Mladen Dolar: V.S.S.D.

The project “Veš slikar svoj dolg?” (V.S.S.D.) or “Painter do you know your duty?” could perhaps be best approached with a description of the basic gesture it constitutes. The project, the gesture – these expressions are perhaps not the best, but they nevertheless provisionally convey that we are not dealing with some individuality of an author’s style, which would be immediately recognizable and definable, some sort of “autopoetics” or definability of determined artistic procedures. What we are dealing with is rather the continuity of investigation and research which makes use of diverse and heterogeneous styles, means and techniques in order to always put forth the same question in different ways, to aim towards the same impossible point, to confront us ultimately with the same impossibility.

The gesture I have in mind could be described as an enquiry into some fundamental suppositions of the “art object”, as the radicalization and decomposition of some of the basic dichotomies or oppositions in is constituted by.

On the first and most obvious level we could place the opposition between the detail and the whole. This is especially evident in the “early” period of the project and it was notices by all the first “critics” and “reviewers”: the images are overloaded with details, a multitude of minute and finely crafted details which catch the eye and direct it towards an inner labyrinth. But there is a trap: it seems that the whole reflects in the singular, that each detail mirrors the whole, but the whole is lost in the process of reflection. There are only fragments which are no longer fragments of a whole; the abundance of details cannot be collected into the whole; the ornament is already “the thing itself”, not something which would be added as a “decoration”, the reflection between the whole and the details points to an absence, it merely revolves in a circle of details. The fragmentation of the image invokes the whole, but the whole eludes us. Though it aims at the whole and at finality, the whole can never be captured nor finalized. “It is always possible to add something to it,” the authors say in an interview, to multiply the details: sprouting life turns into a lifeless thing, but the moment of transition is elusive. – This boundary, between the live and the dead is also probed with the “live exhibits”, the life stiffened in the immobility of sculptures with blindfolded eyes.

This first level also implies, the scrutiny of the dichotomy between the surface and the “depth”. Both are placed on the same level – this does not mean we just have a surface lacking depth; the surface constantly produces and generates depth, but the boundary between the two cannot be seized. – The Moebius strip as a topological model is perhaps the best simile of this: though the two surfaces are placed on the opposed sides, we pass from one to the other by advancing along the same surface without ever crossing a boundary. – The next step exposes the inner connection of the dichotomy of concealment and revealment which are placed within each other, both joined in the same gesture. The image offers itself in the immense richness of its appearance, but this appearance can in no way be reduced in reference to any support beyond itself. It makes abundant use of certain “traditional” illusionist techniques which set various traps for the look, but cannot be translated into a “true” image.

A further opposition which is shattered with this is the dichotomy between the privileged viewpoint, in which the traditional painting places the perspective, and a multitude of different viewpoints and perspectives which multiply the view and do away the privileges of any particular point, the assumed ideal viewpoint. The unity of the seeing and the unity of the viewer are thwarted and dissipated, the image continuously divides, multiplies and transforms itself. – Among the traditional devices, the anamorphosis is the mechanism which directly offers a decentralization of the view: what seems to be deformed and distorted from the privileged viewpoint like a blur, turns into the “true” image if “viewed from aside”. Here, the procedure of anamorphosis is brought to a sort of universalization and extremity; every detail is anamorphotic, parasitic images inscribe themselves into it, but the very dichotomy between the deformity and the true image, from which the anamorphosis draws its sense, is missing; there is no true image behind the disfigurement, there is only the anamorphosis. The further dichotomy between the copy and the “original”, the original and its repetition also dissolves. The elements repeat themselves within the image on a micro-level, just as in fractal geometry, but they are always dislocated: the only thing which is repeated is that nothing can be repeated.

The next dichotomy would be between the saturated and the void. The oversaturation with details, the “baroque” saturation, at the same time frames an emptiness, it refers to the void it continuously evokes. At certain stages of this project, it was thus possible to effortlessly pass from the “baroque” abundance, which at first seemed as the V.S.S.D. trademark, to the use of rather minimalist means, the structuring of a void with minimal strokes. Excessiveness and lack meet on the same level.

On an even more fundamental level the very opposition between the image and what surrounds it is questioned; the opposition between the painting and its “environment” the image and its “other”, its outside which frames it. V.S.S.D. continuously violates the boundaries between both; paintings extend into the ambient space, they continue into the frames, the interior of the image passes into the exterior, the very exhibition space becomes a painting which can no longer be confined by the frame. The painting spreads along the walls and the floor. The viewer thus finds himself in a position when he must step into the picture and can no longer retain a distance of the viewer lacking the distance needed for the view. The further implication aims at the impossible doing away with the dichotomy between the view and what is seen, at a point where the view itself would be inscribed into the painting and would ultimately no longer be the view but the viewed. “You can only see from one point, but you are seen from everywhere”. “Picture of a picture” was the name of one of the exhibitions, “Exhibition of an exhibition” ran the title of one of the manifestos: they aim at the absence of any meta-position, any meta-distance in the relation between the view and the object; both find themselves on the same surface, the image is always already an image of an image.

In addition to these oppositions one should also add the divide between light and darkness, which was so compellingly questioned at the second exhibition of V.S.S.D.

So one could conceptually describe the initial gesture of V.S.S.D. in the terms of a “systemic” enquiry, examination and decomposition of the basic dichotomies and dualities which establish the “art object” – the pairs detail/whole, surface/depth, appearance/“the thing itself”, unity/multiplicity of view, “distorted”/“true” image, original/copy – reflection – repetition, saturation/emptiness, image/its outside, interior/frame, picture/ambience, gaze/object, light/darkness (one could also add pairs plan/coincidence, empathy/distance, expression/intellect, which the authors use in one of their interviews – the point is again the erasure of the demarcation lines, the coincidence of both). In each case the basic operation is the same; the dualism which was the silent supposition of the visual dimension is obliterated, the two opposing sides are placed on the same level and pass one into the other, they intertwine to a point where they can no longer be separated; the exterior and the interior – perhaps the simplest paradigm of these pairs – find themselves on the single side, advancing on one side one steps over into the other, without having crossed the boundary.

From what has been said up to now we have not yet arrived to what, in my opinion, really distinguishes the V.S.S.D. project. One could maintain that this gesture does not actually contain anything radically new. One could plausibly argue that the history of “modernism” and its “postmodern” outcome was, by its inner logic, the history of the very questioning and decomposition of these dichotomies and that at the end of this process we have wound up on the surface of a Moebius strip, in a different mode of space, view and reference (here it would be possible to use whole range of currently much used terms – virtuality, hyperreality, simulacrum, phantasy… ant to mention a heap of authors, but this time let us spare both the author and the readers). – In this sense, V.S.S.D. does not define itself by some radically new approaches which young authors usually use in an attempt to distinguish and thus distance themselves from tradition (one could even say that their concept is the opposite – that everything has already been seen, everything has always already been present). Yet there are two features which particularly distinguish this project and assign it to a special dimension.

The first one is that with the persistence on the basic gesture of decomposing the fundamental dualities, dismantling the cut interior/ exterior etc., it presents the above logic in a radical, condensed and concentrated abbreviation and thus endows it with a special clarity. With this “summing up” the project also evades the dichotomies of modern/postmodern and avantgarde/retrogarde, inscribing them on the same surface as well. The second feature is even more important. It concerns the question of what follows the fall of those traditional dualities, what kind of “message” can we derive from this basic gesture. In this respect V.S.S.D., the way I see it, differs from the usual “postmodern” understanding. Namely, the dissolution of traditional dichotomies by no means implies a space of a new pluralism of styles, a thronging crowd of “autopoetics” beyond the big projects and schools, an area of new freedom and openness, blocked up to now by those dichotomies, an exuberance of simulacra and virtualities. Quite the opposite. Where the “postmodernist” view so often saw the answer – thus exposing itself to a quick plunge into the arbitrariness – V.S.S.D. sees a question – the question precisely formulated in the name: Painter do you know your duty? The crumbling of dichotomies requires an ethical stance, it entails the dimension of a debt, an obligation, which cannot be fulfilled by referring to a multitude of styles beyond the schools and doctrines and a multitude of realities beyond the single one, supposedly replacing the decomposed totality. In other words, the end of dichotomies does not bring “liberation”, so that one could finally “breath freely”, it does not entail openness, but quite the opposite, a radical closure and an impossibility – and this is what obliges and commits. It does not redeem, it indebts. Openness was perhaps only possible in the realm of those dichotomies which seemed to close it. If illusion and reality, appearance and truth, the original and the imitation find themselves on the same level, this does not open a dimension where “everything” would be allowed”, nor a kind of general relativity, but rather the impasse of the “art subject” only then culminates in the confrontation with the Impossible, with a barrier of sight and space, with the boundary of the Real. In yet other words, if it seems that the exterior and the interior are on the same surface, this does not mean that the cut between them is healed; on the contrary, this opens a gap which is much more agonizing than the one that kept apart the former duality.

It seems to me that V.S.S.D. is well aware of this. The author’s individuality and signature are replaced by a quest on the trail of this impossibility, an ethical stance, a call, a commitments implies in the question. Yet despite the anonymity, the self-effacement in the call, the authors (in which number it is proper to speak about V.S.S.D. – singular, dual, plural?) write and answer in the first person singular: the self-effacement in the collectivity of the project, but nevertheless a stance which can only be assumed by an “I”. “Painter do you know your duty?” – a question which one cannot measure up to, a duty that cannot be fulfilled, but which guides the pursuit of the impossible Thing.

Translated by Irene Hoffman


Alen Ožbolt