Overcoming history and the emerging community

Žarko Paić / 2014

On Truth, Guilt, and Forgiveness
Zlatko Kopljar, K-19

Streu deine Blumen, Fremdling, streu sie getrost:
du reichst sie den Tiefen hinunter,
den Gärten.
Paul Celan, Kenotaph

Strew your flowers, stranger, strew them confidently:
you are handing them down to depths,
to gardens
Paul Celan, Cenotaph

Procedures of Truth

 Can contemporary art provide a possibility for man’s redemptive reversal? This issue is not a question of aesthetics or art as novelty. It triggers a different historical order than the one which finally found its place at the cemetery of metaphysics. At the time of techno-science it seems that the question about the redemptive is maybe just a leftover of one other demand. Contemporary art operates with it ‘today’. Alain Badiou resolutely maintains that with the end of aesthetics as a theoretical guardian of the art world art has been directed solely to disclosure of the procedures of truth.[1] If, therefore, the reversal of man is not anymore possible by just returning under the wings of the traditional systems of religion and ethics, the only remaining possibility emerges from the frail web of events. From that source art only regains its lost purpose. However, instead of finding that ‘purpose’ in something external, the artistic act becomes its own truth in the capacity of the redemptive reversal of man. The problem contained in the concept of life as art since the beginnings of avant-garde art in the first half of the 20th century is the difference between two basic approaches to the event. These are two ‘occupations’ of the territory of sorts. This territory is the scene of the struggle for establishing the ‘procedures of truth’.

The first approach replaces religion by politics and ideology, while the second replaces ethics by aesthetization of social relations. The redemptive in the very ‘essence’ of art can emerge only from a new event. And this event abolishes the need for replacement. What is understood as replacement? Simply, already since the beginning of modern times the sovereignty of politics presupposes the withdrawal of religion from public life. The god of metaphysics withdraws into the shelter of (in)activity. The suspension and neutralization of the idea of the beginning, foundations, and reason decide on the possibility of a new beginning. In the political anthropology of Hannah Arendt the mystery of the emergence of the new is shown. Outside of any kind of service to the external cause of action, the impossibility of reducing art to religion or politics became a credo for the freedom of the creation of the new.[2] It is, however, important to point out that the policies and ideologies of totalitarian movements in the 20th century – Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Soviet communism – have subjugated the beauty and dignity of art in the name of ‘higher aims’ of the Arian race, the mysticism of the organically perceived nation concept, and the collectivism of the workers’ class. The reign of a surrogate in the name of the “last truth” of the new secular deity is present also in the formally clean, second approach that advocates the anesthetization of the modern society. But, instead of serving a race, people, or a class under the cloak of neutral aesthetic production, this is always pseudo-autonomy of art clashing with violence of political and ideological orders of totalitarian power. In his lectures from the end of the 1930s, Heidegger has determined both just through functions of modern technology. The vanishing of the creative act and even art itself witnesses of the rise of two extremes – aesthetic kitsch and political propaganda.[3]

If we bear that in mind, then we should adequately treat the ‘truth’ in its openness aside of the two dangers. If art comes too close to the first or second suspension of religion and ethics in the name of political power and aesthetic taste, we find ourselves perpetuating constant metamorphoses of a life conquered long ago by other worthless purposes. This is especially true of the contemporary art’s facing diabolic evil in the history of the 20th century. Juxtaposed to religion and ethics, and also as their replacement, evil appears in the technical form of a concentration camp. As Jean-François Lyotard explains it by pointing to Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, the end of the possibility for modern meta-narratives (God, spirit, work, striving) used for the description of the real world emerges from that which the concentration camp encompasses in the twofold nature of erasure of the order in European nations-states. The twofold nature of the concentration camp paradigm implies:

  • The exclusion of Others from the corpus of the original nationals as an organic community of ‘blood and soil’ (Jews, Roma, Slavic peoples, homosexuals)
  • The transformation of the violence over the Other into a technical question of the erasure of traces of its biological and cultural existence. This is the realization of modern biopolitics as thanatopolitics.[4]

For the Nazi crime system this became the elementary fact for the functioning of the social and state machinery. All possibilities for inner resistance are excluded. When Adorno in his famous phrase that after Auschwitz it is impossible to write poetry opened the question of the boundaries of sublimity and evil, already in its expression there was something stunningly unsaid. Facing the vehemence of the diabolical evil it lost its last refuge. Since Kant, sublimity has belonged to the realm of the ethical dimension of beauty of an artwork. When it is replaced by an aesthetic object, nothing essentially changes. The traces of life as art event now take over the features of the sublimity itself, like unpresentability and inexpressibility of that which enables the art to present and narrate events. The answer to Adorno’s negative aesthetics of works after Auschwitz is actually simple. God has assigned the place of absent denominator to the sublime. Evil, on the other hand, constitutes a counter-notion to the divine. That is why it cannot be founded as a notion. It is just a negation of the good. Instead of the ethical power dispositive, now events are founded aesthetically. In this way recollection and memory have become a testimony of the omission of God from history. The suspension of the divine happens in the name of the emerging community. Sublimity does not belong to the ethical horizon of the belief in the world anymore. After the experience with Nazi death camps in all their satellite versions of joining the “new European order” of totalitarianism, the sublime appears as a regulative principle of something that in itself stores truth, guilt, and forgiveness. These are not metaphysical notions of ethics anymore. They now constitute a complex of feelings and experiences of a new sublimity. By overcoming the traumas of the past a new chapter of an entirely different history is opened.[5]

The memory of the evil done in a concentration camp is erased in the name of ‘normality’ of the reality ‘here’ and ‘now’. Tacit acceptance of what has happened, paradoxically, does not make oblivion possible. On the contrary, a ban on speaking about the monstrous events of diabolical evil only generates a possibility for its gruesome mysticism in the revival of the traces in the present. The impossibility of discourse about this event becomes a sign of stupefaction of critical reasoning. Instead of speaking about history without fear, everything turns into collective oblivion of history and memory control, considering the boundaries between the sublime and the evil. Precisely for this reason Lyotard has opened other possibilities for the cognition of events. From what is different from the Same we acquire the right to truth as a right to speak about the monstrous in the event. The right to truth as the right of speech requires indirect and non-representational utterance.[6] Is not exactly this approach to the event the way laid down by contemporary art, on the other side of fatal alternatives of politics and ideology and the aesthetic order? But what is ‘different from the Same’, what is the origin of the possibility of a different discourse about the event of boundless evil? Has this possibility been given in the recollection ‘of’ an event or should recollection be turned into memory, a trace into media material, a letter into an archive, the body of life into a body of art?[7] And finally, how and when does it become legitimate to open the possibilities of facing the question of boundaries between the sublime and the evil if just turning history into a museum issue at the time of techno-science visualizes everything that took place as artifact and information in databases?

There is no doubt that the decisive on the event is not just the order of factual procedures. The seal on the procedures of truth is put by a third party. The utterance does not include a naïve illusion about yielding the history to neutral historiographical science. It would make even less sense to expect that the event would be interpreted in the awareness of the contemporaries as self-evident and hence non-problematic, without opposite interpretations.

Thus the seal is not put just by the time. The struggle for the truth of the time imprints it into the soft tissue of history. Direct and indirect heirs both of the executioners and their victims face it. In this schism between worlds the contemporary event art sets its works into public space to make a discourse on an emerging community at all possible. The art of setting artifacts into public space is by no means just an installation of traces and archiving memory against oblivion. This is about something much more authentic. Truth, bringing guilt to awareness, and forgiveness create some room for the freedom of the new beginning. Only by breaking the circle of raging hatred in its intensity can start a new world of confidence and openness. The dead have to be buried twice. The discourse on the event has to be disburdened from the heaviness of confession. The silence has to be exalted by the memory of evil with no other intention then a clear and unambiguous gesture of overcoming the traumas of history. Like in the case of re-enactment in today’s performative arts, the experience of the trauma from the past appears in the bodily presence of the event. The encounter with a past trauma shows a form of that which Deleuze determines by external shock. Like feeling and experience, concepts are generated from the uniqueness of events. Nothing comes from the inner structure of the body. Everything flows from the event of the external as the feeling of being deeply moved and of facing the world.[8] The task of contemporary art thus becomes the questioning of its ‘sense’ in the passage between political propaganda and aesthetic kitsch. Even if it thus turns out that art in this way lost the reason of its existence, because the event of life thus separated itself from the difference to the fact of its reflection in the memory, this is even better for the emerging. We should not regret the disappearance of anything that obstructs the only essential thing – the openness of the new event in its unpredictability and in the case of a breach with history as a trauma of absolute evil. Art can even disappear in the event of a total gesture of overcoming the guilt and the forgiveness for what has been committed in time. Is this not the price to be paid for something much more than any aesthetic success of an exhibition on a so-called provocative topic? The time of being blasé, of the shock of social relations and the spectacle of engaged art is gone. There comes the time of decisive preparations for the final overcoming of history.

In the catalogue of the Paul Thek / Luc Tymans exhibition, symptomatically titled Why?! in Berlin 2012, the question-answer of art itself facing the destruction of human body primarily stands for settling the accounts with historical awareness. Through the history of this destruction of the body-as-history, the denominators of evil are inscribed through the experiment of the destruction of the Other: from Nazi evildoers and the Belgian colonial rule in Africa to global capitalism as technical destruction of the human world.[9] The problem is therefore not anymore in something that stands ‘behind’ the very structure of contemporary art as its sublime Other, but how it can take a position towards its own vanished origins. The experiment is a scientific research method and the process of disclosure of ‘nature’ as object. When human body becomes the experiment of total destruction in the name of race, nation, and class, we are in the underworld of history. The lost traces of this process of destruction have not disappeared in dark abyss. They are everywhere in frail foundations of our contemporariness. They surface always seemingly unexpectedly and their shards sometimes have a lethal effect on the life of contemporaries. How can we present and express this today? How do we face the boundary of sublimity and evil today, without making this challenge just a cheap political and ideological means for other purposes or a mere aesthetic effect of de-realization of irreducible ‘nature’ of that about which we might not be able to say anything more? A credible answer to this question is offered by contemporary artist Zlatko Kopljar in his project-installation K-19.

Bringing Guilt to Awareness

All previous Zlatko Kopljar’s art activity bore the sign of triple presence: (1) of a performative event in public space of social interaction; (2) video-installation and film, and (3) media representation of the event in photo-prints. But what is common to this trinity of a performative media event can be determined as gestural policy functioning as sign of sublime expressivity of the body.[10] The naming of projects/performances always contains the Kafkaesque abbreviation K. The name of the performer is just one level of the body’s subject features. In the way gestuality through years turned from the state of resistance to art as aesthetic sublimation, thus the resistance to corporality moved from one sphere to the other: from media to technology, from public space to iconoclasm of life. The peak of this transformation process was attained in the act of asking for forgiveness from subjects/participants of the global capitalistic power play and dictatorship in the contemporary world. Because the world of this kind is nothing else but abstract networks of economy-politics-culture where all nodal points are already spaces through which capital flows and creates new crevices, it does not wonder us that the artist by bodily figures of a religious gesture of humility and mercy addressed the centers of dispersed global power: Capitol in Washington, British Parliament, Duma in Moscow, the seat of the party and state congress in Beijing. In the streets of world metropolises, among the traffic rush and chaos, he kneeled on crosswalks. While doing this, he modestly intervened into the ‘normality’ of the everyday life machine in culturally different capitals of global capitalism.

Unlike the violence immanent to economy-politics-culture of networked societies of corporative civilization of boundless profit, the gesture of the artist enters the sheltered place of the boundary between ethics and belief in the world different from the one ‘here’ and ‘now’. What seems common to all Kopljar’s performative and media gestures of resistance against tyranny of the corporative nothingness is in a state in-between the two things:

  • politics and ideology of the machine of the body-as-network of constantly renewing events of the Same on all levels, disregarding the cultural differences, and
  • the aesthetics of redesigning the world as a sublime object of the desire to own the very mystery of the world.

Humbleness and mercy are there not just the remnants of the original Christian ethics of events as truth without the mediation of institutions of the state and society. There is more at play, of course. Through the gestuality of the body that bends its knees to the symbolical machine of the Real and its (in)visible forms of power speaks unyielding freedom. However, it does not beg for mercy, either for itself or the Others, but addresses the Power itself as such in its globally dissipated centers. Yes, this is a matter of universal guilt. It is unredemptable because it is inscribed into the foundations of an unfounded world. Only such a world enables that capital, as a subject-substance of historical development, can at the same time be augmented in a liberal-democratic state form and a dictatorship of neo-communism, at the heart of open society and fascist-based organic community. The and-and logic determines the reign of politics at the time of entropy of global capitalism.[11] Hence guilt cannot be something monstrously mysterious in the ‘essence’ of inborn human nature. Like the archetype of evil, guilt cannot be something that is impossible to determine rationally. The addressee of guilt is a clearly determined subject-participant of universal monstrous power. It does not have a human face, but is has concrete apparatuses of state violence and a perfect ideological supervision over the body of its networked executors. In such a world, man necessarily appears as a de-subjectivized control body. For this reason, the order is maintained by incessant staging of a “state of emergency”.

From the very beginning, Zlatko Kopljar has not created any new works or objects from the existing ‘world’ that in itself had long ago become the aesthetic object of consumption of icons, symbols, and fetishes. What replaces this production of objects are by no means the media features of events in the sign of the new spectacle ideology as this has become self-evident with Debord and situationists with the emergence of integral reality of the digital era.[12] The surrogate looks like a self-organized network of contingency of events in the production of awareness according to the demands to revise the historical time. In other words, what in the dispute between German historians in the 60s on the relativization of Holocaust crimes and the German guilt was called the revisionism of history by Jürgen Habermas has now been included into the new social code of suspension and neutralizing guilt. Kopljar sets the very body of life in the media-perpetuated oblivion of history into the center of examination of its dark survival zones. This equally refers to individual and collective experience. The same is happening with the project of the iconoclast installation K-19. This is also probably one of his most radical performances. The question of guilt is not anymore directed at someone outside of the territory of the long-gone power of the nation-state. It is decisively posed to the contemporaries. Namely who suppresses the fact of the existence of the Jasenovac concentration camp and its horrors or augments the number of victims to achieve political goals for a certain ideology and its questionable aims or ignores its meaning for the necessary overcoming of historical traumas in the emerging community of events of pure truth, falsifies the freedom of thought in a democratic era. Each falsification means a sacrilege of the sublime community idea. The differences between people are established by the frail web of tolerance. With this event, art truly enters a state in-between sublimity and evil, at the same time thus losing its privileged ground of aesthetic play and experiment with the world of politics, society, and techno-science.

What remains of art, in a paraphrase of Agamben’s question about the time after Auschwitz, cannot be reduced to the question of guilt. These are just traces and the archive of the body in the abyss of history. This is not just about the necessity of ‘absorbing history’ as Adorno called the operation of critical examination of fascism in post-war Germany, but about a sublime gesture of metaphysical reconciliation with history by facing its dark and functionally processed traces in everyday life. This is by no means the grotesque ‘mixing of bones’ like the inappropriate fake symmetry of the events of evil in relation to the totalitarian orders of fascism and communism (Jasenovac and Bleiburg). This is about the possibility of openness of a different history. This happens in the sign of events on the other side of the diabolic evil of fascism and totalitarian politics of remembering the victims in the shadow of a collective communist crime over the surviving members of NDH (Independent State of Croatia) armies. What remains of art in the installation with more than 25 tons of bricks dug out of the ground around the Ustasha death camp is what provides art with the possibility of openness without falling into the abyss of politics and ideology and the aesthetic order of the technical world decoration. Zlatko Kopljar does not tackle the question of guilt as a means for an external purpose. On the contrary, along the lines of Jaspers’s seminal paper The Question of German Guilt,[13] in which four levels of coming to awareness appear as a complex and only sensible relation towards the unheard of evil of extermination of Jews and Nazi crimes during the Second World War (criminal, political, moral, and metaphysic level), what lies in the in-between state of guilt and oblivion of history is not a collective experience of taking the responsibility for the sins of fathers. The installation speaks about the present as a trace and archive of witnessing life itself. The life in the uncertainty of the present does not want to look at the past as a catastrophe like the gaze of Angelus Novus in Paul Klee’s painting. The gaze must necessarily be pointed at the emerging. The insight into a community that keeps a memory of the sacrificial altar of history changes the meaning of the gaze. However not because absolute evil should warn it before the possibility of renewal in some ‘human’ face of postmodern farce and grotesque of fascism, but because the sublimity of art takes the guilt for Others into its hands. In the same way Christian religion originally addresses the community by contributing the sacrifice of the individual to freedom and justice of the emerging world. Thus the ethical perspective of art is now elevated to the principle of a gift to the community without counter-bestowment.[14] What Others do not do, You have to do! Your duty is unconditional. And your right to speak about truth must be binding to Others as well. What you do, you do not do against Others, but for their well-being! St. Augustin says the following about this: Initium ut esset homo creatus est – man has been created to initiate a (new) beginning.

3. Forgiveness as a Farewell to History

 Kopljar’s bodily gestuality is finally collected in what belongs to a discourse Lyotard places into symbolic and non-representational discourse. Although in the K-19 installation we witness silence and lack of expression of the absent artist (body-without-image?), like Kiefer’s nigredo or dark matter, the weight of piled-up bricks speaks from the depth of time (de profundis). The symbolic speech points to victims. But they are nameless. They cannot be reduced to the common denominator of Others as such. The victims are individual and belong to the universal particularity of a nation, people, religion or social group (Serbs, Jews, Roma, communists, Croatian intellectuals). The symbolic speech is not a discourse of hidden messages with a key for secret reading. This is an open field of inscribing and reading-into without an end. The circle is not closed as long as messages without a final addressee revolve in it. History is therefore always the frenzy of a circle of crime and hatred happening in spirals. Breaking the circle marks the way into the incalculable future of an encounter with everything that cannot be represented, in the same way as a discourse on overcoming history does not represent anything else aside from loose earth, drenched in blood and ashes, destruction, and exclusion of Others from the community. The paradox is contained in the fact that symbolic discourse always represents something, in the same way Bogdan Bogdanović’s Stone Flower represents a monument to the sublimity of life under the stars and not the victory of death and horror. In Kopljar’s K-19 symbolic discourse is not represented by anything else but that which has been hinted at as a trace and archive of the unyielding life. Bricks strewn all around, taken out of the scattered cargo of history, are the end of any symbolism without final metaphysical forgiveness. What is that – forgiveness? Twofold is its ability of overcoming history. In a crazy dystopia of a future without ethics, neither the executioner nor his victims accept forgiveness. The language of forgiveness does not come from the subject of guilt and his impossible enlightenment in the future. Forgiveness emerges from language as an expression of freedom through the event of truth of the emerging community. Through forgiveness the world returns into the state of true reconciliation and through forgiveness a farewell from the frenzied history of destruction takes place.

In order to save his contemporaries from their eternal condemnation to the struggle of juxtaposed worldviews, to their memories and evidence of the tragic of history, the ‘third’ element is necessary. It is necessary to shake everything out of the depths to the last surface level. Evil has to stop when nothing is left in the ground, when everything suppressed and everything ominous is pushed to the ground and by setting into public space art is brought to final limits of sublime silence. If the silence about that which happened in the past is the gruesome price of remembrance of a crime against humanity, then the only remaining thing for true art is to overcome itself in symbolic silence of that which even cannot be presented otherwise then by installing material for (a new) construction. What really remains of history after the insight that everything is just a vain effort to become a screw and a nut in the machine of the techno-scientific “desert of the real”, where each new revision of contemporary history also demands the revision of the ‘sense’ of contemporary art? In a sublime gesture of renouncing the body as a subject/participant of the event, Zlatko Kopljar has tackled the fundamental question of contemporariness: how can we speak about the absolute evil of history if there is no room either for symbols or representation of events? How can we leave the closed circle of hatred and missing reconciliation with the emerging world without the gift of truth, without bringing the guilt to awareness and without the unconditional forgiveness in the last end of all ends?

In his poem Große, glühende Wölbung, Paul Celan utters the fundamental words of a witness and his perception of the truth of time: Die Welt ist fort, ich muss die tragen…

The past world leaves us the burden of monstrous abysses. If we don’t take it on our backs, we shall never fulfill our human task under the stars, even if art yields under this burden forever.

[1] Alain Badiou, Petite Manuel d’inesthétique, Seuil, Paris, 1998

[2] Žarko Paić, Irreducible Power of Art: Between Total Politics and Aesthetic Order, in: Sloboda bez moći: Politika u mreži entropije, Bijeli val, Zagreb, 2013, pp. 522-568

[3] Martin Heidegger, Besinnung, GA, Vol. 66, V. Klostermann, Frankfurt/M, 1997, p. 31

[4] Timothy C. Campbell, Improper Life: Technology and Biopolitics from Heidegger to Agamben, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis – London, 2011.

[5] See: Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, New York, 2002

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and ‘the Jews’, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis – London, 1997

[7] Žarko Paić, Event and Difference: Performative and Conceptual Reversal of Contemporary Art, Filozofska istraživanja, Year 33, No. 1/2013, pp. 5-20

[8] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994

[9] Paul Thek Luc Tuymans, Why?!, Distanz, Galerie Isabella Czarnowska, Berlin, April 27th – July 28th, 2012. Introductory text by Ulrich Loock, Interview by Julian Heynen, Harald Falckenberg, Luc Tuymans

[10] See: Miško Šuvaković, Mapping the Body/by the Body: on the Performance of Bodily Rhetoric Figures by Zlatko Kopljar, Meandar, Zagreb, 2005

[11] Žarko Paić, Posthumano stanje: Kraj čovjeka i mogućnosti druge povijesti, Litteris, Zagreb, 2011 and Sloboda bez moći: Politika u mreži entropije, Bijeli val, Zagreb, 2013

[12] Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, The MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2002

[13] See Žarko Paić, Overcoming Evil: Jaspers’s Question of Guilt and the Limits of its Current Impact, in: Moć nepokornosti: Intelektualac i biopolitika, Izdanja Antibarbarus, Zagreb, 2006, pp. 65-77

[14] Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London, 1992, The Gift of Death, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London, 1995