Citizens in the State of Mediacy

What is this painting supposed to be about?

The phlogisticated man – Ian Wieczorek

This is the horrible question we all ask ourselves in front of pictures, and struggle to answer in various ways. When we look at Ian Wieczorek’s Phlogisticated Man we see a painting ‘of’ a blindfolded hostage, who appears to be somehow on fire. This seems to follow a very classical approach to painting, based on the aestheticisation of a figurative image, which could possibly be related to the blurred paintings of someone like Gerhard Richter. Maybe we can start with the exhibition title, Citizens in the State of Mediacy, which leads us directly to issues of citizenship, the state and the media. However, the meaning of the work perhaps becomes less clear when we realise that we are already familiar with many of the images in the show, that the paintings are in fact pictures of found images.

As the paintings clearly have some kind of relationship to photographic images, it might be useful to think about them from the point of view of photographic theory. In that case, we might try to break the picture into two: the studium, which Barthes describes as “a consequence of my knowledge, my culture” 1, and is therefore more generalised than the entirely subjective punctum – “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” 2 In this case, clearly the studium is the figure of the hostage, that has haunted the fantasies of the West for several decades, but what the punctum is, you will have to figure out for yourself. However, the idea that there is something missing, something extra, is at the heart of the idea of the punctum, which is “a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see…” 3.

The idea of the found image in Western art is often traced to the works of the Dadaists and Surrealists. However, the ‘spontaneous texts’ of typefounders’ specimen books of the early 19th c. “anticipate later trends in concrete poetry, cut-up writing and even performance art,” as they “had nothing in particular to say, but an overwhelming need to say it.” 4 In 1906 Felix Feneon published his Novels in Three Lines in Le Matin, condensed images in handcrafted prose that Luc Sante describes as “the first readymade”, heralding the age of mass media. 5 In 1912, Feneon, who was then running the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, hosted the first international show of Futurist painting. Futurism aimed to reject the past and revolutionise culture, calling for an aesthetic generated by the machine, violence and speed, giving birth to the ‘creative destruction’ of modernism. 6 This movement can be seen as part of what Jacques Ranciere calls the transition from a representative to an aesthetic regime in the arts. 7 He suggests that there were three major phases in the Western art tradition, beginning with the ethical regime, where the focus was on the image- its truth content, purpose and end result. Art gradually became more autonomous, entering the representative regime, where a focus on action and narration led to a hierarchy of genres. 8 The aesthetic regime “strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.” Ranciere suggests that this shift began in the failure of the French revolution and the rise of aestheticism, and resulted in an “indifference of style with regard to subject matter”. 9 This naturally led to the interest in found objects and images, the readymade approach of Duchamp, Cubist collage and Dadaist photomontage, Warhol’s recycling of pop imagery, culminating in Sherrie Levine copying of Duchamp’s Fountain in 1990.

Clearly there is a tension here between a picture and an image. This is perhaps a question of how a work of art exists – is it ‘in’ an object or event (immanence) or is it ‘beyond’ the object or event (transcendence)? 10 In a painting, the work of art is immanent, fixed in the canvas in an ‘autographic’ manner. This can be multiplied, however, as in the case of an engraving, which still has some kind of autographic quality. There are also ‘allographic’ works, such as books or even buildings, where the reader or viewer has to extract or reduce the work from other elements – for example reading the linguistic meaning of the words, rather than focusing on the typography. Transcendence most commonly happens through a plurality of immanence – we all know the Mona Lisa, even though we may never have seen the actual picture, because we have seen the image many times. Another route to transcendence, one that is relevant here, is through plural reception:

“If a work is defined as an object of immanence plus an aesthetic function, then it must be granted that the same text, painting, score, or building, if accorded different receptions (interpretations) depending on period, culture, individual, or occasion, determines in each new context, a different work.” 11

As Mitchell says, “You can hang a picture, but you cannot hang an image.” 12 The image can somehow be removed from the picture, copied and made into another picture – it can even be ‘stolen’, breaching copyright law. Thus Mitchell suggests that we might look at the image as being the species, and the picture as a single specimen of it. 13 The accumulation of images through the impact of new media such as the cinema, and later television and internet, has led to what has become known as the ongoing ‘pictorial turn’ in contemporary culture. 14 In this way we have perhaps created a kind of picture of the world, a ‘ Spectacle’, whose ‘alpha and omega’ is separation. 15 Wieczorek’s paintings represent images that are part of this currency of our everyday life, grabbed from the internet, the endless badly reproduced imagery of the virtual world. The paintings reflect the separation of appearance from its ‘truth’, a discomfort caused by “the spectacle of the suffering produced by that separation.” 16 In this way, the gap between the lushness of Wieczorek’s paintings and the brutality of what superficially seems to be their content reflect this sense of their being very much ‘of the world’.

One feature of this series of paintings is their very painterliness, the blurring of the image. However, this blurring represents a deliberate and painstaking representation of the original poor quality ‘shorthand’ digital image. Such images gain credibility not from the indexical trace of the presence of truth on the film in a traditional photograph, but from their very gaucheness and inarticulacy, their disruption of the traditions of representation. Georges Didi-Huberman explained imperfections in some of Fra Angelico’s frescos as purposely introduced disturbances that could help a believer to visually “move away from the visible” 17, as the “primary virtue of dissemblance consists of imitating, not the aspect but the process.” 18 This can be related to Barthes’ concept of the punctum, the wound that makes us really feel. Discussing Richter’s work, Hawker argues that “the photographic as affect can only be achieved in painting through non-resemblance and what cannot be seen—the very opposite conditions to those feted by photography as medium and discipline.” 19 This recalls the figurative distortions of an artist like Francis Bacon, whose visceral impact is achieved through separating appearance from figurative ‘truth’, through dissemblance. However, a distinction needs to be made here between Richter’s practice which effectively ‘makes’ a photograph, articulating “painting as essentially photographic, as communicated by the blur and its functioning” 20, and Wieczorek’s method, which is to recreate in painting the post-photographic qualities of digital images.

This returns us to the issue of the image itself, and what it perhaps wants. Mitchell seeks to use vitalism as an analogy that helps to produce questions about images and pictures. In particular, this can lead to a distinction between the vitality of an image and its value – whether this picture is a valuable representation of this image. 21 If an image is alive, it may even have desires – such as “to transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him or her into an image for the gaze of the picture in what be called “the Medusa effect”.” 22 The point here is that images are not actually that powerful, as if we fail to pay attention they remain ‘inert’. “ If the power of images is like the power of the weak, that may be why their desire is correspondingly strong: to make up for their actual impotence.” 23 Boris Groys echoes elements of this theme in his argument that this very weakness is a strength of art, pointing to what he calls ‘weak universalism’, art transcending our chronic lack of time. He suggests that the weak gesture “must be repeated time and again to keep the distance between the transcendent and the empirical visible – and to resist the strong images images of change, the ideology of progress, and promises of economic growth.” 24 He contrasts this imagery, produced in what Wieczorek calls the ‘State of Mediacy’, the digital realm “characterized by the mass production and placement of weak signs with low visibility” to the “mass contemplation of strong signs with high visibility , as was the case during the twentieth century.” 25 Thus, Debord’s Spectacle may in fact be fragmenting into a pixellated haze, as everybody posts images that virtually no one looks at. Thus rather than being citizens, perhaps these new weak images are refugees from the Spectacle. If so, what rights might they have? 26

However, it is important to remember that the ‘vitality’ or otherwise of images remains a metaphor, albeit one that may be useful in terms of the production of questions about paintings. It can lead us into several traps, not least the ‘charlatanism’ of expression 27 and a confusion of description with explanation. 28 It leads us back to the picture, though, and its ‘attempts’ to freeze the image. These paintings by Ian Wieczorek combine autographic immanence with an aesthetic function far removed from the original intention behind the making of the images, thus creating a new work of art from them. The focus then comes on the picture itself, not the image, enabling us to think about the politics of the fragmenting Spectacle – perhaps the only rational procedure left for thinking about painting in the contemporary world.

 


Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958 (2nd Ed).
Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics, London, 2000 (1980).
Crow, David, Left to Right/the cultural shift from words to pictures, AVA, Lausanne, 2006.
Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), Zone Books, 1994 (1967).
Deutsch,David, ‘A New Way to Explain Explanation’, TEDGlobal 2009.
Didi‐Huberman, Georges, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.
Feneon, Felix, Novels in Three Lines (trans. Luc Sante), New York Review of Books, New York, 2007.
Genette, Gerard, The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence (trans. G. M. Goshgarian), Cornell University Press, Ithaca/london, 1997.
• The Aesthetic Relation (trans. G. M. Goshgarian), Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 1999.
Groys, Boris, Going Public, Sternerg Press, Berlin, 2010.
Hawker, Rosemary, Blur: Gerhard Richter and the photographic in painting, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland, 2006
Johnson, Alastair, Alphabets to Order: the literature of nineteenth-century typefounders’ specimens, Oak Knoll Press/ British Library, Delaware/London, 2000.
Marinetti, Filippo Tomasso, ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell, Oxford, 2003.
Mitchell, W. J. T. ,What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p.85.
Ranciere, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), Continuum, London, 2004.
• The Emancipated Spectator (trans. Gregory Elliott) Verso, London, 2009, p.7.
• Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (trans. Steven Corcoran), Continuum, London, 2010.

Notes:

  1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics, London, 2000 (1980), p. 25.
  2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics, London, 2000 (1980), p. 27
  3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics, London, 2000 (1980), p. 59
  4. Alastair Johnson, Alphabets to Order: the literature of nineteenth-century typefounders’ specimens, Oak Knoll Press/British Library, Delaware/London, 2000, pp 1-2
  5. Luc Sante, ‘introduction’, in Felix Feneon, Novels in Three Lines (trans. Luc Sante), New York Review of Books, New York, 2007, p. Xxxi.
  6. Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell, Oxford, 2003, pp 146-149. 
  7. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), Continuum, London, 2004, esp. pp 20-30.
  8. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), Continuum, London, 2004, esp. p 23.
  9. Gabriel Rockhill, ‘Translator’s Introduction’ in Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, pp 4-5.
  10. Gerard Genette, The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence (trans. G. M. Goshgarian), Cornell University Press, Ithaca/london, 1997. See also Gerard Genette, The Aesthetic Relation (trans. G. M. Goshgarian), Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 1999.
  11. Genette, The Aesthetic Relation, p.x (original emphasis).
  12. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p.85.
  13. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p.85-94.
  14. David Crow, Left to Right/the cultural shift from words to pictures, AVA, Lausanne, 2006.
  15. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), Zone Books, 1994 (1967), p.20.
  16. Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator (trans. Gregory Elliott) Verso, London, 2009, p.7.
  17. Georges Didi‐Huberman, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, p.224.
  18. Georges Didi‐Huberman, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, p.96.
  19. Rosemary Hawker, Blur: Gerhard Richter and the photographic in painting, PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland, 2006; abstract online at http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:158803 (accessed 28/4/2010)
  20. Rosemary Hawker, Blur: Gerhard Richter and the photographic in painting, PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland, 2006; abstract online at http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:158803 (accessed 28/4/2010)
  21. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, p.90.
  22. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, p.36.
  23. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, pp 33-34.
  24. Boris Groys, Going Public, Sternerg Press, Berlin, 2010, p. 116.
  25. Boris Groys, Going Public, Sternerg Press, Berlin, 2010, p. 117.
  26. See Chapter 3 of Jacques Ranciere, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (trans. Steven Corcoran), Continuum, London, 2010, pp 62-75 for a discussion on rights and the weak. 
  27. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958 (2nd Ed), p. 323, n.87.
  28. David Deutsch, ‘A New Way to Explain Explanation’, TEDGlobal 2009, online at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_deutsch_a_new_way_to_explain_explanation.html (accessed 8/7/2011).