Dialogue with her blew hot and cold, both in terms of its intensity and its emotional charge. This wild oscillation is in Mira’s character. She, and in fact she alone always determined the way the dialogue went. It is not that she was deliberately using me (or any of her other partners) as tools. Just the opposite: open and unattached, she seeks genuine companionship. But there is an impatience in her, a kind of simmering fanaticism that puts everyone who comes close to her in danger of being objectified, even though this does not correspond to her own feelings and desires. When she encounters weak people, she can destroy them, even against her will and to her own regret. When she encounters people able and willing to resist (and I certainly count myself among them), sparks fly. In this, shall we say ‘electrifying’ sense, contact with Mira was at points exceptionally fruitful for me, if also very tiring, demanding patience I do not actually possess. I managed to do it for Mira for two completely independent reasons. I admire the great artist in her (in her way, the greatest in my immediate acquaintance). And I trust her without reservation, as one can trust only those whose ethical and intellectual integrity is not in doubt. In short, I am bound to her in constant friendship, despite her highs and lows. This friendship forms the pivot around which her wildly fluctuating attitudes toward me can be expressed at all.
I will try to distil two key points from the dialogue with her, at the same time proposing that not only Mira’s work, but some of the most important developments in contemporary visual art as a whole move elliptically around the same two points. They are ‘transparency’ and ‘meaning’. And I will try to bring these two key points into view twice, once as they appeared in the course of the dialogue, and again as they appear in Mira’s work. Of course there is feedback between the two means of observation. Our dialogues affected Mira’s work (as they did mine, I hasten to add). And Mira’s work was the topic of the dialogue. That was the productive thing about our relationship: for Mira, I am a genuine critic: I influence her work. And she presents me with genuine issues that need to be thought and worked through.
‘Transparency’ is the result of a capacity of human vision to penetrate through the surface of things. This distinguishes human vision from all other kinds. Human vision is not necessarily turned back from surrounding surfaces, and this is the reason human beings do not necessarily live, as an animal does, in an ‘environment’. There can be either disciplined or brute1 penetration of the surface into the depth of things, and it is this depth that gives human beings the experience of a ‘life world’. I mentioned disciplined and brute ways of making things transparent. In the first one (for example, the methods of scientific discourse), penetrating, searching vision uncovers increasingly abstract, formal, empty backgrounds, against which those things visible to ‘naïve’ vision move back and forth as if they were just surfaces. To the penetrating vision in the second method of making things transparent (for example, in mystical, phenomenological or artistic observation), voids appear abruptly behind the surfaces, and the look encounters no objects, only nothingness. Now the disciplined method is ‘progressive’ in the sense that it moves from a formal to an even more formal background, from empty to even emptier. Today it is about to ‘discover’, by disciplined methods, the same voids that brute vision supposed were there all along. Soon, then, there will be no objects in our life world. We are surrounded by transparent structures, through which we in fact see ‘nothing’, only endless rows of more transparent structures, and this in all directions, even inwards. We have become transparent even to ourselves. The result of this, the world’s being without objects, is that we ourselves are somehow not there. For to be there, to exist, means to be in a world of objects. There can be no subject without an object. That is the problem of transparency in my dialogues with Mira.
‘Meaning’ is what symbols refer to. Symbols are consciously or unconsciously conventionalised things that represent other things, in fact that represent those things available to the conventions (‘codes’). For those who can ‘decode’ the symbols, the things the symbols represent is their meaning. This, the meaning of a symbol, can in turn be another symbol, and so hierarchies of symbols arise. The ordering of symbols into hierarchies, the provision of a suitable index, is one of the problems of language philosophy and of ‘perception theory’ as a whole at present. But none of this alters the premise that there are, in the final analysis, things that are not themselves symbols, but so-called ‘concrete things’. These concrete things would be meaningless in themselves (that is, not symbols), but would be the final meaning of all symbols. To make symbols, then, would be to give the concrete things of the world new meaning, in the sense that every new symbol refers to the concrete world from another angle, so to speak. This would then be the function of the ‘mind’: to symbolise and to constantly propose new codes.
But when the entire world has become transparent, that is to say that it is ‘not concrete’, then, everything is symbolic, and no symbol has any final meaning any more. Everything means everything, which is essentially to say it means nothing at all. When the world no longer has any objects, it becomes meaningless to ‘think’. ‘Transparency’ basically means, then: it is possible to see through any meaning. And ‘meaning’ basically means, then: it is possible to make any object that seems to be opaque transparent. These are the co-ordinates of the contemporary situation as it appears to a thinking person, but in particular to a visual artist. I will now try to describe how it expresses itself in Mira’s work.
Let us describe two of her works. One is a sheet that hangs freely in space, suspended from the ceiling. It consists of two transparent sheets of acrylic about one and a half meters square, fastened together. Between the two sheets, very thin pieces of rice paper have been mounted in such a way that they overlap one another in places. The papers have been marked with black signs. Other signs have been inscribed on the four sides (the two inside, and two outside) of the acrylic sheets. Since it is all perfectly transparent, the observer is looking at a text through which he can see the room. And because the sheet swings easily with any air movement, the observer sees a text that changes constantly in space (in its context). The text offers itself to the observer from two sides, the two surfaces of the hanging sheet. Of course, it is the same text seen from two sides, but the one is not only the mirror image of the other, but the various layers appear in reverse order. The text consists of at least four different kinds of signs: letters of type, letters of Latin script, numbers and elements of calligraphic writing. These signs take on a particular form depending on the angle at which the observer is looking, that is as traditional lines, as vertical lines, as diagonal lines and as lines in a third dimension. Many of these forms yield words and sentences in various languages, giving the impression that one has somehow formed these words and sentences oneself. Others yield images of scenes, such as that of a swarm of bees consisting of ‘a’, or an army of ‘b’s’ on the march. Still others yield geometric formations (spirals, for example). But all of these shapes call one another into question, because many can see through them and so reject them. The overall impression is one of a completely meaningless text, yet one that can be deciphered at any point if one focuses attention on just that point. In this sense the sheet is a map of the world as it currently presents itself to human beings in its transparency and ultimate meaninglessness. All the while, the work makes a clear aesthetic impression: it fascinates, and demands continual decoding, to say nothing of its decorative function in the room. Despite its transparency, the sheet dominates its entire environment.
Another of Mira’s works is a notebook, about 30 by 20 cm in size. It is one of a series of notebooks that differ from one another in format and theme. Nevertheless, the series forms a unity, one might say a library of the future. If I describe one single notebook, I am taking it out of its context, thereby losing one of its dimensions, namely the one between notebooks. The one I have chosen consists of about 40 pages (I am describing it from memory), and the pages are of transparent oiled paper, reminiscent of cellophane. It is possible to page through in the familiar way, or to turn the pages 360° along a horizontal axis. In doing this, two texts appear to the reader, one on either side of the axis. The topic of notebook I have chosen is ‘b’. This letter appears on most of the pages of the notebook, either alone somewhere on the page, or touching the inner or outer edge of a circle. But there are also pages that contain only circles, as well as empty pages. In paging through quickly, the reader finds that letter appears to move, and to dance around a circle or to escape from the notebook, in a way familiar from slides. In rotating the pages, the observer is presented with choices about how many transparent pages to bring forward, and so which combination of texts to view. The crucial thing about the text is, however, that it appears to turn not only in a third, but also in a fourth dimension, for the ‘b’ not only changes abruptly into ‘d’, but also into ‘p’ and ‘q’ in a way that can be seen, but not actually ‘understood’, since it continues to be a shock each time it happens. It is roughly the same feeling one would have if the right and left hands could be made congruent. One gets the feeling of being in the presence of something that is mysterious in its simplicity, and of sensing an obligation to take it in (and that is probably one indication of genuine art).
The first of the two works described here was shown in the Venice Biennale, the second in the Bienal de São Paulo. Mira gave me both, and they are now in my [‘paulistaner’] apartment. I wrote about the first work in the Brazilian press, and believe I was able in this way to contribute to Mira’s influence and to her self understanding. Mira sent a translation of my criticism to Max Bense in Stuttgart, who characteristically did not ‘understand’ it. Bense’s reticence is worth mentioning because it is, as I see it, a symptom of the aesthetic crisis in which we find ourselves today.
The two works can be seen from at least three sides. They can first be regarded as experiments, secondly as toys and thirdly as things that suddenly appear in our environment. I will pass lightly over the second and third ways of seeing them, and spend a little more time with the first.
Seen as a toy, the notebook develops the sheet further. Both works permit me to make my own texts, and to enjoy doing this as I would enjoy making a new discovery, but the notebook gives me greater freedom of action, not only in the concrete sense of ‘handling’ the pages, but also in the sense of a dialogue with Mira. Not only can I see, but I can also feel, in my fingertips, the level of intelligence, patience and technical perfection with which Mira literally suggested this notebook to me, and I can take up this suggestion. For these are toys for people on Mira’s level, for her partners. Of course there is much to be said about this, but lack of space keeps me from further comment.
As a thing in my environment, the sheet develops the notebook further. Characteristic of this thing is that it is ‘reversibly’ transparent, in comparison to most of the others. Most of the other things appear opaque and become transparent if I penetrate them with my searching or observing vision. But Mira’s things demand that I constrain my vision in order to see them at all. They force my vision into a reverse dynamic, and in doing so force my whole attitude toward the world into a ‘turn’ (as Heidegger would say). I am not supposed to ‘explain’ it, that is (for it is already entirely clear), I am meant to ‘assemble’ it. It makes these things ‘revolutionary’, that is, suddenly completely different from everything that is familiar to me. It suggests that the meaninglessness and transparency of the world might be overcome, and in this sense it points toward the future. This, too, could be discussed at length, greater for the sheet than for the notebook, and one could contend that it would still be only a beginning.
I have been intensively engaged with the works as experiments for a long time. We have before us an attempt to present thought constructions (‘concepts’) to us as images, to make them imaginable. To say it concretely, Mira tries to translate the concept of transparency and the concept of meaning into a realisation (performance) of transparency and a realisation of meaning. That is, an inversion of the traditional function of ‘imagine’ and ‘understand’. Traditionally, thinking goes something like this: I encounter something concrete. I form an image of this concrete thing (I ‘imagine’ it), so as to acquaint myself with it. And then I translate my image into a concept, so as to understand the concrete thing and be able to handle it. Historically, the phase of imagining is the mythical-magical one, and the phase of understanding is the epistemological-technical one (in fact, this briefly describes the structure of Western civilisation). With Mira, it comes to a qualitative reversal. She starts from the concept and tries to imagine it. She uses her imaginative powers to make the world of ideas concrete, rather that to grasp the world of concrete things (for this world slips through our fingers). One aspect of the contemporary world of ideas is that it has become unimaginable. This has a great deal to do with our alienation: we cannot imagine what our ideas (for example, our scientific ideas) mean. A new kind of imaginary power is required to do it, and Mira mobilises this new power for us.
That is of extraordinary importance; for these experiments show a new way for human beings to be in the world. Until now, it was something like this: a human being faced the concrete world. He objectified this concrete world by inserting an intermediary imaginary world between himself and it. Then he objectified the imaginary world by inserting a world of concepts between himself and the world of suppositions. In this way human beings freed themselves from the world twice over, and alienated themselves from it, becoming ‘subjects of the world’ in this doubled sense. Now, however, human beings are beginning to insert an intermediary imaginary layer between themselves and the world of concepts (Mira’s experiments show it). Human beings are beginning to free themselves from their concepts by objectifying them, and this in the form of realisations. People are beginning to live among realised concepts. That, I believe, is what is called ‘structural’, ‘synchronic’, ‘post-historic’ being. Concepts are processes. They are discursive and linear, holding what has been imagined in rows. But imagined things are situations: they are synthetic, two-dimensional, and hold things on surfaces. To make a concept into an image is to turn what is diachronic into something synchronic, to collapse a process. Mira’s works, which make concepts imaginable, are the first steps toward a revolution in human existence.
(From Vilém Flusser, Bodenlos: Eine philosophische Biographie, Bensheim and Düsseldorf 1992, pp.197–206, trans. by Nancy Ann Roth.)
- 1. The German word is brutal, in some ways an English cognate, as with ‘brute force’, not necessarily violent or cruel, but immediate, without premeditation.