Contemporary art depends on a subject, even if the subject is reflexive. The approach can be autotelic, or not, but it is always a matter of denotation. With the arrival of the media, art turned its interest towards popular culture with a creative appetence. It critically consumes and burns to ashes everything surrounding it.
Rock music, through its immediacy and its propensity to create meaning, was prone only a couple of years after its birth to Ray Johnson’s aesthetic experiences — Oedipus (Elvis #1) (1956). It is when Rock music evolved to Metal music, a musical genre that inherently expressed a strong awareness of its own existence, that the art scene decided to analyse, quote, and dissect the entire underground culture. Thanks to this citational postmodern logic, several artists have considered Black Metal as a potential subject.
Whether Rimbaldian seers or foolhardy rebels, artists have arisen who are deeply committed to using the musical movement of Black Metal as the object of their quest. This perilous choice is relevant because they are the ones who know the essential wealth inherent to this corpus. Thanks to art and reflexive work, the Black Metal movement reaches further than other subgenres: an extraordinary deployment.
It is interesting to identify these knights who, through their efforts to conquer an unclear and deserted world, have formed a new kind of legion. On an almost sociological field, we could observe that the number of these artists has distinctly increased since 2005. Obviously, we will not go into details to present all of them, specifically because, facing a tremendous task, some artists succeed their baptism of fire better than others.
We can notice that Black Metal, considered in its second wave, is a Scandinavian product, built and conceived on European foundations. Although in the last twenty years Black Metal has inspired international contributions (including Colombian and Taiwanese bands), it is still, for the most part, exclusively Western.
We can make the same remark concerning artists (even if the art market distorts this data in some way). Black Metal music was born in Norway. As we will see later on, it is naturally there that, inspired by the aesthetic of the movement, the first artistic attempts emerged. However, it is at the extremes that the power of Black Metal is revealed. While the Australian artist Tony Garifalakis (born in 1964) observed the waves of Black Metal as an adult, the younger American artist Grant Willing (born in 1987) contemplates and draws upon a past that now takes the appearance of ruins. It emphasises that two different generational perspectives upon the events are made possible and potentially equally interesting. Black Metal keeps on fascinating artists long after its main originating events.
Torbjørn Rødland, known for his realist and violent photographs, seems to be the first artist to have worked on Black Metal, or at least with a Black Metal sensitiveness. In 1993, he pictured himself as the personification of a young, lonely romantic ephebe overwhelmed by a feeling of contradiction, torn between the call of nature and the modern world. This “quarrel between the old and the new world” would be the main reason for his psyche’s disorder. Rødland’s photographic series In a Norwegian Landscape (1993-1995) shares many concerns and visual codes with most of the first Norwegian bands. Actually, he and the musicians shared the same kairos. They were aware that something was about to happen at that place, and at that time. It was not contingency but necessity.
As Rødland exemplifies, contemporary artists interested in this culture usually come from the same generation of musicians whose work they reference. Without doing a hagiography, this article identifies the protagonists in order to understand what encourages them to work on a vile matter. Mainly we need to point at the referents.
For many people, art simply reveals a few superficial points inherent to Black Metal, whereas, in fact, some artists are inspired by the strategies and the iconology that exists beneath and beyond the music. Other viewers question Black Metal and drive it into a corner. Although artists’ approaches are quite various, their artworks often analyse many of the same precise elements.
Let us specify firstly that, though it is essentially the second wave of Black Metal that is autopsied by artists, the roots of the genre in the so-called first wave are not forgotten. In 2006, the Bulgarian artist Georgi Tushev outlined a fragmented face of the band Venom in a deconstructive, eponymous painting.
Despite how the painting’s geometric framework nearly erases the subject, the image actually finds its strength from abstraction. Intellectualization through abstraction does not affect Black Metal but sublimates it. The artist Adam Sullivan also quotes Celtic Frost, a band from the first wave, as well as Joseph Kosuth as major influences in his work. By placing these influences on the same level, Sullivan suggests that there is porosity between Black Metal and contemporary art, and moreover that Black Metal as a “thought-object” could be taken seriously. In his cut-ups and collages, such as ‘The Real Voice’ (2009), he presents an uncluttered vision of the Black Metal movement in order to reach a toned-down core — thanks to the use of an incongruous colour code for this musical genre and a reduction of signs.
The history of the second wave of Black Metal, the very one which brought Black Metal out of its god-forsaken cellar, is appropriated by artists as the most immediate and maybe the easiest sign emerging from the movement. Insofar as music is immaterial, and ineffable, artists may refer logically to concrete elements, historical facts for instance, to evoke Black Metal. The facts and history of the second wave were almost immediately turned into myth, and art (of course) participates in the construction of a Black Metal mythology.
In 2005, Banks Violette took over the minimal aesthetic of a burnt edifice in his famous work Untitled (Church), unveiling himself as narrator. He does not forget that the main thing for a plastic act is to transform simple anecdotes into substantial works. Based on the artwork of Burzum’s ‘Aske’ EP (Deathlike Silence Productions, 1993), Banks’s reasoning demonstrates the potential contained within these Black Metal artistic mediums.
Similar to the subgenre’s history and mythology, Black Metal logos, the identity and incarnation of a band often extracted from bands’ album covers, are an inexhaustible source of creation (as much as for the one who creates it as for the one who receives it) and probably the first aesthetic sign coming closer to art sensitivity. The American Anthony Burdin, a modern figure of the cursed artist, gives a primary role to the first Burzum logo in his censored installation Voodoo Room at the 2004 Frieze Art Fair. The installation recreates his former garage where he used to rehearse as a youngster, and where the logo was painted across a wall-length mirror. Here, the installation site is transformed into a nostalgic votive altar. Artists can use logos as ready-mades or in a will of appropriation, but it is important to see beyond the sign itself and to analyse its graphic or semiologic potential. The logos are indexical, but they must also be reflexive.
From the image to the message, the lyrics have to become an object to manipulate. They are the voice incarnated. Even if melody foregoes speech, the lyrics are the body of the music. When the music stops, words stay. Moreover, words may also be visual objects, and artists are very adept at playing with semantics. Considered as elements inherent to this music, sound, and content, they are logically in the grip of artists’ creative will.
The lyrics of Darkthrone, Emperor, Absu, or Bethlehem are the subject of a drawing series shown in Erik Smith’s installation ‘The Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling’ (2006-7). This very clever work is a confrontation between art and history through James Lee Byars’ figure, “the artist-apostle devoted to the faith’s paradoxes,” and the history of popular culture through its darkest side.
In a strong symbolic game, we come across essential visual elements such as the pentagram. The use of words in an artwork is a first step to abstraction. Words themselves could be considered as geometrical forms, but charged with powerful meanings. In order to understand the uses of these (sometimes cabalistic) signs and to reveal what is hidden, it is central to appeal to a hermeneutic.
Artists chose to put some distances to music itself and decided to interfere with the figuration, the incarnation of music through images.
Corpse paint immediately appears as the main specificity that refers to the genre. Black Metal culture is very codified and obeys constituent precepts of its musical beginnings. The visual impact of the movement is unquestionable and many artists colonise its endemic features, exposing it to the risk of caricature. Out of the wealth of elements within Black Metal culture that generate meaning, the foremost referent is the corpse paint. Undeniable, indubitable, and concrete, this surface and ceremonial element attempts a discursive rebirth under the cover of art. Like a narrative façade, it is an opening to a more reflexive content. Clara Djian and Nicolas Leto, a French-Swiss duo, reconsider the menacing and monstrous appearance of this masked face in their Angoisse series (2009-2010) by using stencils to refine the sign.
Indeed, the use of this tool, extracted from art and crafts and urban culture, and so unfamiliar to this musical genre, enables the two artists to explore the capacity of this emblematic element, which could be reproducible ad infinitum. However, it is interesting also to allude to the activist use of spray paint by some bands at that time. The Norwegian artist Per-Oskar Leu uses corpse paint pertinently by shifting the subject from sign to incarnation, exteriority to interiority. In his video ‘Vox Clamantis In Deserto’ (2010), he takes advantage of corpse paint to broaden its semantic construction. He makes himself up as a grotesque Black Metal musician and emphatically performs again I Pagliacci, an opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, in places historically linked to the movement (the Helvete basement, the Holmenkollen church). This strong work questions, not without irony, the notion of authenticity and transgression.
Revealing the man under the make-up does not mean humanising Black Metal musicians. Artists, portraying these latter, seem to be turning characters into icons. Indeed, if corpse paint redefines the face, portraiture is often at the heart of an artistic work.
In some artworks, the teenager is chosen as the absolute melancholic figure with infinite potential, but more often, as exemplified within the prolific work of Steven Shearer (who presents a real Metal Areopagus), it is the musicians themselves who are portrayed — ‘Longhairs 19’ (2004), ‘Smoke’ (2005), and ‘Davos’ (2007). Thus Frost, Abbath, Infernus, Varg Vikernes, Gaahl, Beherit, Dollarsnymous, Necrobutcher, and Hellbutcher have become real icons, in the original sense of the word. Yet these portraits of musicians have followed the opposite direction of genuine icons: Art transformed icons (objects of devotion) to “simple” objects of aesthetic delightfulness, whereas Black Metal musicians (aesthetic quasi-objects, dressed and wearing makeup as statues) became icons through art — maybe, finally, like art recently did with masterpieces turned into irreligious icons. Fenriz and Dead, in particular, are the main muses of the genre, symbolising both roughness and fragility. They are the most frequently quoted figures.