Apology for the Work of Art


Apology of the Work of Art

The Langenlois Work of Art speaking

(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.)

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 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 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, 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.”

                                                                                                                                             Langenlois, 13th of August 2011,

Ólafur Gíslason


Kees Visser exhibition in Arion Bank

The Enigma of Vision

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.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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”[1].  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”[2].

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.[3]

Ólafur Gíslason (November, 2011)

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger

[1] L. Wittgenstein: Remarks on color, 1977

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenologie de la perception, 1945

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty L‘Œil et l‘Espirit, 1964Image

Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir at ASI museum, Reykjavík

The Trails, Tracks, and Traces of Art

 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.

 Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, transl. Peggy Karmuf. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 89.

[2] From Latin vestigium, footprint, trace. Cognate with the Icelandic root of stígur (path), vestige always carries the implication of something having gone by, disappeared.

[3] 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.

Rósa Gísladóttir at Traian’s Market in Rome

Angelus Novus vis-à-vis the Ruins of History

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.

Rósa Gísladóttir: Icosahedron, Emperor Trian’s Market, Rome 2012

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.

Emperor Constantin the Great (4th Century A.D.) and Rósa Gísladóttir’s Column of plastic bottles, 2012

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.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Thorhallur Eythorsson










Rósa Gísladótti’s works at the entrance of The National Museum at The Imperial Forum in Rome 2012


Rósa Gísladóttir: Displacement – Rome / Reykjavík 2013

Displacement – Rome/Reykjavík

Rósa Gísladóttir‘s exhibition at Harpa Music and Conferance Center in Reykjavík July-August 2013

The exhibition “Come l‘acqua, come l‘oro…”, installed by Rósa  Gísladóttir in the ruins of Trajan’s Market at the historic site of the Roman Imperial Fora in the summer of 2012, was a dialogue between the present and the past, where the surroundings themselves mattered just as much as the works on display. The dialogue focused on the history of the forms and how their content and meaning has undergone changes in the past two thousand years, in particular since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The architecture and the art works which have been preserved in the Imperial Fora were the source of the forms developed in oversize by Rósa, but the content of her works had nevertheless been separated from their origin: the architects and the artists who shaped the Imperial Fora in Rome made use of a highly advanced geometry, where each piece was a part of the general idea which regarded the City and the Empire as a reflection of a complex rule on the structure of the universe; an all-comprising rule which not only shaped the appearance and the form of the city, but also the community which had built it and the Empire as a whole.

In the ruins of the Imperial Fora we find the roots of the classical tradition: the idea of the center, the symmetry, the circle, the vault, the right-angled point of view and the perspective – all fundamental factors reflecting eternal values and an unbreakable rule. Rósa Gísladóttir has shown us how the forms of the classical tradition live in the present like ancient remnants of a lost religion, while simultaneously being recycled in a new function as wrappings of the new and universal laws of consumerism and the philosophy of economic growth characteristic of our times.

When the idea was born to set up the exhibition in Iceland, it in fact demanded the converse of the classical and historical frame of Trajan’s Market. As a comparable frame does not exist in Iceland, we sought the complete opposite as a counterbalance to Rósa’s works in order to continue the dialogue on the history and the content of the forms, although this time from a reverse premise. We could not imagine a better venue for this enterprise than precisely the magnificent exhibition area of Harpa – Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Center, which in its forms and spatial construction is as far from the classical tradition as one can imagine.

The classical tradition of Western formation of space which we can trace back to the Ancient Greeks is founded on the general idea that the building and the urban space is a permanent shelter for man which reflects universal rules of mathematics and geometry and the unshakeable structure of the Universe. The urban space was a shelter for man in the existential turmoil, while also forming a frame around the relatively firm structure of society, be it the Greek city-state, the Roman Empire or the Judeo-Christian notion of Holy Jerusalem as the ideal of an earthly Paradise. In this respect there is no basic distinction between the Greek temple, the Roman basilica, the medieval cathedrals and the secular palaces of the Renaissance and the Baroque era. All these traditions are founded on a single invariable religious and epistemological truth, which not only gave meaning to the space, but also formed a social frame around those aspects of existence that are permanent and safe.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and Modernity the idea emerged that space should not be transformed on the basis of universal aesthetic laws about proportions and dimensions; rather, space should function as a venue for the development of new technology and for new types of democracy: the form was supposed to be intertwined with its function, and all the ornaments which had earlier emphasized the eternal values of every building were now written off as characteristics of reaction and suppression, or decadence. Even beauty was no longer the main objective of formation of space, but rather its function and practicality. Mobility and movement take over from the stability of the fixed frame. This history is familiar to us in the modernist architecture which, for example, distinguishes the largest part of 20th century Reykjavík.

In this entire history Harpa marks a certain watershed, reflecting an idea that surpasses the utilitarian program of Functionalism as we know it. It is not the classical rock in the cityscape which we see for example in The Culture House – National Centre for Cultural Heritage, nor is it the fixed frame of reference of the utilitarianism manifested in the University of Iceland Main Building.

Harpa reflects a new idea of the cityscape, where the glass veil plays a pivotal role, but besides being an art work it forms new and transparent division between the outer and the inner space, where the inner space does not only incorporate the urban image but almost becomes the substitute for public space as a square for everyone where various trends come together in the diverse selection of shops and restaurants, alongside the concert rooms forming the core of the building.

Simultaneously, the veil of the building shifts from the traditional fixed point to an ever-changing flow of light and colors, intensified by the irregular fishing-net pattern without any fixed point or center and no clear or finite lines. Harpa signals a new understanding of the urban space where the closed city gives way to the multi-cultural flow of information and ideas dominating our times and ways of communication. A society where the walls fall and power becomes invisible, at the same time as it becomes an all-encompassing surveillance machine.

Into this space Rósa Gísladóttir places her formal sculptures, which are founded on the classical geometry of the Platonic polyhedron, on the symmetry, the circle and the ellipsis; the forms of these sculptures refer to the fixed and the unshakeable. However, it is the texture of the material which transposes us from the classical space to the contemporary techno-society: instead of marble and granite found in the ruins of the Imperial Fora in Rome we encounter the industrial material Jesmonite, with an alabaster texture or a golden cosmetics, leaving us up in the air vis-à-vis the fixed and the unshakeable norms.

The ambiguous meaning of Rósa’s works is further emphasized by her sculptures of light, made from plastic bottles of the industrial society and filled with colored water. The light sculptures also refer to the classical form of the column, the amphora and the plate; moreover, one of the light sculptures depicts the mirror image of Medusa’s mask, the sign of the imminent death in classical mythology, which is here given a metaphorical meaning in the guise of the wrapping society.

The wall photographs of the colorful light sculptures bring us even closer to the ephemeral volatility of contemporary advertizing imagery, but on the top floor of Harpa the Panopticon dominates, a mirror reflecting the transient world, which the surroundings of Harpa and the cityscape gather into its fugitive core, with the reflection of the viewer as its moveable center.

Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition invites us to consider our environment and our spatial experience. The cityscape is a reflection of our ideas and thoughts, it is never neutral and never self-evident. With the displacement of her exhibition from Trajan’s Market in Rome to Harpa in Reykjavík, Rósa has created a new work which relates to the former and connects the unshakeable and firm background of the classical tradition to the liquid flow of the information society, beyond all boundaries.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Thorhallur Eythorsson

2013 - 32Rósa Gísladóttir: Kantharos, 2012 – from a relief found on Traian’s Forum 2nd century AD. Jesmonite, 170x240x170 cm.

Gretar Reynisson at The Living Art Museum 2013 – English

Gretar Reynisson Geymt en gleymt 2001-...
Gretar Reynisson: "Kept but forgotten" -used objects in wooden boxes 2001 -2012 

The Gate of the Moment

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.’[1]

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”.’[2]

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.’[3]

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.”’[4] 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?“[5]

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!’[6]

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.’[7] 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.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Portable Neitzsche (Penguin, 1982), 329-330

[2] Ibid. 139

[3] Ibid. 270

[4] Ibid. 269-270

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Portable Neitzsche (Penguin, 1982), 270.

[6] Ibid. 272

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power (Kaufmann, Vintage Giant edition)

Gretar Reynisson 52 towels 1/1-31/12/2000Gretar Reynisson: 52 towels, 1/1-31/12/2000.

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.

Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir: Water, 2013

 The Psychology of Water

 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.”[1] 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.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Sarah Brownsberger

[1] Translation E. R. Farrell, Water and Dreams, 1993.