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The Haunting of the Absolute
Tamás Seregi: During previous conversations you frequently mentioned the word ‘absolute’ which you seemed to be using as a technical term referring to your works. What does this concept mean to you?
Tamás Komoróczky: In speaking about an ‘absolute’ I always mean something which is arbitrarily chosen and detached by the attention. It can be almost anything, an object, an event or a picture that comes to the forefront of my attention as I am focusing on it and from that time on that is the moment which subordinates everything else. You pick out something from everything and then it becomes everything. I imagine it as a sort of condensation, or rather as the knotting into a zero point of a not yet born theme which is necessary for the unfolding of the work.
T. S.: It means that the concept of absolute has nothing to do in your vocabulary either with anything that is beyond (transcendence) or with any inner essence or core which could only be reached by removing all the accidental elements from it.
T. K.: Yes, neither of these two. Considering that the absolute, as I use the word, can be either essential or inessential or even something totally trivial. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that a situation or even an emergency must be created by way of which a process can be set off: observation via collecting and research leading all the way to creation and construction. The absolute is the beginning of an adventure. Sometimes I like to put myself at a disadvantage, or to force myself to make detours before getting to the goal. And the absolute is the detour by which I can reach this very end.
T. S.: Is there something similar in these absolutes?
T. K.: No, there isn’t. Considering that if they had something in common they couldn’t become absolutes one by one. If there is anything that should relate them to one another, it is only the way, or even method, by which they can be elicited. To trigger the process it is often enough to find a little fragment of a theory, a piece of a text but sometimes it is a whole theory from the history of philosophy or from the natural sciences. For instance Memetics and Existentialism were such theories for me.
T. S.: Then the point is to pick something out and isolate it in order to create a something that can serve as a starting point.
T. K.: Yes, and then this detached moment chosen will have to be successively enriched by research. During this process many unnecessary associations come up, which, after the conception has stood out – will be removed until the work has found its matter and form. A summation curve emerges from the divergent vectors.
T. S.: It means that there is some essence here but it is more to be given birth to than to be found. And I may understand the other part of your answer as well. Isn’t it the point you want to drive home, that after detaching the very moment you set out not to concretize it, but rather you try to remain on this abstract level and enrich the range of the absolute in an abstract way?
T. K.: Yes, it is the process that matters. You must act like a midwife and help the essence get born.
T. S.: Could you tell me an example? Or two.
T. K.: Absolute is for instance the tiny philosophical poem I wrote for the video Margit (meme) (1) which has been translated into German then back again into Hungarian then into German and so forth. The poem went through back and forth translations five times and the result was supplemented by a couple of blasphemic lines (it was because the museum where the exhibition took place had originally been a chapel). The text was read out by the robot voice of the google translate software that was then made by many technological manipulations sound like a human Hungarian native speaker. To the background I fixed a photo of the exact same part of the apse where the installation itself was placed. And in the middle of this picture’ plain I pasted another photo of a lime fossil which I found and photographed at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Berlin. And I tried to make the lime fossil move exactly to the rhythm of the techno-dub music composed to the work. I intentionally overstructured the text of the video forming ‘text-discs’ of it in order that the audience may simultaneously hear and see it. Here we can see two absolutes emerging and encountering, since not only the little poem but also the lime fossil should be considered as such. The translations and the rhythmization, however, I would call abstractions. Another example could be my Everything eats, everything is eaten exhibition which presented some ideas related to the theory of memetics. Here I put a couple of ontological thoughts arbitrarily taken from one of the books of Gurdjieff (2) into the position of the absolute. I made eight large easel-pictures to the text each approaching the theorem of ‘everything eats, everything is eaten’ from a different aspect of memetics.
T. S.: I agree. You neither use simulation in order to make a reality effect nor do you stage Gurdjieff’s sentences as a quasi-theatrical scene (you put them into the mouth of a little child teaching them to his parrot) in order to create presence and proximity. Your goal is quite the opposite.
T. K.: You are right. There always is some distantiation in my works. The parrot, for instance, was put into the scene because he is a replicator. The replicator has a crucial role in the theory of evolution. Memetics, however, showed that there are secondary replicators as well which have the same crucial role in languages or in culture as such. Simulation is to create a reality (even if it is a fake one). But I am less interested in creating reality than in exposing the relations between different realities, in making the difference between them perceptible, and in revealing how to switch from one to the other.
T. S.: Is this what ‘intermedia’ means to you? On one of your early exhibitions Tamás Szentjóby published a text in the journal Balkon in which he uses this word in its original meaning borrowed from Dick Higgins. Thus he speaks not of multimedia or mixed media art but one which “falls between media” and in which we must work in the gaps of the different media. According to his interpretation, however, through these gaps some kind of proximity (of surroundings, of activity, of non-art) can be reached. And in 1993-94 he would have seen you as one of the most successful representatives of this theory. What do you think of this text and what did you think of it at that time, particularly from the perspective of directness and indirectness (proximity and distance)?
T. K.: I met Tamás Szentjóby right after I had majored at the University of Fine Arts and he had a big influence on me. I was even his assistant for a short time and now I still look up to him as my former master. I heard the concept of ‘infinitesimal’ from him that he used in this text as well. Looking back to this concept I conceive of it as identical with my concept of the ‘absolute’. I disagree with him, however, in his conviction that infinitesimal or absolute could be identified with any directness or proximity considering that absolute is something that can never be reached and caught by definition. It always remains indirect and at a distance.
T. S.: So you can affirm that you are an intermedia artist if only with this reservation, can’t you? In his paper Tamás Szentjóby also made an important distinction speaking about intermedia. He pitted performance and installation against happening and environment. And he called the former the betraying of the latter. Apart from agreeing or disagreeing with this categorical conclusion, we can at least agree with his observation to the extent that you have always had much aversion to any form of theatricality aiming to induce participation, proximity, presence etc.
T. K.: In my eyes, these are only genres. We thought in the Újlak Group (3) already that the point is rather to fill up the presence by spontaneous, creative acts irrespective of the result’s being classified as representative of any genre or not.
T. S.: Apropos Újlak! How do you look back to the Újlak Group? What did you benefit from it and how did you experience the period after the group had broken up?
T. K.: The six years we spent together in the group informed me much especially by the way the group approached artistic practice which I felt very refreshing and inspiring compared to the academic one that prevailed at the University of Fine Arts in Budapest at the time. Now I appreciate its vital energy and diversity the most: the night-long conversations, the enthusiasm we shared, the debating, the improvisation in which each member came up with new conceptions and complete projects for the others. This way of creating had a crucial role in making the group a real community. And we had no time for anything that had already passed. Instead of brooding upon the past of the group we were always in advance, ahead of ourselves so to speak, and the group broke up not because it would have been exhausted and gone flat, but on the contrary, it was because after six years being a member of a group was not enough for any of us any longer and everyone set out to trace his own path issuing from the experience the group had given him. As to myself, I started working on my alibi-cycle which lasted a couple of years.
T. S.: What does alibi mean in this cycle?
T. K.: To me ‘alibi’ means something much more general than in everyday language. We can avoid the pejorative overtones of this word referring to some cheap excuse only by generalizing it and relating it to the whole of being. ‘Alibi’, rather, suggests to me a general justification of our being on an existential level. I am certain that everyone has to account for what his/her being consists of, for what (s)he has done and for what (s)he leaves behind. This ‘accounting’ is meant here not in a moral sense but in the sense of self-understanding. Self-understanding is the insight that nothing has any real foundation. And this void can only be measured and filled by way of acting, doing and making something. Alibi is something chosen and detached by the attention again, a pretext upon which I tried to build a whole brand. They were totally banal things I chose: alibi-sport, alibi-fashion, alibi-records and the like. Apart from the two exhibitions I made on this topic, the logo of ‘alibi’ showed up on different surfaces: as a sticker, as a poster, as a T-shirt, as a stamp later as well. Labeling was always its point. Sometimes I just tagged or ‘over-stamped’ something with it. It was for strictly conceptual reasons – and not because I wished to reach a wider audience - that I used easy to consume pop-cultural elements. My sole purpose was to extend the range of the concept ‘alibi’ as far as possible.
T. S.: This means that pop functioned as a sort of surface for you to test different ontological insights.
T. K.: Yes, so to speak. And this ‘pop-cloak’, as I like to call it, didn’t disappear from my works after the Alibi-cycle had ended. I used it in different projects for a couple of more years. One of them was, for instance, the Six Pictures / ordo / c3 / 999, a set of works dealing with the six classical genres in painting. Each picture was meant to represent the essence of one genre. Or my video-portrait series in five episodes. Here I manipulated the subjects of the portraits in a way to expose the features I projected into them with the intention of raising fundamental existential questions. Working this way I encountered with the concept of OCD. OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a medical concept referring as a generic term to the fixed ideas and compulsive acts. Its most frequent form is the compulsive repetition of some so called subroutines connected to territoriality and hygiene (washing the hands, checking things again and again, counting things), which can decrease the anxiety of the subject. I tumbled on this topic as an ‘absolute’ again and during the research and collecting that was needed for my work I tried to get myself into a condition in which the different combinations of the accumulated formal motives could stream through me in a way of compulsive automatism.
T. S.: Your OCD exhibition took place in the Hungarian pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2001. I take it as a summary of your experimentations with tapestry adapted to artistic practice also pointing to your mural works. Does this kind of design activity also come from your interest in pop culture?
T. K.: No. In this case the feeling of some pop feature only comes from using patterns and pictures collected and appropriated from the internet. Tapestry was very suitable to representing OCD because this kind of hoarding up of sequences, which can also be conceived of as loops, was very fitting to fill up and structure huge surfaces. During the work of installation I was also in a hurry, in other words in a self-imposed challenge, considering the short time I had on my hands. Finally, I made 27 different pattern-systems which had been attached to nine video works treating the topic of OCD in scientific, pseudoscientific, fictional etc. ways.
T. S.: So you detach your tapestry-based works from the pop stream and what is more, you don’t consider them as any design activity either. Does it mean that you don’t have any pure design work? Cannot your murals be seen that way?
T. K.: Yes, they can. I have got a couple of applied art work that I myself consider as design works too. Here I had to answer some functional requirements and the conditions of the environment. However, I didn’t let playfulness be out of the working process even in these cases and my affinity with structural playing around can be seen in many other works of mine as well. According to me it is definitely not a problem of design at all.
T. S.: Anyhow, it is undeniable that they have some aesthetic (and not artistic) features in common. They just don’t provoke the same aesthetic response that is expected from tapestry. They are crowded, jammed, sometimes explicitly unpleasant to the eye. They are intrusive, so to speak.
T. K.: Yes, they are. This also was to trigger the alienation-effect, i.e. the very distantiation I have already mentioned before. On the other hand, it is important to note that in the Nineties when using computers and digital printing got widespread, many of us wished to make the art work immaterial. In the OCD-project I tried to clutter up space by stacking expressive and aggressive elements upon one another, while driving myself into an obsessive working-mode, i.e. I was trying to relate to my own self in the same way as to the material of the artwork. A fixed attitude in working tends to take the process into a repetitive groove and redundancy, which only makes an artist similar to him/herself. For the sake of dynamic change I always have to try and thwart ancient attitudes and look for new ones. Unbeaten paths inevitably brings about self-alienation. After the OCD-project I began to make video etudes which can be identified as little sidetracks within this overall path-finding. I fixed some genres and features in advance (timeframe, tempo, rhythm etc.) and filled up these completely different structures with similar material. I handled each video as a poem fixing its genre in haiku or sonnet or cradle song and fitting accurately everything else to the respective structures and styles. In a few cases even the process of designing was subjected to the force of outer circumstances: for instance, I prescribed it to myself to start accomplishing the artwork not earlier than a couple of hours before the opening of the exhibition. By this gesture I rendered the whole process open and contingent, i.e. I jeopardized it. This self-provocation, at the same time, did not fail to provoke the curator either, since it diminished control and limited the possibility of post-production. It is in this way that the solid framework I fixed in advance was finally able to make an open art work emerge and the whole process was fuelled by the energy of the excitement coming from the risk. While I was making these small études I was also working on a longer opus, entitled TELE – le samurai. I shot dozens of videos with telephoto lens in the streets of Berlin remaining incognito for the subjects. It was a kind of voyeuring by way of which I was able to observe everyday scenes from the outside. The challenge was to use these little scenes without any edition and to find pieces of music which fitted their rhythms as much as possible. I was forced to attach thousands of pieces of music to the sequences because I wanted to avoid editing the music at all cost. During this time-consuming process I got the feeling, and, what is more, I’ve made the experience, that anything can be made fit to anything if we find the appropriate point in space-time. This is what we call synchronicity. It was a very long haul, a sort of pottering around that lasted for many weeks bringing me to a state of mind which can fairly be called ‘obsession’.
T. S.: Then you became interested in the concept of ‘instant’ as such.
T. K.: Yes, I got an invitation from the Bifron Foundation in the Netherlands where a video anthology was under edition. The conception was to invite a composer, a video artist and an adman to make a DVD edition together. The adman and the video artist were asked to create separately something to a music composed by the third member of the little group. My composer partner was Thor Eldon from Iceland with whom we were long corresponding in emails. Having learnt that SZTAKI (Institute for Computer Science and Control of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) had just developed a very fast-running camera (30.000 frames/sec.) I got the idea to shoot through pieces of fruits and vegetables with a bullet and film the moments of the explosion inaccessible to the naked eye. The four-minute-long video was given the title Shooting Days. I also edited my own piece from these recordings with the title When Johnny Goes Marching Home given to it in which I used sequences from the music of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man composed by Neil Young. I was astonished to realize how similar the blowing up of fruits and vegetables is to some cosmic cataclysms (supernova blowing up, meteorite impact etc.). Having been attached to the slow, monotonous, repetitive music, the images had an almost hypnotic effect on the viewers. And by the title I meant to bring our monotonous march towards death into relief.
T. S.: Yes, there truly is something hypnotic in these slow explosions. According to me, however, something more happened at that time. Even in this video there was something more at stake than only pictures. It was as much about the objects themselves as about the pictures of them. Objects and materials were about to come back into your works. You seemed to start to put into material and 3-dimensional form many things you had created in the previous years. The first sign of this shift may be discerned in your huge, 12-meter-long print from 1999 in which the pattern system suggesting tapestry consists of donkey bones. Later you literally materialized a couple of things you had made before. For instance there is the Post Alibi Records in which you created an object from the pattern system designed for the Café of Ludwig Museum a couple of years earlier which always happens to remind me of a monster. Or when you made a flying carpet with the same kind of patterns etc. These objects, however, cannot remain mere objects. Or maybe they can, but being pure objects deprived of any meaning they start being haunted by ghosts. Is this the way how you arrived at the idea of conjuring up The Phantom of Museum?
T. K.: Having worked only with video for a couple of years I suddenly felt compelled to put material objects into my works, to make them palpable. The construction you mentioned was not in fact designed by me but I asked a temporary assistant to make it following some instructions I had given him. I found the ad-hoc way of work more exciting in that case too than to accomplish the work alone and with my own hands. The givens were always important to me in order to keep the work facile. Such a given was in some cases (Janus Pannonius Museum, Kiscelli Museum, Hermann Ottó Museum) the collection to be found in the museum where the exhibition took place. In these cases I tried to integrate some pieces of the collection into my work. But these pieces were only objects. That’s why I needed some ghost figures that could achieve the work of dragging the object in question into the work. I conceived of them as marks, elements of interpunction (quotation mark, question mark, exclamation mark). They functioned as some system of punctuation within the work, spacing its element and thereby creating an overall rhythm and determining its inner proportions. I gave it the title Spirits of Eternal Slaves referring to the opposite of the ideal of freedom. I also made an apparently banal short video on the subject of the spirit which was in fact a meme-feeding experiment. It was based on a youtube video spreading as a meme in those days. In the video you can see a running camera left alone shooting in a room in the same way as one would usually attempt to record paranormal phenomena. Needless to say such footages are all fake. I appropriated all the characteristics (from pictorial features to dramaturgy) that are shared by such videos and when it eventually seemed to serve the purpose I uploaded my video to youtube and started to monitor its life and diffusion on the net. The effect it had on the viewers confirmed all my expectations and corroborated the prognostics proposed by the theories of memes: it soon achieved a high viewing figure and you could clearly see in the comments that the viewers considered it as the same kind of ‘pictorial ghost-trap’ as those videos that I was imitating. So the deception worked.
T. S.: Meanwhile you made video portraits as well. Did you see any relationship between the subject of ghosts and the portrait genre?
T. K.: Of course, I did. In the case of portrait making I allowed myself to be motivated by my interest in psychology. From 2001 to 2008 I made eight video portraits the greatest challenge being here not only to relate to each subject as an individual but also to treat each process of shooting and even each realized video work as singular. It wasn’t supposed to be a coherent series of portraits but a number of works completely independent of one another. Video is a perfect tool for the task in question. It was not difficult to make the first one, Zénó, considering that I had long known the subject and quite well and had been aware long before the shooting of his compulsive tendencies. The video therefore could easily be integrated into my OCD-cycle. In the case of Sanyi, the second one, I was inspired by one of the dreams of the subject. Sanyi once dreamt kicking a ball up to a big tree again and again. The ball never stays up stuck in a fork but it never falls back down to the ground either because before it would the scene is cut and restarts with another attempt at kicking the ball.
From each video a completely different structure evolved in the process of elaboration. Elaboration consists of two phases the first of which is the shooting which is singular and unrepeatable without thereby being arbitrary because if it is not concentrated enough and sometimes even governed by a set of preconceived ideas, then in the second phase the structure cannot be unfolded from the diffuse material it provides. It is in the post-production that this very unfolding takes shape by editing the material, giving it a rhythm and composing a piece of music that highlights its hidden structure. In the case of Tádé I didn’t know the subject well still I had the impression that he must be a man suffering from severe anxiety and constantly forced to face the deepest questions of human existence. In order to make him produce a long spontaneous monologue I had to manipulate him by getting him drunk, arresting all his senses (for instance he was obliged to be listening to music during the shooting), and directing his stream of speech by a couple of questions cut out afterwards. The result was a final mental breakdown preceded by phases of fear, anger, helplessness and bleak hopelessness leading up to bursting into tears, twice pronouncing the word ‘nothing’ as the final conclusion. A post-production piece of music and flash-animated ‘flowers of speech’ were added to the pictures highlighting the drama. By contrast, the Girls was initiated by a spontaneous provocation: I invited three girls from my company to the building of the French Institute of Budapest and asked them to spit water at each other using all the rooms and corridors available while I was shooting them. The choreography emerging from their spontaneous acts led me to the idea to edit the material in three different ways. The one was my own, the others were those of two of my colleague’s asked to follow a couple of simple rules: they were allowed to manipulate the material only by making it slower or faster or reversing it back and forth.
T. S.: And why are they portraits? In what way are they about the single person that is supposed to be depicted by them?
T. K.: It was never the concrete person that I wanted to bring into the foreground. Yet, if you knew the persons’ hidden background, I am sure that you would see the authenticity of their portrayal. I would call these pieces ‘poetical portraits’ referring to the distinction between ‘techné’ and ‘poiesis’ in Greek. Poiesis was always more important to me than techné considering that the latter must be conjured up and motivated by the former. That is why I work in so many different media – because I always set out from an idea which cannot help but find its means of realization, i.e. its techné, only later. This is a distinction I also inherited from Tamás Szentjóby who always claimed poiesis to be above techné.
T. S.: In my interpretation it means – and let me refer forward to a philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who later became very important in your works – that in these portraits of yours concrete persons only haunt ghostwise the perceptual phenomenon appearing on the screen. Just like revenant ghosts do. So these works may be called ‘spirit portraits’ and connected to the other spirits already mentioned.
T. K.: Yes, the dealing with these unsettling existential questions already anticipated in a way that I would later arrive at the philosophy of Existentialism. Around 1991, for instance, I made a series of bottles trying to produce models of doctrines and dogmas of some religions and philosophies. The main subjects were Islam, Catholicism, the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, the concept of heterarchy, of fraternity, and those of space and the void. Here again, my main concern was how these ideas could be linked to one and the same shape, that of the bottle in this case. And by the word of ‘model’ I meant that they were never more than some attempts at the representation of the ideas in question, i.e. representing them only in a poetic way. So much so that I gave one of them the title A Futile Attempt to Represent Heterarchy. This latter work I made by breaking a bottle into little pieces and then assembling and sticking them together until the bottle was able to hold water again without leaking. And it was meant to represent that a perfect society needs each piece of the whole, irrespective of their size. So the word ‘futile’ in the title didn’t as much refer to the impossibility of making a model of a perfect society, as the model worked perfectly, but rather to the assumption that it is impossible to implement such a model.
T. S.: So that is why the spirit is doomed to stay inside the bottle for ever – if I can risk such a clumsy formulation. Not because it had been forcefully closed into it as the fairy tale relates but because it is unable to quit it and to incarnate in the real world. That is to say – using a concept which is used in art theory as well – there is no real expression. Accordingly, in the case of the portrait the inner is never able to express itself exhaustively, to emerge on the surface and to exhibit itself. What it is at best able to do is merely to haunt the surface from the inside. There are spirits, however, not only inside but also outside. And there exists a tool developed for the express purpose of catching them, the so called ghost trap.
T. K.: In the history of ideas which is called in German as well as in Hungarian ‘the history of spirit’ (Geistesgeschichte; szellemtörténet) it has long been claimed that Verb, language, living thinking (Scaligero), i.e. culture is no more than the succession of ideas superseding and replacing each other in due course, staying alive only as long as there is anyone left to remember and conceive of them (and so at least as it seems to me Memetics and Cultural Anthropology is no different in this respect). The latter, however, doesn’t imply that ideas are not objective entities living outside human minds. In the exhibition Ghost Trap you have just hinted at I tried to confront two versions of this theorem. On one wall of the exhibition room a picture of a net of neurons could be seen (supplemented by some personal notes concerning Memetics in the space between the neurons) and on the opposite wall a couple of analogies of the former picked out from the history of culture, like Devas from Indian mythology or the ghosts known from the initiation ritual of Mexican shamans. The difference between Memetics and the represented cultures is that the former conceives of the very objectivity as mental phenomenon whereas the latter as transcendent entity. Both shares the conviction, however, that only human minds guarantee its existence by the attention directed towards it considering that the condition of its life is permanently changing and moving. I placed the ghost trap in question in the middle of the exhibition room. It was an object made of neon that served to mediate between the two types of entities and as a lightning rod to conduct the ghosts into the ground.
T. S.: If I am right there is also a third kind of revenant ghost in your works that lately you have been more and more preoccupied with. It is a spirit that instead of haunting human beings, either from the inside or the outside, haunts the world itself and especially the objects. In your exhibition The Phantom of the Museum that we have just mentioned the same kind of spirits could already be seen. Later, however, stepping out of the museum we began to roam in the world in some of your works – in a world in which there is no human being, no mind or any kind of life either, there are only some relics of objects and a past that is haunting them. For instance, in your video A History of the World in 100 Objects – the New Ozymandias the viewer might fall into a presence in which time is not passing at all and at the same time it is haunted by a past which had never been present. And your Vectors – Inscription on a Future Ancient Skull exhibition could also been referred to in which time was literally bursting – at least the arrows directing to the ways as different as possible might imply something like that. Meanwhile a pile of objects could be seen under the arrows, objects fallen out of time still being unable to become timeless. What is this actually, is it a radical archaism or the haunting of some eternity?
T. K.: You may see here something that comes up in most people’s life after a certain age and which could be best described as ‘nostalgia’ – an apparent insatiable yearning for the past but, in reality, it is more of a wish to put some distance between yourself and the present. Consequently, the wish doesn’t necessarily aim at the past considering that it is not a definite direction that it takes but it is pining after distance as such and so it may just as well turn to the future or long for eternity. The relics of the past only served to facilitate this time travel. Sci-fi is just a crude and simplifying version of what I needed. One of Ferenc Juhász’s book’s title is hidden in Vectors – Inscription on a Future Ancient Skull. And the paradox of time was here the most important for me. In this exhibition I also incorporated items from the collection of the museum where it took place, and tried to intervene as little as possible. I did no more than fixing a couple of arrows above the objects placed on pedestals. A video was also made for the installation in which a huge monolith could be seen surrounded by a net and little ‘snowflakes’ floating around it. These three elements are moving around in a different direction each. Snowflakes stand metaphorically for persons who lived, will have lived or may one day live or simply never live. And the invisible resultant of the vectors is the very inscription on a future ancient skull. In the case of A History of the World in 100 Objects – the New Ozymandias I was inspired by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias which is a kind of serene pondering on the inevitability of passing away (amor fati). I had the vision a planet without life, even plants. Then in this bleak world I put the 100 arbitrarily chosen objects which turned into ghosts themselves: there is no one to use or even to look at them any longer, each has been stuck in its own loop. The only hope, the only loophole out of this closed system is the blue comet sweeping through the sky. Apart from it the whole world is black and white.
T. S.: Yes, it has been claimed by sociologists for quite some time that even things have an autonomous social life with its successive phases and social mobility upwards and downwards. It is much less spoken about, however, what happens to things when they lose connection to people. Once departing somewhere I stood a pencil upright on the flat surface of my table. On arriving back home, it was still standing there keeping its balance the way I left it. Watching it I was wondering how long that stupid thing would be standing there in that unusual position. I couldn’t decide whether it was terrifying or reassuring.
T. K.: Böhringer also tackled this topic as does the Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) at present. As for myself, I like to think of things as ready-mades. The essence of Duchamp’s ready-mades, however, does not consist in what you can read about in art theory textbooks: arbitrariness, provocation, institutional critic, resistance to retinal art, rejection of craftsmanship. In my view there are good and bad ready-mades and what makes a ready-made good is an interference emerging between the object and myself. From our shared vibration may develop with time an intimate complicity excluding all extraneous elements. I never stop collecting. Focusing on certain topics I obsessively collect images from the internet, read texts, store things up. Things are batteries for me carrying some charge which they are able to communicate to other things provided that the appropriate constellation becomes available. That is why some objects I once used show up again and again in new contexts. Until their reappearance they are placed on a waiting list. I am not interested in the extraordinariness of things but in the intimate complicity I mentioned above. Sometimes the thing in question is just some junk, a fossil, a bottle cap or a piece of bone.
T. S.: That is to say, an insignificant thing, some nothingness. But if it is so, don’t you ever have doubts whether the intimate complicity between you and your object may not take place in a similar way between the viewer and the same object?
T. K.: I hate any form of didacticity. That is why I never add any explanation or interpretation to my exhibitions. Further, I particularly like to raise difficulties of interpretation in order to make the beholder feel that his relation to each work always contains something that cannot be put into words. What I am interested in is finding the appropriate approach to each topic which adumbrates the formal characteristics of the work. Let me tell you an example: working on my A Poem about Nothing exhibition that took place in Liget Galéria in 2010 I faced the issue of how to grasp such a completely empty concept as nothingness. I looked around in different disciplines and religions dealing with the topic and found that in Mathematics, for instance, zero, the mathematical nothing, represents a positional notation within the number system which means that in fact it cannot be called nothing. And it is the same with Buddhism for instance according to which Nirvana is a place where we can get to and dwell in. That is why I stopped looking up theories and decided to collect amateur poems from the internet. I eventually appropriated one of these poems and started to develop the work from it and from a similarly insignificant picture: a passport photo of myself. I morphed to the picture facial aspects by photoshop imitating the phonemes of the poem, then made a robot voice rehearse the text and synchronized the two. I also made another video to the exhibition which was shot in Berlin in the apartment I happened to rent. Fortunately, the owner was a cameraman so all the equipment needed for shooting was ready at hand. I accurately followed through the whole process of a film shooting using three cameras, a clapperboard, lights, doing panning, traveling, zooming in and out, making a lot of cuts etc. But the images I made didn’t show anything but the floor and the surrounding equipment.
T. S.: So the method you eventually figured out was to approach the problem of ‘nothing’ by insignificant events and things, by pieces of nothingness so to speak. As in the case of ready-mades you have once again come upon such insignificant items of nothingness. Am I right in saying that this dealing with the concept of nothing made your mind simultaneously susceptible to its opposite, i.e. ‘everything’? I am referring here to Big Theories, the all-encompassing explanations of the world order showing up in your works: cosmologies, utopias, myths of origin etc.
T. K.: Searching for the ‘nothing’ you spontaneously get to the problem of ‘everything’ as well. To approach it, such theories as the aforementioned cosmology Gurdijeff for instance seemed to me very handy. First I had been interested in the paradox of nothingness, namely that you can only get to nothing by denying some being. But after a while I realized, and this was the second step, that you can do it only by denying all beings. That was the reason I needed such all-encompassing theories. According to my observation there are two kinds of people in this regard, the one for whom it is easier to conceive of the ‘always already had been’ and ‘always will be’ and the other who feel more comfortable with the idea of a process starting out from nothingness then going through being returns back into nothingness. In my view these are two fundamental ways of viewing infinity.
T. S.: Was this the way that led you to Existentialism?
T. K.: By this time, I came to the conviction that being is something unique and unrepeatable, and therefore the well-known advertisement doesn’t lie a bit when it proclaims that ‘life is no more than what you pour into it’. This uniqueness makes us responsible. I needed, however, to support this conviction with philosophical theories. That is how I lay my hand on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. To be honest it took me almost a year to come to grips with it. It was a real time travel mostly by reason of its seventy year old terminology but in the end I think I managed to grasp what Sartre means by the concepts of being-in-itself and being-for-itself, and especially that of nihilation, which is after all the most fundamental ontological property of the human being. My project turned out to be much larger than I had expected. Initially, I had planned two exhibitions but it eventually developed into five.
T. S.: In my view, what most captured you in the philosophy of Sartre was as much the feeling of contingency of being depicted by it as the conceptual analysis underpinning it.
T. K.: Yes, I found my thoughts on the ‘absolute’ to be confirmed in it. In this cycle of exhibitions I used as varied techniques as possible. Among others, I made very simple ceramics shaped only by a couple of gestures or introduced steel wires winding randomly in the air with haphazard little knots fixed upon them. My question was all the while how contingency is able to assume form in being. I tried to make not only objects, however, but to generate situations as well in which completely heterogeneous things may encounter. And I did it not only in the exhibition room but also in the space of a video which contained of a couple of quotes from Sartre’s text taken out of context each of which I complemented with a corresponding formal, pictorial or historical analogy. And I also hid a conceptual key in one of the exhibitions condensing the heterogeneous elements in a single verbal formula: allusion.
T. S.: Existentialism, however, channeled your thinking not only towards a more general or more abstract terrain but at the same time to a more concrete one as well, to that of human life you just mentioned. Is a human being doomed to face the questions of being alone or is (s)he always and necessarily together with others even if (s)he happens to be on her own? – you seem to have been brooding on such classic sartrien and existentialist questions for some time. At least your last exhibition entitled Revealing Intuition – Immanence Catches Transcendence and Thereby Determines Itself seems to allow such an inference. So are we really condemned to loneliness and are the others really hell?
T. K.: My last exhibition was in fact less on Sartre than on Simone de Beauvoir. And by dealing with Beauvoir I felt it necessary to include not only the I but also the Other. So I decided to represent the intersubjective relations in the environment. I made a cage-like net of bamboo sticks serving for the place of the female, outside of which a video work was installed put together from the formal motives of the dance of male paradise birds. In the work both the female and the male are enclosed in themselves even if nothing exists for them but their mutual relation. Moreover, there is nothing inside them either. On the one hand, the female is represented by no more than an empty jug-like ceramic fragment whereas the male, on the other, is only indicated by a flat silhouette around the actual bird which are slowly dissociating from each other making the bird gradually disappear. So the work only consists of three pieces of nothingness, of two holes and the hollowness between them. Nevertheless, I would like to devote my next exhibition to a single figure again, to Saint Simeon the Stylite who at first sight may also seem a lonesome man. What I intend, however, is to expose an analogy between ancient ascetic exercises and modern narcissism fraught with self-pity, neediness, self-indulgence and self-justification.
Translated by Zsigmond Szabó
(2) George Gurdjieff (1950): Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, or An Objectively Impratial Criticism of the Life of Man. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
25. February 2019.
C3 Center for Culture and Communication