Writing on Art as it happens

Writing on Art as it happens


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.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Pétur Már Sigurjónsson