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.