PC: “You were never an Abstractionist?”
MD: “Not in the real sense of the word. A canvas like The Bride is abstract since there isn’t any figuration. But it isn’t abstract in the narrow sense of the word. It’s visceral, so to speak.” (1)
Roulette de Monte Carlo
Shortly after his move to Vienna and his admission to the city’s Fine Arts Academy, Peter Kobler decided to put an end to his studies with a small Duchampian performance that Robert Fleck described as follows. One morning Kogler came to school and after draping a white flag from the entrance to the porter’s lodge, he sat down on a chair and covered his cheeks in shaving lather in a remake of Duchamp’s earlier remake of David’s horns by Michelangelo in Man Ray’s famous photo (2). Then he began silently reading Robert Lebel’s biography of Duchamp in the German edition published by Dumont, which features this photo prominently on its back cover. As the students and professors came in, they looked speechlessly at the Duchampian student who continued to read and said nothing either. Towards noon, without speaking a word to him, the rector sent a police squad to throw him out and confiscate his papers. A week later, the alternative journal Falter presented an aesthetically neutral series of detailed photographs of the event.” (3)
In the context of a Viennese art scene mainly identified with the Actionists’ dark bloody masses, Kogler chose shaving soap and mischievous devilry. He opposed a clearly analytical stance to his generation’s persistently recurrent expressionism (be it in the tempered form of Rosemarie Trockel’s work). He countered the theatricality of blood thrown onto supposedly virgin canvases (having emerged unscathed from the history that constituted them as palimpsests as from the modernity that made readymades of them) by the complexity of a mimetic approach even though it could no longer be posited in terms other than ironic: he remakes Duchamp remaking Michelangelo. He thereby positioned himself as heir to a line of conceptualists and to a mannerist aesthetic tradition. But mainly what he did was assume the position of someone who, to undertake his work, starts out by remembering.
The interiority apparent in his approach at the time seemingly contrasts with the monumentality and exteriority of the decors he was soon to propose to viewers, except that the decors themselves, the figures that haunt them and transform them into huge visionary tapestries refer the viewer back to the interiority of such more or less biomorphic systems as brains, guts, anthills, and pipes. Systems in the form of circuits, in other words networks, that by their grandiose obsessive repetition supplant the architecture of the sites where Kogler exhibits (museum, gallery, and other public spaces): environments that fictionalize this architecture and take the viewer on a journey through the simultaneously psychic, social and ideological “system” that this architecture secretly supports. The hallucinogenic, violent exteriority of Kogler’s decors calls for a plunge into the structure’s depths, precisely to the place where the structure comes to existence not only in the visible, but also in vision and in affect.
1) Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (Thames and Hudson, New York: 1971), p. 39.
2) The assisted readymade entitled Roulette de Monte Carlo.
3)Robert Flack, “Peter Kogler, eine Kunst des leichten Zeichens,” Peter Kogler (Verlag des Buchhandlung Walther König, Kunsthaus Bregenz (my translation).,
Ornament and crime
The power of Kogler’s work has more to do with its power of dissection than with the monumentality of the decors, or the hold that its audio and visual multimediality imparts to it. If the type of operation proposed had to be characterized in a few words, we could venture the following hypothesis: Kogler works on and from the buried point where the structural tangles into a visceral knot, the point where the structure – in this case the data and communications system that is systematically draining all the political, social, economic and more generally symbolic relations of the contemporary “world” – is incorporated into signs that are at once abstract patterns and affective representations, empty ornaments and psychic motions, neutralized collective representations and potential incitements to murder: Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime, the title of a work by Adolf Loos that Kogler mentioned to me in a recent interview). The motifs abstracted through the digitalization that constitutes this work’s limited alphabet are like the names of stars that psychotics take for themselves, or the simplified visions that feed hallucinations, or yet again the animal patterns on wallpaper that haunt night terrors. Skulls, intestines, ants, and giant tubes are examples of basic visual signifiers in which the data and communications system, which tends to structure our languages, concepts, and soon no doubt our perceptions, seems to concretize into sentiment, affect, and emotion and produce subterranean signals capable of pushing a mob to murder, lynching, and genocide. Wherein we find the Austrian question again, beyond personal or national martyrology. Like the subliminal skull-and-crossbones that “have to” be flickered at least once a minute in commercial advertisements, these are affect signs in which the structure proves to be capable of having an immediately operative, immediately deadly impact. Immediately, that is to say without the mediation of judgment, consciousness and willpower. The walls of signs that Kogler builds are the walls of subconscious social representations that make us act. They are the walls that sustain his art and against which it fights. Dream walls.
The Picture Plane
Kogler’s installations, the way in which they take the place of the physical place and actually “install” a mental place, evidence the fact that what is presented as a techne (namely, the digitalization that underpins data and communications systems as it underpins Kogler’s own compositions) is in fact a space, the space of our representations and, as such, the space that represents us. It is in this sense analogous to the perpectivist’s parete di vetro that, besides being an instrument of representative realism, was the very condition that made the invention of geometry possible and with it the modern subject and reason. This digitalized space or rather this universal digital table is, at least structurally, a direct heir to the space of modern science, first Galilean and then Newtonian, in the sense that it radically accomplishes modern science’s epistemological project of constituting a system of representation and transmission of knowledge voided of analogy via the suppression of the referent in the sign. A system of abstraction of the world in a binary sign which henceforth derives its consistency from the chain of signifying relations in which it is inscribed, from the surface of this chain or, in other words, from the speculative plane of what was first invented with perspective under the name of tableau.
The screens amid which we circulate make it quite clear: Contemporary digital systems are perpetually offering variations on the picture plane as the great paradigm of modern reason and knowledge. The utopia of the global screen pursues the great dream of mapping the world. The desires that sustain this utopia prepare for the same colonializations, but in big, on other scales, according to other lines of domination – that is according to other definitions of humanity.
What has changed notably from the classical (that is European) empire of signs to their digitalized global empire is that the picture plane, or screen, that constitutes them as abstract interchangeable signs voided of referents is not understandable anymore and consequently it is not distinguishable as such – namely, as a speculative plane, a mechanism for representation, a symbolic machine. It no longer fulfills the function of constituting the void. It is intended “simply” to treat it. It no longer represents. It manages. Its function is no longer conceived as symbolic but as strictly pragmatic instead. The picture plane has become a screen and so it has merged into reality and become invisible. And the representative transcendence of which it continues to be the operator can also posit the immanence of the given, the given that can thus be logically extending to the virtual.
In Kogler’s architectures-installations, the virtuosic, mannerist exploitation of digital techniques serves first of all to bring out the invisible screen from the all too visible wall, thereby restoring to this virtual screen its power of abstraction. This it does by representing it lodged within the tradition that engendered it as a creator of illusion (and in this heir to humanist painting) and as a support for signs (and so also heir to abstract painting). The abstract Baroque quality of his giant compositions thus eschews any form of compromise with postmodern eclecticism (and differs in this respect from Philip Taaffe’s work, for instance). With remarkable iconographic economy, it positions itself in the still topical history of modern painting.
Simulacra of painting
The frontal setup of classical painting maintained the illusion of a subject (the observer) facing an object (the observed), as a relic of the relationship of contemplation that unites creature and Creator, even if, as Michel Foucault clearly analyzed in The Order of Things, this setup was already being used as a functional device to expose and impose a system of gazes, powers and places, and even if the painting, by negatively including the place of the spectator, was already inferring it as the vacant place of what “lacks in its place.” Indeed Philippe IV and his wife already did not appear in Las Meninas, save as reflections in the mirror, that is to say as shadows animated by the order of representation itself.
The invisible digital picture space of which we are the unwitting subjects (the represented subjects) destroys the reflexive identificatory structure of a subject and object facing one another. We are inside. We can’t see it, so we can’t see ourselves in it. It is a setup with no imaginary implications and no associations whatever, and in this sense it is not only invisible, it is also unspeakable. It is a remarkably efficient power device because it is utterly discreet.
The recent output of Gerwald Rockenschaub, an Austrian artist of the same generation as Kogler, is exemplary in this respect. Over the past few years he has been producing small aluminum pictures with shiny surfaces (for want of being deep) covered in colorful painted signs generated by digitalizing basic visual patterns, be they figurative or abstract. The experienced viewer can sometimes recognize implied references to contemporary painting. But if these quasi-signaletic pictures pick up the vocabulary of modern pictorial art, at least as defined by Greenberg in terms of flatness and as a signifying composition, they offer such a poor formal assemblage that viewers can mobilize no more than an ironic and distract spotting game that gives rise, at best, to a few foreseeable citation effects Their platitude is such that not only is it impossible to see something in them but it even becomes impossible to “behold” these simulacra of paintings. The eye dryly bounces off the picture surface and we find no way to put ourselves into play, experience our own reflection and enact our own narcissism. They thus invent a new category: the gaze-repelling picture.
Rockenschaub’s small paintings disclose with impeccable rigor the ideological reduction of processes of objectivation, and consequently of subjectivation, linked to representation whenever (as in the case of the digital picture space) the effects of this space of representation itself are concealed. Naturally, this ideological denial does not exclude the pragmatic and even political exploitation of these processes by a space that is all the more vampiric in that it is invisible. To the contrary, it empowers all sorts of manipulations of projection and identification phenomena henceforth left in the irrational obscurity of that which has no right to recognition. Such a picture captures viewers all the more in that they are not aware that they are viewing it.
This is the course that Kogler follows in his analysis of digital picture space. Viewers of Las Meninas could imagine themselves to be in front of Velázquez’s painting, just as modern scholars could conceive of themselves as authors of their knowledge, bearers of the world map, and consequently exploiters of its wealth. Now that the picture plane is hidden in reality, now that it is virtually everywhere, its structure merges with that of the decor. We are not in front of it anymore. Or more precisely, it has been turned inside out like the finger of a glove. The mirror that it contained (the famous mirror of Las Meninas) has deployed its surface and engulfed us as it did Philippe IV and his wife before us. We find ourselves inside. We are in a decor whose depth includes us, reflects us, in other words reflects for us.
For instance, here we are at the center of Villa Arson’s square gallery, frail Lilliputians left to the apparent vagaries of a projection system hanging over our heads (like some constellation deciding our fate), trapped in a fantastic opera featuring a single protagonist: an ant caught in its flight, or more precisely, an ant decor since wherever we turn our gaze the surface of the wall is covered with the same moving ant, the exact same identically projected picture of an ant fleeing its destiny as a tireless worker. Cloning this poor desperate ant at the speed of its flight, underscored by a sound montage evoking machine tools from an Eisenstein film, the network of projections soon gathers into a population, then a crowd, then a mass, then a stream of swarming insects racing in dark frantic flight, in a nightmare even worse than Henri Michaux’s mescaline visions. Until, with the abrupt sound of a guillotine, decimated by who knows what virus, the population of raging workers suddenly disappears. Gone. The wall itself has vanished. But not our desire to see, which has been worked up by the first assault and is waiting for what comes next, namely the same thing all over again. Which is exactly what happens. The same picture of the ant appears and the loop unwinds again much to the satisfaction of our visual bulimia.
When the system of representation is denied as such, that is, as a system of abstraction and subjectivation, the gaze becomes a matter of addiction. Art as drug. This is what was to be demonstrated. And Kogler does so admirably well.
Schematization (from image to pattern), cloning (by modularizing the pattern), cancerization (of cloned population), extinction, and then repetition of the sequence. The borrowing here from quasi-biological models of growth harks back to the use elsewhere of figures that are themselves quasi-vegetal (fibers, net, volute) or quasi-animal (reptilian, arachnidan or, as in this case, insectoid convolutions). This “quasi” like this “demonic” cancerization of the ornament, this pseudo-life of the image like its pseudo-death obviously evoke what we could call the postnature of a virtual posthumanity that is perhaps to-come. But at the same time it invokes a certain Viennese avant-garde, a certain Jugendstil and its simultaneously innocent and decadent figures that make up the fundamental rhetoric of Western architectural modernity. This daring modernity covered nascent urbanism with sick images, meta-images, images of images whose hollow expressiveness conveys at once an excess of power and an avowal of impotence. A climax of an objective nature and a breakdown of a subjective nature. A victory and a defeat.
Art nouveau is reactivated in Kogler’s work and implicitly related to the digital picture plane, in other words to the digital table, via the “video wallpapers” of his recent work, in a way that indicates a second level of analysis, a second type of situation in modernity. The reference to the picture plane as an exhibition mechanism and as a pointer to the exhibition mechanism has in fact become a key topos in art since the seventies, ever since Daniel Buren turned the institutional equivalence between the picture plane form and the museum’s mode of exhibition into the fundament of an œuvre that remains as relevant, if not more, today than ever: an œuvre that already took into account the preeminence of the framework over the gaze, as something along the lines of a captivity without prospects, without any possible imaginary evasion.
The way in which Kogler undresses, so to speak, the architecture of the places in which he exhibits by covering the walls with digital friezes and thereby disclosing the cognitive and mental screen of which we are by definition the unconscious inhabitants, represents one eventual development of this topos. But whereas most contemporary artists who have availed themselves of this theme could not resist exploiting it as a nice conceptual trope (ever since Claude Rutault, the roster is long), Kogler ventures to use this ornamental citation for the purposes of what could be called an initial historization and, as a result, a way of placing this redefinition into perspective.
What is new about the universal digital table in relation to the picture plane is that it is an exhibition mechanism raised to the second power, whose aim is not simply the abstraction of the given into a sign, a known relation, but also the constitution of this known or knowable relation into data, into the material of virtual communication. What this table exhibits is thus no longer representability but rather communicability or, to put it otherwise, the exchangeability of signs that precisely have no further need to represent anything to anyone in order to circulate. What it thereby vouches for, to a higher degree than the picture plane, is the equivalence between symbolicity and the void. This equation is obviously not new: the elimination of the guarantor in the sign, the drifting of signs with no guarantor to anchor them, and the productiveness of this unmooring are even at the origin of modern representation (since the classical era). But the survival of a system of mimetic compensation, via painting in particular, long concealed this flight of meaning intrinsic to the Western symbolic system itself.
With the global screen, this system is reflected as a void, the floating becomes universal, and the equivalence between the picture plane and the museum, which underpinned Buren’s site-specific works (and later Supports/Surfaces’), becomes too signifying still. There are no bearings so there are no situations and without situations, no critique is possible. The digital table clearly improves on the picture plane in the sense that it fulfills its modernity but at the same time it abolishes its representative and critical power. Thenceforth the picture sign (the digital screen) becomes omnipresent but incapable of representing anything but itself. Purely reflexive, it hypertrophies. And since it no longer represents and it conceals its power of abstraction, it becomes paradoxically expressive. This sign is an unpaired projection, an image cut off from metaphor, a pathetic ornament. It becomes the mask of the subject’s reflexivity, itself strictly formal since subjects can henceforth be reduced to their “coordinates” or, to put it otherwise, to their inscription into the data communication diagram. Self-portraits of the subject as screen and of the hand as computer mouse are the new topoi of contemporary video narration.
Unlike the “Neo-Geo” generation of the late eighties, Kogler is not satisfied with viewing these developments with irony. And he is not purely and simply closing the critical parenthesis of the sixties and the period of deconstruction of painting. Instead he is proposing a third hypothesis: neither critical and ideological nor parodic and aesthetic but rather historical and political.
History, as we know, is the great dream of modernity and this modernity began to invent “its” politics only by waking up from this great historical dream, this fatal historicist passion. Two recent events marked this awakening, for Europe at least: the discovery of the Shoah just after the Second World War, and the end of the Cold War, which was the last great representation of the modern saga. Naturally the consequences for art have been enormous because art, as a great maker of images, operates where dreaming and waking meet insofar as it has the paradoxical ability to awaken people by prompting dreams. Playing on this paradox has become one of the main paths of art today and it may well be the only effective chance of articulating artistic order with political order. But of course it is also an awful risk for those making images, because when images do not awaken they sustain what can be deadly in dreams and sooner or later they lead to a repetition of the historical nightmare.
Dreams, as we also know, draw on events of the day before: they restructure the past, they are historical. Except that when dreams rewrite history they do so to express current wishes, even if it means taking the present down the road of repetition, and sustaining the magical knot that unites utopia and remembrance, radiant figuration of the future and nostalgic recollection of the past. We can only wish for what we could have had in the past (but chose to scorn instead). Because art will not content itself with dreaming, because it represents the dream as nostalgia, the ideal as memory, and the future as past, it invents dreams that awaken, dreams that are apt to instantly (that is to say, fleetingly) suspend the infernal repetitive motion that directs the life of individuals and human societies.
If it has this power, it is because art at bottom is never modern or, to put it otherwise, instead of operating according to the paradigm of progress constitutive of the historical ideal, it implements a practical regression (and a practice of regression) by virtue of which images come back to it from out of the past, untouched by idealization and untinged by nostalgia. In these images, that Walter Benjamin termed “dialectical,” past and present collide (instead of the present recalling the past) and the past erupts in the present. They lay waste to the past just when the present is about to disguise itself as the past before throwing itself into new historical tragicomedies. They liberate from the “once upon a time.” Such images, derived from a practice of artistic regression, present today’s dream as yesterday’s despair.
In projecting art nouveau decors in video form onto the walls of our “contemporary” art institutions, our supposedly “advanced” posts of cultural avant-garde, Kogler generates from these seemingly moving pictures, dreams that awaken us and that expose us pinned to the pillory of the past; still attached to the idea of the innocence of progress; still caught in the messianic figure of Western domination. While bearing witness to this oneiric return from out of the past, the mortifying proliferation, the pathological grandeur and the dramatization of his decors immediately bring out the suffering from which this process of domination comes, the paranoiac sorrow of the gesamtkunstwerk that, in the form of these art nouveau citations, relentlessly haunts the present and its dream of the future. And the work shown at the Villa Arson, by representing sameness – the same image of an ant under the mask of frantic motion (let loose by the system of multiple projection) – evidences with perfect economy of means the fixedness of desire under the mask of change. And, with it, the permanence of belief under the appearance of rationality.
This capacity to represent the past in the surging of the present image proceeds from the mechanism of regression put into play through practice, and in this case through the practice of painting. Kogler’s is characterized by two traits: the absence from the start of manual intervention (replaced by means of technical and mechanical reproduction) and more recently the recourse to video projection, that is to say to the moving picture. This twofold choice leads him to the other side of the classical painting, which was determined by a precise idea of the painter’s art and by a no less precise idea of its reception as the art of taste or, to put it otherwise, as the art of enjoying a given object.
Here he thwarts the dual determination that posits the identity of the picture plane and the object and thereby literally “defines” the picture in the sense that it assigns it to a fixed place. We are clearly dealing with picture planes but not with objects. And so the modern representation of painting yields, and what returns in its place, moved by this twofold “practical” decision and harking back nearly to the dawn of our civilization, is the old identification of painting with fresco, mosaic, stained glass, with architecture itself, with everything that has always “stood guard” over the image. Because this icon is always likely to flee, to try to change “patrons,” that is to choose to take its power elsewhere. The history of the image, from Greek eidolons and Byzantine icons to much later religious processions, is indissociable from the history of chaining the power conferred upon it, as if the image was not only moving, but mobile; possessor of the power of the imaginary, and therefore master of beliefs. This is the history that Kobler brings back to the surface by liberating, with the mobility of the picture plane, the icon inherent in it, an icon that practice (that of painting) had to appropriate, retain and confine as the threatening vehicle of faith.
Allegory of immobility
“Etymologically, the term ‘icon’ comes directly from eikon and so means any ‘image’ or ‘portrait.’ At the same time, it may be appropriate to link it to a movable, autonomous image of any material, whether cloth or stone or metal, for example.” Conversely, although the movable, autonomous image has broken with the religious world and become the epistemological paradigm of modern reason, it harbors the integral memory of the icon and, through it, the belief that because images move they have the power to animate the eye and the mind.
In Kogler’s installations, this is the memory that projects onto the walls of our “enlightened” cultural institutions with their chilling architecture the ghost of moribund romanticism, its worship of myths and especially its determination to impose a modern mythology founded on the autonomous life of forms, in other words on the still thriving fantasy that images have a vitality of their own. This work on memory plays a twofold role: it imprints on the architecture the film of this fantasy so as to channel its impact (this is the “rational” function of the practical determination) and it fictionalizes this architecture in film and in fantasy (this is its equally rational limit).
The conversion of mobile picture into architecture and architecture into mobile picture says that our chances of turning modernity against itself by referring it back to the belief in images that still haunts it are very slight, fugitive, ever reversible and easy to manipulate. Perhaps it is because this belief is constitutive of the definition of the human species. Or (to put the same thing in other terms) that the very technique that enables this conversion – the digital system that via video delivers the picture plane from its identification with the gaze, the reflection and the classic episteme – still participates in this belief. Doesn’t the idea that it is possible to increase the speed of circulation by compacting digital data actually postulate circulation to begin with: that “it” circulates? In other words, doesn’t it posit a movement of signs as such, regardless of the representative operation that makes signs of them, or an autonomous flow of images, free of the individual and collective practices that produce these images by eliciting return and recollection? And isn’t this once again a matter of belief in mobility (that is to say in the soul) when we are really dealing with nothing more than a moving shadow, the product of a mediation, the fleeting reflection of a contraction of time in consciousness?
Kogler by no means overestimates the possibility of putting an end to this belief. And in this sense he is not any more modern than he is postmodern. Moving allegories of immobility, his decors only seek to produce “the motionless image of movement,” and thereby introduce a gap between beholding and believing, if only for a moment. The beholder may then take a step back (or not); and perhaps this infrathin distance may unbind art from power.