An Attempt on the Veil of Aesthetics:
Sigurður Guðjónsson’s 2012 Video Work Prelude in the Light of Myth and Aesthetics
A naked man grapples with an unwieldy, invisible, and indeterminate object in the confined space of an unidentified room, which opens onto other rooms through a lone door and is fenced off in the foreground by horizontal strings, strings that form, along with an unidentified pendulum, the frame of this black-and-white motion picture, which in turn opens onto the darkened gallery space and becomes a kind of extension of it, into another world. The grappling goes on in a repetitive manner until the body flags, but not to the point of complete surrender; the video vanishes into itself and its repetitions like the repeated strokes of the pendulum and their faint sound, which combined with the creaking wood floor are the resonance of this video, leading us into a world that words do not compass nor descriptions explain: What world is this that hails us here; what struggle is proceeding in this extension of the dim gallery space?
Though the gallery is a public artspace and calls for an “aesthetic judgment” of objects placed within it, we may allow ourselves the pleasure, for the moment at least, of letting the matter of “aesthetics” rest and venturing to lead our thoughts back before the time of aesthetics, to that time and existence that knew neither to distinguish the true from the beautiful or being from its manifestations, what is from what appears to be: i.e., to the world of myth.
The Vatican Museum in Rome preserves an old
stone cistern from about 160 C.E. that depicts in relief the punishments of
Sisyphus, Ixion, and Tantalus, three figures from Greek mythology who each met
a grim demise for having disrupted the divine and natural order that placed inviolable
limits on human existence. Of the three, Sisyphus, founder of Corinth, is best
known; he bound Thanatos, god of death, in chains and thereby halted mortal
traffic to the Underworld. When the gods had freed Thanatos from captivity and
cleared the traffic jam, Hades god of the underworld sentenced Sisyphus to roll
a heavy stone up a steep mountain slope forevermore.
Ixion, offspring of Ares the war god, is known in mythology for having contrived his father-in-law’s death to avoid the dowry payment. The first Olympian to fracture the familial sanctum with murder, Ixion was condemned to exile. Zeus pitied him, however, and allowed him onto Mount Olympus. There too Ixion transgressed, sexually harassing Zeus’s wife Hera, and was punished by being lured to have sex with a cloud that had assumed Hera´s shape. The offspring of Ixion and the cloud were the centaurs, half-man and half-beast. When Zeus had thus confirmed Ixion’s guilt, Ixion was sentenced to be bound to a burning wheel, to waft through the sky forevermore.
Tantalus, father of Pelops, was said to have killed his son and served him to the gods at a feast he held for them. As the first cannibal, his punishment in the underworld was to dwell forevermore in water, unable to quench his thirst, and below fruit-laden trees, unable to quell his hunger.
To our minds these myths are metaphors that testify to Greek and Roman understandings of universal divine and natural principles and fit punishment for the hubris of defying them. The sentences are cruel in that they are endless and therefore preclude reprieve or fulfillment. For some reason I connected the Roman relief illustrating these punishments to Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work Prelude. Perhaps it was Sisyphus who brought the image to mind; some tie existed between his story and the story in the video. My question might then be: Can we view Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video image as a metaphor, allegory, or form of myth that depicts one thing and says another? What distinguishes Prelude from pure mythology?
Romans and Greeks who made images of Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers did not know how to render an “aesthetic judgment” of their torments; images showing the punishment of Sisyphus referred to unerring natural principles that applied equally to everyone irrespective of aesthetic or taste, irrespective of education or social status. Myth is beyond all aesthetic measures. It concerns familiar, basic aspects of each person’s life. Does the title Prelude—precursor, forerunner—perhaps point back toward the time and thought that reigned before aesthetics and “disinterested taste” came on the scene? With the advent of those ideas a certain gap formed between the viewer and the artist’s primary subjective experience of truth. Such a rift occurred in the 18th century, with the emergence of a branch of theory that specialized in the beautiful in and of itself and the emergence of the gallery and art museum as social and institutional settings and mediators of the beautiful; both developments were based on the idea of the artist’s free and subjective creativity on the one hand and on the viewer’s disinterested taste for beauty on the other. Still today, art institutions presuppose for us an aesthetic frame around their holdings, on the basis of that impartial taste and disinterested pleasure that Kant saw as the measure of the beautiful. Mythological truth, by contrast, does not require the aesthetic mediation of a gallery or museum; it is part, and offspring, of nature itself.
The German philosopher Hegel recognized the profound implications of this shift, which he tied to early 19th-century Romantic ideals of freedom, among other things. His analysis of this shift still has remarkable contemporary relevance. He writes:
In our day, in the case of almost all peoples, criticism, the cultivation of reflection, and, in our German case, freedom of thought have mastered the artists too, and have made them, so to say, a tabula rasa in respect of the material and the form of their productions, after the necessary particular stages of the romantic art-form have been traversed. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension. No content, no form is any longer immediately identical with the inwardness, the nature, the unconscious substantial essence of the artist; every material may be indifferent to him if only it does not contradict the formal law of being simply beautiful and capable of artistic treatment. Today there is no material which stands in and for itself above this relativity, and even if one matter be raised above it, still there is at least no absolute need for its representation by art.
As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out, the shift that Hegel is discussing here is too far-reaching to simply be dismissed as past history:
[O]nce the creative subjectivity of the artist begins to place itself above his material and his production, like a playwright who freely puts his characters on the scene, this shared concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth. Everything that the spectator can still find in the work of art is, now, mediated by aesthetic representation [italics added], which is itself, independently of any content, the supreme value and the most intimate truth that unfolds its power in the artwork itself and starting from the artwork itself. The free creative principle of the artist rises up like a precious veil of Maya between the spectator and such truth as he can attain in the work of art, a veil of which he will never be able to take possession concretely, but only through the reflection in the magic mirror of his taste.
Thus the difference between the Roman image of Sisyphus and the video work Prelude is that while Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers teach us immutable natural laws native to all flesh and bone, in the video work there are no principles to be found that do not enjoy the protection of the opaque veil of aesthetics, which Agamben likens to the clothing in Goya‘s painting Clothed Maya, which forever impedes our getting a sense of Maya´s flesh. Aesthetics has thus turned truth into a matter of taste within “pure Culture,” as Agamben puts it, whereby viewers see their own Selves as Other, their own subjective beings as abstracted beings. No defined content or concrete measure of personal being are discoverable in the work, only the perfect alienation of the self. Viewers have no way to approach the work but through this alienation, says Agamben. The original unity of the work has been fractured, since on the one hand we have aesthetic judgment and on the other hand the artist’s subjective creative principles, without specified content.
Is, then, the truth of the artwork Prelude to be found precisely in this rift? Doesn’t the work indicate this rift? On the one hand we have the staged subjective being of the artist, without defined content, the pure and free principles of the created work. On the other hand we have the viewer who contemplates the work through the veil of taste that the museum has already created for him. Both seek some primary truth, but there is an impenetrable wall between them.
When one considers that the naked man in Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work is Guðjónsson himself, this aesthetic chasm between artist and viewer nears the point of pathos. The artist’s staged grappling with an indeterminate obstacle does not achieve full meaning until the work is in place in the gallery and the viewer arrives on the scene. Then the nakedness is no longer naked, but rather hidden by Maya´s æsthetical veil; the grappling is a show in the gallery proscenium and as soon as the viewer enters the room he is caught in the magic mirror of taste, which has no set premises, least of all within himself, no common values of “beauty” or of the particular quality an object must possess to earn the status of art. Though one may say that Prelude is well-composed from a formal standpoint, that each part serves the whole, and that the general impression is “strong,” this sheds little light for us, let alone on ourselves. Here aesthetics ring false. If the artwork’s content is not contained in its form, then what does the artwork say? How can we find words for the event that occurs when we enter the room? The ready conclusion is that here we witness the artist grappling at the cage of aesthetics in which the whole art world has locked him.
The artist’s struggle with the work of creation was different in nature in Greek and Roman days. The artist was primarily the tool of natural forces; his truth was their truth. Perhaps this began to change with the advent of the Renaissance and humanism.
Dürer’s renowned masterpiece Melancholia (Melencolia 1), from 1514, is interpreted by most as an allegory of the artist’s existential predicament, the predicament concealed in all artistic creation. Dürer relies here on a well-known imaginary allegorical framework, in which reasonably familiar objects and phenomena from the world of alchemy, arcana, and hermetic science frame the existential situation dictated by unshakeable natural principles or, in the worldview of Dürer’s times, the will of the Christian god, to which humanity was obliged to submit, so that its own creative work would correspond in every way to the primordial act of creation. The artist was to recreate the world. There is no call here to analyze the many allusions to hermetic science imbedded in Dürer’s picture; it suffices to point out that we need no “aesthetic” to receive those messages. For Dürer scarcely would have understood the meaning of the word, any more than ideas of “common taste” or “disinterested pleasure.” The story of the path to the philosopher’s stone through the martyrdom of matter, through cosmic darkness and up the ladder to the eternal light of truth, is told here in a masterful way via allegorical code. Can Dürer’s Melancholia provide a clue to the hidden message of the naked man in the video Prelude?
If we view Dürer’s Melancholia and Prelude as parallels insofar as each work depicts in its way the existential situation of the artist at creative work, the question arises: what distinguishes the two? In what aspects does Dürer’s presentation differ from that of the video, and what can we glean from that? Most obvious is the technical difference: one image has sound and motion; the other is still and silent. For our purposes, that difference is perhaps not key. What is more important is that while Dürer uses an imagined personification of melancholy as his proxy, in Prelude the author himself is alone and naked in the lead role.
Here it may be instructive to consult the figurative language shaped by Friedrich Nietzsche in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he portrays the Apollonian and Dionysian as two opposite and coactive poles of Greek tragedy, a notion which would shape all his subsequent philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the polar opposites of Apollonian and Dionysian wisdom also stood for appearance and being: the fixed image (apparent in sculpture) and the fluid chaos and volatility of pain and pleasure (apparent in music). Nietzsche sees these powers grappling in all the arts, the Apollonian masking the underlying pain and chaos. If we compare the two works by Dürer and Guðjónsson in light of the hypothesis that they both portray the existential situation of the creative artist, then in Dürer’s work Dionysian chaos is hidden under many layers of Apollonian masks, all the symbols of hermetic science, the feminine persona of Melancholy, Hermes disguised as angel child, the curled dog, the bat, the millstone, the black sun, and Athanorum itself, the tower that conceals the alchemical forge with its simmering flames. These facets (and others that fill out the visual narration) all play the role of the mask that tragedy employs to hide the pain and chaos simmering below, which are, according to Nietzsche, the essential content of melancholy and of Dionysian tragedy. Sigurður Guðjónsson makes a conscious attempt in this work to throw off all Apollonian masks, to approach the Dionysian core—but can’t get all the way: he is locked in the cage of aesthetics that bars him from both the viewer and himself, in a work that we may understand as an attempt on Apollonian aesthetics as such, or in Nietzsche´s words from The Birth of Tragedy:
The Apollonian illusion reveals its identity as the veil thrown over the Dionysiac meanings for the duration of the play, and yet the illusion is so potent that at its close the Apollonian drama is projected into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysiac wisdom, thereby denying itself and its Apollonian concreteness. The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolized by a fraternal union between the two deities; Dionysos speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, transl. T. M. Knox, Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1998, vol. 1, “The Romantic Form of Art,” p. 605.
 Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (1994), transl. by Georgia Albert, Stanford, California (Stanford University Press), 1999, pp. 36-37.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
(1872), ch. XXI, transl. by Francis Golffing, New York (Doubleday), 1956, p.
Ólafur Gíslason, 2012