Eftirfarandi texti um litafræði Birgis Andréssonar fannst í tölvu minni nýverið. Hann mun hafa verið skrifaður á ensku fyrir sýningarskrá sem ég á ekki í mínum fórum, en mig minnir að sýningin hafi verið haldin í Lundi í Svíþjóð nálægt síðustu aldamótum. Birgir var vinur minn og lést langt fyrir aldur fram 2007. Ég á ekki eintak af þessum texta á íslensku, enda mun hann hafa veið skrifaður á ensku.
The following text about the color-studies of Birgir Andrésson (1956-2007) was written around year 2000 for a cataloge of Birgir's exhibition somewhere abroad, maybe in Lund Swden. I don't have a copy of the cataloge, but recently I found the original text written in English in the depths of my HardDrive. Birgir was a dear friend of mine.
The Mathematics of Color
On Birgir Andrésson’s Icelandic palette
When I asked Birgir Andrésson, after having seen his studies on „Icelandic colors“, if he had read Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, he said:
–No, but I was born and brought up by blind parents.
This remarkable experience made him passionate for art as a child, and later led him into investigation of the relationship between language and visual experience.
A wise man has said that we do not see with our eyes, but our mind. The mind transforms immediately what we see with our eyes into signs that become part of a visual language[i].
In his Remarks, Wittgenstein makes a clear example: he has before his eyes a black and white photograph that shows an old car and two men standing by. Then he says: It would be very natural for me to describe the photograph in these words: „A man with dark hair and a boy with combed-back blond hair are standing by the machine“. This is how I would describe the photograph, and if someone said that doesn’t describe it but the objects that were probably photographed, I could say the picture looks as though the hair had been that color.[ii]
What amazed Wittgenstein was the fact that he immediately interpreted the grey spot in the picture as if it was the color blond. When a color that is grey in one sense becomes blond in another sense it tells us that the color is not a visual sensation, but a construct of the mind.
Wittgenstein points out that the concepts we use for colors are no more related to the vision than the concepts of numbers are related to the phenomena of nature. When we look at a colored surface we put what we see into a logical system which he calls mathematics of color[iii]or geometry of color[iv]. The rules of these „mathematics“ or this „geometry of color“ are in no relationship to visual experience, because they are of a different category.
When we learn in early childhood to master the concepts of colors, we are being introduced to a social custom that Wittgenstein calls game of language. We learn about the four primary colors that make the opposites in the color scheme. We learn that the colors black and white don’t belong to the color-scheme and that a transparent object can never be white, although it can look white. These, Wittgenstein says, are rules that have been constructed to adapt the language to the visual experience.
But they are a construct, just like the numbers or the traffic rules, and they do not belong to the realm of nature. What is there in favor of saying that green is a primary color, not a blend of blue and yellow? Would it be right to say: You can only know it directly by looking at the colors? But how do I know that I mean the same by the words primary colors as some other person who is also inclined to call green a primary color? No, – here language games decide.[v]
When Birgir Andrésson is showing us standardized colors and naming them „Icelandic“ he is leading us into the danger-zone where we find the borderline between the rules of language and visual experience. The industrial standards of color that Birgir is using with his color experiments are the paradigm that Wittgenstein calls the „mathematics“ and „geometry“ of color. They are based on chemical factors which are as close to the visual experience as we can reach. Naming these colors „Icelandic“ is based on a local experience that Birgir has obtained through his investigation of the use of colors in traditional Icelandic handicraft and housing. It raises the question if the category „Icelandic“ is based on visual experience or on the „language-game“. This is an enigma that Wittgenstein poses in his paragraph on „reddish-green“ and „yellowish-blue“: But even if there were also people for whom it was natural to use the expressions „reddish-green“ or „yellowish-blue“ in a consistent manner and who perhaps also exhibit abilities which we lack, we would still not be forced to recognize that they see colors which we do not see. There is, after all, no commonly accepted criterion for what a color is, unless it is one of our colors.[vi]
According to the rules of positivism we should be able to proof the meaning and truth of our statements through experience. But how can we proof through visual experience that a grey spot is blond? With his Remarks on Colors Wittgenstein has undermined the premises of positivism. He even says that the answer why he can make the statement that something has the color red could as well be: because I have learnt English[vii].
The questions Birgir Andrésson is confronting in his studies of the color „Icelandic“ are rooted in his experience of growing up with blind parents. He was already as a child confronting the problem of communication between the blind and the seeing that Wittgenstein describes like this: When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says„Who knows what he imagines that to mean“ – But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.[viii]
Why is the expression wrong? Quoting again the Remarks: We could say people ‘s concepts show what matters to them and what doesn’t. But it is not as if this explained the particular concepts they have. It is only to rule out the view that we have the right concepts and other people the wrong ones. (There is a continuum between an error in calculation and different mode of calculating.)[ix].
This means that the community of the blind and the community of the Icelandic do have some concepts of color that are as valid in their game of language as are the chemical standards of the industries of color. None of them is based on visual experiece, but on the rules of the language game. The works of Birgir Andrésson are rising challenging questions about the relationship between language and vision and how we use language and vision to understand reality.
Birgir Andrésson: Kyrralíf. Color Icelandic 2070 Y60R og Icelandic 2005 Y50R
[i] Paul Valery: Berte Morisot in Pieces sur l’art, 1924, here from Italian trans.: „Scritti sull’arte“, pub. TEA Arte, 1966, pages 124-125.
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Remarks on Color, University of California Press, 1978, III., § 276
A short address for a conference on art criticism, held in the Living Art Museum in March 2010, published in “6thVolume, part 3”, catalogue edited by Katrin I Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir Hirt and Gunnhildur Hauksdóttir, August 2013
Writing about art is writing about one’s self and one’s own thoughts and to mirror them in others. I use art as such a mirror and as a motivator in my search for words which are meant to sort out my chaotic thoughts.
Through art, I have discovered thoughts that have lingered on in my mind, but in order for me to gather vocabulary and methods to reach those thoughts and organize them I have found myself compelled to utilize the vocabulary and concepts of philosophy.
The questions I have pondered and discovered through art have developed over the years and taken on a clearer form.
I think they can be simplified into a few rudimentary points that essentially pertain to an exploration of the limits between opposite systems.
I went to study in Rome at a fairly young age and that experience had a lasting effect on me. Living in Rome is like living in an art museum. At the same time Rome is the city of the pope and the church, and the majority of the art which can be found there is of a religious nature.
I was in Rome when the student revolt was starting in the sixties. It was a general revolt against all traditions and included desacralizing of all theorems of old beliefs, whether they were related to the spiritual or the secular political system. It was in fact a kind of fundamental change or escalation of the secularisation which had characterized modernism in art from the first half of the 20th century. I found out that desacralizing couldn’t take place unless something existed which was sacred and thus needed to be desacralized. The idea of desacralizing therefore leads directly to the question of the boundaries between the sacred and its opposite and what they may contain. This could be material for a long conversation…
These boundaries between the sacred and the sacrilegious can appear in different ways that could for instance revolve around the boundaries between the rational and delirium or dreams. I have found these boundaries in nearly all art that has sparked my interest, and that too would be material for a long discussion if it were to be explored here.
Another idea which grabbed my attention in my student years and has occupied my mind ever since, is the relationship between the soul and the body. Namely the paradox that exists within Christian art and I experienced all over Rome. Having „The sacred“ as its subject matter Christian art is nonetheless utterly obsessed by the body, flesh and blood in its purest form. This mysterious boundary between the spiritual and physical has been on my mind, and when I find works of contemporary art that I feel touch these boundaries it immediately catches my interests.
This question about the body became ever more intense as time went by and I understood its connection to visual perception and the magic that takes place when a new visibility is created through our senses in the rendezvous between the living body and its environment, and the world.
New visibility can never be created from that which is already known, understood and defined. I realized that one of the big questions concerns the boundaries between the body as a living being and the environment. The art which covers or sheds light on this mysterious relationship between the living body as a being and the environment has been an endless
mystery to me, and I always become grateful when I find art which can shed new light on this phenomenon, art which forces me to discover new words and sentences to understand this mystery.
The vocabulary which I have accumulated through the reading of philosophers has proven necessary for me to organize my thoughts and also to understand myself. But, since my path went from art to philosophy, I have had a fairly strict rule of testing philosophical terms against art wherever possible. It is art which has called for the terms and the concepts but not vice versa. For me art has been both a starting point and a benchmark. Philosophy which avoids paradoxes and symbols has not caught my interest any more than the multiplication table, a census, or the phonebook.
Examples of terms that I have acquired through philosophy and pondered in this field are terms such as immanence and transcendence, terms that probably draw their origins from theology where they are used to describe the presence and transcendence of the godhead, for example.
These are however terms that concern a much more casual and earthly experience.
For example, the living body which is standing here in front of you in all its immanence is at the same time transcending itself. Being here I am at the same time transcending into your thoughts on an endless journey through art, places, words and concepts. Our living being as a body is first and foremost a transcendent being. It is fundamental to the being that it reaches beyond the outer boundaries of the body, which science would classify as a limited object.
Likewise, it is a fundamental factor of our perception that we can neither perceive nor understand what we open ourselves to in a total and universal way in all its immanence and nature. The phenomena always maintain a furtive shelter behind their perceivable surface and their perceivable form. Therefore we experience both affinity and distance towards that which we perceive. This distance is what I believe theology calls a transcendent being. It is a term which applies to the perceivable world as a whole and need not be limited to religion or wishful thinking of another life for example.
All powerful perception of reality contains immanence and transcendence at the same time. This boundary is a mystery that I have a tendency to be drawn towards when I experience it in a work of art, no matter if it has the facade of religion or atheism.
Our visual perception is in itself a paradox that contains these two opposite terms in one and the same event, where visibility is created on the boundaries between imminence and transcendence. All works of art that approach this paradox in a new or interesting manner compel me to find and come up with words and concepts to figure out this paradox that the artist displays with his work.
In closing, I must mention one term which has been a mystery to me, the term ‘truth’. It was a revelation to me when I discovered Martin Heidegger’s idea that truth had nothing to do with so-called ‘facts’, but that it revolved around being or not being. Truth is an event but not a fact said Heidegger, and we experience truth when we see it happen. When I read this I sensed how often I had experienced truth as an event whilst looking at a work of art, an event related to being, its activation and opening towards the world. Truth is like a volcanic eruption; creation without an end, and its transcendence or non-being follows us all the way to the final paradox of life and death.
(In August 2011 I undertook the assignment to present myself and perform as a work of art made by the Icelandic artist Katrín I. Jonsdottir Hjördisardottir Hirst at an exhibition in Langenlois, Austria. The following text is an apology for that work of art, performed during the exhibition.)
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 cruellest 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 marvellous and mysterious image. Wherein lays 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 radicalschism: 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, for 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.”
Seeing is not a specific way of thinking, or a specific presence in itself: it is a means that I have recieved in order to be absent from myself, to live from inside a specific division of being, which leads me at the end back into the self.
The Dutch artist Kees Visser has been active in the Icelandic art-scene since the seventies, at the beginning through his acquaintance with young Icelandic artist studying in Holland at that time, and then moving to Iceland in 1976. He was one of the founders of The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík 1978, and participated in numerous exhibitions and activities until he moved back to Holland in 1992. Since then he has been a regular visitor in Iceland and his ties to the Icelandic art scene have never been interrupted. One of his most memorable exhibitions was his one man show in The Living Art Museum the year he moved back to Holland, where he presented a systematic investigation of some fundamental elements of visual arts like color and form, realized in so called wooden and coloured „bar-works“ where questions concerning how our visual and tactile perception of colors and forms relate to our thoughts and our spoken language. After moving to Holland, Kees Visser‘s investigation into language of forms and colors has radically deepened so that he is now to be considered among the foremost artists in his field.
When overlooking the career of Kees Visser you can‘t miss the relationship between his artistic investigation and the investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein concerning the relationship between our color-perception and the words of the spoken language. Wittgenstein’s investigations are always dealing with the relationship between rational thought and perception, where the perception of color and the name of the color become the key to philosophical questions about relationship between language and reality in general. Wittgenstein’s conclusion was basically that semantic discourses follow different rules than perception, and that the words we use for example about colors are a matter of consensus, but have little or no relation to our perception as such: the word “yellow” means the color yellow if the majority of a linguistic community has agreed on that equivalence, not because the equivalence is real. The rationalistic discourse of language ends up in a formal tautology if we want to make a direct connection between the word and the phenomenon it is supposed to mean. At the end language is self-referential and outside this self-referential world we have silence. Wittgenstein remains always trapped in between this impasse of words, perception and things. One of his conclusions is anyway that after all it is “experience that gives meaning to the words”. That means that the experience of the color yellow gives the word “yellow” its meaning. That conclusion leaves open one question: what kind of experience gives meaning to the word “experience”?
These questions of Wittgenstein come easily to our mind when we look at Kees Visser’s works, but through closer look we can see that the visual artist is approaching these problems from quite a different experience and using quite different methods than the artist of linguistics we can see in Wittgenstein. To simplify, we can trace Visser’s investigation back to his “bar-works” from his exhibition in 1992, where the natural approach of the visual artist widens and deepens the semiotic discourse of the philosophical approach by connecting the colors to their form and the perception that does not rise from words but from the physical approach of the perceiver and the object perceived. After his return to Holland Visser’s investigations have deepened and left us ever more clear statements where the silence that Wittgenstein found outside the realm of language as the world of the unspeakable, is shouting toward us in a variety of systematic series of works that lead us far away from the semantic enigma of the words to the real enigma of vision itself and the visible, which has its roots in our bodies and the being that never can be separated from its physical context. If words do nothing but describe language, then colors and forms have a direct and immediate connection to the perceiver in the paradox that makes what is outside the reach of our hands and our words become inside ourselves as a new visibility that has its intrinsic logic and magic beyond all syntax and semiotics of the words.
The series of paintings by Visser are all extremely simple in their appearance, and might at first seem to eco the tautology of words that many followers of Wittgenstein introduced in conceptual and minimalist art of the last decades of the 20th century. Those artists maintained that just as the word does no longer mean anything but itself, the same would do with form and color. But as we look closer at Visser’s images, those series who appear at first glance to be monochrome squares or stripes, we are caught by an unfamiliar stimulus: the squares are not “perfect” and the colors proof to be more complicated and deeper than at first sight, they have a rough surface of pure pigment, and looking at the surface we see the light reflecting in various ways and the color dissolve at the edges, all depending on our distance and direction of perspective. Suddenly we are directed into a world of color and forms whose reference is outside the spoken language aiming directly into our bodies, where not only the eyes but the whole body receives a message in the form of a new visibility that dwells beyond the words. We experience the most subtle variations in rhythm of forms and colors that call for our deepest attention. Visser is unafraid to show us his working processes and his systematic way of proceeding, exposing his working papers as musical manuscripts with lines and measurement standards designed as scores for form and colors. Here we discover that behind all the simplicity in the appearance of the work lies a complicated theoretical work, aimed at provoking the perceptive stimulus that slowly becomes an illumination: the color isn’t just color and the form isn’t just form and their context results to be a conclusion of complicated calculus that provoke harmony in our perception, similar to what we can find in serial music where the notes are arranged according to certain arithmetic rules.
The characteristic of language is that we use words to discern things and ideas in order to master them. That kind of discernment is often implicit in language as almost an unconscious act. We often say for example: “I can’t believe my own eyes!” By using that phrase we have distinguished the eyes from ourselves and distinguished our body from the self and our consciousness, as if it was a crystal clear and immaterial thought. But everybody should know that our eyes are not sufficient means for seeing. In reality we do not see with our eyes at all, as they are a part of an opaque and complex net that makes our body and being in its totality. Often this misunderstanding is supported by the way language discerns our perception of what we see from “the thing in itself” as if we were dealing with two different entities. But as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, our perceptions in general, and especially our visual perception is a reciprocal cross-action based on communion and identification of the perceiver and the perceived. Besides Merleau-Ponty has doubted if things have a being “in themselves” as if things were given a “self”.
Instead of investigating the relationship between color-perception and language, as Wittgenstein did, Ponty studied the relationship between the colors and our body: the fact that color can affect the motorial intentions of our body. Thus we know that yellow and red colors have an “expanding” and exciting effect but blue and green have the opposite effect. These simple phenomena do not tell the whole story, because we can experience how the colors in Visser’s works change according to our physical position and movement. Our distance from the object and our movement have a direct effect on our perception. The same goes for the subtile variations in forms that we find in his works, we perceive them according to our own physical movements. In the end our perception of these works is not conditioned by our understanding of the complex systematic preparatory calculus, prepared by the artist as a basis for our understanding of his work; what happens is the contrary: these variations in colors and forms create an echo in our bodies, and this echo becomes a new experience which is not based on a calculus or a system, but rather on direct perception without words and without logical analysis. In the same way we can understand the work from the point of view of the artist: the strong and systematic framework that he creates is not there to block the expression. Certainly we are not seeing traditional expressionistic brushstrokes or formations, rather we perceive suspension magnified by the strict rules set to expression. Every brushstroke in these works eliminates the underlying one and creates layers or sediments of the artists efforts to stay within the restraints. The same goes for the formal variations that affect us at closer looking and creates an echo inside ourselves as if listening to music.
As Kees Visser’s art has been strictly abstract from the very beginning it comes as a surprise that recently he has been showing, along with his strictly geometric abstract works, images of flowers which appear at first glance to be of the most simple kind: a single flower opened up on the middle of the canvas with different shades of gray color in the background. At first sight they look like normal photographs, but at closer watch we see something strange. The depth and sharpness of the image doesn’t fit completely with the distance we are used to see between the digital or analog image and its object. We feel some uncommon physical closeness in these color-images which almost brings the flower itself into presence. By closer investigation we discover that these are not traditional photographs, but images made through direct hyper sensitive electronic scanning process transferred into a digital print. Beyond all debate on “abstract” and “figurative” imaging, Visser is here dealing with similar problematics as in his abstract paintings, a problem that Merleau-Ponty called the enigma of visual perception:
“This shows us that the question of figurative or abstract art is badly proposed: it is true, and not a contradiction, that no grape has ever been what we see in a painting, also in the most figurative painting, and it is also true that no painting, however abstract it might be, can never be withdrawn from Beeing, and that Caravaggio’s grape is the grape itself. These statements make no contradiction. The preference we give to what is, against what is seen or shown, the preference we give to what is seen or shown, against what is, is vision itself. “
Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s exhibition of drawings at the ASÍ Museum in Reykjavík 2012
Trail is the name that Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir has given her latest series of charcoal drawings, abstract drawings that indeed show a trail: something has marked the pictorial surface in the course of passing on. These are drawings that echo some kind of handwriting or calligraphy in nature, repetitive patterns that might bear friendly attribution to the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. Yet this is not a case of direct portrayal; these are a kind of reference to the roots of the handwriting, testament to the artist’s vital relationship with the natural kingdom, not through objective imitation of it but via the “trails” the handwriting traces through live contact between the hand and the pictorial surface, in a dialogue as transient as the passing moment. The questions these drawings are apt to raise may sound something like this: What has been and gone and left a trail on this ground, what is this ground, where did the path start, and where does it lead?
These are not easy questions but it is precisely the magic of significant art to present us with conundrums.
Let us consider the first part of the question: What has been and gone here and left a trail? The simplest answer is perhaps to say that it was the very artist, that these pictures show her fingerprints and nothing else. One might say in support that these drawings all attest to a hand’s bodily contact with the pictorial surface. There is a distinct bodily presence/absence in these pictures, which we clearly feel. But why then does the artist not let it suffice to leave the tracks of her palms and feet on the pictorial surface? What is the errand, in this work, of this calligraphy, these constantly repeated marks that perhaps call to mind indeterminate natural phenomena? Here is a clouded issue that needs clarifying.
When the police wish to identify a culprit, one traditional means of investigation is to take the suspect’s fingerprints and compare them with corresponding marks found at the crime scene. The accused dips a finger in ink and presses it on paper; it leaves an indisputable imprint, indisputable proof that the accused has left this trail, traversed this ground. The difference between the police’s fingerprintmaking and Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s calligraphy is that the fingerprint is not an artwork in any traditional sense, so that our question leads to another still-more-difficult question: What sets an artwork apart from fingerprints, if both evidence the trails of their “authors”?
“Art is the sensual manifestation of the Idea,” said the German philosopher Hegel, and few have disputed this sharp definition: art concerns ideas. This can scarcely be said of fingerprints. To see a fingerprint gives us small notion of the relevant person, his thought or ideas; the fingerprint’s evidential value pertains to mechanical comparison.
An artwork is another matter, isn’t it? We need see only a small fragment of a Van Gogh to see his “imprint” or fingerprints in the brushstrokes, imprints that form part of a whole image that is recognizable to us from our endless trips though Van Gogh’s oeuvre. But this does not apply to all art in equal measure. Pioneers of abstract art such as Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky wanted to erase the personal imprint, the fingerprints, from their art, so it would display itself and nothing else. The same goes for Byzantine iconographers, for example (cf. the Image of Edessa or the Veil of Veronica). It also applies to many contemporary pop artists, minimalists, and conceptual artists (Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Lawrence Weiner); examples are innumerable. This definition of artworks as marks or fingerprints of their authors’ personalities and subjective beings is thus insufficient, to put it mildly. Placed in the broader historical context it is nearly useless, for who would think of searching out authorial personality or self-awareness in the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Venus de Milo, the carved doors at Valthjófsstaðir, or even the Mona Lisa? Whose tracks mark Malevich’s work of 1914-15, his “supremist” Black Square? What trail was blazed in that work? If in this case it is the trail of an idea, it depicts something other than the personality or subjective being of the artist.
But what of Delacroix, Van Gogh, and all the Expressionists from Munch to Jackson Pollock: Is their expressive “handwriting” not “fingerprints of the soul,” to use the common metaphor? The ready answer is that, just as a name objectifies the phenomenon it names, this “handwriting” is also an objectification, and the subjective being that renders an object as its own image is always elsewhere, beyond the picture. If the subjective being wishes to reveal itself in the handwriting, it is always “another,” as the poet Rimbaud said, of himself. A unity of the self and the handwriting can never be rendered, even in the automatic writing of the Surrealists, who always set themselves rules for rendering chaos. Just as language “speaks us,” as Lacan put it, handwriting is a “rule” that gives objective form to its subject, whether that is the invisibility of the “subjective being” or Platonic transcendental forms. The subjective being instantly vanishes from its rendered image, is elsewhere.
But what was “the Idea” that Hegel discussed and what is its relation to the artist’s person? Is “the Idea” something that has deep personal and subjective roots, or something connected to language and the laws thereof, or is it perhaps the absolute and immutable idea of the divinity that dwells beyond the personal, a kind of Platonic idea of universal truth? French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy speaks to this question:
The [Hegelian] Idea is the presentation to itself of being or the thing. It is thus its internal conformation and its visibility, or in other words, it is the thing itself as vision/envisioned…(the thing seen, envisioned, grasped in its form, but from within itself or its essence).
In this regard, art is the sensual visibility of this intelligible, that is invisible, visibility. The invisible form—Plato’s eidos—returns to itself and appropriates itself as visible. Thus [art] brings into the light of day and manifests the being of its Form and its form of Being. All the great theories of “imitation” have never been anything but theories of the imitation, or the image, of the Idea (which is itself, you understand, but the self-imitation of being, its transcendent or transcendental miming)—and reciprocally, all thinking about the Idea is thinking about the image or imitation. Including, and especially, when it detaches itself from the imitation of external forms or from “nature”….All this thinking is thus theological, turning obstinately around the great motif of “the visible image of the invisible God” which for Origen is the definition of Christ.
This analysis of Hegel’s “Idea” is not easy to grasp, for Nancy is guiding us away from conventional definitions of “things” toward a meditation on being as a temporal event, on being’s paradoxical manifestation as both event and image. This account seems to lead us to an unexpected place, the field of pure theology.
Our original question was: What has been and gone here and made a trail? Then is the answer that it was Christ? No, obviously not, but the myth of the paradoxical appearance and disappearance of the Godhead as a condition for its existence can perhaps explain for us the nature of this riddle of the sensual manifestation of the invisible: just as God, as the image of the invisible, needs the sensual and visible image of Christ in order to be himself, the Hegelian Idea (the idea of the universal and of the absolute unity of vision and the seen) needs to emerge from its invisible husk and become sensual in order to be itself.
In our day, however, ideas about universal qualities (and the absolute unity of the name and the named) have undergone many devaluations, and though it might be possible to discern a search for universal ideas in a Malevich’s supreme black square of 1914 (as if it were a Byzantine icon), that image is equally and perhaps above all testimony to the disappearance of such an idea. The black square depicts disappearance and nothingness no less than the fullness of the Idea. Possibly Hegel too had sensed this devaluation of “the Idea” when he proclaimed the end of art as an arena for the manifestation of universal ideas. He was referring not least to sacred art and the disappearance of its sacred core. Thus Hegel’s proclamation of the end of art has premises akin to those of the iconoclasts, who wished to forbid images in order to keep the idea of an invisible God separate from its sensual manifestations.
Then what remains? Again it is Jean-Luc Nancy who picks up the scent, by stating that the “vision” that stimulates all creative art is a vision of nothingness, a view into the void, a kind of negative image of the universal ideas. All images spring from anxiety in the face of nothingness, says Nancy, but this negative image of the Hegelian idea also conveys an awareness of its reverse; it harbors what Nancy calls almost nothingness. This he chooses to name ‘vestige’, a Latin word with many derivations pertaining to tracks, trails, and traces.
And here we come back to Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s Trails. Nancy says that in order to understand this trail, this vestige, we must abandon Hegel’s notion of the “sensual manifestation of the Idea” along with the theological framework it belongs to, though the latter can serve as a means of illumination. To embody an absolute idea of the sacred was never the real task of art, Nancy says; only the theological iconoclasts held this position, based on misunderstanding. Art has certainly had ties to religions and their histories, but art is not religious practice nor does it entail belief. Nancy’s conclusion is that art is the vestige of itself and nothing else, its own trail or track; its meter and measure are that of a wandering gait; its imprints attest to vanished foot soles, bodies, and hands; its steps are a temporal event, the action itself without being the act, the vestige or path that being traces while it lasts. The trail or vestige thus becomes the manifestation of the disappearance of that which has been and gone, traversed this ground: What remains when someone or something has passed by.
Who, then, has made this trail? It is not the trail of the gods, says Nancy, but rather the trail of their disappearance. The steps of this passage are transient events that possess no form once they have been taken; they are the path left by being while it lasts. It is not the universal footprint but the emptiness that remains: The trace or trail is not the image of a tangible object, a finger- or footprint, but rather witness to the traverse itself, which is constant and unceasing; movement not stasis; the image of what vanishes not what is; the arena of being, ceaseless in the flow of time; a trail left by a traveller whom we don’t recognize, for it could be anyone, one or all. The traveller’s name is still a name and “the Idea” still an image, but Nancy renounces their metaphysical meaning. This renunciation that Nancy proclaims is perhaps not good for nothing: it goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of the iconoclasts’ despairing opposition to imagery, an opposition based on “the Idea” of the image of man and God (and the analysis—separation of elements, division—entailed in that idea).
It was Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s chosen name for her series of drawings, “Trail,” that led us into Jean-Luc Nancy’s complicated meditations on art as its own vestige. They tell us that the “trail” is that of art itself and that the ground is art itself. Art’s traverse has no start or endpoint that is “off track,” out of the way, or out of sight; art finds its goal and meaning through its own action. If imitation or “mimesis” is in play, its purpose is not to teach us how objects familiar to us appear, but rather to let what is shine forth in all its power. Thus Jónsdóttir’s “trails” depict themselves: the trace that is the vestige of Art and Being, the being that has to do with time and event rather than with object and definition. The power of these images therefore derives not from an imitation of natural phenomena or an expression of a given personal subjective being, but in a game that is justified by its own rules. In this respect we can liken these drawings to child’s play. Whether in Double Dutch, Follow the Leader, or Wallball, all rules and motions in child’s play are justified by the game itself. The game reveals itself and nothing else; it seeks its meaning and goal in the play and nothing beyond play. A child jumping rope or playing hopscotch depicts nothing but those motions, motions which obey their own set rules and compel us to watch, learn the rules, and respond with direct or indirect participation.
Thus it is of little avail to search these Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir drawings for likenesses, either of natural phenomena or of Jónsdóttir’s own personality or character. The meaning of these drawings rests in themselves, the action of their making, and nothing else. What happens as we experience these drawings is an experience of sympathy closely akin to our sympathetic response in watching child’s play. There are few things more human than such sympathy, and when the artist has succeeded in arousing it, the aim of art has been achieved, for art requires no extraneous justification. Art is in and of itself a justification of the human.
English translation: Sarah Brownsberger
 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, transl. Peggy Karmuf. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 89.
 From Latin vestigium, footprint, trace. Cognate with the Icelandic root of stígur (path), vestige always carries the implication of something having gone by, disappeared.
 Here I am reminded of the altarpiece in the Quo Vadis Chapel on the Via Appia in Rome. It displays St. Peter’s footprints, which appeared in the paving stones outside when, fleeing Roman prison, Peter encountered Christ. The image shows the hollow imprint of the apostle’s feet in oversize; the apostle himself disappeared long ago. According to theology, the image is nonetheless evidence of the apostle’s existence, and the revelation that conjured the tracks in the stone. According to Nancy, these tracks are not the “vestige” of art, for art has no need, and never has had need, of proof or any such unity of image and model/ideal. Nancy, wishing to guide us out of this theological discussion, calls the trail “smoke without fire,” a course without a river, footprints without an apostle. This requires a new thinking, which is under discussion here.
An essay written on the occasion of Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition at The National Museum of the Imperial Fora, Trajan’s Market in Rome, June-September 2012
It is not only a great honor for an Icelandic artist to be able to exhibit her work in the Museum of the Trajan’s Market on the imperial fora in Rome. The entire context of this exhibition shows her work in a new light, and at the same time the objects shed a new and interesting light on the venue. Once the work of Rósa Gísladóttir has been placed within the context of Trajan’s Market and the imperial fora, it will no longer be viewed in isolation as an instance of late modern or minimalistic formalism. The discourse between the objects and the ruins on the imperial fora give them new meaning, making us consider their historical context.
Trajan’s forum was a turning point in the history of Roman architecture, in the sense that Trajan emphasized the public space, whereas, by contrast, the architecture of Nero, for example, had focused on the divine personality of the emperor. In an unprecedented way, Trajan was keen on creating an open space for the public, which would frame life in the city and emphasize its significance as the center of the empire and of civilization.
In the course of millennia, the preservation of the objects of the past is more or less coincidental; there is, however, no other city in the world which, despite all the upheavals of history, continues to a similar degree to “shape the desires and dreams of men”, as Italo Calvino said bout the city of Zenobia in his book, Invisible Cities. Like all the classical architecture of the imperial fora, Trajan’s Forum is characterized by strict geometry, where symmetry, the square and the circle, formally emphasizes the thought that the city is not only the center of the empire, but that it mirrors the geocentric view of the world, in which the Earth is the center of the universe and the celestial sphere with its planets is the everlasting roof. This was an invariable and eternal world picture, and it was not within human abilities to change it; the firm human habitat on Earth, with Rome as its center.
Wherever we look on the imperial fora in Rome, we encounter the geometry of the center and the symmetry: be it in the columns, the arches, or the vaults, be it in the basic organization of the fora, or in the ornaments decorating the architecture and emphasizing its significance. But how can we understand the meaning of the ruins of the imperial era in Rome in its entirety?
Here it is appropriate to quote Emanuele Severino:
“In the tradition of the West, the city, the house, the temple, the theater, the stadium, the church, and the castle were not built to exist forever, and yet these structures reflect the Eternal Order of the World, and therefore they try to be as firm as possible, presenting themselves with a certain aura of timelessness. While they seek to reflect the Eternal World Order, they wish to be its symbol. Man finds shelter in these buildings, not because of a certain amount of comfort they provide, but because of this symbolic value of eternity inherent in them. Man feels at home in these houses because he has built them in such a way that they signify eternity.”
Severino proposes that the role of architecture in Western history, like that of philosophy, is to be a refuge for man from the anguish of the future, from the transiency of human existence, from pain and death. By exposing the divine and eternal Rule, dominating and directing all creation and destruction, the basic knowledge, episteme, saves man from the anguish caused by the thought about one’s own transiency and the transiency of the world. Severino says that all spatial design (Raumgestaltung) of the West is formed by this understanding, in the same way as the thought of transience and the eternal values appears in the philosophical and theological episteme (epistemology) of the Graeco-Roman tradition, where geometry and philosophy play a similar role. As is well known, knowledge of geometry was a condition for being admitted to Plato’s Academy in Athens.
The spaces which currently provide the venue for Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition were not only the frame of a particular view of the world; they were also the frame of a particular social idea and order, where human conduct was dictated by the rules of geometry, in contrast to the practice initiated by the utilitarianism of the Industrial Revolution, according to which form is expected to be dominated by functionality, providing the scene for the freedom of man in his endeavor to deal with and subjugate the forces of nature. Symmetry does not fit contemporary city life in this way, because it subsumes human life into a universal rule and a totalitarian form of government, dedicated to the absolute powers.
Although symmetry may not be fashionable in contemporary architecture or formal and spatial design, except where it appears with a reference to the past, or where it otherwise serves the function of the particular object which is formed independently of the whole, it has always characterized the formal design of Rósa Gísladóttir. In this regard her art is special, referring to tradition rather than innovation. Crucially, however, this does not mean that her work involves reconstruction or repetition; rather, it has never severed the ties with the classical tradition, even though the geometry which it is built on no longer has the function and meaning it had in the classical period. What, then, are the changes which geometry has undergone from classical times?
The Ancient Greeks and Romans understood numbers as representing visible entities. Being invisible, zero, negative numbers and irrational numbers did not have a place within this way of thinking. The change happened when the numbers stopped referring to the visible entity and became the function or the relation of other numbers, which opened up the possibility of a mathematical interpretation of infinity and other invisible entities. The definitive confirmation of this change was instantiated by the scientism of Descartes.
Defining numbers in relation to visible phenomena means that they measure a world which is finite and places insurmountable boundaries around man. This changed when nature became the object of investigation, in particular on the basis of measurement founded up on abstract mathematics and quantity rather than physical quality. At this point a fundamental change occurred in the history of Western culture, namely that “nature was no longer the rule which man has to use as his frame of reference; rather, human knowledge became the rule which nature had to provide answers to,” as Umberto Galimberti put it in his book Psiche e tecne. Thus the geometrical rule stopped being the ideal and the precedent, becoming instead a tool to change space and create new space and a new reality on the basis of the new forms of measurement which people had acquired. Nowhere does this manifest itself better than in the baroque art of Rome, where the spatial design no longer aims at imitating the “proper” space of geometry, but has become a venue for creating new reality and new space by means of the new technology. This was what the revolution of Bernini and Borromini in Rome was about. Ever since this time, architecture has reflected a view of the world which is conditioned by man and his technology, but not by absolute cosmic laws of eternal and invariable entities. The baroque domes of Rome thus instantiate a typical virtual reality based on technical illusions, while the domes of classical Rome manifest a similarity to the cosmos which no human power could alter.
From the beginning of her carrier, Rósa Gísladóttir has been adhering strictly to the laws of symmetry in her art. The aim is not to glorify or revive the eternal and imperishable truth of a view of the world which has now disappeared; rather the aim is to make us aware of the genealogy of the forms and the change which their meaning has undergone in the course of history.
How can we understand the difference between the world of the classical forms characterizing the imperial fora in Rome and the forms created by Rósa Gísladóttir?
Observing the oversized golden icosahedron under the Roman vault of Trajan, we are not experiencing the revival or the elevation of tradition, but rather a kind of a short circuit of history, where we are made aware of the fact that the universal laws which the so-called Platonic polyhedra were based on are no longer so universal: they do not reflect the order of the Universe and the Elements anymore, as stated by the Platonic doctrine. The interaction of the polyhedron and its classical frame suddenly becomes filled with tension due to the loss of something vital: the polyhedron in fact only reflects itself in its own glory, while the reference to the absolute and eternal truth has evaporated.
The world of Rósa’s forms is thus not a direct imitation of ancient models, and it therefore no longer has the original meaning on which the geometry of the Roman fora was based: that world is long gone, and with it its particular view of the world has also disappeared. The rules of geometry no longer reflect an absolute truth and the insurmountable boundaries imposed on man by nature. On the contrary, with the advent of the technological revolution of the past hundred years or so, we have experienced the loss of those boundaries, and the work of Rósa Gísladóttir reflects our times and not the ancient world: it opens our eyes for the things which have disappeared rather for those which are perennial and eternal. They are an admonition of a lost world, like a memory of art as “the perceptible appearance of the Idea” in the sense of Hegel. Here the idea has vanished and the form alone remains, just like Hegel said in the early 19th century. According to this philosopher, the Idea no longer needs its perceptible appearance because it emerged already and was realized in the language of philosophy. But why does Rósa’s polyhedron not reveal to us the eternal and unchangeable truth which people had seen in this form all the way from Plato to Luca Paccioli and Leonardo?
There is no need to talk at length about the fact that modern astronomy and space science have established that the Universe is not a constant, but quite the opposite – there is an incessant change where everything is at a high speed. The celestial sphere is not an unbreakable crystal vault, but filthy atmosphere, full of holes, and the sun is not the primal emitter of light to all things, as people used to believe, but a gliding power plant which has a predictable end like all other existing objects. The rule of the polyhedron certainly continues to be self-consistent, but it does not involve the exocentric reference, as Plato and Leonardo thought. Here the idea of the absolute and eternal cosmic values has been separated from its appearance, but the image is nevertheless present in front of us in all its glory and does not refer to anything but itself – or does it?
In his multifaceted lecture on the remnants of art, Jean-Luc Nancy has discussed this problem, which Hegel defined as the end of art, the latter being, as already mentioned, “the perceptible appearance of the Idea.” Among the things Nancy has to say about these prophetic words of Hegel is the following:
“To the extent that art perceives its limits, in regard to its realization and/or its end, in spite of still being understood as the ‘perceptible appearance of the Idea,’ it stops and is immobilized like the last glow of the Idea in its pure but darkened sediment. At the limits only the idea of art itself lives, like a pure virtual act, locked in itself. But such residue still functions as an Idea, even as a pure idea of the pure sense, or as an exalted visibility with no other content than the light itself: like a darkened core of absolute reference to itself.”
According to this statement, Nancy is of the opinion that Hegel was right in this respect: art stopped being the manifestation of unchangeable and everlasting truth very early on, even before the time of Christianity. Nancy, however, claims that this does not mean the end of art as such, and that Hegel did not think of it like that; rather, it bodes a new role for art in the process leading to the emergence of truth, in accordance with Hegel’s view that truth is a dialectic process in constant motion, and that there is not only one absolute truth, established once and for all. Nancy revisits Hegel’s brilliant metaphor of the dried and cut-off fruit of art which the heir of the Muses brings as an offering to the gods: these cut-off fruit are certainly disconnected from the tree that bore them, the soil that nourished them, and the moral climate which brought them to maturity, but nevertheless the heir of the Muses manages to give us a premonition of all of this, as if in a flash of vision, where the offering becomes a testimony of the things of the past, like the footprints from a journey where art has been the companion of religion and the imperishable values, without ever adhering to them, but only following their beaten track.
It is quite natural to regard the forms which Rósa Gísladóttir has created as such cut off-fruit of the trees, the soil and the climate which gave rise to the absolute geometry of the universe. As such they are above all a testimony to themselves, but beyond the radiance which mirrors their own surface and not the universe, we nevertheless perceive the view of the world which the ruins of the imperial fora attest to. We perceive this in the journey of history and time which connects these two worlds in a single work. Thus, Rósa’s forms appear as footprints in the sand, a testimony to the journey of history all the way to our time.
In addition to the large symmetrical forms, in this exhibition we also encounter works which are made of contemporary plastic wrappings; these wrappings have their own history of formal symmetry and perfect form, but in the modern consumer society they have the function of preserving consumer goods rather than ideas. The plastic bottle is “a visible appearance of the consumer society” and not the ideas, and as such it has also become the image of the threat inherent in today’s consumer habits against the ecology of our planet. The plastic wrappings of the consumer society are thus in stark contrast to the appearance of the eternal values and the unshakeable view of the world manifested by the ruins of the imperial fora. Formally, these plastic wrappings preserve in themselves the durability of symmetry, but while their durability can no longer give man any protection, it presents a tangible threat to our ecology. Rósa emphasizes the genealogy of the forms we find in these plastic wrappings by using them to create radiantly beautiful installations where the column and the circle form play a key role. Esthetically, these works shine in their own colorful brightness like the billboards of the consumer society; as soon as we realize the context, however, viz. the genealogy, on the one hand, and the loss of the Idea, on the other, we realize the tragic aspect of history described by Walter Benjamin in his Angelus novus:
“There is a painting by Klee which is entitled Angelus Novus. In it an angel appears to be about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide open, as is his mouth, and his wings are stretched out. The angel of history must look like this. His face is refers to the past. Since a chain of events seems to be unfolding, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and piles it up at his feet. He would like to stay, awaken the dead, and put the fragments of the ruins in order. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, affecting his wingspan with such force that he cannot flap his wings. This storm inevitably drives him into the future, to which his back is turned, while ruins pile up to the sky right before his eyes. This storm is what we call progress.”
English translation Thorhallur Eythorsson
Rósa Gísladótti’s works at the entrance of The National Museum at The Imperial Forum in Rome 2012
Addressing Gretar Reynisson’s art exhibition in The Living Art Museum 2013 and remembering Friedrich Nietzsche
‘Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built. Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The centre is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.’
This is how the animals speak to Zarathustra in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical allegory about the prophet who is ‘the teacher of the eternal recurrence’ and who talks metaphorically about the human spirit, first as the oppressed camel, then as the lion of free will in the desert, and finally as the boy, a child who is ‘innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes”.’
The unique exhibition that Gretar Reynisson has now installed in the Living Art Museum is the logical progression of exhibitions from 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, and corresponds in a surprising way with Nietzsche’s haunting riddle about eternal recurrence, where time ceases to be a linear narrative pointing towards a determined goal, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, but instead becomes a circle, as ‘All that is straight lies … All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.’
Gretar’s exhibition spans the first decade of the 21st century, showing us ‘eternal recurrence’ in a variety of forms, to create a single, unified work of art about time and existence in its tangible form, unrelated to any transcendental utopia, be it heavenly Paradise or the wordly delights of the consumer society. In the exhibition, we see the plywood plates with graphite inscriptions revived from previous exhibitions, but now in a new sequence, and also numerous corresponding forms, such as shirts, pillows, glasses, doormats, scales, kept-but-forgotten boxes, crumpled papers, photographs and video sequences, all of which bear witness to time and existence in its naked, material form. How can Nietzsche help us to understand this work?
The allegory that becomes the key to Zarathustra’s mystery is found in the chapter On the Vision and the Riddle, at the start of the third part of Nietzsche’s complex and equivocal narrative. Here, the prophet is travelling with a dwarf on his shoulder, and they arrive at a gate with two faces. Two paths meet at the gate; the way back, which ‘stretches back for an eternity’ and the way forward, which is ‘another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths; they offend each other face to face; and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: “Moment.”’ And Zarathustra says to the dwarf, ‘“From this gateway, Moment, a long, eternal lane leads backward: behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before? And if everything has been there before – what do you think, dwarf, of this moment? Must not this gateway too have been there before? … must we not eternally return?“
As Zarathustra is contemplating the gate Moment he hears a sheepdog howling in the moonlight, and then notices a shepherd lying on the ground, ‘his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth’. The shepherd is suffocating and Zarathustra tries in vain to pull the snake from his throat, before commanding him to ‘Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!’ The shepherd does as he is asked, then spits the serpent’s head far away from himself and leaps to his feet, ‘No longer shepherd, no longer human – one changed, radiant, laughing!’ Never has Zarathustra heard such laughter: ‘My longing for this laughter gnaws at me: oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now!’
These are dreamlike images and riddles, which Zarathustra asks the reader to solve. Readers have searched for solutions ever since, as Nietzsche himself speaks only in metaphors.
Eternal recurrence was a nightmarish discovery for Zarathustra and it serves a vital purpose throughout Nietzsche’s philosophy, where it is inseparably related to the concepts of ‘Nihilism’, ‘Death of God’ and ‘Will to power’. Time that runs in a circle has no aim and therefore has no historical purpose. It is in fact the image of nihilism, which Neitzsche explains thus: ‘What does Nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “Why?” finds no answer.’ Eternal recurrence is the recurrence of the void and it horrifies Zarathustra. What the story of the shepherd reveals, however, is the way out of the nightmare that Zarathustra discovers: the snake stuck in the shepherd’s throat is a metaphor for time consuming itself, and the biting off of its head becomes a liberating act of the free will. Confronting the enemy, the eternal recurrence of the void, becomes an act of transformation that awakens superhuman laughter.
Nietzsche’s concept of the superman has nothing to do with the domination of others, as is often maintained, but rather concerns the man who, through his voluntary act, manages to rise above his existential state in the hellish circle of repetition, thus achieving a superior existence that belongs to the Earth and human society, and not to heaven and the dominating power of the Godhead. What Nietzsche is preaching in this story is not the elimination of nihilism, but rather its transferrence to a new setting where it acquires a positive value. This perhaps is the essence of the paradox that Nietzsche continually struggled with; the story of the human soul, which existed first in the submission of the camel towards its master, then rose up to the spirit of the lion in the barren desert, before transforming itself into the forgetfulness and innocence of the child, reclaiming the laughter and joyfulness of the shepherd that bit off the head of the snake.
With an incredible resilience that comes close to obsession, Gretar Reynisson faces the existential conundrum that we sense simmering beneath all of Nietzsche’s writing. His work not only tackles the void with relentless realism and honesty, not only challenges the nihilism of the black snake, but also challenges all aesthetics that seek to conceal or shut down uncomfortable thoughts of how ‘the highest values devaluate themselves’ in contemporary life, to use Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism. His works surpass traditional aesthetics, at the same time opening our eyes to the existential contradictions in contemporary life, where ‘the Gate of the Moment’ greets us anew each day, and the snake is beheaded through this artistic performance in its eternal recurrence.
English translation: Sarah Brownsberger
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Portable Neitzsche (Penguin, 1982), 329-330
A short essay on “Water”, the installation of visual artist Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir in Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, inaugurated the 16th of August 2013.
On a burning face/ falls the blue rain/ of blue-winged days.
Into the mind’s nullity/ night comes/ like an untitled story.
And the nakedness of that which is/ loses the nearness of itself/ in nights and days.
The image that poet Steinn Steinarr sketches here in the thirteenth poem of his series Time and Water is meaningless to conventional reason and falls flat if we try to explain its meaning using logical rules. The language addressing us here points beyond the rationality that tells us raindrops are just water, a face just a mask, a day a number on a calendar. This is a language that points beyond prior definitions of words, to speak the language of images. Moreover, the images formed by these words are not based on any definite model that we can rephrase or refigure for purposes of explanation. The poet’s words and images penetrate our consciousness and leave behind an imprint or wound which we can’t define without falling into a purely banal mundanity from which the fantasies of dream have been excluded, all danger zones fenced and designated off-limits. Nonetheless we are moved. Moved because we feel this image echo inside us; it discloses to us a previously-hidden inner world of our own. This image, so simple that it almost comes to nothing, nevertheless becomes something infinitely big, like the drop that fills the bowl of our consciousness and ruffles the water clear out to infinity…
This occurs when poets reach the point of making living symbols, symbols that live not for their meaning but for their efficacy alone, the effects they elicit. As the psychoanalyst Jung said, a living symbol is always ambiguous; it points beyond the world of definitions toward the unconscious and unknown and ultimately back toward nothing but itself, since nothing else can elicit its effect. It is characteristic of all poetry to breach the previously-defined outer limits of language; the poet is always situated in the danger zone of delerium in which rationality dwindles and the demons of insanity become imperious, demons of the madness that dwells in each of us, that we know, for example, from our dreams. This is the madness that psychology has called the unconscious core of humanity’s natural urges. “The Ego is not master in its own house,” said Freud, and each person’s daily life is strictured by tension between rational regulation and those fantasies of desire that the poets alone can give form to in their symbols, symbols that lend wings to our desires and dreams. Desires and dreams are the other side of psychic want. We desire not what we have but what we lack. Our desires are the driving force we feed upon; poets lend them wings and help us to perceive them. To recognize our desires and dreams and know how to pursue them is the way to become ourselves. This roadtrip lasts as long as life itself, so long as the desire to live remains. To understand and perceive our desires and dreams we need symbols. Hence poetry is a vital necessity for humankind.
When we have defined a symbol’s meaning it ceases to be a symbol, for definition devours the unconscious and unknown part of the image, strips it of its efficacy and makes it into a sign. It no longer discloses the danger zone of our world of hidden desires, no longer points the way to ourselves. Hence it is vitally necessary for us to renew language, breach the defenses and security systems that stagnant social language locks us into.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written remarkable books on the psychology of the material world, especially with regard to the elements. At first a title such as his Psychoanalysis of Fire seems provocative; we have been taught that the material world is inanimate. Yet Bachelard proclaims that in relation to humankind nature is a living being, for man not only identifies with nature but is part of it and thus psychoanalyzes water as naturally as he does his neighbour. And in truth, from time immemorial, man has personified natural forces and psychoanalyzed them in myth and religion.
In his book Bachelard makes an important distinction between what he calls the formal and material imaginations. Formal imagination concerns the outward appearance of objects, their decoration and surface; material imagination concerns deeper and more inward material properties, which may concern gender, personal qualities, or an obsession, for example: fire is masculine, like sky, earth is feminine, like water; water tends toward the level, fire toward the vertical; a sunset on the ocean rim joins sky and earth and conveys death and rebirth, and so on.
Contemporary technologised society tends to regard nature and the material world as raw materials for human processing and consumption. In accordance with this view we have been taught that nature is inanimate matter. Steinn Steinarr’s poem series Time and Water, quoted above, shows by contrast a deep understanding of the psychology of water: waters manifest man’s fate. Living water from a spring never rests until it reaches its goal in level ocean: “the pain of water is infinite,” says Bachelard, adding, “In the depths of matter there grows an obscure vegetation; black flowers bloom in matter’s darkness. They already possess a velvety touch, a formula for perfume.” The philosopher reaches for poetic language to illustrate his case and might equally have said, with Steinn Steinarr: “but my dream glowed/in a veiled life-ripple/while the depths slept on. And my hidden sorrow/ catches up with you/ like a blue-distant sea.”
The water in Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir’s round glass bowl rests on black sand on the floor of the narthex of Hallgrímskirkja and is ruffled by drops falling from the ceiling to murmuring notes composed by Daníel Bjarnason. The blueness of the walls envelops it and draws us on through the church itself to the apse where the blue of the windows carries us on out into daylight.
Let us not ask what this installation means, for it is not an explanation of anything, no more than is the poem about time and water. We can search the mythology and theology of waters and spin from them countless parallels and references that might be historically informative: stories of purification, death and rebirth, stories about the water of life and milk of earth, stories about water as the image of anima and the bowl as maternal womb or milk-swollen breast, stories about ruffled water as the spirit stirring from above, about the healing springs of Asclepius and Mary and the pool at Bethesda in the Gospel of John: all these stories of the psychology of water are relevant to this image, and yet this image ultimately refers to itself. It is an attempt to fathom the imaginative power of matter that ultimately is our own imaginative power, a signpost on the way toward becoming ourselves.
English translation Sarah Brownsberger
 Translation E. R. Farrell, Water and Dreams, 1993.