My reflection on Gorgona and its aura was inspired by a casual glance at the issue of Gorgona’s magazine with the motif of Mona Lisa, reproduced on a promotional canvas tote on the occasion of Josip Vaništa’s exhibition at Gliptoteka in February 2011.
It was the issue no. 6 from 1961 and Vaništa explained the choice of Mona Lisa in the following way: “It was the most senseless thing to publish in a magazine, since reproducing Mona Lisa equals leaving a blank page.” Five years later, Vaništa’s design of issue no. 10 of the anti-magazine included only blank pages, while all the data were printed on a separate sheet as a sort of errata corrige. The following issue, which likewise came out in 1966, went another step further – the magazine’s content consisted of a white photograph of the cover page with an inscription, which was its title. On our quest for the Gorgonic aura, we might go even further back in time, to the very beginning – the first issue of the magazine, with its photograph of a second-hand store in Vlaška Street, or rather a detail of the shop window with an empty shelf, which is repeated nine times as the only content.
The strategy of multiplication that leads to utter emptiness, where all content has vanished, is just as paradoxical as the very idea of Gorgona, since on the one hand it was manifested in the complete negation of the aura, while on the other hand, the aura appeared in its whole range through various procedures of the group, from its most classical definition to paradox – arising from the most radical forms of its suppression.
In one of his most famous studies, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936, Walter Benjamin interpreted the emergence of reproduction in the context of art as a procedure that devalued the here and now of the artwork: its credibility and thereby its ritual function. The phenomenon of aura implies distance, while multiplication leads to approximation, yet what comes closer in reproduction, distances itself again in dispersed attention.
Vaništa obviously knew very well about this problem, brought into the focus of attention by Benjamin in the 1930s, and he intentionally mocked the idea of the original in his issues of the anti-magazine, as well as the idea of artwork as such, since it appeared as something that could be multiplied in the magazine form, thus announcing a radically different understanding of both art and the aura.
With Benjamin, the notion of aura itself tended towards a paradox: it included a wide range of meanings – from intimacy created by the returned gaze of an object here and now, through the perception of reality in the state of dreaming, when the subject is identified with things, thus realizing the experience of a perfect intimacy with them, to images that appear in one’s consciousness as traces of remembrance – which are perhaps closest to what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would describe as unmemorable, a memory that in fact does not remember anything with sufficient clarity. And it is precisely for that reason, by being unmemorable and therefore haunting, that it becomes one’s most powerful memory.
A counterpart to Vaništa’s withdrawal in Nothingness,with his photographsof empty shelves, repetition of Mona Lisa’s reproductions, and the blank pages, are Mangelos’ destructions: his coating of various printed media, mostly with black paint. Explicitly referring to Benjamin, Mangelos on the one hand declaratively endorsed the advance of technology in his texts, writing about the fact that the society was progressing with a speed that art was incapable of keeping up with, while on the other hand he produced art – negating the paintings of other artists and printed pages by applying layers of paint, that is, by applying the metaphysics of nothingness onto them – that was in its final effect something complete opposite. Whereas his texts spoke against the manual crafts, his artworks were objects that Branka Stipančić, in her monograph on Mangelos, would compare to medieval manuscripts as something emanating a powerful aura. In the same monograph, one finds an unconventional, meta-philosophical and poetical text by Miško Šuvaković, in which he obviously engaged in a dialogue with Benjamin. It is a meditation over Mangelos’ tablet - the tabula rasa – where Šuvaković asked himself while looking at it: “What can you say about me?
The place where I lay my gaze and the place where that gaze is received.” What follows is a reminiscence of Mangelos’ landscapes of war, in red italics: “It was the time when people were dying, it was the time of death, and I was searching for a place for my gaze.” It is in that sentence about searching for a place for one’s gaze, which is then laid onto Mangelos’ tabula rasa, that the notion of aura would emerge. “To experience the aura of a phenomenon” – Benjamin wrote – “means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.” Perhaps it is not that strange that the intuitive name of Gorgona – which fitted so well to that group of artists – had come from none else than Mangelos. Reflections on Gorgon’s gaze, which was, as the final verse in Mangelos’ short poem says, met by someone who then turned into stone, also appear in Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in which he referred to Baudaleire’s verse dedicated to the casual gaze of a passer-by in the crowd, comparing it with the mythical Gorgonic gaze as something that suddenly happens and disappears, causing a state of petrifaction and shock, only to re-emerge as a gleam in the poet’s mind.
In his writings, Walter Benjamin spoke about Dadaism, a movement that intentionally rejected the aura as an idea, using various means to achieve its destruction, such as – in Benjamin’s words – branding their creations as reproduction with the very means of production, and not considering a different possibility, namely that these works might be capable of reinventing the aura precisely in the conscious act of destruction. In this context, it is impossible not to recall Duchamp, for whom the magic of aura was yet another superfluous thing that needed to be rejected indiscriminately. However, unlike the aura of the material work, Duchamp believed that the concept behind it could not be destroyed, and that this concept was something valuable: “Who cares about the artwork?” Duchamp did not want to be useful and he did not create useful art; he preferred breathing over working. His art acquired its own existence and his behaviour, attitude, and even rejection of art, was becoming art in itself. Approximation to life implied the loss of aura, which actually did not vanish, but reappeared instead in a different place – following the artist as a shadow. Something similar happened with Gorgona, which was the first in this region that offered, in its authentic way, a concept and a mental action that could exist even without realizing a work of art. Vaništa’s non-materialized legacy is a proof of that: some of his artworks exist only as descriptions of paintings, in a verbal or mental form rather than the material one. His other works, as well as those by other members of Gorgona, were realized in the form of notes, thoughts, objects... “Even in the image of blackness,” as Davor Matičević wrote in his preface to Gorgona’s Dijon exhibition in 1989, “they seek to express something that belongs primarily to the domain of mental relations.”
Gorgona did occasionally reflect on the artist as a generator of aura, as is attested in Vaništa’s seminal work “Homage to Manet,” as well as the humorous and ironic photograph that could be seen at the solo exhibition of Julije Knifer at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, where the artist posed next to his meanders, wearing a top hat, while the members of Gorgona paid homage to him by bowing and even kissing his hand!
The elements of Zen that were present in Gorgona can also be compared to Duchamp’s indifferent statements about his preference of breathing over artistic production, which was among the members of Gorgona likewise manifested primarily in their state of mind, and only secondarily in activities such as joint walks or correspondence, which also contained nothing useful, directly politically engaged, aesthetically self-sufficient, or didactic.
Links to Benjamin’s thoughts and generally his similar intellectual position can also be found in reflections on an idea that was exceptionally important to him – the mass. It was not only the mass in terms of a formless metropolitan crowd, an amorphous stream of passers-by that, in subjective perception, intensified one’s state of loneliness and produced a shock-like sensation, but also as something that Benjamin would endow with political contours at the dawn of fascism.
Regardless of this political context, parallels between these attitudes towards the crowd reveal the mode of thinking of intellectuals who shun the masses as the body with a hundred heads which is articulated in singular and can, as such, become rather dangerous. “Even though for the past ten years actual events have brought changes into the postwar culture” – as Davor Matičević wrote – “with the first larger international exhibitions of contemporary art and the manifest, overall cultural policy of opening up, sensitive natures such as the Gorgona members, with the experience they had, were still feeling insecure.”
It was a clever task of collectivism that was given to Gorgona by Radoslav Putar, and so were their witty reactions – from direct and evasive rejection of the possibility of collective actions to the most paradoxical of all, the frequently cited Kožarić’s demand for a collective work with the imperative of making: “To make a collective cast in plaster of the interiors of all heads of Gorgona’s members; nobody can be excluded. To make, discretely, casts of the interiors of several important cars, apartments, trees, a park, etc. Briefly, of all important hollows in our city.” For the collective work he proposed a paradox, reversed into the world of negative – the hollow – but also, allusively, the subjective words of interiority. That category of withdrawing inside, into the non-presentable world of human subjectivity, would be expressed in his seminal, typically Gorgonic artwork Internal Eyes, while another, much later experience of internalization would be noted down during his visit to Kožarić’s atelier in Medulićeva Street. In the second issue of Postgorgona from 1985, Radoslav Putar recalled that, upon seeing Kožarić’s unfinished self-portrait in the chaos of his atelier, in which he noticed the absence of all physical likeness, he became personally convinced that Kožarić’s procedure was radically new: he did not use his external eyes, with the help of a photograph or a mirror; instead, he gazed at his head, observing and perceiving it – on the inside. “It is the gaze or the sight that we use – when we close our eyes...!” as Putar wrote. What he experienced there was truly an aura – a concentrated gaze that was returned, in terms of here and now, with recognition.
It is interesting that, especially considering Benjamin’s essay in which he analyzed Baudelaire’s opus, there was actually no tragic finale when speaking about aura. Even though losing power in that classical notion of emanating from the original, it actually did not disappear, but reappeared in other, unexpected ways. The distance that made it possible (since we see the halo only if we are far enough from the object) was diminishing and becoming paler, yet it also resurrected. “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception”, wrote Benjamin.
Gorgon’s gaze will, on the one hand, produce a petrifying metaphysical view, desolate rocky landscapes and coastlines with dead seagulls such as those by Miljenko Horvat, the deaf and dark surfaces of Seder’s paintings, the overturned undertaker’s wagon of Ivica Čižmek... Gorgon’s gaze is also there in the persistent flow of Knifer’s meander, always identical and always different, as well as in Jevšovar’s artistic handwriting in search of an ideal form that will tolerate imperfection and error; and also in the famous sentence by Kožarić: Art is always something else or Art is always evasive. They reminds us of Benjamin’s later concept of aura, in which he no longer discussed primarily the relationship between the emanating original and the copy with a weakened aura, but rather the contemporary distracted perception, in which the aura was no longer fixed, as in the depictions of saints, but appeared as a reflection, an echo, or a shadow; or poetically speaking, as love, as Benjamin said, not at the first glance, but at the last one.
In this light we can also understand a recent artwork by Tomo Savić Gecan, who expressed his homage to Gorgona through flashes of mirrors, which appeared at unexpected places in the gallery. These mirrors were made according to the original dimensions of glass panes in the Gallery’s windows, in the framing studio Shira or the so-called Studio G, where Gorgona’s members used to organize their unconventional exhibitions in the early 1960s. One may also find an answer to the question “why mirrors?” in Nena Dimitrijević’s reflection on Gorgona, according to which the group was defined precisely as a reflection, recognizing their figure in mirrors that were very distant in terms of time and space – from the classical thoughts on painting as a reserved and refined act, in search of the most neutral colour and form possible, to the entire treasury of thoughts that were exchanged in correspondence between artists and thinkers who had created the preconditions for the radically new experiences and perceptions of art. Nena Dimitrijević has concluded: “These various referential planes were nevertheless intersecting in a common axis, which may be defined as the recognition of nihilism as an aesthetical category.” However, there might be a promise or a possibility alongside that nihilism, in terms of conquering the new territories of freedom.
In the optimistic aura of Kožarić’s Gorgona, that promise might sound as the sentence that can be found on his drawing sheets: “I don’t care whether I will ever do something, but I do care about still being at it!”
Radmila Iva Janković
Lecture held on 25 April 2011 in Multimedia Room Gorgona at the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, within the “Reflections on Gorgona” programme, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Gorgona anti-magazine.