In Einer Fatalen Welt: Gender, Abjection, and Pessimism in Hans-Joerg Mayer
by Marc LeBlanc
The climax of Terminator II ranks as one of the most spectacular in science fiction. If
you haven’t seen it or don’t recall, it ends in a steel mill, that old symbol of American
deindustrialism. After an incredible chase down a Los Angeles freeway, the T-800 (Arnold
Schwarzenegger) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) have ended up here. It is in the
mill’s gears, catwalks, and pools of molten steel, that they will navigate in effort to protect
Sarah’s son, the futuremilitary leader and savior of humanity, John Connor (Edward
Furlong), from being killed by the T-1000, a shape-shifting android whose reason for being
is to murder the boy. The four play a lethal game of cat and mouse where eventually
Schwarzenegger’s cyborg body is crushed and impaled, leaving Sarah and young John to
fend for themselves. After firing multiple blasts from her classic Remington 870 shotgun,
Sarah pushes the T-1000 only to the edge of the catwalk. Quickly recovering he begins to
advance on the pair, but not before Schwarzenegger’s barely functioning machinic body
appears atop a massive gear and fires one last round from his Hawk MM-1 grenade
launcher into the already stunned T-1000. Irreparably wrenched open by the blast, the T-
1000 lets out an synthetic shriek before plummeting in the molten metal below.
Submerged, the machine thrashes wildly as it regressively morphs back through all the
people it murdered and subsequently embodied in its shape-shifting pseudo-life – the
LAPD police officer, the doctor working the late shift, John’s adoptive mother, and
ultimately, Sarah Connor herself. The machine’s long-winded, dramatic death lays bare the
oedipal core of the T1000’s cyborg-schizophrenia.
HJM: Against Interpretation
One of the more deeply embedded pathos in the history of modern art is seated in
subject-specificity – how individual aesthetic development is categorized, interpreted, and
comes to be representative of art history. Art historians use standards of style and semiotic
legibility to create extensive taxonomies by which the individual artist is a single subject,
qualifying what their work means for their contemporaries and the successive generations
they are perceived to have influenced. Historically, most artists become iconic to their
generation when their work is capable of creating and stereotyping a new visually cognitive
category – this notion of a ‘signature style’ is founded by the work’s perceived cognitive
autonomity to the rest of the category.
The task of creating autonomous work was always a recurring challenge in the
practices of artists throughout the 20th century. Like many artists born in his generation, this
axiomatic condition of homogenizing one’s aesthetic was of principal concern to Hans-
Joerg Mayer. More so than many, Mayer has, in what he makes and how it’s made,
skillfully and significantly challenged the assumed necessity that autonomous self-
expression only arises from a concretized and cognitive subjectivity.
Mayer’s oeuvre is full of wormholes and gnawing abscesses. It’s confusing and
incongruous, lacking simple cohesion and obvious narratives, it evades being brought into
the light of critical inquiry. It purposefully resists the aim of a text like this one. Mayer has
made the deliberate decision more than a handful of times in his career to stop and start
anew somewhere else – no segue, no transition, just vanishing. In fact, abrupt absences
and unpredictable cuts are the dominant constant in Mayer’s practice. Each body of work
is performed by a new character- artist, and when Mayer tires of it, it’s never seen from
again. Works like “Go-Go” (1985) or “Ohne Titel” (1995) bear basically no resemblance to
the artists’ figurative works of the early Noughties like “Chor” (2001), let alone a more
recent work like the shittily tape-stenciled “Dog Beach” (2010). The lack of cognitive
similarity in his work is only further compounded when one is familiar with his “signature”
HJM neon works, his just-good-enough paper sculptures with their crass watery texts, or
his rare masturbation films and the countless other drag-as-dreck works that flesh out his
If there’s any continuity, it’s in what Mayer paints. It’s through these subjects that
Mayer lets his gambit be known. And this world is frighteningly deep. Ultra-violent, hyper-
sexualized, and harrowing in its casual horror, it is a catacombs where a bizarre cohort has
its refuge, a gory orgy den of Lovecraft and Linda Lovelace, Jeanne d’Arc, Spock, Clint
Eastwood, and Kirsten Dunst. With a predication towards weird stories, science-fiction,
fantasy, gore, and celebrity tabloids, it is clear what catches Mayer’s voyeuristic eye –
taboo and death – abjection at large.
For so much of Hans-Joerg Mayer’s career, writing about his work has responded by
relating his work to pop art, trying to comprehend his position in the development of the
90s in Cologne or as German disciple in the post-Warholian age. While Mayer’s work has
typically been interpreted by addressing what influence Pop Art or Hollywood may have
upon his work, I find that these things weigh little on how Mayer makes his work. In order
to do this, one must not only omit so much in Mayer’s oeuvre and look only at selected
localized instances, but also have a less than cursory understanding of the characters he
elects to paint. Given who he chooses to represent, such an approach is futile to unpack
the work. With such a chimeric oeuvre, Mayer’s work begs for significant questions to be
answered about the villains and criminals, the porn stars and cult celebs he portrays, these
quasi-subjects that probe at the heart of what it means to say “I”.
HJM: The Accidental Feminist
Mayer has a long history of painting peculiar female subjects. Many of his fastidiously
executed large-scale figurative works from the early millennial years contain androgynous
females, sporting their coiffed genitalia in fetid settings filled with looming miasmas
of color, birch trees, ruined castles, decapitated heads, and spiders.
For example, “Pretty Things” (2001) shows a trio of females, each short- haired and
wearing dress that is glamourous and militaristic. The uneasy landscape appears simulated,
a bilegreen sky cuts across behind them, the dirt on which they stand, pulsates a toxic violet-
orange and a random rout of snails. Over the past half decade, Mayer has continued making
dramatic stylistic changes. While often now focussing on female actors and entertainers
whose, like Joan of Arc or Lady Gaga, the artist has abandoned the toxi-realism of his
figurative work from the late nineties and driven recklessly into a mode of painting that is
quick with slapdash irreverence, often electing to messily paint the name or drawing them
as a drippy neon caricature, like a Daumier gone Pollock. From 1985 to 1992, Mayer
created paintings alongside a handful of films, most of them centered on militant females.
Working initially from images of armed females Mayer had found in National Geographic,
Penthouse, and Fangoria, he composed circular vignettes on square canvases, each
featuring a figure clutching and pointing pistols and automatic rifles toward the viewer,
each in a stance and garb. The corners of each work are embellished with silverware or
musical notes, allowing the aesthetic to fall ambiguously between radicality and
Critic Isabelle Graw wrote about the psychoanalytic upheaval present in the
paintings, stating that by having guns the women have been given a cyborg prosthesis of a
penis, she writes, “A woman with a weapon no longer seems deficient in anything: she is
no longer a target but looking through a gunsight, and reverses the relationship between
active viewer and passive object.” i Graw goes on to claim that historically, because it is so
forcefully and rigidly conditioned, female subjectivity is actually more malleable and volatile.
The role reversal she discusses strikes at the crux of the violence Mayer’s exposes in the
division between subject and object.
Viewed in the light of another two decades of work, it seems as though it’s not
just the conditioning of female subjectivity by the oedipal and misogynist apparatuses of
post-fordist capitalism in itself – that’s only one sick turn in Mayer’s puzzle box. The artist
has a far more fundamental aggress, one that we find throughout some of modernity’s
most radical literature and philosophy – specifically, that the individuation that comes with
being called human is a prime and perpetual psychological trauma. In recent years, Mayer
has continued this thread of female subjects, making a series dedicated to Lady Gaga –
the decade’s populist icon for female body modification. With her penchant for cybernetic
prosthesis, Gaga builds on Mayer’s female characters who are, in regard to Graw’s
interpretation, phallicized by cyborg technology.
In her seminal work “The Powers Of Horror”, Bulgarian- French psychoanalyst and
philosopher Julia Kristeva discusses abjection in a fashion well-suited for forming an
deeper interpretative framework for the gender and gore-based abjection of Mayer’s work.
Kristeva sees abjection as what lays beyond the symbolic/semiotic order of rationality,
“safeguards” or “primers” of culture. She notes how traumatic the abject is to human
experience since, “The abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to
Mayer’s work takes aim at the authority of individuality that is thrusted upon one,
forcing one to identify and classify their bodies, and ultimately stifle and limit their freedom.
While the initial focus of Mayer’s female subjects lend themselves to Graw’s reading of the
instability of feminine subjectivity, when viewed in regard to his other works, one can see
that Mayer’s works oppose what is truly perverse – the romantic staging of subjectivity and
individuation, from the single artist creating their unique works and out and onto humanity
as a whole.
In 2010, Mayer began making small square paintings. Usually on black canvas, sometimes on
tacky black velvet, they are painfully inept works made through spraying a stencil or slowly and
thinly dripping out texts. Sometimes featuring a crude cartoon rat or a vague cross, the series
repeats the same two phrases over and over – ‘Anti’ and ‘No Soul’.
As a cryptic, undead landscape, Mayer’s oeuvre has another focus – it’s also
populated by a thin string of Hollywood’s more cultish characters. Of them all, there are
two in particular that most evidently enlarge Graw’s framework for how subjectivity is
reified in late capitalism what it means for Mayer, they are the extra-dimensional ‘cenobite’
from Clive Barker’s horror sage “Hellraiser” (1987) and the recurring spaghetti-western
stereotype – ‘the man with no name’ – most commonly known now for Clint Eastwood’s
portrayal of this archetype in The Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966).
These are cinematic subjects who are presented as not being subjects at all, having no memory, only
the conviction that the world is determined and indifferent to human desire.
The fictional Lemarchand puzzle box – or Lament Configuration – is one of the
most enchanting objects in contemporary horror. Created by a French toymaker in the 18th century, the
box is capable of forcing a ‘schism’ in time and space between our dimension and one of the
many dimensions inhabited by the cenobites. Although there are many cenobites, Pinhead is
certainly the most renowned among Fangoria fans. His role lays somewhere between being
one a soul harvester and a director of a theatre of hellish sado-masochism.
In Hellraiser II (1988), it’s revealed that Pinhead was once human. He was a
military officer known as Elliot Spencer who suffered greatly from post- traumatic stress
disorder and survivor guilt upon returning to England after the war. Having ‘lost his faith in
humanity’, Spencer comes across the puzzle box and opens it, making the horrific
metamorphoses into a cenobite and losing his previous consciousness in the process.
The man with no name is an western favorite and Mayer’s portraits of Franco Nero
and Clint Eastwood are iconic for this genre-character. In all the films, the man is given a
name that he is known by – Joe, Blondie, or Django – but his past remains in the plot; he
is without content. In each of the roles where Eastwood plays the character, his
involvement in the ultimately moral work, whose means is naturally incredibly bloody, is
purely happenstance. Although for the man with no name money is always on the line, his
involvement in the movie’s events are presented as the result of him being lost – wandering
through the American west driven only by an unknown chaos. Like Hellraiser’s Pinhead,
the man with no name acts as an impersonal and abyssal center that coldly decimates
It was Deleuze and Guattari who most strongly made the claim that while the 19th
century industrial capitalism might’ve conditioned the idée-fixe of the century’s greatest
psychopaths, that 20th century late capitalism was a breeding ground for schizophrenia. As
technocratic capitalist society cordons all planetary life, the human mind reacts, splintering
and fissuring in effort to break free from the horror of fascistic rationality being imposed on
the mind. The two theorists seated their claim artistically in the life and writings of Antonin
Artaud and Georges Bataille among others, and it is here that they sought to supplant the
aged psychoanalysis with what they called schizoanalysis. Their new therapeutic model
was not there to create cures, but rather it saw schizophrenia as a tool to escape the
growing mental prison capitalism foisted upon one – mental ‘normalcy’ is instituted on
humans and schizophrenia has much to reveal about the psychological implications of
hegemony of rationalism.
Mayer’s ‘ill-minded’ characters are as Pinhead describes himself, “explorers in the
further regions of experiences, demons to some, angels to others.” They’re capable of
liminal self-preservation between being a subject and object, nullifying the terms. Mayer
looks to bring the dichotomy Graw pinpoints between the passive object and the viewing
male subject to a bloody halt. Beyond gender, what Mayer finds abject, is the simple
Cartesian distinction between subject and object that forms the kernel of rational thought.
HJM: End Game
Over three decades, Mayer’s work suggests that to resist becoming oedipal capitalism’s
human waste is futile. One can only run to the bathroom and hope that their mind has
enough time to pry open and squeeze out that small dingy bathroom window and survive
the long drop into a new and unknown world.
Having his particular approach to late capitalism termed as ‘accelerationism’, the British
philosopher Nick Land has suggested that by escalating capitalism’s processes, its fundamental
contradictions will be exacerbated and eventually bring the entire system toward an early
grave and with it theoretically rationality as its practiced. Land notes that in the process,
schizophrenia should pour forth from every new rift in capitalist reality; he writes,
“Schizophrenia creeps out of every box eventually, because ‘there is no schizophrenic
specificity or entity, schizophrenia is the universe of productive and reproductive desiring
machines, universal primary production.’ It is not merely that schizophrenia is pre-
anthropoid. Schizophrenia is pre- mammalian, pre-zoological, pre-biological … It is for
those trapped in a constrictive sanity to terminate this regression.” iii
Mayer’s works are based in a science fiction world that viewers only see in slices –
an alternate reality to our own. It’s governed by all that’s irrational and tears away from
identification and visual cognition, its denizens are plagued by mutilation, sex, gore, and
scopophilia. Over decades, Mayer has playfully and slyly worked a calculated
representation of the horror wrought by – in Nitzchean terms – being all too human. Writing
contemporaneously on humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos, Eugene Thacker has
written at great length on horror – from the history of demons to contemporary occultism.
In one of his texts on the varying metaphysical meanings of the term ‘black metal’, he
introduces a term that is quite apt for characterizing Mayer’s work – Cosmic Pessimism.
Writing to define the term, Thacker explains, “the view of Cosmic Pessimism is strange
mysticism of the world-without-us, a hermeticism of the abyss, a noumenal occultism. It is
the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes,
desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups.” iv
In Mayer’s paintings, figures suffer from the freedom granted by not having any
subjectivity. Each is compelled to their state by knowing that the cosmos, in its
unconscionable age, will indiscriminately and imminently destroy all of humanity. From his
celebrities, his porn starlets, the man with no name, and his fascination with the otherworldly
to his refusal of making work that can be consistently identified as his own, all of it smacks
of Mayer’s overarching conceptual aim to burrow out a new escapism – to find a mode of
autonomous expression left laying in the crypt below subjectivity.
i Graw, Isabelle, “Exchanges in Societies of Participation”. Munich: Kunstraum Daxer.
1992. Published for Hans-Joerg Mayer’s exhibition at Kunstraum Daxer.
ii Kristeva, Julia. The Power Of Horrors. New York: Columbia University Press. 1982.
iii Land, Nick. Ray Brassier and Rob Mackay, eds. Fanged Noumena: Collected
Writings 1987- 2007. Coventry: Urbanomic Press. 2011.
iv Thacker, Eugene. In The Dust Of This Planet. Winchester, UK: Zone Books. 2010.