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Nikola Suica
THE EMISSION OF ABSENCE

Bill Viola, Interval (detalj / detail), 1995.

In the technologically developed Western culture, an object of art and the human body as the object of art have a specific evolution and origins. In the eighties and nineties of this century, these phenomena in art and galleries, but also in interpretation, coincide with an obvious imbalance and functional disorder in the approaches to visualization in different media. The meaning of satisfaction, taken over from the comparative potentials of psychoanalysis and sociology, attains emblematic properties in the materials and procedures of the contemporary artistic practice. Nevertheless, both the object and the body have permeated an important segment of the latest modernist avant-garde the surrealism of variable effectiveness. Objects in unusual environments, installations, videos or the phenomenon of a traditional picture quality, like sculptures or two-dimensional drawings, paintings or photographs, have acquired the particular features of their own impact in the nineties. From the standpoint of interpretation, the purity of the modernist theoretical exclusivity of Clement Greenberg has been fiercely treated with conflicting practical results: the context of extreme external cognition of the latest creations (also some earlier examples) has been transposed into anthropology, sometimes histrionically tinted representation. Both the new works and those from earlier periods, show progress in a skillful observation of the present, however, with different psychological motives and variable imprints into reality. Primarily because of the oppressive chronometry in view of technological changes, the last decade of this century implicitly offers an accelerating dimension in reducing the potentials of interpretation for the purpose of new confrontations. There is a fierce consumer offer of artistic and gallery material, even in the very electronic media field of synthetic and modem-assisted transmission of images and messages. In interpretation, artistic offer corresponds to the theoretical powers somewhere in between the titles of two books and the concepts of the preceding decade Roland Barthes The Empire of Signs, and Gunther Anders Outmoded Man (in the socio-psychological and techno-psychological vehemence of obvious transformation).

Anyway, in order to understand current expressions and effects of new art, and not only art, but overall order, the traditional museum-gallery conditions have born a meta-visual object, an allegoric concentrate, even unmethodically and unscrupulously dissociated from the expected media and materials. The common impulse of this new production is detached from the idea of artistic autonomy and tends to make direct connections inside a particular social environment. The knowledge emanating from the impression of that impact moves into the sphere of the neglected languages of art and representation, with exceptionally emphasized examples of women authors. The works of those personalities, with the poetic, visual aura of their own and general existence has acquired an allegoric meaning. Their psychological language has been mastered, strikingly presented and interpreted through a medium in between sculpture and installation (Rebecca Horn), between the sexuality of an object and the environment that have coexisted since the existentialist fifties (Louise Bourgeois) or in the content of the visual representation of identity in photographs of one figure in different roles (Cindy Sherman). The conceptual sharpness of some recent works has brought about a concentration of facts, a specific collection of signifiers, lowered down by Lacanian terminology into the nature of language, imagination and recognition. With a few authors of authentic poetics the object, the body, fascination, symbol and expressiveness, spanned by the financed consumer extravagance of postmodernism in the eighties, have turned into the specific states of modification, as defined by the head commissioner of the Biennial in Venice in 1995, Jean Clair Identity and Alterity. There has been a broadening of Arthur Danto s notion of the end of century versus the creative activity within the context of a post-historical situation. In that way the revolutionary deeds of those who had rearranged the consumer dimension, therefore the object, the environment and its effectiveness like Duchamp and Warhol have been complemented by new functions in an increasingly all-encompassing anthropological whole of contemporary authors. Therefore the fascinating aspect of certain visual arrangements ambiance with installations, giant poster-like photographs and video projections, intricately convenes in media networking and transgressions. The socio-psychological context of a chosen space is no longer just a gallery, but historically important places facilitating multi-media linkages of authors with theatrical origins, in creating environments of memory, equally accessible for either linguistic and semantic ramblings, comparable to the postulates of one of the central personalities in the theatre world Robert Wilson from New York. A specially selected spatial whole, either outside or inside, is obviously a legacy of the first conceptual art happenings, the actions of Fluxus from the sixties or the structuralist analytical approach of the seventies. The challenge of interpreting the effectiveness of an object and the body, and their interlacing, has affected museums as well, where one finds new interpretations of the already completed poetics. For example, the biography and visual works of the Italian mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo is interpreted on the basis of his drawings of nude bodies conceptual refinement versus the canonical religious painting. On the other hand, even the pillars of modernism like Constantin Brancusi and his sculptural opus taken as a permanent driving force, bear witness to diverse paths of interpretation: for Donald Judd, the main proponent of New York minimalism in the sixties, the specificity of Brancusi's forms was the proof of uniqueness and a phenomenological announcement of the specific object, an important element in the intensity of individual notions of space and objects of art. In harmony with his mythological explanations, Mircea Eliade thought the works of his countryman were significant in the religious, transcendental application of the material as the transporter of the metaphysical perspective and the inevitability of the national identity. The dilemmas of interpretation were confronted with an unusual psychological and, generally, emotional adventure offered by the fragmentary quality and allusive force of an artwork.

The realizations and actions of the nineties, primarily conceived by new authors recall in their frequently incidental nature the state of elusive interpretations of the current artistic practice. The merciless market of changing tastes and media representations, sometimes also emphasizing the absent meaning, indicate the dynamic phenomena and cults that have either vanished or grown in strength in the twentieth century history of art. The linguistic and post-structuralist optics has thrown light on the most diverse procedures with origins in existentialist situations: graffiti painters of the American coloured minorities of the eighties, national myths emerging from the material like an inscription of the past and energy accumulated in the paintings, installations and objects of Anselm Kiefer, the linguistic and corporeal rhythms in photographs and installations with toy animals of Bruce Nauman.

In the nineties, the physical emphasis put on an object in a gallery became very important. The articulation guided by causative justifiability, the possibility of placing a work within a historically comparable context, and its phenomenological interpretation proved that the main characteristic of a visual work of art its plastic stratum, has entered a completely new equilibrium of public representation with the logic of subjective understanding of historical procedures and an interpretation of art through the chronological optics of the past decades. At the end of the twentieth century the object is additionally encumbered by the tradition of surrealism, neo-dadaist possibilities of the early sixties, pop-art enforced placement, and other applications in the period of a growing detachment from existentialism. Therefore, even in the attempts to evoke and theoretically justify the modernist aura of a formal analysis of the physical, optically harmonized properties, an artwork or an exhibited object find themselves within the sphere of the new order. It was in the nineties that the modeling of structure in modernist concepts of the material properties of a work, acquired a difference significance.

Entropy and Art by Rudolf Arnheim, the gestalt interpreter of the visual, with conflicting properties of the whole and parts in disorder, heralding the theory of chaos, represents a theoretical ante-chamber of creative intentions, wavering, impulsive connections and the spirit of new postulates.

The functional play with balance, in form and meaning equally, only seems to be the goal of the majority of creative artists working in different media.

Through the individual s intellectual and social position in the frequently imposed postmodernist definitions of context, position, strategy and project, art has realized an open work of incomplete but demanding aspect, where emotional and intellectual energies appear to have elusive features. Rebecca Horn, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman and even Ettore Spalleto, the representatives of the so called poor art, have acquired structural roles in a global production of the visual works of art, and each has his/her own veteran place within the framework of personal preoccupations. On the other hand, the new wave of thematic and material (often anthropological and modified psychotraumatic) differences, has produced representatives of new disorder through clinically executed and presented visualizations, with organic parts, like animal carcasses of Damien Hirst, or video installations with secret narrative dramaturgy of Matthew Barney, repeating the magic of trans-experience before the giant photographs of parrodic disguises and voyeurism of Cindy Sherman. Although this all refers to McLuhan's medium is message the visual intensity and the creative act inhabiting the impact of visual arts have added to the crisis and revealed the spirit of time in their fluid meanings and the order of elusiveness.

The state of the spirit of history and the media possibilities has affected the remotest forms of expressiveness, primarily in the characteristic phenomena of the Western civilization of technological progress and social decline, susceptible to the recession undulations of the nineties. In accordance with the end of century period, the newly born existential anxiety of authors has incited the structural and symbolic shape of the paradox.

Revisions at the End of the Century

At the end of this century, like at the end of any other century, it is impossible to regard the history of art in the same old way. The scope of the theoretical corpus has made this, traditionally traditional, discipline appear in a completely different light. The possibilities are enormous, revisions overtake one another, interdisciplinarity has made the rhythm of new investigations quite hectic. Looking is, after all, a very different mental process. The pathway which begins with a simple selection of personal inclinations passes through historical, social and anthropological analyses, and ends at the point which demands the high precision we owe to each theoretically grounded reference.

And so, the very idea of the end of century, alive in the arts as in all other areas of life, has been in a way forerun by a theoretical anticipation of a potentially humorous and dramatic situation which the end of a millennium brings along. At first sight, opposite feasibilities force themselves upon us: we have to adapt to the situation in which the cultural field is totally fragmentary, but, at the same time, we are unable to resist the urge to summarize and systematize at the end of the century, end of a millennium, all that has happened before. This text will begin with the hypothesis that it is possible to do both and also enjoy those endless possibilities which such a standpoint potentially offers. Also, this text will make ample use of the analyses and experiences of my colleagues, with a clear tendency to introduce into a new context or put into a new frame what has been done and written on Katarina Ivanovic and particularly her self-portraits.[1] Undoubtedly, without the extensive and systematic monograph written by Nikola Kusovac and Radmila Mihajlovic, the weird analysis which follows would not be possible. Without their reliable material (biographic, analytical and iconographic) presented in the best tradition of the traditional history of art, each ensuing work on the paintings of Katarina Ivanovic would be in danger of sinking into an inspired amateurism.

The Feminist Theoretical Block

I believe that not a single theoretical block has been able to unite and test all that has been surmised about art and its history during this and the preceding centuries, as was done by the new wave of the feminist visual arts criticism, also due to some fortunate circumstances frequently surrounding fresh and passionate critics and historians of art. A new perspective was open on a series of questions we can rightly consider old. Art, like the theory of art, is no longer the bright monolith in the altar (male) part of the shrine. Great monochromy has finally taken its place in reviews and systematizations, and art/text which does not totalize its place in eternity, the eternity we only sense as a dominantly male principle, gradually becomes the framework of unburdened action, both among artists and their critics and theoreticians. The artist and the viewer are no longer divided by the sublime vacuum distance which had excluded history, biography, biology, sociology, anthropology, media, technology and psychology.

It seems that the unbridled diversity of potential approaches has aired the history of art, as Discipline. Today, we can talk about the history of art as discipline only under the assumption that it is possible (and necessary) to generalize all of its strategies and narratives. How, when, where and to what extent (assuming dimensions, as well) have been exchanged for other questions, as Griselda Pollock says[2], who, who is looking, what is he/she looking at, who is he/she looking at and with what effect in relation to power. Despite what we laconically call technological revolution (and which is here of interest primarily in the old-fashioned context of labyrinths, libraries, data bases), we are still not to a lesser extent than before, aware of the fact that power equals knowledge. If the ways in which we are deprived knowledge are ever more numerous, so are the roads to reach it. The material quality of the walls surrounding labyrinths/libraries has been exchanged for the virtual obstacles of our own will confused before these multiple webs where each knot leads to some new systems of knowledge. Travel into the future (into a new century) has become part of our capacity for abstract thinking, and has been filled with anticipation and sweet expectations. A revision of the past and a demystification of the myths we have been relatively at ease with, offers a completely new kind of satisfaction each revision is a sign that we have attained the knowledge previously denied and hidden from us. It is this new situation of future/past that enables us to place reality. After all, in that way we define the unity of the space we investigate in and think about art, and challenge the assumption of visual self-evidence or the presence of an object of art.

The exclusion of women from the history of art did not only deprive us of the knowledge concerning their creative work, but was also actively engaged in defining the discipline. Therefore, to revise the history of art by including women artists in its narrative has become the strategy of the feminist artistic critics. This strategy can be denoted as violent and somewhat forced, but it is limited in a way, not because of its hasty and belated contribution to the history of art, but because of its own principle. The feminist theory of art has taken all this into account and finally disregarded all obstacles in order to establish the basic, preliminary points of departure and make possible the development of the corresponding strategies to investigate women artists and women observers of art. It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish the hard pioneer work on having women and gender studies accepted, and the frequently superficial and irresponsible account of these attempts as simple vengefulness.

What does it Mean to Paint Oneself and Write about Oneself?

The writing process of this text is probably not different from the usual way art historians write. There is an idea one departs from and then one begins a systematic perusal of everything that has been written on the subject of one's interest. In that way, one systematizes old and arrives at new ideas. However, by following this same method, a miracle happened at the very beginning. Each text on Katarina Ivanovic, quite mysteriously, at its opening, underlines the existence of her testament.[3] The following question is unavoidable: are all of these texts just apocrypha dimly implied in her testament? Thereby, both the methodological approach of the authors and the strict respect of chronology may induce the reader to believe that the testament is hiding the solution to an enigmatic mystery. However, although its existence is useful in the sense that it confirms her substantial material resources, the testament in itself does not thrown light on any kind of secret. The testament in fact confirms that Katarina Ivanovic existed. Indeed, the testament may make her existence authentic because it almost bestows upon her, as the only family heir, the more important role of a son, whereby she has her whole property at her disposal, at her will, placing her automatically in a position radically different from those women who are not materially independent. The only "false dilemma", which the testament refutes, more precisely, Nikola Kusovac disputes in his interpretation of the testament, is the speculation about some rich Serbs or a Serb who had financially supported another Serb, Katarina Ivanovic. Kusovac explains that she came from a well-to-do family and that outside financial help was hardly necessary. And so it turns out that, had there been no testament, we would be induced to believe the laconic and stereotype construction about a woman dependent on protective and well-intentioned men. However, the importance of her testament and her correspondence has opened for us new ways of observing her work within the context of the subject moving from the framework of self-portrait (which is of primary interest to us) toward the subject represented in the text, whereby we get a more complete picture of her creative work. In the sense of psycho-symbolic structure where women share the feeling of being harmed, left out from the socio-symbolic contract and the language as a fundamental social link, all of the facts related to the testament are precious because they confirm her expropriation of the language (legal, male language of testaments).[4] It might be necessary to mention at this point that we are not talking here about "female discourse" and its totally problematic existence, but about a simple appropriation of the dominant linguistic model of the discourse of power. This might have induced some researchers to mention the testament consciously, but unconsciously avoid a deeper penetration into the reasons of such information.

However, in the case of Katarina Ivanovic the appropriation or the acceptance of the socio-symbolic contract by force or by will, may be difficult to interpret directly. Kristeva thinks that many welcome this type of contract because it promises equality, they can enjoy it or destroy it and the process of either action remains strictly within the personal domain. Is not this at least a partial reply to the dilemma history of art has had with Katarina's work of unequal quality and her persistence on certain themes she could not handle, or an explanation of her stubbornness, her loneliness, her travels and studies? In order to arrive at her personal self, we must obviously find a different discourse, one that permits a closer contact with the body, the feelings and what cannot be named but represents a product of the pressure called social contract (social conventions, the accepted set of rules). And so, the analysis will remain elusive when confronted with the problem of an artistic intentional and critical interpretation.

The Spaces of Security

Our inability to read a self-portrait completely leaves us somehow in the domain of a personal journal written or painted for the eyes of a stranger. It is, again, in the domain of the artist's intention whether the picture represents a mirror image under the best or worst light, beyond our reach, the initial, personal mental image is also that image he or she will potentially present to the eyes of the spectator in a way we cannot foretell. The moment we enter the mapping of the spaces of security we are confronted with a complicated network of similarities and mixed identities. Louis Marin believes that it is not accidental that classical scholars in logic see the paradigm of general representation in geographic maps and painted portraits.[5] In the case of Katarina Ivanovic, mere visibility, the art of visibility and the tangible quality of a self-portrait seems to have offered the most obvious indication of the relationship between thinking and creating (the meaning) and the sign itself. Self-portrait at this place should first of all be feigned as form and space of great importance for a woman artist. Which other space would be safer in 1834-35, when the first self-portrait was made? Spaces of security were then, and even now, determining the life of a woman. Late at night or in the middle of the day, just the same, the movement of a woman in dangerous environments of big cities has remained limited to oases, safe spaces.[6] Katarina Ivanovic's self-portrait is a token of her non-verbal negotiations with the men of Serbia in an attempt to mark and map the territories. Katarina will never paint an iconostasis no wonder then and obviously not even now, since the contemporary history of art firmly believes that today it is quite clear "...her most impressive creations were those where she approached her canvasses demurely and prudently, when she was able to estimate the limits of her possibilities".[8] Which premises support this expectation has not been explained in the text, but since such terminology is rarely or never at all used in an evaluation of other artists' (male) work, we may conclude that demureness and prudence are expected of women artists only. I refuse to believe that Dejan Medakovic was only talking about the esthetic quality of the works of art produced by women artists, which are, in most cases, as propounded by Kristeva, a repetition of the more or less euphoric or depressive Romanticism, and always an explosion of an ego devoid of narcissistic gratification. It might have been unnecessary to use "demurely" and "prudently" and let our imperfection, like the imperfection of the words we use, be directly projected on the work of Katarina Ivanovic, with all the characteristics of an unsustained impression.

Elusive Analysis

"Depression is the hidden face of Narcissus, the face which will take him to death, although he does not know he is marveling an illusion".[8] Our talk of depression will lead us again into the grimy end of the myth of Narcissus. This is the point when the elusiveness of an analysis becomes quite obvious and, according to Svetlana Alpers, desirable.[9] Because Katarina's self-portraits speak of the possibilities of a temporary, unconvincing distancing from the depression of the myth of Narcissus. Her self-portraits, calculated and refined, minutely executed and artistically convincing, try to reconcile the draft, the preciseness and rationality of the "male" way with the equally "male" academism, pedantry and conventionality in representing a woman as if she were contemplating her self and her own beauty. Unfortunately, we cannot know how would Katarina see herself if the self-portraits were painted for female audience or if she had been educated in institutions of visual plurality. At one point Nikola Kusovac has a brilliant remark (although we cannot be sure he was thinking of the same thing), when he talks about her first self-portrait from 1835 (dating is still problematic) which "induces one to conclude that the first known work of Katarina Ivanovic must have been the result of a long and thorough practice in Peski's studio".[10] Earlier in the same text, Kusovac talks about direct parallels in her composition, her use of details and the modeling of face and character, with solutions which can be seen in Peski's Portrait of an Artist (1844) and the self-portrait of his student Sandor Kozsina (1832). Therefore, ambivalence, that intriguing side of art, leaves us again to think not about female vanity, but the vanity of painters, cherished and scrutinized by artists themselves throughout the preceding centuries. Burdened by the awareness that she was taking over a generally accepted artistic convention, Katarina Ivanovic was left deprived of her own Narcissistic experience, her self-portraits are incomplete in this female sense, but socially and artistically very valuable. The already fully exploited feministic plot constructed on the "male principle of culture" and the "female principle of nature" seems inexhaustible Katarina Ivanovic, aware of her position as the first Serbian woman painter, elected the idea of culture and rightfully neglected the "natural", organic and motherly, surprised and unprepared to seek or simply give primacy to form and manner of expression, which might have made her more self-satisfied.[11]

The nineteenth century, when nation was both a dream and reality, opened the area where the patriotic and personal, the national and esthetic were strangely interwoven, and thus left an ambivalent and problematic picture about the work of Katarina Ivanovic. Her confidence in her own talent, education and abilities overlap with a desire to assert herself as an artist of national importance. The imperfection one feels in her work is primarily related to drawing, which is easily explained, as Kusovac underlines, by the curriculum of the Viennese Academy of the time. Women were not students of equal rights, women classes were separate from men's, there was no drawing in the open, nor work with nude models, particularly not male models.[12] Although women were frequently connected with the romantic, they could never become part of the international Romanticism, in the proper sense of the word. They did not receive proper training body in action, male figure in action, natural light in open spaces, complicated group compositions. Regardless of her long schooling (Budapest, Vienna, Munich) these problems remain outside the reach not only of Katarina Ivanovic, but almost all of her contemporary women artists. Classicism had Angelica Kaufmann as a brilliant example of academic historical painting. Romanticism stayed, even in Europe, in the domain of the romantic men and only the Victorian period in England (Edith Haylar, Rebecca Solomon, Mary Osborn and Rose Bonheur's beautiful compositions of running horses) and France, seized with Impressionism (the American Mary Cassatt, before all) would make place for women artists, in the wake of a general tendency toward liberalization and the industrial need of female emancipation.

Since the "philosophy of the day" was restrictive toward the visual arts of the period (portrait, historical and religious scenes, genre) it could have been of great importance for Katarina Ivanovic restriction coming from without is easier to accept than the restrictions an artists imposed upon himself/herself in order to become part of the generally accepted idea of a whole which need not be in accord with an individual's perception of the whole. This very belief in "a safe hand and a true eye" would be of greatest importance for Katarina's minutely executed self-portraits. And thus, her self-representation would be more restrictive than any portrait done by a fellow male painter. Except for the glance fixed onto the mirror, which so precisely eliminates any doubts with regard to the problem whether it was a portrait or a self-portrait, the representation of her face imparts nothing about her as a painter, at least not in the way we read self-portraits of men artists. There are no signs of turbulence or tempests storming in the mind of the artist nor are there signs of her craft's tools. If the recording of the material (in this case of body and cloth) as part of the visible world was taken as the basic way to attain Knowledge and comprehend the world, then Katarina Ivanovic painted her self-portrait relying on this premise. By partaking in the world of men, she relied on her artistic skillfulness, showing her education, representing the world in the way she must have thought suitable to male/rational understanding of that world.

If we take that the generally accepted belief classifies women as vain and obsessed with their looks, the looks of other women, that they are mostly introspective, then Katarina Ivanovic made an affirmative response to this hypothesis by her self-portrait. Most women feel or have felt uncertain about how they look, captured in their "adoration/despair of their looks and the idea of personal appearance",[13] her self-portrait completely matches the traditional representation of women staring into their reflection in the mirror.

The interpretation of the traditional representation of women in painting greatly depends on the sex of the viewer. A representation of a woman assumes a generalization of other women in the eyes of female observers, while in relation to a male onlooker, it implies the existence of man whole otherness she represents and without whom she remains incomplete, she misses (or wants) what is needed and desired. It is interesting to note how the missing part can be transformed through the process of realization into absence Let us consider the ethno trend which is capturing the entire world at the end of this century. Behind the whole idea there is the early feminist endeavour to "rehabilitate" the deeply underestimated activity of women who had for centuries produced, woven, sewed and conceived usable objects. The search for "the gardens of our mothers and grandmothers"[14] has facilitated the general flourishing of ethno consumers. However, the prices of these hand-made materials from Asia and Africa are incomparable to the financial compensation received by the absent women who produced them. In a similar way one could talk about absence in the representation of women, also in the self-portrait of Katarina Ivanovic which radiates unmitigated self-consciousness, an awareness of being looked at, an awareness of the fact that behind the representation there is someone looking. The very idea that a viewer, the one looking, exists outside the painting, implies an absence and a missing part in the painting itself. The awareness of these and other problems which have not been mentioned here, but refer to the broad field of presentation and representation of women in the visual arts, gains in importance among artists of both sexes at the end of the nineties, particularly among those artists who want to make the area of their work radical and problematic. The principle of enjoyment is always related to an attempted solution, it is directly dependent on the desire to make the plot end with a plot and not an issue. When Zoran Naskovski used the self-portrait of the Iranian artist Shirin Nezhat for his complex installation called No Knocking (1995), critics were able to recognize the new plot born out of the principle of enjoyment. All elements, from the blown-up photograph, the self-portrait of Shirin Nezhat, through transparent mirrors placed at safe distance both from the photograph closest to the first mirror and the wall behind the other mirror, deliberately and wittily move our thoughts toward conscious subversion and unconscious play with personal identity. Without knocking, of course, because the door of the perception of the conscious and the unconscious, of real and unreal, material and the imagined are always open. The text written on her face, instead of a veil, conceals the woman just like this text, playing with the idea that the artist, by capturing her portrait made his own portrait, shields the artist it speaks of. The enjoyment of those who write about art partially lies in the belief that one would never read all and that there will always be works open for new readings. The opaqueness of an artist's intentions will remind us again of the unlimited possibilities of interpretation.



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