Text by Anna Maria Nassisi for the show Beyond, Alfredo Pirri and Miroslaw Balka
Bunkier Sztucki, Contemporary Art Gallery, Krakow, 2007
‘This is the eye of time:
it squints cross-eyed
under a seven-colored brow.
Its lid is fire-washed,
its tear is steam.
The blind star flies at it
and melts away against the hotter lashes:
world waxes warm
and the dead
bud out and blossom’
Paul Celan, The Eye of Time
Art is always in search of duration, in search of a constructive linguistic order able to exalt the creativity of individuals against death and against mass homologation. In this century it’s still possible to trace a possible ‘absolute’ sense of art, an art capable of exalting the value of creative freedom: it’s a value that conjugates artistic creation with a search for spirituality, for an affirmation necessary to fight against the ephemeral. If within his creative challenge the artist places his hope in the strength of his own work, clearly his work will result in an act of meditation – and this is an act that asks for trust in humanity, for a surpassing of conflict, for a search for the contemplative quotient of the work of art. The intricate interweaving of form and content that is the work of art is, in itself, the only medium able to redefine its language in an historically, memorially rich space of interdependence between art and life. This project called ‘Beyond’ conjugates the work of two artists whose contribution I invited to reflect on the theme of the dark side of the Modern: Miroslaw Balka and Alfredo Pirri. Both responded positively – both are very aware of the value of these conversations both in sphere of art and of life in general. The exhibition makes visible the importance of ‘thinking Auschwitz’, not as an event of the past but as memory in the present, which still traverses our contemporary consciousness and posits itself as the fundament of a new reality.
The Parable of the Modern
It’s the double that gives form to the epistemological structure of the Modern. It becomes obsessive specularity, tracing a parable of the theoretical, of the sphere of the possible. Madness, dreams, are at the same time manifestations of extreme subjectivity and of ironic objectivity; the two pose no contradiction. The poetry of the heart, final solitude, immerses itself into Plato’s cave, exasperated by its own lyricism: archetypes of a never-ending doubleness. Thrown into its shadows, mankind harks back beyond memory to an old world made up of fantastic cavalcades, of witches sitting on the branches of dead trees. Goya rediscovers the great forgotten images of madness. After all, isn’t the monster who whispers his secrets in the ear of the monk of the ‘house of the Deafman’ related to the gnome who fascinates Bosch’s S. Anthony? The moment the modern wins its battle over the ancient is the moment when optimism incarnates the conscious acquisition of science and technology, its transformations, which act also on the languages of art. In 1926 Benjamin observed, with unrepeatable acumen, that the mechanical reproduction of the work of art changes the relationship between art and the modern masses. The avantgardes of the late 19th Century consigned this triumph to futurism. The ‘Modern’ celebrates the glories of industrial progress, and the great exhibitions push towards the aesthetic within the realm of the industrial. Constructivists and the Bauhaus invent new languages and new methods, which are elastic, inductive, and which find new qualities in the concept of form: geometrisation becomes the base of a projectual, and hence functional, creativity. Along this path, the artist finds his new essential ambition: aesthetic pleasure now happens through the use of ‘forms’ which are functional to the individual. At the same time, an idea arises in consciousness, and hence also in culture – modernity begins to show its interior as made up of doublenesses, of ambiguities. Freud gives the ‘human subconscious’ scientific status; the Modern becomes ‘the transient, the fugitive, the contingent on the one hand; the eternal, the immutable on the other’ (Baudelaire). The enlightenment, the root from which the Modern takes hold, takes its place amongst the shadows of Mesmer’s collective hypnosis, of Cagliostro’s magic, of the realm of clairvoyants. The goddess of Reason drags towards her all the nightmares that had been slumbering in the darkness, awoken by the violence of the bright light. Mephistopheles walks towards Goethe, rising from its Medieval depths. From all the folds of a dreamless world, the supernatural emerges once more. Blake’s visionary spirit reaches down into the heart of darkness and brings back up to the surface a parade of angels and demons, luminous androgynous apparitions, monsters which reveal the doubleness of individual and collective being in the modern world. In Bosch, or in Brueghel, these forms were born from the world itself: they arrived through the folds of a strange poetry, they came up through the rocks, through the plants, they emanated from an animal yawn; the complicity of nature made them arise. Goya’s forms rise from nothing: they are bottomless, both because they set themselves apart from the monotonous night, and because nothing can define their origin, their ends, their nature. What is the tree sustaining the branch upon which witches lie? Does it fly? Towards where? There is no longer anything that speaks of a world, of this world or of another. These forms all become prophecies of the ‘sleep of reason’, which Baudelaire reads as the double-face of modernity. From the double-headed, Kantian path of the Modern, the 20th Century takes its philosophical, historical, artistic route: the darkened face of a modernity which has to measure itself against horror, against terror, against death.
History swallows time through the flames of a hell from which only death can bloom: “This is the eye of time, it squints cross-eyed under a seven-colored brow. Its lid is fire-washed, its tear is steam. The blind star flies at it and melts away against the hotter lashes: world waxes warm and the dead bud out and blossom”. Thus Celan describes his dramatic experience, and the immense wound of a story, of a memory, of a collective mourning consumed in Dacau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz.
…Beyond…. Beyond an adverb, beyond the evocative metaphor of a place: ‘Beyond’ is the place where the tragic adventure of humanity finds that of mankind, of ‘the end of mankind’, and attempts to pass beyond the human and the humanist to remove the foundations of what the Enlightenment had generated. A culture of death, a culture of darkness, is the expression of a particular kind of modernity: a crisis which underlines the fragment, the decomposed, and at the same time a condition of ‘incredulity’ before a story which has marked us all indelibly, in our history, in our consciousness, in our shared collectivity.
If modernity thrives on a conscious optimism, fueled by scientific knowledge, which is dia- and synchronical, which is memory, project, transformation, in its dark side revealed by nazism and fascism it also implies a loss of sense and meaning, a breakage in which the ‘validity’ of scientific enunciates is no longer verifiable through argumentation or through testing. The fortuitous connection between phenomena is thus substitutes by a faith in instability, by the fortuitous nature of scientific knowledge. The Encyclopedia becomes the databank, the very nature of which accepts incompleteness. This is a core-event: the field is the space that opens up when the state of exception becomes the rule. The systematic extermination of anyone who could have threatened the purity of the arian race, the systematic elimination of jews, homosexuals, gypsies becomes a possibility, and then a rule, thanks to a filing system, thanks to a computational process. The IBM collaborates with the regime by filing and cataloguing the categories for suppression, separating the jews of the East from the jews of the West, and performing the same operations for all the other categories. A death machine which reminds us of one of Kafka’s short stories, ‘the men, and the jews, the cloudy residue of a people, souls of smoke. They didn’t see, no, they spoke of words. They did not awake, sleep overcame them… Ash, ash, night, night and night’. The awful tragedy recounted by Celan is the result of a scientific project. Nazism, then, wasn’t only the irrational; it was the triumph of a kind of knowledge that privileges death, it was the result of a collective sense of being immersed in the night of reason, but it was also a project of modernity.
A wound opened up between signifiers and signs, a profound revolution in perception and in representation. Historical inquiry, here, has to be located within a system in which synchrony and diachrony no longer interact and hence lose their ability to generate sense. During this night, mankind communicated with its most profound, its most solitary aspects. S. Anthony’s desert, in Bosch, was infinitely more populated, the landscape was written in a human language, borne out of its imagination. From now on, faces enter a phase of decomposition: this is no longer Capricci’s folly in creating masks more lifelike than faces, this is a madness underneath the masks, a madness which bites and corrodes the human face. There are no longer mouths, or eyes, only gazes which come from nothing, transfixed on nothing, black holes. ‘Madness’ has become the possibility of abolishing mankind and the world. Underneath the dream, underneath bestiality and the nightmare, madness becomes now the last resort, the beginning and the end of everything. Non-reason continues to guard the sleep of the world, but in this guarding it comes into contact with new forces, new powers. Its non-being becomes a force which undoes being, which annihilates. No longer the Shakesperean ‘fool’ whose madness sheds light onto the world. After Sade and after Goya, the ‘sleep of reason’ which ‘produces monsters’ becomes a permanent trait of modernity, and the world becomes unrevealed doubleness. We need to peer behind Alice’s mirror to find the doubleness of the modern which still characterises our life in the contemporary. The dispersion of creative subjectivity interacts, and somehow reflects, our subjective dispersion in terms of lifestyles and working practices.
The territorial segmentation of the market, the idea of restructuration on a world-scale, the change in lifestyles brought about by an equally important change in culture, in ethics, in meaning: today, in a phase of crisis of Western thought, in the so-called ‘postmodern’ era, contemporary art and contemporary artists are given the task and the responsibility of weaving back together measure and dismeasure, techné and imagination. They are given such a task in a space which consciously moves onwards, in which the ancient euclidean rules of geometry and from no longer hold, in which we are to expect an unexpectable vision of the future. But we will only be able to make sense of the ambiguities of the contemporary if we see ourselves as still moving within the territory of the Modern. These ambiguities remain, in our postmodern thought, through the idea of death: the death of art, the death of scientific knowledge, the death of mankind, the death of history; on the other hand, we are obliged to a new historical epistemology given by the facts of nazism, a push that obliges us to start again, to give new energy to our agonising Western though. There’s something like a line drawn through the 20th Century: 1933. This date returns, always, in the biographies of great German intellectuals, who escaped towards England and the US. 19333333… the list would never end, I feel I can see Thomas Mann’s melancholy smile as he looks at Gropius in Harvard, at Adorno in California, at Schonberg, at his brother Heinrich… This date holds the dark side of the modern. Europe loses its great intellectual patrimony, the thinkers who had restarted the languages of art, of philosophy, of science, of psychoanalysis. We can see the Schoah, today, through these lenses.
Today we are in the position of those who think about the recent past with Benjamin’s words in Angelus Novos: ‘There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees on single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky.’ It’s this pile of ruins which haunts us. The Shoah is recognized now as one of the most tragic episodes in human history, and it has become the paradigm for violence in the 20th Century and in modernity in general. It is an almost hermeneutic aspect of the double-face of modernity: not a bloodthirsty craze, or rather not only, but a scientific project of death which traverses Europe diagonally, traversing also its populations, its races, its consciousnesses.
In a way, even the movement and the project of the third industrial revolution of today’s world expresses this doubleness, inherited from our past. We live in a world that has been captured, uprooted, transformed by the titanic technical and scientific process of capitalist development, which has dominated the past two or three centuries. The future cannot be a continuation of the past, which is why signals are beginning to appear, the marks of a deep crisis. The structures of human society, including the social bases of capitalist economies, are on the point of being eroded by what we have inherited. Although apparently in contradiction, there is a profound connection between the deep transformations in our ways of living and producing as a global economic system and this pervasive culture of death. Our ‘civilization at the crossroads’ is forced to make radical choices: gazing upon the contemporary is a great Medusa who keeps churning up monsters and terrifying, petrified images. Reality seems shrouded in gothic-medieval symbolist obsessions such as Baltrusaitis’, who shows clearly, too clearly, how outside of this monstrous world of symbols there is, still, a reality, and that it is the intellectual who should learn about it and represent it, with a penetrating gaze upon the deep, a gaze able to read and reveals. The catastrophe of extermination is the paradigm of a new epistemology which, by recuperating memory, should be able to engender a less conformist culture, free of the ‘eclipse of the face’, made up of a critical visibility of the deep trauma of European culture. Every era has a need to snatch tradition off conformism, whose nature is to overtake. The state of Israel rises from the ashes of Auschwitz, but the long amnesia which followed the Shoah – albeit the birth of a state in the ‘promised land’ – is a chain of years lived in individual memory as a form of silence, as if the total annihilation of the identities of the deported, the shaven, the catalogued by way of arithmetic systems had disintegrated not only the chance, but also the will to give words, to give images to this immense knot of almost solidified pain, a pain personified beyond individuals, the memory of a time outside of time for those who survived and who had to return to everyday life.
All that which isn’t writable, tellable or describable (with exceptions, such as Celan’s great transgression in his poetry), melts in the maternal embrace of the promised land, Israel, which embraces and consoles the great pain of its children, who return to life with renewed hope: ‘our life is a simple small endeavour, which I write day by day, hour by hour. It isn’t something great, something brave. Millions of men and women have already done it before me. But this is my life and I live it with all my strength’ (D. Grosmann). Although it has acquired the status of a civil religion in the Western world, the Shoah is still a know in the everyday, the metaphor tracing the insecurity of Israel’s borders, and the prism through which we can read the present moment: it is a memory which isn’t petrified, and even less celebrated, but, as Paul Ricoeur has noted, it is the foundational, discriminating event, the collective trauma, the memory which – grounded in the content of rememberance – makes possible a new sense, a new meaning to being in the world; it is the trace that connects the ambition of the present to the past, to testimony, to history: the structure which makes possible the transitions between memory and history, compressed time whose charge of passions, sentiments, memories creates the very framework that gives meaning to our life now. Once again, with its parabolic path in space and time, the Modern encounters its double at the end of the Century we have just saluted; on the one hand, the ‘now’ of history between synchrony and diachrony, and on the other the contemporary Narcissus who self-reproduces and lives off his very image, taken up by the swirl of a delirium of solitude destined to last until the end. It is on this edge compressed between past and future, it here that we move now, uncertain.
Anna Maria Nassisi
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