Langenlois-ræðan (varnarræða listaverks)

Þann 13 ágúst 2011 tók ég að mér að vera listaverk af holdi og blóði.

Það var að beiðni nemanda míns úr Listaháskólanum, Katrínar I. Jónsdóttur Hjördísardóttur. Hún bankaði upp á heima hjá mér og sagðist eiga við mig erindi. Henni hafði verið boðið að taka þátt í merkilegu samstarfsverkefni ungra listamanna víðsvegar frá Evrópu. Þátttakendur áttu að mæta á staðnum og höfðu þrjá daga til að búa til listaverk í þessu fallega þorpi, Langenlois, í helsta vínræktarhéraði Austurríkis. Verkin áttu helst að vera utan dyra, og máttu vera nánast hvar sem var, að því tilskyldu að þau yllu ekki umhverfisspjöllum.

Katrín sagðist hafa forfallast á síðustu stundu, vélin ætti að fara daginn eftir morgun, og hún spurði mig hvort ég gæti tekið að mér að vera listaverkið hennar. Hún myndi senda mig sem hvert annað listaverk á sýninguna í Langenlois.

Í bríaríi féllst ég á þessa undarlegu beiðni, pakkaði niður og tók vélina til Vínarborgar daginn eftir. Þegar til Langenlois kom hitti ég aðstandendur og kynnti mig sem listaverk Katrínar. Á meðan aðrir voru í óðaönn að framkvæma sínar fjölbreytilegu hugmyndir í ólíkum efnislegum myndum sat ég við að semja varnarræðu listaverksins, sem ég var orðinn, og var hún flutt á opnunardegi sýningarinnar.

Því miður hefur ekki varðveist myndband af þessum gjörningi, en ræðan sem ég flutti segir nánast alla söguna sjálf. Hún var samin um það leyti sem ég var að lesa ritgerðasafn Agambens, L’uomo senza contenuto í fyrsta skipti. Þetta er varnarræða listaverks sem fjallar einnig um stöðu listaverksins á okkar tímum og að nokkru leyti eins og Agamben lýsir henni í bók sinni.

Ræðan var samin og flutt á ensku, og ég hef ekki fundið íslenska þýðingu hennar í mínum fórum. Vafalaust ber textin merki þess að ég er ekki vanur að skrifa á því máli.

Bók Agambens, Hinn innantómi maður, hafði veruleg áhrif á mig á þessum tíma og alla tíð síðan. Ég hef þýtt bróðurpartinn af þessu merka ritgerðasafni á íslensku fyrir nemendur mína í Listaháskólanum, og set þessa þýðingu mína vonandi hér inn á vefinn á næstunni

The Langenlois Work of Art speaking

Dear visitor,

As I was boarding Flight OS 9762 from Reykjavik to Vienna last Tuesday at 23:50, I underwent a transfiguration. From being quite a normal person living in Reykjavik I became a Work of Art, conceived and fashioned by the Icelandic artist Katrín I. Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir.

In this performance I would like to tell you, how this transfiguration has affected my life and my relationship with art, with the artist who has become my author, and with myself.

As I said, I used to be a normal person living in Reykjavík, a happily married father of two grownup children and a professor in the theory and history of art, teaching in various public institutions. Suddenly I succumbed to the same fate as the Greek hunter Acteon, who was punished by Diana for surprising the goddess of the wild game and the Night, bathing naked in the moonlight, and was transformed into a stag, an immediate pray for his own hunting dogs which killed him instantly.

As Acteon had spent his whole life looking for wild game in nature, my life has been dedicated to looking for myself in works of art, and helping my students to do the same. One of them was Katrín, the artist who now has conceived me as a Work of Art. She was an enthusiastic and dedicated student, I remember. And here I am, helpless like Acteon, transformed into the object of my lifelong desire.

I must admit that this has been a problematic, if not a traumatic experience.

From being a relatively self-confident but passionate hunter of objects of art, I had become one myself; a problematic experience that arises many questions: who are you anyway?  I asked myself on the plane and I repeat that question here and now, arrived in Langenlois in Austria. If you are no longer yourself, but a Work of Art, conceived by one of your old students, what is a Work of Art anyway? What are its characteristics and how does it relate to its author and the world?

I would like to start with the question of the author, who bears the responsibility for my present and problematic situation. Who is she to declare herself the author of myself as a Work of Art?

The figure of the author or the artist in contemporary art has become an ambiguous one. At first the artist declares his deepest and absolute identity with his creation, or at least his parenthood; then he leaves it like an orphan to the cruelest aesthetic judgements of the world, as I am inevitably experiencing at this moment.  Morally, I find this hardly acceptable.

First, I would take up the question of Identity and the question of relationship with my author. There I would like to propose an indecent comparison: Myself and Mona Lisa by Leonardo. We see in Leonardo’s famous work an example of an ideal identity of the artist with his subject.  Mona Lisa is not only an image of o woman of uncertain origins; she is an absolute part of her author, like taken out of his own body and mind. Here it becomes absolutely impossible for us to discern between the author and his work. As you may know, Leonardo once said that the painter always painted himself. Standing here in front of you as a Work of Art by Katrín I. Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir, I must confess that I don’t feel anything of my author in myself. She is completely detached from her art-piece as such, from me as the content of her Work of Art.  Although I am not demanding from my author the same intimate relationship as Mona Lisa has enjoyed from her author ever since she became this famous Work of Art, I must admit that I feel absolutely abandoned to my own destiny by my author, and I know that you, my dear visitor, will never be gratified with the same feeling of intimacy and identity confronting my presence here, as you have found confronting her marvelous and mysterious image. Wherein lies the difference?

Leonardo felt an absolute commitment to his subject; it never occurred to him that he could in any way demand or practice moral, virtual or physical freedom from his subject through his own superiority as the genius he certainly was.

This is not the case when we look at contemporary art, where the artists leave their products in complete abandonment to the so called “aesthetic judgment” of the public, under the pretext of artistic freedom, absolute subjectivity of the artistic creation and the absolute superiority of his genius, rising himself above the content of his art as a superman, gifted with superhuman power and committed to nothing but his own liberty and absolute subjectivity.

When I left my author at the airport in Reykjavik, I asked her what she wanted me to do. “You are completely free of doing whatever you want”, she said. “I am enjoying my freedom as an artist, and as I am now aspiring to become a scholar, and I consider you to be a distinguished one, so I have chosen you to be my Art-work, representing myself at this exhibition.”

I have to admit that the respect she was showing my scholarship did not help me in any way in fulfilling my duty as her Work of Art.

During the four hours flight into the darkness of the night, crossing the North Atlantic ocean, I sincerely considered my duty on this commission, and I discovered the irony of my destiny, being locked in a limbo in between an obsolete idea of the content of the work of art as an undistinguishable part of its author, and an eventual futuristic dawn or rebirth of a possibly completely new kind of art, based on commitments I had no possibilities to grasp.

I came to the conclusion, dear visitor, that either I am a Work of Art without content, or I am a Work of Art subject to your “aesthetic judgment”, not for my possible values as a human being, but for the vanity of your aesthetic taste. Or rather, I realised that I was both at the same time, because by depriving myself of my content as a human being and transforming me into a Work of Art, I had become an incarnation of the fatal destiny of contemporary art, trapped between the futility of “aesthetic judgments” and the belief in “absolute freedom and subjectivity” of the artistic genius.

As a Work of Art, I cannot but express my deepest suspicion towards your “aesthetic judgments”, dear visitor, subjects as they are to the absolute relativity of taste and of beauty in itself.

At the same time I can’t but express my deepest suspicion towards the artistic freedom of my author, of her absolute subjectivity and of her romantic idea af the artistic genius, for example her arbitrary choice of being whoever she wants.  Those romantic ideas have no better foundation than aesthetic taste in general.

Leonardo was not obsessed with taste at all; I guess he never took that concept in consideration, because it didn’t exist in any serious contemplation on art until the birth of romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Taste became an issue in the artistic discourse only with the schism between the artist and the content of his work, with the idea of absolute subjectivity and freedom of the artist and the absolute superiority of the artistic genius, ruling above his subject as well as his audience.  As the subject matter of the Work of Art didn’t matter anymore, -as is the case with me standing here in front of you – the only choice offered to you, dear visitor, is to identify not with me, but with The Other that I have become, which is, I suppose, as unfamiliar and alien to your self-conscience as it is to mine. The viewer is thus condemned to identify with his own alienation in a contemporary Work of Art – or reject it as if it was aimed at his auto destruction.

I already mentioned the irony of my destiny as a Work of Art. Irony is the most important weapon of the artistic genius, but it is also a fatal one. The French poet Baudelaire was one of the inventors of this weapon. He said that “laughter is provoked in the artist by the consciousness of his own superiority” which is also a declaration of the ambiguity of all things. “The artist is never an artist except for the condition that he is a double person, capable of being himself and another at the same time, and never to ignore the double nature of all things.” This doubleness, this ambiguity, inevitably provokes our laughter, and I realised, my dear visitor, that this was my primary mission in this artistic event: to provoke the laughter of my absent author, imagining my confrontation with you, and to provoke your laughter in front of my presence here, as a kind of a clownish representation of the tragic conditions of contemporary art.

But my author’s laughter, dear visitor, which rises from her conscience of superiority in front of the content of her art, could become a boomerang, as it hits her own subjectivity and unveils the double nature of its content. The author, who is rising herself above the content of her art like a God of creation, and leaves her product for the pure aesthetic judgment of the world, without any concern or commitment for its moral content, is at the same time attacking the principle of her own creation, the above mentioned principle of unity and identity of the artist with the content of his Work.

As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has said, the artist has become “a god that destroys himself”, or quoting Hegel, “ein Nichtiges, ein sich Vernichtendes”. No need to mention, keeping in mind my comparison with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the idea of irony and auto-destruction was something that never entered Leonardo’s mind. Like taste, irony was an invention of 19th century romanticism, and has ever since become the auto destructive power of modern and contemporary art.

Those two elements, irony and taste, were followed up by the romantic idea of pure beauty, subject to aesthetic evaluation of the viewer without any concern for its content. With the words of Agamben: “If the artist is now looking for his certainty in a definite content or belief, he is lying, because he knows that pure artistic subjectivity is the essence of every single thing; but if he looks for his proper realty in this subjectivity he finds himself in the paradoxical situation of having to find his real essence exactly in what is inessential, his own content in what is only form. He is therefore experiencing a radical schism: and outside of this schism in him everything is a lie.”

As I am standing here, dear visitor, as a Work of Art, I am a living testimony of this radical schism that has characterised contemporary art for more than a century, as if it was in a permanent state of possible extinction. But art can not die, on the contrary it is constantly living its impossibility to die, constantly and restlessly looking for new rules, new values, its possible new ties with reality that have been obscured or lost. Art has reached the end of its metaphysical premises and tries desperately to grasp a new connection to the real.  As a Work of Art I can with all modesty claim that I have with my presence here exposed many of its former values: body, structure and form, that can be subject for aesthetic judgments. But my principal mission here, dear visitor, is not to humiliate myself before your aesthetic judgments like in a beauty contest; my mission here is first of all to expose the above mentioned schism, the gap created in the history of art between form and content, between subjectivity and the ambiguity of irony, between art and the real.

What is this space in-between, this limbo that I am experiencing here in front of you? It is an empty space, I am a Work of Art without content, a destructive gesture, searching desperately for the real, for positive values that seem to have vanished in our times of calculating technology.  With the words of Agamben once again: “the essence of nihilism coincides with the essence of art at the extreme point of its destiny, where both see the destiny of man as nothingness. And while nihilism is secretly governing the course of western history, art will not leave its never ending sunset.”

Langenlois, 13th of August 2011,

Ólafur Gíslason

Ps. Meðfylgjandi ljósmynd sýnir listaverkið flytja varnarræðu sína í neðsta stigaþrepi sýningarsalar í Langenlois 13. ágúst 2011.

Sigurður Guðjónsson: Prelude, 2012 -English

An Attempt on the Veil of Aesthetics:

Sigurður Guðjónsson’s 2012 Video Work Prelude in the Light of Myth and Aesthetics

A naked man grapples with an unwieldy, invisible, and indeterminate object in the confined space of an unidentified room, which opens onto other rooms through a lone door and is fenced off in the foreground by horizontal strings, strings that form, along with an unidentified pendulum, the frame of this black-and-white motion picture, which in turn opens onto the darkened gallery space and becomes a kind of extension of it, into another world. The grappling goes on in a repetitive manner until the body flags, but not to the point of complete surrender; the video vanishes into itself and its repetitions like the repeated strokes of the pendulum and their faint sound, which combined with the creaking wood floor are the resonance of this video, leading us into a world that words do not compass nor descriptions explain: What world is this that hails us here; what struggle is proceeding in this extension of the dim gallery space?

Though the gallery is a public artspace and calls for an “aesthetic judgment” of objects placed within it, we may allow ourselves the pleasure, for the moment at least, of letting the matter of “aesthetics” rest and venturing to lead our thoughts back before the time of aesthetics, to that time and existence that knew neither to distinguish the true from the beautiful or being from its manifestations, what is from what appears to be: i.e., to the world of myth.

The Vatican Museum in Rome preserves an old stone cistern from about 160 C.E. that depicts in relief the punishments of Sisyphus, Ixion, and Tantalus, three figures from Greek mythology who each met a grim demise for having disrupted the divine and natural order that placed inviolable limits on human existence. Of the three, Sisyphus, founder of Corinth, is best known; he bound Thanatos, god of death, in chains and thereby halted mortal traffic to the Underworld. When the gods had freed Thanatos from captivity and cleared the traffic jam, Hades god of the underworld sentenced Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone up a steep mountain slope forevermore.

Sisyphos Ixion Tantalus sarcofago Vatmussvhv

Ixion, offspring of Ares the war god, is known in mythology for having contrived his father-in-law’s death to avoid the dowry payment. The first Olympian to fracture the familial sanctum with murder, Ixion was condemned to exile. Zeus pitied him, however, and allowed him onto Mount Olympus. There too Ixion transgressed, sexually harassing Zeus’s wife Hera, and was punished by being lured to have sex with a cloud that had assumed Hera´s shape. The offspring of Ixion and the cloud were the centaurs, half-man and half-beast. When Zeus had thus confirmed Ixion’s guilt, Ixion was sentenced to be bound to a burning wheel, to waft through the sky forevermore.

Tantalus, father of Pelops, was said to have killed his son and served him to the gods at a feast he held for them. As the first cannibal, his punishment in the underworld was to dwell forevermore in water, unable to quench his thirst, and below fruit-laden trees, unable to quell his hunger.

To our minds these myths are metaphors that testify to Greek and Roman understanding of universal divine and natural principles and fit punishment for the hubris of defying them. The sentences are cruel in that they are endless and therefore preclude reprieve or fulfillment. For some reason I connected the Roman relief illustrating these punishments to Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work Prelude. Perhaps it was Sisyphus who brought the image to mind; some tie existed between his story and the story in the video. My question might then be: Can we view Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video image as a metaphor, allegory, or form of myth that depicts one thing and says another? What distinguishes Prelude from pure mythology?

Romans and Greeks who made images of Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers did not know how to render an “aesthetic judgment” of their torments; images showing the punishment of Sisyphus referred to unerring natural principles that applied equally to everyone irrespective of aesthetic or taste, irrespective of education or social status. Myth is beyond all aesthetic measures. It concerns familiar, basic aspects of each person’s life. Does the title Prelude—precursor, forerunner—perhaps point back toward the time and thought that reigned before aesthetics and “disinterested taste” came on the scene? With the advent of those ideas a certain gap formed between the viewer and the artist’s primary subjective experience of truth. Such a rift occurred in the 18th century, with the emergence of a branch of theory that specialized in the beautiful in and of itself and the emergence of the gallery and art museum as social and institutional settings and mediators of the beautiful; both developments were based on the idea of the artist’s free and subjective creativity on the one hand and on the viewer’s disinterested taste for beauty on the other. Still today, art institutions presuppose for us an aesthetic frame around their holdings, on the basis of that impartial taste and disinterested pleasure that Kant saw as the measure of the beautiful. Mythological truth, by contrast, does not require the aesthetic mediation of a gallery or museum; it is part, and offspring, of nature itself.

The German philosopher Hegel recognized the profound implications of this shift, which he tied to early 19th-century Romantic ideals of freedom, among other things. His analysis of this shift still has remarkable contemporary relevance. He writes:

In our day, in the case of almost all peoples, criticism, the cultivation of reflection, and, in our German case, freedom of thought have mastered the artists too, and have made them, so to say, a tabula rasa in respect of the material and the form of their productions, after the necessary particular stages of the romantic art-form have been traversed. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension. No content, no form is any longer immediately identical with the inwardness, the nature, the unconscious substantial essence of the artist; every material may be indifferent to him if only it does not contradict the formal law of being simply beautiful and capable of artistic treatment. Today there is no material which stands in and for itself above this relativity, and even if one matter be raised above it, still there is at least no absolute need for its representation by art.[1]

As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out, the shift that Hegel is discussing here is too far-reaching to simply be dismissed as past history:

„Once the creative subjectivity of the artist begins to place itself above his material and his production, like a playwright who freely puts his characters on the scene, this shared concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth. Everything that the spectator can still find in the work of art is, now, mediated by aesthetic representation [italics added], which is itself, independently of any content, the supreme value and the most intimate truth that unfolds its power in the artwork itself and starting from the artwork itself. The free creative principle of the artist rises up like a precious veil of Maya between the spectator and such truth as he can attain in the work of art, a veil of which he will never be able to take possession concretely, but only through the reflection in the magic mirror of his taste.“[2]

Thus the difference between the Roman image of Sisyphus and the video work Prelude is that while Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers teach us immutable natural laws native to all flesh and bone, in the video work there are no principles to be found that do not enjoy the protection of the opaque veil of aesthetics, which Agamben likens to the clothing in Goya‘s painting Clothed Maya, which forever impedes our getting a sense of Maya´s flesh. Aesthetics has thus turned truth into a matter of taste within “pure Culture,” as Agamben puts it, whereby viewers see their own Selves as Other, their own subjective beings as abstracted beings. No defined content or concrete measure of personal being are discoverable in the work, only the perfect alienation of the self. Viewers have no way to approach the work but through this alienation, says Agamben. The original unity of the work has been fractured, since on the one hand we have aesthetic judgment and on the other hand the artist’s subjective creative principles, without specified content.

Is, then, the truth of the artwork Prelude to be found precisely in this rift? Doesn’t the work indicate this rift? On the one hand we have the staged subjective being of the artist, without defined content, the pure and free principles of the created work. On the other hand we have the viewer who contemplates the work through the veil of taste that the museum has already created for him. Both seek some primary truth, but there is an impenetrable wall between them.

When one considers that the naked man in Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work is Guðjónsson himself, this aesthetic chasm between artist and viewer nears the point of pathos. The artist’s staged grappling with an indeterminate obstacle does not achieve full meaning until the work is in place in the gallery and the viewer arrives on the scene. Then the nakedness is no longer naked, but rather hidden by Maya´s æsthetical veil; the grappling is a show in the gallery proscenium and as soon as the viewer enters the room he is caught in the magic mirror of taste, which has no set premises, least of all within himself, no common values of “beauty” or of the particular quality an object must possess to earn the status of art. Though one may say that Prelude is well-composed from a formal standpoint, that each part serves the whole, and that the general impression is “strong,” this sheds little light for us, let alone on ourselves. Here aesthetics ring false. If the artwork’s content is not contained in its form, then what does the artwork say? How can we find words for the event that occurs when we enter the room? The ready conclusion is that here we witness the artist grappling at the cage of aesthetics in which the whole art world has locked him.

The artist’s struggle with the work of creation was different in nature in Greek and Roman days. The artist was primarily the tool of natural forces; his truth was their truth. Perhaps this began to change with the Renaissance and humanism.

A. Durer_ Melancolia I

Dürer’s renowned masterpiece Melancholia, from 1514, is interpreted by most as an allegory of the artist’s existential predicament, the predicament concealed in all artistic creation. Dürer relies here on a well-known imaginary allegorical framework, in which reasonably familiar objects and phenomena from the world of alchemy, arcana, and hermetic science frame the existential situation dictated by unshakeable natural principles or, in the worldview of the day, the will of the Christian god, to which humanity was obliged to submit, so that its own creative work would correspond in every way to the original creation of the world in ancient times. The artist was to recreate the world. There is no call here to analyze the many allusions to hermetic science imbedded in Dürer’s picture; it suffices to point out that we need no “aesthetic” to receive those messages. For Dürer scarcely would have understood the meaning of the word, any more than ideas of “common taste” or “disinterested pleasure.” The story of the path to the philosopher’s stone through the martyrdom of matter, through cosmic darkness and up the ladder to the eternal light of truth, is told here in a masterful way via allegorical code. Can Dürer’s Melancholia provide a clue to the hidden message of the naked man in the video Prelude?

If we view Dürer’s Melancholia and Prelude as parallels insofar as each work depicts in its way the existential situation of the artist at creative work, the question arises: what distinguishes the two? In what aspects does Dürer’s presentation differ from that of the video, and what can we glean from that? Most obvious is the technical difference: one image has sound and motion; the other is still and silent. For our purposes, that difference is perhaps not key. What is more important is that while Dürer uses an imagined personification of melancholy as his proxy, in Prelude the author himself is alone and naked in the lead role.

Here it may be instructive to consult the figurative language shaped by Friedrich Nietzsche in his first book on Greek tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie) in which he portrays the Apollonian and Dionysian as two opposite and coactive poles of Greek tragedy, a notion which would shape all his subsequent philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the polar opposites of Apollonian and Dionysian wisdom also stood for appearance and being: the fixed image (apparent in sculpture) and the fluid chaos and volatility of pain and pleasure (apparent in music). Nietzsche sees these powers grappling in all the arts, the Apollonian masking the underlying volatile pain. If we compare the two works by Dürer and Guðjónsson in light of the hypothesis that they both portray the existential situation of the creative artist, then in Dürer’s work Dionysian chaos is hidden under many layers of Apollonian masks, all the symbols of hermetic science, the feminine persona of Melancholy, Hermes disguised as angel child, the curled dog, the bat, the millstone, the black sun, and Athanorum itself, the tower that conceals the alchemical forge with its simmering flames. These facets (and others that fill out the visual narration) all play the role of the mask that tragedy employs to hide the pain and chaos simmering below, which are, according to Nietzsche, the essential content of melancholy and of Dionysian tragedy. Sigurður Guðjónsson makes a conscious attempt in this work to throw off all Apollonian masks, to approach the Dionysian core—but can’t get all the way: he is locked in the cage of aesthetics that bars him from both the viewer and himself, in a work that we may understand as an attempt on Apollonian aesthetics as such. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in The Birth of Tragedy:

„The Apollonian illusion reveals its identity as the veil thrown over the Dionysiac meanings for the duration of the play, and yet the illusion is so potent that at its close the Apollonian drama is projected into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysiac wisdom, thereby denying itself and its Apollonian concreteness. The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolized by a fraternal union between the two deities; Dionysos speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached“.[3]

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger


[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, transl. T. M. Knox, Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1998, vol. 1, “The Romantic Form of Art,” p. 605.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (1994), transl. by Georgia Albert, Stanford, California (Stanford University Press), 1999, pp. 36-37.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), ch. XXI, transl. by Francis Golffing, New York (Doubleday), 1956, p. 131.