The Transferred Punctum

written by Jasna Jakšić

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The photograph has something tautological about it by nature, says Roland Barthes in his canonical work Camera Lucida. A pipe here is always a pipe. Several pages later, he notes that it always depicts someone or something. Nevertheless, research on media, perception and manipulation with photographic images, that are part of the history of photography from the early 20th century on, will broaden the field of what is presentable and perceivable through the camera lens.


The photograph has something tautological about it by nature, says Roland Barthes in his canonical work Camera Lucida. A pipe here is always a pipe. Several pages later, he notes that it always depicts someone or something. Nevertheless, research on media, perception and manipulation with photographic images, that are part of the history of photography from the early 20th century on, will broaden the field of what is pre­sentable and perceivable through the camera lens. The history of experimental photography is long and in it almost universal places are given to avant-garde explorations by authors such as Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The emancipation of photography from conventional reportage, portrait and docu­men­tary tasks became especially prominent in the 1960s when it turned into a ‘fellow-traveller’ of the new artistic media, especially that of performance art and land art, as well as a partaker in the turmoil which would lead to the separation of the term art from the traditionally perceived artistic object.


The annual exhibition by the Croatian Photographic Union has been mostly at the very peak of yearly exhibition activities in Zagreb for a number of years due to the excellent selection on the part of its curators, but also due to its unorthodox relation to the medium and its marginal areas. This rule was confirmed again this year with the authorial concept by Sandra Križić Roban, Irena Gessner and Ivana Hanaček, an exhibition with a rather long title. Although the exhibition was easy to pass through and observe, it was still difficult to walk away from it due to the abundance of information, texts and accom­panying contents. The conceptual framework of the exhibition ‘Zero Point of Meaning: Non-functional, Non-representatio­nal, Ele­mentary and Conceptual Photography in Croatia’ leaves the impression of being precisely defined by its subtitle. The two negative terms from the title additionally peel off any descrip­tive or narrative trace, and the reduction is underlined with terms related to artistic tendencies of the second half of the 20th century, singled out precisely because of their tautolo­gical discipline of language and image. On the other hand, terms from which stylistic features are generated, like ‘ele­men­tary’ and ‘conceptual,’ indicate trends and pro­cedures that break, with great publicity, with the medium as a de­di­cated field of artistic truth.


Nevertheless, the work that introduces the exhibition under the monumental dome of the Art Pavilion is a photographic installation by Edita Schubert, Horizons (1999), which, with its visual trap, determines move­ment within and around the circular space and uses photo­graphy merely as a material for the construction of perceptio­nal tentacles for what is observed and those who observe. Circular objects, set at the level of an adult person’s eyes, are made of a number of black and white photographs in which vistas are brought together, from little towns in Tuscany to Zagreb, Venice, Mainz, and the island of Vir. As we will establish on several occasions at the exhibition, the photographer and the author are not always the same person. So, in this case, the author is the person who unites the horizons of her own photographs and those of other people. To what extent does this work truly fulfil the expectations defined by the subtitle? It is not very likely that an analogue landscape photograph – and in this case its media aura is washed out by the processes of photocopying and plasticisation – is non-functional[1] be­cause it is an integral part of the object and installation itself. The scenery in the photographs and that which is created by observation and movement in the fictional total of the horizon are indeed different, so that their truth-bearing value is not only distorted, but also literally annulled by multiplication and manipulation. And the time of the work’s creation, at the very end of the 20th century, implies that the experience of ele­mentary and conceptual procedures in photography, also in the case of the author herself, is more present in some histo­rical perspective. Despite all this, the experience of Horizons and the corporeal experience of the closed horizon, on the outside and on the inside[2], physically, directly, more clearly than any text prepares visitors to abandon the idea of photo­graphy as a narrative or descriptive medium for presenting testimony, persons and landscape. Furthermore, the photo­graphy, apart from the mentioned non-functional, non-pre­sentational, elementary, and conceptual, also makes us aware of terms like generative, processual, non-representational and inadequate.[3]


According to Sandra Križić Roban, the starting point of research that places photography beyond the narrative and medium, in the flexible and unpredictable field of the experimental, is the photograph of an empty shop window in Vlaška Street in Zagreb. The shop window was opposite the then Studio cinema, and the photograph was taken by Pavao Cajzek in 1960 following instructions by Josip Vanište. One year later, this photograph would mark the activities of the proto-conceptual artistic group Gorgona,[4] but with a changed framing and dimensions that were adjusted to the format of a reproduced shop win­dow with second-hand items. One could also have found it in the first issue of the anti-magazine Gor­gona as its only theme. The presentable is reduced to empti­ness, an absence which is concretized through the solitary shop window and abandoned shelves. The authorship is, on the other hand, divided between the person who re­cog­nized the potential framing and created it, and the pho­tographer who pressed the shutter. Manipulation with the fra­ming, transition of the image from one medium into another, contents that do not make documentary record, that do not tell a story, that are not a testimony about something or that do not affirm the medium itself are features which this photograph entirely or partly shares with other photographic procedures and works present at the exhibition. Some thirty years later, in the war year of 1993, Slaven Tolj realized the work Interrupted Games with photographs taken by Boris Cvjetanović. The author in this case appropriates, conditionally speaking, or merely de­tects found scenery with the help of another person’s pho­tographic record: Cvjetanović takes a photograph of children at play and tennis ball that is stuck in the stone leaves on a pilaster capital in the northern wall of Dubrovnik Cathedral. This intervention, literally the con­sequen­ce of a game that left the town’s streets and squares at a certain moment, is expli­cated with a photographic pre­sentation that could have happe­ned before its creation and, composed in this manner, it is interpreted as a subsequent entry in the memory.


The largest portion of the exhibition consists of, as expected, works by authors who became re­cognized in the field of conceptual art, belonging to the period of the 1970s. In her introductory text, Sandra Križić Roban points out the New Photography project, a series of exhibitions dedicated to contemporary explorations in photography, organized as a collaboration between Razstavni Salon Rotovž in Maribor, the Contemporary Art Gallery in Zagreb and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. This project, with its four exhibitions (in 1973, 1976, 1980 and 1984), put the accent on photography used by authors who were not pho­tographers by profession or education. Also, they did not use it ‘in terms of questioning the medium itself, but used pho­tography as a means of a specific artistic expression’. The series of exhi­bitions, as well as the pages of the photography magazine SPOT, introduced some of most significant authors of con­ceptual and post-conceptual artistic practices in the Yugoslav cultural context of that time, recognizing and di­recting similar trends and explorations in the local commu­nity. In his essay ‘Photography as the Work of an Artist’, Jerko Denegri explains why photography, as expected, be­came in­volved in the circle of diverse procedures by means of which new artistic expressions were structured: due to ‘its capability to pre­sent directly, as well as due to its possibility of pure thought structuring’. Their span ranged from the appropria­tion of raw photographic material from the world of mass media which was executed by pop art and new realism in the 1960s, all the way to analysis and testing of artistic language for which the medium of photography proved to be exceptio­nally convenient. ‘Photo­graphy as a medium which is, more than others, capable of summarizing the essence of one specific idea mechanically and without distorted expression has become a more and more widespread means of trans­fer of these new formulations: because photography in itself is not ... an autonomous aesthe­tic object, but is always only an indicator or carrier of the course of a thought operation which, in fact, necessarily needs to present the foundation and nuc­leus of an artist’s concrete subjective approach.’[5] In the conclusion of her intro­ductory text, Sandra Križić Roban once again underlines the conceptual starting point of the new photography, but also says that in a certain way reality ‘had its identity taken away, and thematic presentations that are up to the standard are ideas about ‘non-functional’ photo­graphy which does not present or narrate’.[6] A voice, in the form of interviews which accompanied the majority of indi­vidual works in the display, was given to the artists themselves or, in exceptional cases, to authorized interpreters of their works. Nevertheless, the immediate form of the interview, which always carries a cer­tain dimension of testimony about the time and context along with commenting on attitudes about one’s own work, is mani­fested as a link to reality, as a narrative into which the punctum of non-representational, inadequate, non-functional photo­graphy is transferred.


Like the good spirits of the exhibition, the names of legendary photographer Tošo Dabac, as well as Radoslav Putar, Dimitrije Bašičević and Davor Matičević, curators of the Gallery of Contemporary Art, run through the artists’ interviews. The atelier of Tošo Dabas in which authors Petar Dabac and Enes Midžić formed themselves, was the gathering point of Zagreb’s intellectual and visual arts scene of that time. On the other hand, much credit goes to Putar and Bašičević, along with Marijan Susovski, Božo Bek, and Davor Matičević, for recog­nizing, promoting, and insti­tutio­nalizing new artistic practices, in other words, the gene­ration of conceptual artists who entered the scene in the 1970s.


In his touching, sincere, and hu­morous text, Željko Jerman expresses his gratitude to Radoslav Putar for giving him the chance to participate in exhibitions and to be involved in art, while Ivan Posavec (who would later become one of the most important chroniclers of social and political life in Croatia) states that Bašičević gave him ‘good engines’. The photographic opus of Željko Jerman is related to the term ‘elementary pho­tography’ – a dramatic trace of body or gesture is inscribed on photographic paper without the mediation of camera and lenses. Afterwards, he created photoimages by applying chemi­cals directly to the photographic paper. Other authors, those who are also incli­ned to experimenting with photographic inscription, talk of their interest in the material and non-representational in the photographic procedure. Goran Trbu­ljak mentions that he exhibited a series of films which re­mained negatives: ‘On these films wind, air, etc are recorded; something that is elusive photographically and visually. There­fore, the idea was anyway never to make photographs from these negatives.’[7] On the other hand, Petar Dabac recalls a paper box he got from someone and developed, although he assumed that the film had been exposed to light. Dabac’s ‘Photograms’ (before 1975) were created, he says, incidentally: a negative, which was supposed to be rerecorded, accidentally remained in the ca­mera and this tur­ned to be the trigger for exploration and play. Enes Midžić, on the other hand, experimented with already taken photo­graphs in the procedure of developing and appli­cation of the very photograph, making interactive pho­to­graphic books and objects out of them. As someone who mo­tivated him to expe­ri­mentation and exploration, he men­tions Tošo Dabac, but also Ivan Picelj and Mihajlo Arsovski. Radical research of that time was brought to the absurd by Mladen Stilinović in his artistic book 100% Photography of 1975, by offering merely a frame. A picture no longer requires a medium; a determiner/frame was sufficient to install it.


Sequential works by To­mislav Gotovac and Ivan Faktor trans­ferred photography clo­ser to the medium of moving pictures, film, and television. Gotovac’s series of self-portraits, Heads 1960 (1960), came into being out of the impossibility of ma­king a film and here references to film history remained, in simu­lation of sequences as well as in direct allusions to film classics (Dreyer’s film Jeanne D’Arc, Godard’s My Life to Live). Faktor’s The First Programme (1980) transfers the image which shows up on the TV screen after daily programming ends – ‘snow’ – into a photographic medium, but mediated by film tape. The diffe­rence in inscription of an image in different media is res­pon­sible for visual noise, in other words, for the tape that is placed in the centre of the screen. The series of four recordings indi­cate the film origin of the experi­ment, and the work executed in this format seemingly summa­rizes a journey back into the history of mass media: from television, via film, to photography.


The work by Sandro Đukić loses its readability in the immeasurability of obsessive classification: 005_018_VANISHING BOOK-2001 reduces the content of digital photo­graphy to mere metadata, deleting the image from it. It is not necessary to stress that this remainder of digital photography is exposed to being printed, bound into a book in order to reduce the search to mere incidence. The possibility of mani­pulating digital photography is used by Vlatka Horvat, and so her Horizon (2009) is repre­sented by a perfectly joined line, made of just one photograph: the result is so precise that the recorded landscape disappears and surrenders domination to the Möbius strip that makes the joined work. In the end, an elegiac record by Davor San­vincenti is a dedication to all taken-over images, all borrowed old cameras, all blurred contents – recorded with an over-eighty-year-old camera on film past its expiry date, the ana­logue medium made visible merely the very aura of the work of art in the distorted and unpredictable process of technical reproduction.


The flexible and terminologically open con­cept, based on negation of the convenient tasks and functions of photography, is sufficiently broad to include most artistic trends from the late 1960s onwards, as well as the activities of more recent generations. As it poses a number of questions about the photographic image and its position today, in view of the experimental heritage of earlier years, the announce­ment is most welcome that the next issue of the magazine Life of Art will be dedicated to research, and one phase of it is represented by the exhibition ‘Zero Point of Meaning’, and that the valuable interviews with authors will be published there. Finally, as much as it is dense in terms of concept and abundant in terms of notion, the exhibition is easy to walk through and observe in terms of display, and this is thanks to the successful work by the studio Dva plus. However, the interpretational material was not reduced to ease the visitor’s passage through the exhibition – all the works are accom­panied by authors’ interviews placed in discrete wooden boxes, the exhibition display also included a small reading room, and the very entrance included video documentation (perhaps only the one within the display posed a test for the curiosity and will power of the observer).


The story of the exhibition ‘Zero Point of Meaning’ unravels between strict land art expe­riments by Marijan Molnar in which photography unites the function of both the medium and means of executing a work, and even­tually its documentation, as well as the cycle Scenes Without Significance by Boris Cvjetanović. In the latter, the meaning flows between the absent significance and scenery emptied of contents, and in their spirit they are close to the famous Polaroid by Daniel Boudinet, of which Barthes’ Camera Lucida speaks, but without mentioning it. In spite of the sig­nificant historical and artistic segment, as well as esta­blishing and detecting continuity and heritage, this exhibition, more than classifies, determines in terms of style and reveals star­ting points as well as later development; it brings to light one of layers in which, free from narrative, style and media res­ponsi­­bi­lity, the zero point of meaning is defined and ins­cribed.


[1]  Non-functional, the term that Sandra Križić Roban took from the text by Annie Le Brun about the photographer Petar Dabac and further developed, is related to a photograph ‘that has no desire to represent anything, that does not tell a story or express an attitude’ and independently from the interpretation Dabac would provide later in an interview with Ivana Hanaček. According to the words of the photographer himself, the term has its starting point in his statement that he does not like the misuse of photography in fashion, design, politics... See Sandra Križić Roban, At Second Sight, Institute for History of Art, Zagreb, 2010, p 34 and the interview with Petar Dabac by Sandra Križić Roban and Ivana Hanaček in February 2011 ‘Zero Point of Meaning: Non-functional, Non-representational, Elementary and Conceptual Photography in Croatia’ in Life of Art, 89/2011 (in preparation).


[2]  ‘Schubert’s Horizons, among other, represents literally two faces of the act of vision. However, what is the inside and what is the outside? An axis or hoop? A glance or movement?’ Leonida Kovač, Edita Schubert, Horetzky, Zagreb, 2001, p 227.


[3]  From the introductory text by Irena Gessner and Ivana Hanaček ‘Zero Point of Meaning: Non-functional, Non-representational, Elementary, and Conceptual Photography in Croatia,’ in Life of Art, 89/2011 (in preparation).


[4]  Nine reproductions of this photograph were the only theme in the first issue of the anti-magazine Gorgona, one of the products of the group’s activities. Their work was, until the exhibition held in the then Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1977 and a text by Nena Dimitrijević, known only within a narrow circle of the informed.


[5]  Jerko Denegri, ‘Photography as the Work of an Artist’, The New Photography 2, p 7; Centre for Photography, Film and Television, City of Zagreb Gallery, 1976.


[6]  From the introductory text by Sandra Križić Roban, ‘Zero Point of Meaning: Non-functional, Non-representational, Elementary, and Conceptual Photography in Croatia’, Life of Art, 89/2011 (in preparation).


[7]  From Goran Trbuljak’s conversation with Ivana Hanaček and Sandra Križić Roban in February 2011, ‘Zero Point of Meaning: Non-functional, Non-representational, Elementary, and Conceptual Photography in Croatia,’ Life of Art, 89/2011 (in preparation).