I reviewed an exposition by Lucie Tuma and Jens Badura in JAR 7 called “It’s doing it – towards a phenomenology of passivity.” It has at its heart an attempt to study passivity. My initial reaction was that the submission was approaching themes central for artistic practice – it presents a question (passivity). Further, it dismantles the (practice based) research and presents (documentary) fragments of it. However, during my review I got the impression that passivity was defined – as the starting point – as something negative. Against my own research background, this seemed problematic.

I have arrived to the field of contemporary art from the perspective of philosophy. Already during the early days of my studies, I started to think that philosophy and arts share things – in a radical way that is often not reflected in research. My own doctoral thesis in aesthetics focussed on the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). I wished to examine critically the possibilities of his phenomenological approach. Merleau-Ponty has been known as the philosopher of painting whose philosophical thinking developed through visual art. His willingness to approach art as a companion to or even as a model for philosophy suggests not only that we should take the primacy of perception as an ontological primacy, but also relate it to the deeply radical, ethical choices that characterises the 21st century discussion of art and aesthetics.

In my doctoral thesis (University of Helsinki, 2012) I did not want to focus on one medium – the typical Mereleau-Pontian example being Cezannian painting – instead, I pursued to challenge the limitations of Merleau-Ponty’s approach with examples of contemporary art. Looking for different examples that would force me to find different focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s work led me to think through further questions about the relation of theory and practice, research and methodologies.

One of the artworks I discussed in my doctoral thesis was Monika Sosnowska’s Fountain from 2006. This work served as a prime example of artwork that seems to escape or hide from the viewer. A central concept in my own reading of Merleau-Ponty was his idea of looking with the artworks. In short: the spectator is not just looking at an art object but with it. As we know, later on his philosophy has influenced various bodily approaches in both contemporary art but also other fields such as dance and architecture. Thus facing today’s manifold field of contemporary art this condition is very recognizable. Merleau-Ponty required certain alertness from the spectator. This idea that we would not take the artwork as an object that should be possessed or controlled can still be quite radical. 

Sosnowska’s Fountain is a work consisting of a corridor and a leaking water. It is a kind of work that appears to elude the spectator and turn the traditional relation into something else: spectators become unconsciously part of the work. The alertness or openness that Merleau-Ponty stressed seemed to be impossible when looking her work. However, Merlau-Ponty also underlined the the concept of passivity – my looking is also me being looked at. This intertwining of passivity and activity are necessary also in speaking and listening and the interaction of the two, when we no longer know who does what. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty’s discussion on reversibility as well as the idea of participation both have important connections to the phenomena of passivity. Seeing already implies a certain passivity, namely a possible submission to the other’s gaze. To participate does not require activity but also passivity: in fact, activity is passivity.

Seeing with could be extended to reading with, trying to be alert and open to the other ways to speak and express oneself. So even though my initial reaction to the JAR exposition I mentioned in the beginning was critical – to my mind it presented theoretical understanding of passivity oversimplified – I could see that in the artistic practice it was striving to explore and dismantle passivity. In this drive, the authors were touching the very point Merleau-Ponty so clearly demonstrated to me. To be passive is not passive.