26.06.2019

Visible hand

The hand cannot lie.

– Ranko Marinković

What is displayed here?

That is, what are we actually looking at when we look at Flags by Ana Mušćet? Flags, to be sure, which, simultaneously, are quite evidently not flags. While all these elements are necessary, the work we see is decidedly not a painting (even though it is produced by the strokes of a hand); it is not a sculpture (although it has volume and can be observed from all sides); it is certainly not a piece of architecture (though it is distinctly defined by the gallery space for which it is intended). Finally, neither is what we have before our eyes a process of creation, even if what we see incontestably is a result of a specific process. Precisely with regard to the process in question, the author of the collection Hands wrote (by hand, no doubt):

Neither does the hand know what the legibility of those signs on paper is for, but it knows what is “a” and what is “b” and that there is a dot on the “i” and that the “t” should be crossed. Due to some maniacal pragmatics, it has its own rhythm and order. One hand will first write even the longest word and only then dot and cross as necessary, while another, forced to proceed like that, will botch up everything, stop, disturb the order like a marching soldier losing the step.

The militaristic comparison used by Marinković is, as we shall see, rather appropriate in this context.

The form – elongated canvas – of the “flags” on display recalls the famous Black Flag by Ljubo Babić, the painting made more or less at the time of the events narrated in the first book of the novel Flags written much later by his friend and associate Miroslav Krleža, whereby the depicted subject is pulled into the gravitational field of the First World War. Given that the text she wrote on their contrasting white surface is taken from it, Krleža’s Flags indubitably become a referent of the flags exhibited by Ana Mušćet. The meaning of what we see thus of necessity includes the novel’s diegetic universe, which, situated before, during, and after the Great War, proves to be decisively determined by it.

Needless to say, this is not an illustration of Krleža’s novel, yet, in a sense that remains to be specified, not only does a relation of significance obtain between the two works, they are also – through the act of naming – identified with each other. Indisputably, we have Krleža’s text before our eyes; but written out in another hand. To copy the text of a novel that is voluminous even by the standards of its prolific author is undeniably a chore as hard as it is futile, as time-consuming as it is pointless. In this respect, it is perhaps not without import to mention that Babić’s painting was owned by Josip Vaništa, whose poetics of defacement of the author by means of the work might serve as an expedient starting point.

So, let us start with negation and notice what is absent. When in 1957 Pierre Faucheux curated the seminal exhibition La création littéraire in Bruxelles, devoted to the ten writers deceased in the previous twenty years, the seven types of exhibits he used were as follows: large photo-panels; the authors’ manuscripts and autographs; their sundry effects in glass cases; albums on their life and work; sound recordings of their voices; photographs, documents, drawings and portraits; current editions of their works.

Except in the purely technical sense – bound to eventually turn out (if it has not already) spectral holograms – this range of means available for presenting literary creation has remained essentially unchanged. None of that is on show here; not even, as noted, the author’s handwriting. We have also noted that neither is it a work that would present us with the demand “to review, to identify and, so to speak, to ‘enjoy’ the movement which has ended up here” [de revoir, d’identifier et, si l’on peut dire, de « jouir » le mouvement qui en est venu là], as is the case, according to Barthes, in the work of Cy Twombly, who retains the gesture, not the product, of writing.

It is easy to see that Ana Mušćet proceeds in exactly the opposite manner. Avoiding every conceivable form of visually copying Flags, Flags are inscribed into the exhibition space by means of writing out: instead of any description, what is displayed is the inscription in which written diegesis is presented through the only possible mimesis of writing – copying.

Within this perspective, the futile and pointless work mentioned earlier unexpectedly appears akin to the venerable tradition of copying old masters, surely the optimal means of learning the painter’s craft. Quintilian’s famed formula frequens imitatio transit in mores, stating as it does that there is more to imitation than mere acquisition of technique or perfecting of purely mechanical skills, was quite literally borne out – was, indeed, rendered obvious – by the fact that the process of copying Flags, which took several thousand hours, changed Ana Mušćet’s handwriting.

If, being private and anecdotal, this particular feedback between the subject and the object of action falls outside the purview of interest occasioned by the work of which it is an inadvertent side-effect, it can nevertheless serve as a handy mock-up of the phenomenon that inheres in any manipulation. Man wields no tool – not even that which is an integral part of his body – but he suffers the consequences thereof. Henri Focillon concluded his éloge de la main asserting that “the relationships between mind and hand are not […] so simple as those between a chief accustomed to obedience and a docile slave,” rather, they are mutually transforming. The hand “teaches man to conquer space, weight, density and quantity” because it “struggles with the very substance it metamorphoses and with the very form it transfigures.” Training man, “the hand multiplies him in space and in time.” Perhaps these considerations might help us to draw closer to the displayed multiplying of Flags, which both Krleža and Ana Mušćet have good reason to use in the plural.

It is no secret that Krleža’s Flags are replete with interpretations of all kinds of texts, opening as they do with reactions to a pamphlet (“an entrefilet”) published by the novel’s protagonist, Kamilo Emerički. It is, however, especially germane to our present purpose to note that this chain of events was set off by a letter, written “on the knee, in a coffeehouse, off the cuff,” which Kamilo, having read a certain newspaper article, “right away, ex abrupto, wrote to the editor of the Banners of the 20th Century,” the two of them subsequently reaching “an agreement that his Letter be published under the pseudonym Zeno,” in which form – “projected on the enormous screen of the Budapest press” – it would reverberate deafeningly.

Of no less comprehensive eventual significance is the fact that “on the first page of the issue of Banners in which Kamilo’s letter was published Ana Borongay began her long poem Medea, dedicated to the mysterious letter Z.” Bearing in mind Jan Wierzbicki’s averment that Krleža’s entire oeuvres bears witness to a semiotic way of thinking, it is hardly surprising that the problematic of signs and signifying, in all its many aspects, is quite patently foremost among Krleža’s concerns here. A flag is, of course, already a symbol or, to be more precise, a visual sign – but not, and this is vital in the present context, an image – plied by a hand (that waves or hoists it). Krleža’s text rather ostentatiously underscores that the same sign can have multiple meanings and that for the (in the main) same meaning there are several signs: Flags (the novel) are not Banners (the paper), even if their meanings nominally overlap. On balance, the story of the novel could be boiled down to proving that Kamilo Emerički is not Kamilo Emerički.

The plot, however, demonstrates that the relationships between the son and the father in Krleža are just as complex as those between a chief and a slave in Focillon. Even though Kamilo is “a writer who freely toys with all that is sacrosanct with the ease of supreme irony,” whose power over his own image extends even to writing his own obituary, his self-fashioning persistently confirms that he is not the author of himself. And, even more insistently, that the meaning the assorted signs he manipulates receive in the construal of those for whom they are intended are constitutively beyond the reach of his interpretive control.

A letter written impulsively, on one’s knees, in a coffeehouse, is no longer the same letter once it is published in the papers (“projected on the enormous screen”), although as far as the text is concerned there is no difference whatsoever. By the same token, Flags are not Flags, although the two texts do not differ in any respect.

Provided that in the work of Ana Mušćet the formal cause is the gallery, the material cause is the canvas, and the efficient cause is the hand, has the aforesaid brought us any nearer to answering the question what is its final cause? Should we consult Marinković again, we would see that the claim that hands “draw thoughts out from the insipid askesis of ‘the world of ideas’ introducing them to the individual diversity and cornucopia of ‘the world of things,’ to the sin of existence,” itself so obvious as to pass unnoticed, can result in the insight that is by no means evident – to wit, that thereby they inevitably “render theatrical the abstract and insipid semantic instrumentalisation of lies.” By virtue of its undeniable mediateness, performance denies the semblance of immediateness: “The hand has her own handwriting.”

What is at stake is nothing less than the sense of writing. “An author’s style,” writes Agamben, “depends less on his genius, than on the part of him that is deprived of genius, his character.” In search of the answer to the query whether painting is a language, fifty years ago Barthes proposed that the distance institutionally separating picture and text be eliminated by introducing the notion of generalised ergography, entailing the text as work, the work as text. On the same occasion, he stipulated that to write on painting requires a grammatographer, someone who writes the picture’s writing. By means of her Flags, Ana Mušćet writes the writing’s picture, displaying the visual equivalent to Agamben’s conclusion as regards the sense of writing, which here means all creation:

One writes in order to become impersonal, to become genial, and yet, in writing, we individuate ourselves as authors of this or that work; we move away from Genius, who can never have the form of an ego, much less that of an author.

Tomislav Brlek

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