a pleasure, a catharsis.”4 We don’t even cry watching Inglourious Basterds. We just laugh. We are simply delighted. The images are pure purgative, delusional gratification. We are here in what Philippe Muray called “the reign of positivity,” a notion borrowed from Jean Baudrillard, who had already warned us that “the negative, denying itself, has merely generated a redoubled positivity.”5 Maybe Baudrillard was anticipating the arrival of these “denial” images when he spoke about the “virtual performance of the world which is tantamount to the elimination of all negation, that is, a pure and simple de-negation.”6

We don’t know if we’re already there. But we do know that Tarantino’s images strangely echo a positive, optimistic version of Slavoj Žižek’s definition of 9/11: “shots [that] were repeated ad nauseam” that awaken this “uncanny satisfaction… jouissance at its purest.”7 They are fascinating, sophisticated, highly effective images that bring to mind the Aristotelian concept of thaumaston, an event that simultaneously inspires both repulsion and attraction, like the awkwardly aesthetic, provocative shots of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–) or some attractive-aversive YouTube videos. Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s A Certain Amount of Clarity (2014), for example, presents the reactions of various teenagers watching a viral video of a real murder. Their emotional responses—morbid curiosity, fear, excitement—are exposed without displaying the horrific cause. In his fascinating Videosculptures (2015-2019), the artist works with the material of the screen itself, removing the thin built-in layers of film from its surface and presenting a sort of lens where the spectator can choose to watch, or not, appropriated and edited content produced by the artist. The installation deconstructs the concept of visibility, putting the viewer in an uncomfortable position between a world transformed into an unstoppable flux of images and the necessity of critically questioning it.


Ways of Seeing and Types of Images

As Laura Mulvey perfectly explained in her text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), “Cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking.”8 She was talking about the (now classical) “male gaze” and the central place of the image of woman in movies, but her analysis of how “formal preoccupations reflect the psychological obsessions of the society which produced it” works also in a wider spectrum and a deeper sense for our symptomatic approach. It’s important to remember that, in front of the polished, fetishistic, spectacular, seductive images of some advertisements or conservative movies, “alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting again these obsessions and assumptions.”9

It’s the case, for example, with what we might call the “neurotic” image. Many contemporary artworks play on visual associations, referential multiplicity, or ultra-fast editing to offer a subtler, more indirect approach that is open to accurately representing unspoken, repressed social and historical injustices. This is the case with Sondra Perry, or the most recent works by Ja’Tovia Gary, whose experimental forty-minute, three-channel installation The Giverny Suite (2019) presents a plurality of texts, references, archives, and techniques. This “multi-textured cinematic poem,” as she calls it, associates women on Harlem streets (the artist asks them, “Do you feel safe?”) with images of Claude Monet’s historic garden in Giverny, Nina Simone’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, surveillance footage of drone strikes, Fred Hampton speaking on political education, and so much more visual material. All this is coupled with animations drawn directly onto the film, glitches, cuts, a non-synchronized soundtrack, found footage, and a virtuous use of repetition, rhythm, and montage. The result is a fascinating, poetic, and complete approach to social and historical issues regarding black female identity in the United States that interrogates how structures of power shape our perceptions around race, gender, sexuality, and violence.

There is nothing unequivocal, transparent, or comforting in this way of treating the historical wound; rather, its approach is through the resurfacing of repressed realities, repetitions and symptomatic afterward, legacies and missing links. The neurotic image inherits here the whole nature of a complex visual art that has been nourished by Gilles Deleuze’s “image-crystal,” Jean-Luc Godard’s idea of montage (in particular his Histoire(s) du cinéma [1989-1998]), sampling culture, and more broadly all that “fragmentation, interval, cutting, collage” used by Jacques Rancière in The Future of the Image (2003) to define what he calls the “image-sentence.”10 The neurotic image is precisely the unexpected and incidental one, the one that always comes back to haunt and relieve, with its capacity for revenge and obsession, latency and crisis, memory and desire, repetitions and distortion. Something very close to what Georges Didi-Huberman calls the “survival image.”11 

No surprise, then, to see that the roots of this kind of image lie in an intimate cinema where collective trauma is approached via individual shock. One excellent example would be the use of fragmented ordering, repeated imagery with unusual angles, rapid editing, and disruptive narrative in feminist counter-cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. Su Friedrich’s The Ties That Bind (1984) and Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1978) invented new forms of representing personal memories using family videos and narrating intimate moments. Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) recycles and recopies, frame by frame, Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982) to present a fragmented, paranoiac, schizophrenic horror vision of a feminine figure abused, psychologically and probably physically. And Mike Hoolboom’s masterpiece Tom (2002) is a poetic biographical mash-up of filmmaker Tom Chomont where we discover his personal struggle with HIV and Parkinson’s disease through extensive visual imaginary and incredible conceptual connections.


Beyond the Frame

Facing the impossibility of showing or assimilating the representation of a traumatic event, artists may call upon formal circumvention and surreptitious associations. Techniques like repetition, visual saturation, or disruptive rhythm help to shape different types of images—responses—to this elusive reality. Focusing on secondary aspects and trying to catalog them repetitively can create a sort of “obsessive” image, as in the case of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s project P.O.V. (Point of View) (2016), which presents different versions of the documentary footage captured by Captain Freiherr Harald von Vietinghoff-Riesch, an amateur cameraman and German soldier who filmed behind the front lines in Europe during World War II. In Die Pferde des Rittmeisters (2015), von Wedemeyer reassembles the motif of the horse as the protagonist of the war machine in this found footage. In Against the Point of View (2016), the artist reconstructs one scene of the historic film material in a computer-game environment to ask the question of who’s looking at the horror, and from whose perspective these events will be related afterward. There is obviously a reference to digital images, new modes of interactivity with the spectator in virtual reality, and a supposed possibility of an alternative course of the historic events. But not only. There’s especially a renewed version of the central debate about what it means to witness the un-representable.12 It’s probably not a coincidence that von Wedemeyer uses these point-of-view shots, as we know they’re essential to this reflection, as in the powerful lecture-performance The Pixelated Revolution (2012) by Rabih Mroué, or the famous analysis of the suicide of a Saipanese woman in front of—and because of—the camera in Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997). In these cases, the survival images are again a sort of return of the repressed in the form of a phenomenological analysis of our visual conditions of possibility.

To avoid this aporia and escape possible fetishization, the obsessive images turn and turn around a black spot: the classical forbidden representation or slippery referent. In times of visual bulimia, the invisible, the void, or the vestige can be more frightening and distressing than the visible. That allusiveness is at the heart of Maya Watanabe’s work, which focuses on social and political violence in Peru since the 1980s. Her poetic, seemingly endless long takes of landscapes, ruins, and abandoned objects in Sceneries (2014) suggest memory as a silent and unresolved issue, while the phenomenological, abstract, ultra-close-up shots in Liminal (2019) play with the other extreme of that impossible look. The video investigates the six thousand mass graves—too close to be seen, but not to be interpreted—not exhumed and the more than sixteen thousand people still missing as a result of Peru’s internal armed conflict. Watanabe’s depiction of the absence, the silence, the scars seems here the only way to address that trauma.

The lethargic contemplation and empty, conceptual shots in James Benning’s films are, in his case, closer to a sort of “neurasthenic” vision. The obsession is clearly present in his meticulous lists of acts and places—Twenty Cigarettes (2011), Two Cabins (2011), Ten Skies (2004), and so on—displayed as obsessive, compulsive, radical assaults to the transience of time and space. This emerges most clearly in Landscape Suicide (1986), where Benning merges a metaphysical visual monotony with the narration of two murders that took place thirty years apart. It is a subversive and fascinating approach to tragedy, where the pictorial scrutiny of the social environment coexists with testimonies and memories. A kind of strange, distressing limbo recalling Gaston Zvi Ickowicz’s Everyday Ceremonies (2015). The latter video is a static eighty minutes take, filmed in East Jerusalem, where local residents are seen crossing across the standing camera’s field in a seeming no-man’s land. The viewer is aware of the tension and tragedy hidden in a simple landscape; what’s off-screen seems even scarier than the banal things we do see. 

But the growing anxiety of today’s schizophrenic world usually brings the opposite reaction, a sort of culture of visual hysteria very much based on the digital image, new technologies, and a use of time and visual stimuli characterized by excess and kitsch. Shana Moulton’s colorfully saturated, sonically strident, frantic videos perfectly fit the emotional excitability, excessive anxiety, and sensory disturbances that define hysteria. Her ten-part video series Whispering Pines (2002-2010) is an unsettling, humorous reaction to the fears and neuroses caused by capitalist, consumerism-driven society. The idea for her alter ego, Cynthia, started in a supermarket with a “neurotic hemorrhoid pillow dress character shopping,” as Moulton explains.13

Once upon a time there were no images. The only ones that existed were tools of power and control. They showed kings and gods, nature and portraits. But with their proliferation, images are now the representation of a symptom, whether it is a collective or an individual one. Selfies, YouTube, Instagram—every image says something about us like a written sentence. And like all discourse, visual art contains an infinity of levels of language that hide unspoken fears, dreams, and ideologies. We must learn not only to read between the lines, but also to watch between the frames. 


[1] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-1974).
[2] Another story where, by the way, trauma is “compensated” by a cathartic kill and a happy ending where “all is right in the jungle” [sic].
[3] Jacques Rivette, “De l’Abjection,” Cahiers du cinéma 120, June 1961.
[4] Claude Lanzmann, “Holocauste, la représentation impossible,” Le Monde, March 3, 1994, my author’s translation.
[5] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime (New York: Verso, 1996), 65.
[6] Ivi.
[7] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), 11–12.
[8] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), 15.
[9] Ivi.
[10] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London: Verso Books, 2009), 45.
[11] Georges Didi-Huberman, The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016).
[12] See the discussion between Georges Didi-Huberman and Claude Lanzmann about the possibility to show the reality of Auschwitz in Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
[13] “A Brief History of Shana Moulton & Whispering Pines,” Art 21, 2011. See:


Aurélien Le Genissel is an art critic and independent curator based in Barcelona and Paris. One of his current lines of investigation is the deconstruction of fiction through the persistence of literary language and the grammar of the moving image. He is also exploring the interconnection between visual art hermeneutics and contemporary forms of narrative. He was the director of Barcelona’s LOOP video art fair in 2019, where he curated The bee who forgot the honey, a group show featuring works by David Claerbout, Jon Rafman, Michael Sailstorfer, Hans Op de Beeck, Guido van der Werve, and many others. He is the former artistic director of the Blueproject Foundation (2013-2018) in Barcelona, where he curated solo shows by Wolfgang Laib, Pieter Vermeersch, and José Dávila. He has contributed to several catalogues, including Little Is Left to Tell: Calvino after Calvino (Blueproject Foundation, 2015) and a good neighbour – Stories (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, 2017), the publication of the 15th Istanbul Biennial. 


Originally published on Mousse 71

Related Articles
Book Reviews by McKenzie Wark
(Read more)
Mousse 74
Beaded Affairs: Igshaan Adams
(Read more)
Mousse 74
The Swamp of Masculinity: Florian Krewer
(Read more)
A Sculpture Looking at You Whilst Touching Itself: Jesse Wine
(Read more)
Mousse 74
To Hold a Door in One’s Arms: Piotr Łakomy
(Read more)
An Incontinent and Percolating Substance Runs Through: Tsai Ming-liang
(Read more)