Leon Manoloudakis






The World In Which We Live

The exuberant image production of the present, fueled by the revolution of smartphone technology, as well as the ubiquity of the Internet, stands like a wall between us and reality. As a technology of narcissism, it prevents us from seeing the beauty of a tree or the poverty in our neighborhood. It clouds our vision and points to a fundamental problem of human perception. That we perceive the world in a distorted way. In this case, an ethical image production must stop making an image of the world and give reality more space to show itself. Only how can such an image production look like? And what would be its ethical content?

A key to clarifying this question seems to me to be the concept of the sublime (gr.:das Erhabene). For Kant, the sublime is that which transcends our view of the world, our power of imagination. Accordingly, the sublime is intangible and new methods are needed to approach the immeasurable. Kant argues that man is part of nature. Moreover, he has been given the gift of reflection and reason. That means that what remains hidden from his view can at least be concretized mentally. Thereby he can approach a size like nature, God etc. at least in the thinking, as "spirit feeling" (gr.: Geistesgefühl). This presentiment of a greatness surpassing all measures would make us tremble inwardly.

Here the concept of mimesis, i.e. an empathic process of approach, plays a decisive role. For man, despite his special status, is a part of nature, he carries nature within himself. Therefore, he has the gift to empathize with nature. However, this relationship of man to nature is still determined by a relationship of domination. By claiming that man can at least grasp the reality of nature as an idea, Kant potentially makes nature the object of his claim to form. This is the starting point of a dialectic of enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer) that successively subjects nature to the rule of an instrumental reason. This is where Adorno starts. Although he criticizes the relationship of domination latently expressed in Kant, he emphasizes that Kant would at least have made clear that man is a part of nature and thus also carries nature within himself. In this context, he speaks of the "naturalness" (gr.: Naturhaftigkeit) of man.* Adorno is concerned with thinking the concept of the sublime detached from the subject's claim to dominion. A dialectic of subject and object dissolves the one-sided claim to domination and makes clear that man and nature, artist and work of art are not oppositions, but two sides of the same coin. Mastery of nature inevitably leads to subjection to an instrumental concept of reason, both of the subject and the object. The sublime at least shows the entanglement of this relationship of power and domination and lets something like reconciliation shine on at the horizon. Referring back to the artistic production of images, he proclaims an art that does not use the pictorial means as a means to an end, but let them speak for themselves.

The French philosopher Lyotard also understands the sublime as a central category of contemporary image production. Based on Adorno's reflections, he defines the sublime as a sphere in which the unrepresentable, the incommunicable, that which defies logical rationality, would find a place. It should be emphasized that his concept of the sublime is not about the representation of the unrepresentable, but about the experience that no representation is sufficient, final, definitive. One can only allude to the unrepresentable and make one feel the impossibility of its representation. Works of art of this kind would thus show something by not showing it. The work of art would therefore complete itself, if at all, in the mind of the viewer. Thus, the reference to the sublime loses the false pathos that was still attached to the sublime until modernism.**  for it would not be about the representation of the absolute, the true, the beautiful, the great par excellence, but of the outlawed, the degenerate, the irrational, of everything that the process of rationalization has repressed into the unconscious. Lyotard sees the potential of the sublime above all in the art of abstraction.

It is, of course, questionable whether this is actually the case. For the language of abstraction has become a popular stylistic device today, largely freed from its avant-garde potentials and origins, as well as from its claim to be a means of visual emancipation. If abstraction today still makes a general statement, it is that of emptiness and weariness. What was once intended as a radical refusal of images to point to the invisible or transcendent has today become a pleasing stylistic device of the mainstream. The idea of the tabula rasa has become an old shoe that pinches. Does this mean that the visual language of abstraction must be abandoned?

A contemporary image production would have to take this fact into account. It would have to point out the dilemma and show ways to break the deadlock. I have made the claim that we could save ourselves most of the prevailing image production, because it is already part of the problem. For many artists, the prevailing image production is not oriented to the question of urgency or necessity, but to survival in the art market. Because the latter has a considerable share in this crisis. 

We need an image production that again defines a place of resistance and that honestly deals with itself. We don't need more images, but fewer and better ones. Images that oppose the tendency to forget and appease and are characterized by a refusal of the existing. That would be an ethical claim that I would tie to an abstract visual language.

Artistic image production is not created in an ivory tower. It takes place in the world in which we live. This world has been in a constantly worsening crisis since the Enlightenment. The background of this crisis is what Adorno and Horkheimer described as the dialectic of enlightenment. The spearhead of this crisis is climate change. This threatens the livelihood of humanity as a whole. An ethical production of images must take this fact into account. For me as a visual artist, consciously turning to the category of the sublime is a way of putting these processes into the picture. But not as a nostalgic review of what has already been formulated, or as a content-aesthetic illustration, but as a conscious breaking through the standstill of our social condition, in that our political actors repeatedly use the mantra "There is no alternative" in order not to have to change anything. The unfinishable potentials of the sublime could be the realm in which resistance to the existing could be generated and alternatives could be formulated. 

Art, by its very nature, is an instrument of enlightenment. It is not there to please, but to awaken, to make thoughtful, to motivate to actions that are oriented to the requirements of the time. The sublime draws its relevance precisely from this fact: by freeing us from the selectivity of our perception and our destructive self-centeredness, and by giving us a sense that the real (Lacan)  has already begun to break through the fractures of our media realities.

* „Weniger wird der Geist, wie Kant es möchte, vor der Natur seiner eigenen Superiorität gewahr als seiner Naturhaftigkeit. Dieser Augenblick bewegt das Subjekt vorm Erhabenen zum Weinen. Eingedenken der Natur löst den Trotz seiner Selbstsetzung: »Die Träne quillt, die Erde hat mich wieder!« Darin tritt das Ich, geistig, aus der Gefangenschaft in sich selbst heraus.“  Theodor W. Adorno: Ästhetische Theorie. Gesammelte Schriften, Band 7, Frankfurt am Main 1970, S. 410.

** Wolfgang Welsch, Ästhetisches Denken, Die Geburt der postmodernen Philosophie, d) Experiment, Reclam 1990 , Seite 90-91

My Work

“Die Arbeit an der Philosophie ist - wie vielfach die Arbeit in der Architektur eigentlich mehr die Arbeit an einem selbst. An der eignen Auffassung. Daran, wie man die Dinge sieht. (Und was man von ihnen verlangt).”*

The reason for my own work resembles a blind spot. Maybe because talking about one's own doing is something completely different than doing it. When I go to the studio, I (almost) always know what to do. Of course, conditions have to be met: For example, I have to go to the studio regularly. My head must also be free of everyday questions. But actually there is always something waiting there that needs to be done: Graphite must be applied, removed again, details must be reworked, others added or erased. Decisions have to be made. The opposite is also true: decisions have to be reversed when a job turns out to be short-lived. Doubt is my constant companion. That much I can say.

It is easier for me to talk about what I don't want: Starting from a content, from a prefabricated concept. My radical self-limitation to paper and graphite as a medium of expression can perhaps be seen as an answer to this empty space in content. The material asks, I try to answer. I snuggle up to the material, try to let it speak in its diversity. This may sound a little like the discourse of painting in the fifties and sixties. But I actually believe that there are timeless values in art. And the realization that a work of art consists of material and that the artist makes this material speak in a peculiar way is such a timeless value. Of course, one could also turn the tables and claim that the material makes the artist speak. Then he would perhaps speak of the impossibility of creating new images. As justified as this question is, it shall be left aside here for the time being. 

Accompanying my work in the studio, I read, write, as I do now (sometimes I do nothing at all). I do this to get clarity. Because actually artistic work is also a work on oneself and a confrontation with the present in which one lives. 

I would describe myself as a political person, although I do not see my work as a political contribution to the present. Or maybe it is, but then in a subtle way (just as Bartleby made a critical contribution to life on Wall Street). My work is like a house that gives me security and meaning. It's something I can rely on, and that seems to me to be a high value in a time marked by a loss of meaning. I am also a religious person, without being able to say exactly why. Perhaps the search for meaning in my work is the deepest expression of this belief.

There is a kind of background noise that accompanies my work. This background noise is the present, the hectic life and events in the world, which reach me through newspaper reports and non-fiction, and do not leave me untouched. This also concerns the events that have already happened and those that we can imagine could happen at some point. But I do not want to use my work to comment on these (impersonal) events. Rather my work gives me the opportunity to take a step back. Maybe this work is also a form of meditation, but a meditation without escapism. An attempt not to lose myself and a strategy to evade the common postulates of usefulness. 

For me it makes no sense to compete with reality. Art confronts reality. It does not reproduce, but builds up a distance. Therein lies the value of artistic image production. That it counters the real events with resistance.

Philosophical issues are another topic. But in the end, my own work should not become an expression of conceptual considerations, such as whether art is closer to truth than language. Art is a language of its own and my work is for me an enigmatic matter that eludes linguistic penetration. 

In a more general sense my works are a reflection of my thoughts, but in a materialized form. A thinking in dialogue with paper, with graphite, with my hands and tools.  My work is a good conversational partner, a patient listener but also an instance that holds a mirror up to me. For example, my works show me very clearly when I make a mistake, or when I act like an asshole.

It is difficult for me to speak directly about my work. I avoid giving clear interpretations because I believe it should be up to the viewer to form their own opinion. Art speaks to us in a secret language. As provisional as my work is, my reflection on what I do can be seen as a suggestion, an attempt to get clarity about the meaning and purpose of creating artistic images today.

*quoted after Ludwig Wittgenstein. Mixed remarks. A selection from the estate. Edited by Georg Henrik von Wright with collaboration by Heikki Nyman. New edition of the text by Alois Pichler. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994, p. 52.

Diese Ordnung ist nicht so fest, wie sie sich gibt; kein Ding, kein Ich, keine Form, kein Grundsatz sind sicher, alles ist in einer unsichtbaren, aber niemals ruhenden Wandlung begriffen, im Unfesten liegt mehr von der Zukunft, als im Festen, und die Gegenwart ist nichts als eine Hypothese, über die man noch nicht hinausgekommen ist.“*

* Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities".

Konstruktion und Mimesis*

Ein Kennzeichen der zeitgenössischen Kunst ist ihr Hang, aus dem Umgang mit einem besonderen Material, eigene Regeln abzuleiten und aus der daraus resultierenden Logik eigene Maßstäbe zu etablieren. Adorno spricht in diesem Zusammenhang von der Konstruktion, also davon, wie das Kunstwerk gemacht ist.

Dem Material, und wie damit gearbeitet wird, kommt bei der Genese des Kunstwerks eine besondere Bedeutung zu. Es ist nicht nur bloßes Material, sondern auch definiert durch die Art und Weise, wie es bisher in der Kunst oder Kulturgeschichte im allgemeinen verwendet worden ist. Denn darin drückt sich eine historische Relation oder ein weltanschauliches, herrschaftliches Konzept aus. Beispielsweise unterliegt der Tonstoff der Musik einer historischen Entwicklung, die grob in verschiedene Epochen unterteilt werden kann, die wiederum von unterschiedlichen weltanschaulichen Momenten gekennzeichnet sind. Renaissance, Barock, Aufklärung benutzen das gleiche Tonmaterial auf je andere Art und Weise. Auch in der Moderne ändert sich dieses Verhältnis des Künstlers zum Tonstoff oder künstlerischem Material 

Der Begriff der Konstruktion trägt diesem Sachverhalt Rechnung. Entscheidend für Adorno ist, dass die Konstruktion nur gelingen kann, wenn sie sich den zugrundeliegenden sinnlichen Impulsen sowohl des Subjekts wie auch des Materials mimetisch anschmiegt. Dieser Prozess des Anschmiegens ist definiert durch eine „Verabschiedung des herrschaftlichen Gestus gegenüber dem Material“*, wie es in früheren Epochen vorherrschend gewesen ist, und eine „konsequente Hinwendung zu dessen Eigentendenzen“*.

Die Suspension des herrschaftlichen Gestus wird nach Adorno zu einem der Markenzeichen der Moderne. Anstelle von Beherrschung tritt Mimesis. Kunst bringt damit die Hoffnung einer von instrumenteller Logik befreiten Gesellschaft und Natur zum Ausdruck.

* Wolfgang Welsch, Adornos Ästhetik: eine implizite Ästhetik des Erhabenen, III Adorno, Lyotard und Ästhetik heute, 2. Ästhetik heute, Seite 208. “ Das Erhabene : zwischen Grenzerfahrung und Grössenwahn”, hrsg. von Christine Pries,  Weinheim: VCH, Acta Humanoiora, 1989.

Horizontal and Vertical ?

In his essay "Malerei, Graphik, Zeichen, Mal " from 1917*, Walter Benjamin distinguishes drawing from painting by defining the essence of drawing in terms of the line in front of a background. Thus the surface would become a map, which is why a drawing is to be read horizontally. Painting, on the other hand, is to be characterized by the surface, which opens up a space of depth through its layering and must therefore be viewed like a window, or vertically. 

If one follows this reading, then my work is laid out in a gray-zone between drawing and painting. Although I work with the light baggage of drawing, with pencil, graphite, eraser, and paper, one will often miss an essential feature of drawing: namely, the line. My work lies in-between, which has the advantage that it activates themes of both media without being identical with one or the other. According to Benjamin it can be read horizontally as well as vertically.

The graphite is used by me not only as a writing and drawing material, but also substantially as a finely ground pigment. My working method is process-based: I apply graphite dust to the paper in several layers by hand and broom. This creates different gray values from light to black. Not infrequently, a monochrome black graphite surface becomes the starting point for all further work steps. Using an eraser, areas are removed, or revealed again. This process of application and removal can be repeated several times from work to work. Similar to a photographic long-term exposure, traces of the work process are created. The impression of these surfaces changes depending on the incidence of light and the viewer's point of view. This has to do with the reflective quality of graphite, which makes black areas appear both light and dark depending on the incidence of light.

So why the reference to drawing, when my work can just as well be defined as painting, or is neither?

Drawing is my artistic starting point: I am fascinated by its provisional character: It is in essence a layout, idea, proposal, sketch, draft: It mediates between our imagination and reality, between past, present and future. For Walter Benjamin, the contrast between graphic line and background  has not only a visual but also a metaphysical meaning. The art historian Norman Bryson describes the background in drawing as "Perceptually present conceptually absent. "* For John Lock, the white paper stands for the possibility of consciousness par excellence: "Let us then suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished?"***

Hardly any other medium provokes such a direct short circuit between thinking and doing, virtuality and materiality. The surface of the paper opens up an inexhaustible space of possibilities. It is becoming in pure-form.
* Painting, or Signs and Marks , Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1: 1913–1926, Walter Benjamin, Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings,  Belknap Press, 2004,  „Die graphische Linie ist durch den Gegensatz zur Fläche bestimmt; dieser Gegensatz hat bei ihr nicht etwa nur visuelle sondern metaphysische Bedeutung. ... Die graphische Linie bezeichnet die Fläche und bestimmt damit diese, indem sie sich als ihren Untergrund zuordnet. Umgekehrt gibt es auch eine graphische Linie nur auf diesem Untergrunde, so dass beispielsweise eine Zeichnung, die ihren Untergrund restlos bedecken würde, aufhören würde, eine solche zu sein...“

***A Walk for a Walk´s Sake, Norman Bryson, in “The Stage of Drawing: Gestures and Act”, (London and New York: Tate Publishing and The Drawing Center, 2003), 151

*** An Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke. Hg. Peter H. Nidditch. Clarendon, Oxford 1975

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger´s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”*

*”City of Glass”, Paul Auster: Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1985.