Essay: Anthony White | The Curious Eye Never Runs Dry

By Rob Maconachie

Officer Bouton’s eye never flinches as he describes in detail the public execution of Robert-François Damiens on the steps of Paris’ Hôtel de Ville on the 28th of March 1757:


‘…Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with chords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.’

‘…The horses tugged hard each pulling straight on a limb, each held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour the same ceremony was repeated, and after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.’ 

‘…After two or three attempts, the executioner Sampson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them…’

‘…When the four limbs had been pulled away the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking.’‘
’… In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes.’ 


Damiens was accused of the attempted assassination of King Louis XV; his penknife had penetrated the King’s chest less than three inches. Bouton’s curiously detailed account (too lengthy to include in full here) exposes the injustice and inhumanity of classical sovereign power in the mid-eighteenth-century. Its publication and the circulation of other contemporaneous reports of Damiens’ execution would fan the flames of revolution in France for another thirty years. Famously quoted in part one of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Bouton’s observations provide one of two focal points from which Paris-based artist Anthony White’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. begins to consider how our collective curiosity might be used to dismantle the structures that continue to fuel contemporary systems of power. The other is the five word phrase emailed by WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning on the seventh of March 2010: “Curious eyes never run dry…


Organised between these two sight lines, one directed at the past, the other trained on the increasingly precarious present, A Curious Eye Never Runs Dry responds to the unconscionable tactics of contemporary systems of state control, which–having evolved from the spectacle of public execution–now operate on the equally (de)efficient strategies of management, regulation and surveillance; strategies which formulate what the late Gore Vidal termed the massive military-industrial-security complex. This is the world of late capitalism. A world in which “sky-godding” heads of state blurr with the heads of corporations, corporations that mine our private data to maintain control of what we consume, who we exclude, how we vote and what we know of our world. A prison of sorts, where the private becomes public under the watchful eyes of the blackened windows of the panopticon.  


Born in Australia and based in Paris since 2009, White’s research-based practice has focused on engagement, political awareness and social responsibility, particularly in relation to the global immigration crisis and Australia’s policy of mandatory detention. A member of the Five Eyes Alliance sharing high-level surveillance with New Zealand, The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, Australia is among the most secretive nations on earth. The recent AFP raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home and the ABC Headquarters in Sydney are indicative of the Australian Government’s continuing breach of universal freedoms, including its refusal to grant asylum to forced detainees on Manus Island. A continuation of his research around this issue, White’s new body of work follows Signs of Civilisation, his 2018 solo show presented at Nanda Hobbs in Sydneywhich drew parallels between the treatment of Manus Island detainees and Franz Kafka’s 1919 novel, In The Penal Colony.


Responding to this state of mass surveillance and political subversion in which journalists are criminalised for democratizing the flow of information and corporate giants peddle the profit-driven lies of climate change deniers, White’s A curious eye never runs dry, implores us to activate democracy through vigilance and inquiry. In Vedova 2019, White’s salute to the Venetian mid-century avant-garde artist Emilio Vedova, a key figure of the Italian resistance movement, ribbons of paint like root masses move searchingly across the canvas recalling Vedova’s description of all artists’ ‘eternal sense of investigation’. The same sense of communal action is felt in Late Capitalism 2019, a dark predominantly blue and black oil and collage work made from elements of Paris metro posters, which White explains refers to the Gilet Jaunes movement in its insistence on the collective as opposed to individual. L’effondrement I 2019, one of several collage works using graphic vinyl signage found on the streets of Paris, references the research of climate change experts Pablo Servigne and Raphaëlle Stevens. Their Collapsology theory proposes that the collapse of industrial civilization is imminent without urgent collective action.


When he was arrested and taken to Belmarsh prison on the 11th of April this year images were circulated of Julian Assange on the steps of the Ecuadorian Embassy carrying a copy of Gore Vidal’s, History of the National Security State. Published in 2014 two years after Vidal’s death, it concerns “the historical events that led to the establishment of the massive military-industrial-security complex and the political culture that gave [America] ‘The Imperial Presidency.’”


The image brings to mind Vidal’s work on Assange’s Roman namesake, the assassinated emperor Julian the Apostate. Julian (1964), is a historical fiction dealing with the emperor’s failed attempt to restore power from the bureaucratic ruling classes by re-establishing pagan polytheism as a defence against the political subversion of Christian monotheism.


In Julian Vidal writes: “We are given our place in time as we are given our eyes: weak, strong, clear, squinting, the thing is not ours to choose.” “Well” he writes “this has been a squinting, walleyed time to be born in.” In solidarity with Emperor Julian, Assange, Damiens and others who have fought against the tyranny of anti-democratic systems, Anthony White’s work continues to voice that it is now our time–squinting and walleyed–to face the oppressive systems of power head-on; to invert the panopticon. It won’t be easy. As Damiens uttered as he was lead from the Bastille to the Hôtel de Ville, “La journée sera rude.”


August 1, 2019