Cerebral Values of Mechanic Beauty
─ »With the unyielding and rigid mechanic mind-set that is ill-suited for modern fluidity, I am an emotional and cognitive dogmatist plagued by closed-heartedness and closed-mindedness.« (Sanela Jahić: Guide to perfectionism, in Excerpts on Fire Painting, http://sanelajahic.blogspot.com/)
In the following passage I would like to think about some of the aspects of the intrinsic value in art works by a young yet prolific and intellectually rigorous artist Sanela Jahić. It would be wise to start with short descriptions to use as a guide in further reading in which I will attempt to show some of the possible entry points to the interpretation of her complex constructions. The short descriptions are going to be comprised mainly of technical details, functionalities, reference points and direct narratives, strongly relying on the texts published on the artist's blog and conversations at her studio. Her works are purposefully conceptualized to appear as though they are offering “a potentially infinite plurality of interpretations, that are open in their meaning, and do not impose on the spectator any specific ideology, or theory, or faith.” If we are to understand this quote that the artist takes from Groys correctly, this can be sometimes a bit misleading for it is easy to get carried away when contemplating her usage of utterly universal elements like fire, mirrors, masks, reflections, holes and caves, holographic images and visual illusions. These building blocs are as “memes” as parts of the collective unconscious, saturating every fiber of human culture that the artist reinterprets by leaning on numerous references ranging from mythology, religious iconography, films, fine art history, classic literature or politics; anything that would stimulate her cerebral endeavors. In the following list Dogma II, Scanner III & Pendulum and Fire Painting are the milestones presenting the most important aspects of her work.
Dogma II (2004-2005) is exhibited in a dark space, the image only illuminated by an optical reader. The scanner with neon light gradually unveils the mystical picture concealed in the dark. It shows two interlaced images, reflecting the artist's experience of growing up in bipolar cultural background of a rather conservative small Catholic town in a Muslim family. The machine presents the images as an illusion or a hologram. The artist attempts to uncover and demystify the two polarities and to do away with religious beliefs all together. The front surface is framed at both ends – above and bellow – by the image of raised hands at an Islamic prayer. The mid-image is a found footage of the devil's hands peeling an egg taken from a film Angel Heart (1987) quoting: “You know, some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul.”1 The brain behind the surface is a rigorous mathematical logical construction of the machine, reined by an algorithmic process. Another quote from the film comes in handy:“They say there's just enough religion in the world to make men hate one another but not enough to make them love.”2 Dogma II was first exhibited at Illusions from the Remotest Times.
Roots and Rupture (2007-2008) was an intimate performance and installation in the wild. The artist came across a fallen beech tree crossing her path when strolling in the forest. She searched for the hole where the tree had been unrooted. It had appeared like a painful wound in the soil. She has found analogy between the tree and the attempts to painfully rid oneself of the roots of the tradition. She has deepened the hole for her body to entirely fit into it and covered herself with the roots. The process lasted for three months. Latter, one of the images from this piece became the carrier image for Scanner III.
Scanner III (2005-2008) is a mechanic installation. An abrupt vertical movement sets in motion a horizontal set of LED diodes that are programmed to emulate a photographic matrix in time. With the help of a Slovenian company for electronics and software development she calculated the space-time continuum. The color of each LED diode would change according to the distance it makes in relation to the speed of the moving of the scanner and to the color relation in the matrix of the carrier image. The picture from Roots and Rupture performance appears in a flash like a holographic or a de-materialized image. It projects the hole in the ground intertwined by tree roots indicating a space where a tree was unrooted. The installation goes hand in hand with Pendulum (2007-2008) that is based on the same key principles producing an illusion of the image as well as making a contemporary interpretation of kinetic art sculpture – specifically the later refers to Duchamp's Rotorelief. Both machines are constructed using two literary references: the pitch black pit in Scanner resembles the end of Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum (1842). The beginning of that story is portrayed in the movement of Pendulum swaying from side to side, while the image appears not by swaying but by powerful circular rotation of LED diodes. Needless to say, the algorithm for calculating the distance in relation to speed in a circular movement is even more complex than the one where the movement is vertical. The image is simultaneously appearing and disappearing. It is likewise based on a literary reference interpreting the brutal machine in Franz Kafka's The Penal Colony (1914). It shows the artist's back scared with a harrow in the same way as The Officer in The Penal Colony inscribes the laws into the bodies of The Condemned, as society inscribes its rules onto our identities. A detailed interpretation of the two mechanisms can be found in the text In Medias res.
Two Faced Mirror (2007-) is a mechanic object. A mirror is framed in a gold baroquesque ornament equipped with a sensor and back-side mechanism, which would slightly break the angle of the mirror when the observer approached it to make the reflection disappear. At first, this is an eerie encounter, reminiscent of a popularized film iconography of soulless monsters trading humanity for eternal life. One could draw analogies between baroque ornament and contemporary kitsch. Perhaps recognize the dispersed subject in pop culture who is adhered to the repression of design or cosmetic and surgical industry, where form has completely devoured any need for content or intellectual reflection and resulted in producing idiotic slogans like Franco Moschino's Ceci n'est pas une boutique. But a more precise reading of the piece would imply to Gilles Deleuze's The Fold (1988) where he developed Leibniz's baroque philosophy and identifies it as the key concept to understand contemporary science and art. The contemporary world is comprised of folds that contract space, movement, and time into limitless patterns that are constantly in the process of becoming. So is the contemporary subject, signified by multitude of identities in motion.
Mask (2008-2010) is a series of three mirror masks inspired by Bauhaus theater and dance director Oskar Schlemmer. It is a continuation in the artist's exploration of the fold. The mask is built to protect the artist from the intrusive fragmentation of the contemporary subject. It is the direct reflection of the world without any signification of the person wearing it. Mask is allowing her a complete fluidity, not burdened either by age, beauty, social status, gender, race, religious belief or any other signifier.
Fire Painting (2010) is a cybernetic construction. It is composed of a set of 16 pumps creating pressure and pushing a lavish green color kerosene oil mixture through the nozzles when the valves are released. The kerosene is sparked to combustion creating a formidable brilliant flame. The combustion is controlled by subtle movements of the sensor glove worn by the artist/participant/viewer. One is literary playing with fire. The idea is built on a paradox of tactile handling of this primal element, using it as color on a canvas like an action painter. The participant controls the image yet it constantly alludes him or her. Fire is the ultimate intangible and unstable light-based medium, therefore any digital or electronic image can be emulated in its light (screens, projectors, televisions). In fact, the 4x4 nozzles function like 16 pixels image. Tinny gestures with the glove trigger forceful and unpredictable changes mesmerizing one to a stand still and bringing one to a complete rapture. Again the artist strives to capture the gaze, to catch the time of the moment. Furthermore, the entire construction is supported by a completely translucent “bodiless” containers custom made out of glass. Jahić radicalizes the painting much further from a simple translation of time-based art into an analogue medium. She eliminates the carrier of the image entirely. The only carrier is the mathematical algorithm that translates movements of the sensors into opening of the valves causing combustion. She herself explains it as an interest in the possibilities of formalist questions of modernism in contemporary art; that of the vibration of the color and that of the frame of the painting, only that she adopts a much more mystical turn using fire that is visually intoxicating and hallucinatory. There is no more frame, no more edge, just endless folds of infinite becoming of the image.
1. Aesthetic Perfection
“The machines for cynics and perfectionists” – as Sanela Jahić calls them – perpetuate the rigor of her obsessive endeavor to be precise in the way she treats an idea in visual and mechanic aesthetics. The machines, the objects constitute a seemingly impossible image. They are based on paradoxes and the work of Sisyphus, bringing forward a strong conviction that the intelligence of the machines is defined solely by formalist aesthetics and impeccable performance. These immaculate devices defy the postulates of aesthetic solutions of the DIY principles which are supposed to display the crude unsophisticated manner in which it is built. Her mechanisms are characterized by a relation of the membrane usually represented in an illusory holographic light image (as in Scanner III, Pendulum, Fire Painting, Knitting Machine), and the intricate logic that is governed by the pure mathematics of the mechanic functions and the program language. The obvious difference of the visible membrane and the hidden core is not a duality but an individual form of life much like a cybernetic organism. Her constructions are living entities that fold and unwrap in numerous images created on the membrane of the eye. One cannot differentiate the visible membrane “the outside” from the hidden structure “the inside” for they both play its own accord, as Deluze puts it: “The simplest way of stating the point is by saying that to unfold is to increase, to grow; whereas to fold is to diminish, to reduce, to withdraw into the recesses of a world. Yet a simple metric change would not account for the difference between the organic and the inorganic, the machine and its motive force. It would fail to show that movement does not simply go from one greater or smaller part to another, but from fold to fold. When a part of a machine is still a machine, the smaller unit is not the same as the whole.”3
Each cultural reference and each string of thought that Jahić knits into the fabric of an individual piece would produce a set of folds that make the work an ever expanding plane of associations and interpretations. Using elements like fire in the Fire Painting produce all the related meanings symbolizing purification, destruction, life, illusion and so forth. The Mechanical Book would like wise be connected to anything related to history, memory, language, meaning, linearity. The Mask would be interpreted as a reverse mirror stage in psychology, a critique of the ideals of the beauty in contemporary society or a critique of the social identities all together. The works are all of these things and neither of them, for they are constantly changing the meaning depending entirely on the observer. In this aspect the simplicity of form and errorless functionality is necessary to enable a complexity of the meaning. For Jahić an ornament remains a crime, because it obscures the pure functionalities of the piece. She is inclined to demand an impeccable perfection without the “human” factor. That is why she would often label them as Utopian, for such an endeavor is bound to be disappointing, yet she never gives up. Like Prometheus she is stealing the fire from the gods (idealism – the membrane) and gives it to humans (realism – the mechanism). Furthermore, it is imperative that the machines cannot be entirely flawless, for they indicate an impossibility of a complete rapture, for only pure logic is entirely sure of oneself. The artist's references to Utopian tradition is perhaps best recognized in her usage of avant-guard imagery of the Bauhaus (Oscar Schlemmer's mask) or kinetic art (Duchamp's Rotorelief). It is of some importance that she had concluded her masters thesis in Weimar where the sounds of Bauhaus school still resonates in the Academy hallways.
2. A Glitch in Time
The focal point and the prevailing material for Sanela Jahić's obsessive works is a strong sensation there is something wrong with our perception of space, or time, or both. But the crucial point of the perception of reality are not space-time, but speed. Light that appears in virtually all of her works is a form of electromagnetism that travels with speed of approximately 300 million kilometers per second with a small delay. Not that she would necessary utilize her art to understand physical laws, she is only attempting to interpret the given reality or her profound doubt into its objective existence. An important aspect of her numerous works is “time dilation” – a term from the theory of relativity. It states that the faster the object travels the slower the time would pass and if it would travel with the speed of light, time would come to a deadlock all together. Sanela Jahić shows the tendency to speed up her mechanic objects and capture the gaze to an almost mystical standstill. One of her methods would be the undertaking of strenuous and enduring processes of production, another would be the implementation of most absurd materials or ideas. This of course depends on the immediate reception of the work, therefore any attempt to capture it into a document is to some extend a failed experiment.
Most of these works are also based on a photographic image that enhances the idea of a non-linear perception of time. By a multitude of media translations and repetitive sequences or loops of the image she induces the internal dialectics of the work and the image that always bears the ambiguous or connotative complexes of symbols. She explores how to activate an image into movement that would challenge the frequency of the eye which is otherwise highly accustomed the perceiving digital light emission. How would the picture move without being enslaved to the known formats? “The time reconstructed by scanning is an eternal recurrence of the same process. Simultaneously, however, one's gaze also produces significant relationships between elements of the image. It can return again and again to a specific element of the image and elevate it to the level of a carrier of the image's significance... The space reconstructed by scanning is the space of mutual significance. This space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context.”6
Thus time, memory and history are consequences of technology, the relation between reproduction and mimesis, images and history, remembering and forgetting, allegory and mourning, and visual and linguistic representation. If we are to set the beginning of history at the time of the beginning of writing, we now find ourselves again at the point where the linearity is dispersed. We are in a perfect condition to have a complete historic amnesia. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again... For it is an irretrievable image of the past that threatens to disappear with every present that does not recognize itself as intended in it.”4 All the works to some extend deal with the function of language and ideologies some a bit more then others like Dogma II, Pendulum, Speaking Void or Mechanical Book. For the later, it is perhaps worth to note that the book does not so much attempt to criticize the gradual pervasion of the digital book, reading in a hyper text environment, and the death of hard copies, but the death of content, of the ideas being lost or intentionally forgotten.
3. The Sounds of Aggression
Aesthetic perfection of artistic machines constructed by Sanela Jahić in close cooperation with her partner Andrej Primožič represent a Utopian paradox, but there is another part of them that indicates a Dystopic view of the technological achievements. The horizon of the work is “tuned to a dead channel”5. The rhythm of her work is often gloomy and disturbing as though she is writing science fiction of the current times. The machines are cold and discomforting i.e. Mask. Some of these organisms are specifically violent and arbitrary. They react according to their own design and are not to be toyed with. This is true for Dogma II and even more for Scanner III and Pendulum which are in fact switched on by the visitor, but apart from that the visitor would have no control over their perpetual and malevolent movements. Scanner III moving swiftly cutting brutally through the air like a guillotine and Pendulum swinging and rotating endlessly, swishing by like the horror of Poe's story. There is another point to this violent behavior of the machines that becomes very evident in The Fire Painting, The Knitting Machine and The Mechanical Book – the importance of sound and rhythm produced by the mechanism. Most subtly it is manifested in The Fire Painting where an experienced painter like the artist herself makes a very carefully structures experimental sound composition produced by the subtle noise of combustion and opening of the nozzles. An inexperienced painter – a random visitor – usually does quite poorly in that respect.
The aggression and the noise of the machine implies also a political agenda that is present as a fiber in all the works but is never quite outspoken. Feminist and political critique is latently implied but never a starting aspect of the utterance. For the artist the epistemological question of the perception and her interest in the pure form of art always stands as the initial point of interest. All other interpretations are second to this. Nevertheless, the initial idea for the Fire Painting was to be performed by politicians to observe what sort of devastation their smallest movements and actions cause. This was quite a humorous expression of the artist's doubt of the benevolence of “democratic” system. On the other hand, she shows a lot of interests into the ideas of socialism, social sensitivity and egalitarianism. In hacking images and ideologies in Dogma II, Knitting Machine and Mechanical Book she takes in account the conclusion of French critical film theory that the ruling ideology is not only present in the technical image produced via apparatuses, but is installed in the very device – into the camera. Jahić moves her Fire Painting performance outside of the gallery not only to attract various audiences but also to loose the frame of the gallery setting entirely. First, she erases the brim of the picture. Then, gets rid of institutional carrier of art all together.
Likewise, her atheist position can be associated with most of her work. Stating, that religious believes are for the weak, for the past, and a nuisance inhibiting the future of humanity. For the Future is the Machine, strict and structured. Flawless. The hope for the future is drawn from the Utopian dream of a scientific future, rather the angst for the machine controlled society. In this deliberation it is possible to note another cause that had led her to pursue a highly polished and superb aesthetics. Each of her attempts at a perfection expresses deep respect for the technical achievements of the civilization. She is not discriminatory of any of these efforts, but rather equally values computers, machines or the development of fabricated materials like glass. In the piece Mask one tracks a long history of reflections dating far back to the first polished copper mirror 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, to the invention of glass mirrors, to its demise in the gloom of the medieval castration of Narcissus, to the renaissance painters like Velasquez or van Eyck looking for their own image in the back of their commissioned portraits, becoming aware of their “artistic genius”. Jahić subverts this idea in reflecting the entire space making only herself disappear.
It is perhaps not entirely insignificant that the mirror has been attribute to the vanity of a woman. The artist – being a women herself – does not overtly deal with women issues, but this is nevertheless strongly present in her work. Women portrayed with a mirror in fine arts were intended for the male gaze while simultaneously being morally judged (depictions of Venus with the Mirror by renaissance artist like Rubens, Titian, or Velasquez). The eerie Mask completely subverts the notions attributed to the view of oneself. The Mask is non-genderdized, ageless, classless, raceless, religiousless, stripped of any social signifier. If feminism is a project of self-reflection and asserting one's own position in the world, what happens when it becomes a total reflection of the world? The Mask in totemic rituals reveals the force of a uniform subjectivity, that is possible only in the symbolic order and not on the level of everyday life. In Mask the subjectivity becomes an endless fold and simultaneously disappears. Same happens in the Two Faced Mirror. The intention of Jahić is to give an individual open possibilities rather then another set of signifiers.
– Text by Ida Hiršenfelder
1 Parker, Alan: Angel Heart, 1987
3 Deluze, Gilles: Guba, Študentska založba, zbirka Koda, 2009
4 Flusser, Vilém: Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books, 2007
5 An expression used in Gibson, William: Neuromancer, 1984.
6 Lowy, Michael; Turner, Chris: Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History, 2006