Too Soon Too Late

“... dare more absolutism.”


The following conversation took place in prison. Due to a miscarriage of justice, MK was kept in solitary confinement in a high security wing for 25 years—to this day, the details of this miscarriage of justice remain unclear. During this time, the prisoner was repeatedly visited by X, about whom little is known.

             x—Quite contradictory elements seem to interact in your work: futuristic elements encounter apocalyptic ones, delicate elements clash with martial ones, surreal isolated elements encounter historically entangled ones. And in between of all of this, strong references to the prehistory and early history of modernism keep appearing. What is the relationship of your work to this notion of epoch, or rather to what is still left of it today, given the fragmentation into countless post-modernities?

             mk—Modifying a well-known quotation (“modernism is our antiquity”) by the secondto- last »documenta« curator Roger M. Buergel, I would say: modernism isn’t our antiquity, but rather our nineteenth century! This would explain why the diagnosed signs of exhaustion of the last decades remind us so frequently of something that had already been addressed towards the end of the nineteenth century: salon culture versus a supposedly protesting marginal culture, a supposed decline of values and obligations, while at the same time people noted a bourgeoisification, pluralization, anonymization, differentiation of large parts of a society that saw itself as having become “decadent” and secular. The shadow of nihilism, in which all the listed phenomena of a cultural bourgeoisification find themselves, has become ever larger since the early nineteenth century. Decisive here is that the intellectual context of bourgeoisification, which originates from the conditions of this nineteenth century, found its complete realization in so-called modernism (including all attendant reversal effects or what had been originally intended). The increasingly hectic changes of the image at the beginning of the twentieth century did not result in a turnover of the parameters (as the self-fabricated myth claims), but rather in their further enforcement. And this in turn reinforced the nihilistic to existential keynote, which, by the end of the epoch of romanticism and cultural criticism, as an idealism that had become “realistic,” was so influential in the nineteenth century. And the talk of a new beginning, tabula rasa, revolution et cetera, which became so prevalent in modernism, is the marker of an apocalyptic mood that is getting more and more urgent. End-time mood and a permanent start-up period, that goes well together. This combination has, by now, been occupying the world for almost 200 years. “Modernism is our nineteenth century” therefore also means: the past cannot be past, art-as-religion stands against prose, readymade-alchemism stands against a calculable super-number—and all debates are marked by a defense against the urmodern condemnation to be sentimental.

             x—In what way do you continue this recourse to a—in your opinion—mistakenly progressing modernism, and where do you oppose this history that cannot pass? And would this countering then just be another attempt at a new beginning, as another characteristic of an end time—in an eternal loop? [In the background, a prison ward practices the trumpet, interspersed with the howling of a wolf.]

             mk—I, new, break off the old, and start, old, something new. That’s the only thing that can be done. You see, it isn’t possible to seriously assume a distance to the environment in which one finds oneself. And if you try it anyway, this environment appears all the more clearly, if perhaps only implicitly. In this present, all suppressed elements of the nihilistic shadow described before come into their own, and over the last 200 years this shadow has increasingly been putting cultural self-conception to the test. The thread can tear any moment, while the dance on the volcano goes on—this vision is my modern continuity. But I could also try to place myself into the beyond of the announced tear with a speculative jump—that would be my approach as a radical new beginning, breaking with the mainstream catechism of the last 50 years. Of course, one must remain aware of one’s paradoxical starting position. Beyond the tear, the form of movement is, at least initially, the free fall. But the weightlessness takes place in a condensed metaphysical twilight, where the beginning and end of a possible (hi)story touch, and where there isn’t a breath of air that doesn’t weigh tons. Every moment of a fragmentation, regardless of how absurd it is, appears here in superior, systematically chaotic lines of light. In this conflation, reminiscent of the cave allegory, at the pinnacle of its mirror coating, the entire universe has become a punctuation-less, completely coherent and completely illegible image-text or text-image.

             x—? Tell me more!

             mk—I’d like to do that, but I fear that on this late modern, nihilistically shaded track, I would yield to a pathos that would scare off the Protestant side of today’s culture business rather too much. Particularly in a phase when the entire system sees itself challenged in its very foundations, the nervousness is especially great when confronted with any kind of unorthodox way of speaking: everything that seems to transgress against the unending talk of the beholder, who wants to or is supposed to be “a part of the artwork” is considered suspicious here. I am more concerned with a model that is based on the maximum distance to the beholder, on an encounter between the parties that is only possible in a labyrinthine fashion, in air that was originally southern but has become cold and thin—in short, during the kingfisher’s mating season in the windless days of the winter solstice. The richness of images that goes in hand with this will always remain a thorn in the eyes of avid Protestants. For them, the phenomenon of “image” has always been a dangerous relict of a pagan-pantheistic culture, interested in earthly things, that hasn’t quite been defeated, and they consider everything we’ve said before about the mythically darkened shadow to be of the devil, from an era that believed in the magic of images. Every reference in that direction, they claim, endangers the only true light of the Enlightenment, which “actually” wanted to do in the nihilistic abysses, from which the demons of a supposedly antimodern modernism keep rising up, once and for all.

             x—The demons are starting to convince little humble me more and more! So does art on your track have to do more with the “golden calf” and less with the monotheistic moral code that only ever wanted to ban the “golden calf” (perhaps without having understood its meaning)?

             mk—Exactly! Just as turning towards the pagan-fantastical world is still at the core of what lends its quality—impossible to decode rationally—to the term “art,” so “art” remains tied to the notion of the “golden calf.” Art is the “golden calf.” And those who are afraid of this equation for moral reasons would be better off doing something else. The monotheistic obsession with laws, its rigorousness in marginalizing, and its purism in denying the world have always been the enemy of the image, from the Jewish abstraction of God and the Christian iconoclasms, all the way to the general image phobia in Islam. (There was, in Roman Catholicism, a certain art-friendly exception, which did not really apply to me—for the simple reason that here the world of images of antiquity with its rituals found a space to survive in—a political compromise that was necessary at the time.) Only in the sublimated environment of the banned mimetic image could the modern notion of “art” really develop.
       Had the monotheistic demonization of images won out everywhere, then—after the destruction of the culture of antiquity—we would be as void of images as the Orient is. Everything that went in the direction of mimesis and simulation is the heritage of antiquity. Even the digital photography of today originates, in the final analysis, from the idea of mimesis, and not from the ornament. It is important to be aware of this special root of the global technique of today in order to also better understand the current trench wars.

             x—So in spite of institutionalization, the enemies of the image did not really reach their goal completely. But how does this history continue in the secular age?

             mk—The rift continues, but is now transferred to the opposition between an enlightenmentmoralism tending towards hostility to images and belief in text, and a view of art as religion, oriented towards a rediscovered pagan antiquity: in the neo-humanistic tendencies since Winckelmann, the “golden calf” managed to penetrate new areas with modern structures—partly camouflaged platonically. Especially the intellectual context of the so-called “third humanism” in Germany and the environment of the George circle are worth mentioning here. And last but not least: through certain channels of ideas of romanticism, that ran via Böcklin and De Chirico to early surrealism, the pantheistically inspired, image-magical and latently mystical line was continued in European film of the postwar period, with Buñuel, Pasolini, Fellini, Herzog, Tarkovsky, until most recently in Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and “Melancholia.”

             x—You speak here of cultural-historical links. The dynamism of the last 200 years, however, was largely driven by technological innovations. How does your thinking relate to this aspect of the development? [No bells ring anywhere. Instead, the sound of a TV, perhaps broadcasting a boxing match. Just briefly, then the warden turns off the electricity.]

             mk—We should divide the answer to this important question. When I say “now!” you must interrupt me. Bourgeoisification, end time and nihilism are of course also reflexes of this rapid development. But the following applies here: Ever since Plato, at the latest, it has no longer been possible to speak of a linear progress in the intellectual field, but rather of a circular movement that starts up again and again und keeps differentiating more and more. On the side of technology, on the other hand, it is quite possible to speak of progress—from the hand axe to the laser cutter—in precisely that linear, future-oriented sense that the term should on the whole have. However, the more the technological arrow movement differs from the intellectual circular movement (i.e., increasingly obviously since the beginning of the nineteenth century), the more tensions arise between these two notions, especially as the circular movement, faced with the visible success of the arrow, believes itself to fall back. What soon emerges is a kind fear of being left on the shelf, a panic, which articulates itself in, among other things, the breathless succession of avant-garde styles in the first half of the twentieth century. Only in the course of the 1970s, this succession starts to stall, as is well known, and the race seems to be definitively lost in favor of the technological model of development. At the same time, with the end of the avant-garde and utopia, talk of “postmodernism” comes up. And I started as a student. Now!

             x—That can’t be coincidence! What is the reaction to this lost race? Just a pessimistic mood and/or “anything goes”? Can all intellectual and generally cultural impulses be forgotten now? Should we just yield to a scientific, technological or economic efficiency?

             mk—Unfortunately and fortunately, the whole thing is a little more difficult. Faced with changes in the media, one might give in, in the manner of McLuhan, and try to elegantly swallow the problem, in the retinue of well-proven set phrases à la “the form is the content” and following the motto “the medium is the message.” Gulp! But what could or should be the “message” is more ambiguous than one might realize in the first euphoric acceptance of a new technology or possibility to encode. Because, suddenly, unforeseen redundancies come into play: that which is to be communicated reveals itself, after a few logical and hermeneutic cuts, as something that was already a concern 2000 years ago. Or that which is to be communicated remains, in spite of the new technology, just as unutterable as so many things one has considered overcome as phenomenon or mistake. What is to be done then? Give the cloven-hoofed and labyrinthogenic conditio-sine-qua-non demon, who always sits in the way, at a place that is most difficult to see, a new name? Or simply stop with all that tautological renaming?

             x—Should I still say “now” to interrupt you?

             mk—The “now!”-window of opportunity is closed again, you could have skipped that question. Well: the great solution, de-subjectivization, de-objectivization, de-authorization, etc., through which the post-structuralist magic formulas all promised to finally get an all-embracing monotony without any differences, will not take place! And the lovely utopian ideas of “everything is art,” “everybody is a genius,” “everybody gets his five minutes” and “everything and everybody is equal” must unfortunately give way to an opposite reality: almost nothing is art, hardly anybody is a genius, the five minutes are fake, and equality exists only amongst ants or grains of sand (and even there only if you don’t look too closely). The author, declared by Foucault to be impossible, is after all not impossible, but only a very rarely encountered individual. And the medium remains merely the medium, while the message must be added from a quite different area. It is part of a quasi timeless, always valid surreal equation. The result of a highly unlikely encounter.

             x—May I ... [far away the sound of the sea; but perhaps it is just a fault in the recording device]

             mk—No. Technological progress does make traveling easier for us, as well as doing the dishes and communications, but it won’t relieve us of the work to be done in circles. And we can only do without that once we have actually become ants—when we will work even more in circles, but then, as it were, unconsciously. Man, and every thinkable intelligent unit coming forth from him, is a monadic atom. Facebook won’t help, nor karaoke on TV or an all-day headset, on the contrary: the only thing connecting us to this exterior world, which we all assume is there in the first place, are the sounds of knocking. And our imagination with which we can make something out of these sounds of knocking! All that talk of networking that could finally liberate us from the lonely cell is eyewash. The colleagues in the caves of Lascaux, who had only just discovered the convenience of fire, had more of a sense of community and greater social instinct than we do today, with all our accessibility through the modern media. Mediatization is thus first of all a catalyst for monadization, and at the same time it makes the lonely existence of each listening unit in the cell even more hermetic. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it was better in the prehistoric caves. Technological progress should and will go on—and the circle will always allegedly stand still: until the entire universe has been explored, from the Big Bang to the entropic finale, and has itself become intelligent! But the intelligent unit that will then take up the longed-for final standpoint of the beholder will still be a monad, whose work, in its absolute inside, is possibly “just” done by a gigantic simulator. Never mind, I feel good even as a monad. The evoked spark beyond that is always speculation. And here, neither social theories nor media theories will get us any further, only poetry will (with the attendant courage to be uncool!).

             x—That sounds dark. The age of theory is over! But the darker the background is, perhaps the brighter the speculative spark can shine which for a moment is sparked off between the lonely people knocking. Sometimes uncool is hypercool. From here, you might perhaps say a word on the medium of painting, in favor of which you have decided during your transhistoric research and monadic prospects. What reassessments are possible here since the war of the genres in the media, which originated in the 1970s (stretchers are stupid, etc.), has become more and more of a farce in recent years?

             mk—All the nonsense from the age of ideologies will continue to haunt the scene for quite a while. Painting is only something for people who are interested in art, and nothing for people who are only interested in the chatter about art. However, we can say this very generally: the more digital our world becomes every day, the more interesting things get with the old analogue medium of painting. It is now charged with functioning as a corrective that can examine the generation of images within the new media in terms of their genesis and mode of operation. For performing the distancing necessary for this, the medium of painting, that has fallen out of the “applied” field and has become a pure means of creating art, provides the most current code, at least in my opinion, for undermining the electronic imaging that happens as a matter of course in our everyday lives. But this only works if the anachronism of the medium is taken to extremes. It is no longer enough nowadays to just be contemporary. In the present itself there is now an overhang whose roots reach back into long forgotten areas. Without contact to this intellectual groundwater level, there is nothing to hold things together on the surface either.

             x—I ... [Shuffling footsteps in the prison corridor, clanking keys, then silence again]

             mk—Yes, I know, want, should, am allowed, am not allowed, etc. It goes without saying that on this track it must be all about a decidedly well-made picture whose focus, focal distance, textual content negates any touch of socio, any affinity to pop, any interactivity kitsch and any moral assurance. Those who miss the political or proletarian correctness are invited to the adventure of ignoring the valid contexts and discourse guarantees, so that even the strange phrase by Giorgio de Chirico suddenly seems comprehensible: “Today, we hope we are mystical enough to effect a return of the classical.”1 Of course that isn’t possible, and of course he meant it quite differently! But differently than what? And why just differently? The painting that still raises such questions today seems like an endless commentary on Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” as a pittura metafisica 2.0, and ideally it is displayed not in museums and galleries, but in citadels. The metaphysical question around which this painting becomes legible ideally represents the crush zone of the monadic cell that has, by now, with an enormous accelerator, entered on a collision course with its assumed neighboring cell: so that at least for the moment of a completely constructed encounter, there might be an idea where the annoying knocking comes from.

             x—That sounds simply too good to just want to understand this. If I were not just X, I would like to start a large family with you! Would that be an option for you?

             mk—Unfortunately, I have been occupied for decades with an intergalactic birthing process. Founding a family behind bars would rather overtax me right now. The thing about dark matter should be clarified beforehand. And only when my intellectual redshift has overcome the last curve that separates me from the first beginning, which is the goal of every rigorous time traveler, can I take a break without feeling guilty. Then hopefully I won’t be alone anymore.

             x—Thank you very much for this interview. I will wait. [An argument erupts on one of the watchtowers, glass breaks, then whispering at the walls through the entire building until deep into the night.]

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 14

[1] In German: Paolo Baldacci and Wieland Schmied (eds.), “Die andere Moderne: De Chirico, Savinio,” ex. cat. Düsseldorf, Munich (Ostfildern- Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2001), 93.