Man with Razors
19 • 05 • 31György Cséka
Even though Abstract, the latest exhibition of Gábor Gerhes has already closed, we deemed it important to write about it. As customary in this artist’s case, the show once again perplexed the spectator. Entering the hall of the Fészek Gallery, there was no text or crutch to help us interpret the exhibited material other than the title of the show and a sentence engraved on a black plaque (“The darkness inside the body”). In this sense, the sentence localising darkness inside the body, and thus in the mind, was accurate and palpable.
In his opening speech, Attila Horányi did provide an important detail to help with orientation and contextualisation, as he mentioned that the exhibited works are part of a greater project: Atlas. The materials detailing that project are still available through the website of the Ludwig Museum, as the artist and curator Emese Mucsi submitted it to the competition for the Hungarian Pavilion’s exhibition at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
However, contrary to our expectations, Atlas is not the passkey to opening up the hidden layers of Abstract, as according to the description, its subject is the very fictionality, impenetrability and deconstruction of knowledge, namely within the pictures themselves or by them. The atlas has always stood for the visual equivalent, often supplement of the encyclopaedia, which is composed of words. The description of the world through images, or more precisely, by maps, in a defined scale, with scientific precision. The Atlas of Gerhes, on the other hand, is enigmatic, and in an ontological, systematic manner, just like its abridgment, or abstract.
The pictures of the exhibition comprise a selection from diverse chapters of the book. If we were to expect such an encyclopaedic work to orient us with regard to its meaning at least on the level of chapters, as theoretically it should encompass all, the entire corpus of knowledge and vision, we would once again be disappointed. The sections are organised, giving the illusion of serious scientific discourse, in a similar way as Borges’ Chinese encyclopaedia in Foucault’s work The Order of Things. It is recommended to quote the famous text in its entity, since regarding its meaning, it is more profound than the quotation cited by Foucault and further cited by many others: “These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled 'Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge'. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, Mormonism; and number 294, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. It doesn't reject heterogeneous subdivisions as, for example, 179: ‘Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities.’” (The Analytical Language of John Wilkins)
With the abstract and absurd encyclopaedia, the enterprise of Gábor Gerhes reflects on the aforementioned ambiguities, redundancies, shortcomings of knowledge and systems of knowledge set in words, or, to put it in another way, on their deceit, fictionality and the exchangeability of categories and contrasting features. All these using images, which is, in turn, the irony of irony, a paradox move, as it brings into play, confronts and co-interprets the mutually untranslatable entities of image and text, visual and discursive meaning. Of course, in a manner that the chapter of the Atlas entitled Misologia blasts the entire thing into smithereens like a landmine, as it can be known, if from no other source than Karl Ove Knausgård’s also monumental and encyclopaedic-like book My Struggle, Book 2: A Man in Love, that: “Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyromania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or to put it another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue.”
Which, of course, is a rephrasing of Nietzsche’s radical insight, for: “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” (On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense)
The chapters of Gerhes’ atlas are maps of an arbitrary, fragmented and indecipherable knowledge. Bogus maps, ironic abstracts of the world’s continuously amassed, by now unfathomable and unmanageable, and for this reason uninterpretable and therefore futile immensity of the extracts of information. Exponentially at that, as it is impossible to reach a foundation, a point of origin, a first and accurate map of knowledge. As a result of the global digital amnesia, everything has existed before, everything is the distorted replica and extract of something else, which also means abstraction, subtraction, extraction from the original context. In addition, in philosophy, the abstract entity also stands for an artificial and fictional entity, which only subsists in human consciousness and knowledge, but it does not exist autonomously and independently.
At the exhibition, the images of Abstract behaved like Lego pieces that could either be observed individually or freely joined with other pieces. The corpus was divided into various groups of images, which also brought thematic forces to the surface, as the show featured groups of abstract images, ones depicting the human body, or darkness, or peculiar assemblies of objects. But each of them was at once “representation”, in fact, representation, that is, some fake, unreal, cumulatively – visually and verbally – undermined organisation.
This material brought into play is one of the signature tricks that hallmark Gerhes’ art: the constant raising of suspicion that what we see cannot actually be what it seems. However, this feeling remains vague all the while, as we never reach the truth, he does not hand us the key that would unlock the mystery of what we should see or think when beholding his images. More precisely: he gives us a whole bunch of keys, as the chapters of his atlas also flash a plethora of important topos and discourses of Western culture, but in a context that is too broad and dispersed.
In one of Gerhes’ images, a text on the page of a book is masked almost entirely by a black, pierced rectangle. Not very large to begin with, the picture lures us closer as we attempt to decipher the masked text from the visible fragments of the page. The blocked-out text, although in a negative approach, would help us get closer to the signification of the image. However, the words either make no sense or were written in some alien, extraterrestrial language. Gerhes renders an untranslatable and enigmatic script even less accessible by the act of masking. He represents or disperses negation with negation, deletion with deletion, black with black.
One of his black images has a tiny hole in it. But even if we go very close, we will not see anything through the hole. Of course, because this is a photograph and not reality. But then what does it mean? The picture places the spectator into a voyeuristic position, but it does so by revoking, deleting the enticing sight. Similar holes can be seen in another photo, on a bone. As if it were possible to look inside the body, inside the bones and beyond. But what is inside the body?
Another image seems to depict props of a strange past or future religion or rite, but we cannot piece together the meaning of the image that – again! – has too many references: Christianity, paganism, geometry, English breakfast. It has to be noted here that although Gerhes’ photographs are less explicitly humorous these days, much rather ominous descriptions, yet in a deeper sense, they are as amorally jocund as before – amorality should be understood in a Nietzschean sense here.
Gábor Gerhes is like the Bibliographic Institute of Brussels: he adds to the (epistemological) chaos, as there is nothing else he can do, he sees no way out, not even a tiny hole through which he could get a glimpse of reality, the splendid world of permanently established cardinal meanings where nothing is false and everything is true.
Being an artist, Gerhes propagates, collides and mixes entities instead of deleting them, all the while holding at least two of Occam’s razors in his hands. Atlas is very well a pinnacle of his sophisticated and profoundly reflected oeuvre, at least as much as it can be judged on the basis of its abstract.
Gábor Gerhes: Abstract
16. 04. – 10. 05. 2019.