Vanishing Fiction 2017/18

Vanishing Fiction, 2018

Films’ Rhythms Remediated (text from catalogue of exibition Vanishing Fiction, U10 Art Space, 2018)

Author of the text: Stefan Vuković 

Besides their flat, smooth surfaces devoid of obvious brushstrokes or hints of the artist’s hand, along with their nonhierarchical, mathematically regular compositions, often based on a grid, as well as their reduced palettes and geometric shapes or lines, one of the major characteristics of the paradigmatic minimalist paintings is that they not only address, but even tempt to fully isolate the phenomenological basis of the viewer’s experience, and focus it onto a pure self-referential form. The composition and the structure of the minimalist painting is to be perceived as it appears to the viewer, by solely visually engaging with it, without looking for any reference beyond its literal presence. That means, no representation, no artist’s biography, no emotional or energy-filled content (be it abstract or not), no social agendas, and no visible trace of the process that brought them into existence. As Ad Reinhardt wrote in the golden age of minimalism, back in 1962, in such works there should be no traces of typical abstract expressionist ‘gymnastics or dancing over painting or spilling or flipping paint around’. Later on, in his most radical phase, he has even formulated the Twelve Technical Rules, in which he has extended those restrictions even further, to include: no texture, no brushwork or calligraphy, no forms, no design, no colors, no light, no space, no time, no size or scale, no movement, no object, no subject, no matter, no symbols, images, or signs, neither pleasure nor paint, no mindless working or mindless non-working, and even no chess-playing (which was the obvious reference to Duchamp). Minimalists were always obsessed with cutting whatever might influence viewers’ pure experience of gestalt, but the trends of neo-minimalism that are actual today are less radical than the historical ones. They only insist on the reduction of the language of painting, and on maintaining the essentials.

Even though this series of paintings appears to be “a continuation of the practice of abstract and minimal art”, as Nemanja Nikolić himself has previously stated in his reflections on his works presented at the exhibition titled Samples of the Liquid Book, his inspiration for them came from “the avant-garde practice of Yugoslav artists with a focus on experimental research in the field of moving images”. In that respect, he has pointed to the film director and visual artist Slobodan Šijan, and two of his drawings – diagrams from 1974, titled In the rhythm of Howard Hawks (1974) and In the rhythm of John Ford (1974), which he saw at the exhibition of his works Around Film, curated by Dejan Sretenović for the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, in 2009. Until then, during his studies at the department of Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade, Nemanja Nikolić has already made a stop-motion animation titled Insert, as a turning experiment to determine the referential frame of his future works, and Šijan’s exhibition has perhaps shown him that he was on the right track. Insert will later become part of Nemanja Nikolić’s short omnibus titled Inserts, with Insert II, and Marnie in the Insert. Quite similar to some of the works by Šijan, they were using films as resources both of visual content and of the patterns of its framing and showing movement. They were quoting scenes and the manners of their framing from: The Birds and Marnie by Alfred Hitchcock, Irma Vep by Olivier Assayez, Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper, Nosferatu by Friedrich W. Murnau, Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein by James Whale.

Nebojša Milenković has classified the mentioned works of Šijan into a category of “proto-conceptualist graphical-textual statements on film”, made to “synthesize his researches of cinema by other means, but also of coping with conceptual art”. Besides those two referred to by Nemanja Nikolić, Milenković has also listed another two, namely, In the Rhythm of Alfred Hitchcock, and In the Rhythm of Vincente Minnelli. His view of the roots of such artistic practice was that they came from “Šijan’s experience of watching movies” in a way that “instead of the content, the key becomes the inner experience of film”, which would mean the “inner rhythm, manner of filming, and development of the narrative, framing”. Šijan himself wrote that his intention with these works was to “make a note of the experience, of that inner echo of the film in us, which lasts, sometimes, as long as we last”. By that, he was stressing the complex web of relations between the rhythm of the filmic narration characteristic for the director that made the film he was relating his work to, and the rhythm of his visual artwork which has resulted out of the attempt to visualize the manner of crystallization of that rhythmic structure in deep layers of his memories. On the other hand, for Pavle Levi these works of Šijan’s present “an abstract matrix, a cinematographic Code of sorts”, which has to be decoded by the spectator. He borrows a term from Pasolini to call them Rythmeme, claiming even that “by endeavoring to activate some of Šijan’s Codes amid an array of everyday occurrences, the spectator would temporarily assume the task of ‘directing’ his life in the rhythm of Howard Hawks, John Ford, or Alfred Hitchcock”.

In order to fully grasp rhythms outside of his body, the rhythmanalyst, as he was described by Henri Lefebvre, has to rely on the experiences of his own rhythms. If we take Nemanja Nikolić to be a specific type of rhythmanalyst, at least when producing paintings in which he remediates feature films in respect to their rhythmic structure, then each of his works has to be seen as a condensation of three rhythmic structures into a single visual statement idiomatic to the media he uses for that. That means that the rhythms he discloses in those films are condensed with his own rhythms of watching them, and the rhythms of his construction of painted surfaces during the process of their production. The rhythmic structure of the filmic content is not simply displaced into the medium of painting, with all of its specific features, but also subjectivized on the way. Seen in that way, these painterly works appear to be at the same time quite subjective and particular, since they were resourced in very personal experiences, but also almost universally readable on the level of expression, due to their use of conventional pectoral codes. According to Lefebvre’s theory, to make possible that kind of impregnation of the objective signifying structures with subjective experiences during the process of transposing the filmic into painterly rhythms, one cannot rely solely on the subjective analytic reasoning of the characteristics of a specific rhythm, but “it is necessary to have been grasped by it”. That means that “one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration”, but always bearing in mind that “one only really understands the meanings and connections when one comes to produce them”. So even in order to really understand a cinematic work, it is not enough to sensorily experience it and cognitively grasp it, not even to convey a formal analysis of it, but one has to make a shift from what Roland Barthes called the readerly to the writerly mode of viewing it, by fully subjectivizing the rhythmical rendering of its narrative content, in order to rearticulate it and communicate it via some personal expression. One has to enter that specific world constructed by the film, and even become entirely lost in it, but with full awareness that one has to tell the story of that experience upon return. For an artist, that means also to crack the code, appropriate the rhythmic structure, and replicate it avoiding all those elements which are not substantial, producing as a result something phenomenologically and completely different. For a painter, that means also to find a way how to eliminate all media-specific features that shape those rhythmic structures, and to remediate them, sticking to what Georges Braque named as a painter’s task – to “constitute a pictorial event”.

It is important to stress that the view of therhythmanalysts treat film mainly as form, that is operative in various moving-image media and formats, not as a medium (or media, if one is also to make a distinction between digital and celluloid media). But, for Nemanja Nikolić, medium is also important. It is not enough to simply detect and extract, and then repeat in the painterly form those structural rhythms specific to, as Daniel Yacavone has described it, a “total, singular audiovisual structure created by a film’s maker(s)”. He also takes into consideration the specific technological, and representational features of both film and painting as media which became integral parts of what Gene Youngblood has described as “the intermedia network”. That network nowadays makes our immediate environment, as the basic “service environment that carries the messages of the social organism” and by that “it establishes meaning in life, creates mediating channels between man and man, man and society”. Nemanja Nikolić uses different media, but all his works are media specific, and when he combines, for instance, animation and drawing within an exhibition format, such as the Double Noir, presented at the 56th Belgrade October Salon, that is not aimed towards showing the manners in which one idea can be with equal effect realized in a variety of media. On the contrary, it is to show how much the choice of a medium dictates both the manner in which the work will be realized, and the experience of the viewer. The animated film and drawings in white chalk on a blackboard, which were exhibited on that show, were providing the audience with totally different aesthetic experiences, and have even induced totally different attitudes in them. That took place regardless of the fact that these two parts of the display have not only literary represented the same scenes from films, remediated by the same author in the same manner, but also that this animated film was made by stop-action animation, frame by frame photographing the content of the exhibited blackboards in succession. That is not just a matter of the difference between spatial and temporal montage, as distinguished by Lev Manovich in the The Language of New Media, but also of the manner in which their size and the position of their display, the texture of the background and the better visibility of the stroke made the drawings appear more expressive, and the animation more dynamic.

Remediation in the work of Nemanja Nikolić, since it fits the description of the process by which a newer medium is “absorbed by an older one”, would correspond to the parameters set by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, authors of the seminal book titled Remediation: Understanding New Media, situated within the category of retrograde. That subcategory of media appropriation was to challenge the logic of unidirectional causality set forth by Marshall McLuhan, whose claim that “the content of one medium is always another medium” was mainly interpreted as if only the newer forms of media could appropriate and surpass the older ones (as television has remediated both radio and film, while video has remediated television, etc.). The process of paying homage to, rivaling, and refashioning earlier media by the later ones is reversed in the case of retrograde remediation, of course with the risk of the earlier medium not being able to fully assimilate all aspects of the later, due to some of its practical/technological features. If someone is remediating time-based visual media, which is the case in the work of Nemanja Nikolić, obvious difficulties come up with how to transform the actual unfolding in time into an implied one, and how to show a film in the medium of painting. But, Richard Wollheim provided a theoretical solution for that problem. According to him, a work consisting of nothing more than layers of paint on a surface can be seen as film, making possible a wide scale of what Pavle Levi called “cinema by other means”. Wollheim has conceptually differentiated the notions of seeing-as, and seeing-in, to point to an ontological distinction between presenting to the audience a painting in which they could see remediated cinematic content, and presenting a painting as “cinema by other means”.

In relation to the ontology of artworks, it is crucial to take into account a distinction Nelson Goodman made in his Languages of Art, between what he called allographic and autographic arts, and the specific position of film in that respect. Goodman has stressed as an important feature of the art of painting that it produces “a solitary, easily identifiable physical object, located in both spatial and temporal dimensions” which are predominantly concluded as aesthetic objects before showing. That makes it autographic. On the other hand, music or theater, for instance, in the segment in which they are notational arts, imply a spatial and temporal separation between composition and performance, with the important role performance has, as a second stage in the realization of the work, in producing the specific aesthetic features of it for the audience. Since the performance shows also something else than itself, it brings the work into the domain of allographic. Film is not performed, but shown, and various instances of showing the same film do not differ as much as instances in performing a musical piece, although they are quite reliant on the equipment and the space in which the screening is taking place. Many experimental film and installation artists, in order to expand cinema as medium, have focused on the speed and size of the projection, the design of projection surfaces and devices, and of spaces in which the audience is experiencing the projection, as well as on multiple simultaneous or mixed projections, or projections reversed in time, showing at the same time the aleatory nature of the cinematic work, and the ways to make it more autographic by fixing certain parameters of showing. Other visual artists, such as Nemanja Nikolić, have stuck to the frame of a painting as film, focused on what Paul Klee already had called its structural rhythms, without expanding them into installations.

Trying to map the trajectories of cinema’s relocation from being fixed to celluloid film to be projected from in a movie theater, and analyze its actual unstable position of shifting through manifold new devices and through different contexts, Francesco Casetti has concluded that it “no longer has its own place, because it is everywhere, or at least everywhere where we are dealing with aesthetics and communication”. That has induced Pavle Levi to claim general cinefication of “reality at large being increasingly understood as a sort of ‘spontaneous’ cinema”, which he has dated back to Soviet avant-garde, and then even earlier, paradoxically going back even to the times before the invention of the cinematograph, as something that was yet “to come”. What the invention of the cinematograph did in fact change for him was that it made possible for cinema to be “understood as a metalanguage”. A lot of artists did refer to that metalanguage in their works, turning them into “cinema by other means”. For most of the critics, Nemanja Nikolić is one of them. Svetlana Montua has interpreted his work Double Noir as “a form of cinematography in its own right by articulating meaning in non-static movie time-space through the juxtaposition of images, sounds and movements”. Petar Jončić has classified his works in the series Panic Book as “drawing de-montages of Hitchcock’s films”, while Snežana Nikolić found his work titled Distant as based on the model derived from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. His personal standpoint just narrows these claims, insisting that his focus is “not on film narrative or story, but rather on the cinematic codes: frame, cut and rhythm of their mutual alteration”. In this specific set of works that can be, perhaps, condensed even more, into films’ rhythms remediated.