Prima la musica, poi le parole, we say glibly, and as long as we’re not talking about Schubert’s Erlkönig, we tend to believe it. Forget about the Ode to Joy, but the overall question remains: How does it work when words are set to music? The expression itself implies that the text is there first and the musica comes later. Well, perhaps chronologically. But is chronology relevant to a work of art? Now that even plagiarism has been elevated to an art form that meets with almost hysterical acclaim, earning good money for today’s publishers and Hegemanns, who still cares about that old-fashioned question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?
However, in places other than Berlin they may be less desperate to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and perhaps we can put aside our flippant indifference for a moment while we take a look at Marko Lipuš’s photo cartoons, which are the actual subject of this discussion, as I may have forgotten to mention at the beginning (but so what?).
Between March and October 2007, these photo cartoons – there are something like a considerable number of them – appeared week by week in “Album,” the weekend supplement of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. They originated when the author approached a string of writers with the idea that each of them should formulate a “thought,” based on which he would then create some images. Logically enough, the resulting intervention was surtitled The Thought. In the singular, mind you. Now this in itself is highly intriguing given that writers produce stories (or poems and the like) rather than thoughts, which are the prerogative of armchair politicians and philosophers, and it wouldn’t be fair to deprive those occupational groups of their livelihood.
Nevertheless – but just this once, because it’s for a good cause – the keepers of the narrative were permitted to encroach on the territory of abstraction. Take, for example, Thomas Glavinic’s thought, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Clearly a very subtle distinction is being made here, which in itself is perfectly legitimate and no problem at all. But when it comes to the visual interpretation – and that is, after all, the self-imposed task of Lipuš’s intervention – things start to get dicey. You have to wonder why there are no illustrated editions of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and so on. Does the thing-in-itself defy representability? What does the “in and for itself” look like? Does it have a beauty mark? Does it smile? With his thought Arno Geiger gives us another chunk of Hegel: “This is how history is crawling towards its end.” Kant, on the other hand, resonates in Sabine Scholl’s thought, “Reason belongs to the house.” Or has Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” sneaked in here?
Whatever – the source material for Lipuš’s cartoons is anything but concrete. And this is exactly where he begins his clever game in which irony, a dash of sarcasm and the possibilities offered by photomontage are used to concretize the abstract, inevitably supplying a definition and an interpretation in the process. For example, Scholl’s thought is transformed into the Austrian parliament – so much for reason! – and the building’s median risalit takes the shape of a doghouse, in front of which is a dog on a chain. Over on the left is a pedestal bearing a bone instead of a column. Once again we have Hegel, who wrote aptly and apodictically that “the spirit is a bone.” (Honorable gentlemen in parliament, take note.) Geiger’s thought is concretized into a car with an oversized exhaust pipe, followed by a variation on Munch’s The Scream on a country road, and finally a vintage alarm clock with missing hands. What do they tell us? By evoking the thrill of speed, the car challenges the word “crawling.” The scream recalls Schiller’s dictum that “the history of the world is the world’s court of justice,” and ends up as a dysfunctional alarm clock in Hegel’s notion of bad infinity. What makes this cartoon so engaging is that Lipuš refuses to clothe his rejection of the idea of a meaningful thrust of human history in the pathos of disillusionment.
The illustrations could have turned out differently, of course. That distinguishes them from cartoons derived from fiction, such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or a comic book series based on Léo Malet’s detective novels. These random examples, whose Parisian setting may also be simply coincidental, show that Lipuš’s photo cartoons are not necessarily aimed at creating clarity.
We can see just how differently his images function if we conduct the following experiment: Instead of looking at the images as illustrations, we understand the individual thoughts as ekphrastic descriptions of the images. Let’s go back to the concretization of Scholl’s thought and reverse the chronology. The statement for Lipus’s image could just as easily have been “And the spirit protects us all.” Or, as Foucault wrote somewhere, “Critique is the art of how not to be governed like that.” A thousand other phrases would be just as acceptable and convincing once a relationship is established between image and text.
Yet the concrete image suddenly becomes abstract (or generalized), in the same way as the abstract thought becomes concrete. And it would be wrong to assume that this thought experiment in viewing the image and text as a whole would not be present just as the reverse. The constant redefinition of the roles creates a construct in flux.
Lipuš takes this interplay further, extending it to the idea of authorship: In each of his photo cartoons, there is a field on the left that includes the name of the writer and that of the cartoonist. From both of these names arrows point to a figure who is waving. The figure is made up of a coat, a hat, and a raised hand. Who is depicted in this montage, the author of the image or the author of the text? Now the former, now the latter? Neither one? Or are the two of them in cahoots?
Once again we abruptly find ourselves in the realm of that undecidability which Derrida needed thousands of pages to explain, and which goes all the way back to epoché (the suspension of judgment) in Pyrrhonian skepticism.
The photographic artist Marko Lipuš can seek consolation in Derrida’s assertion, “Images still have the last word.” But that too is just another statement.
Publishing house ÖIP / Eikon Verlag, Austria, 2010
Photobook, 96 Pages, Softcover, ISBN 978-3-902250-55-1
Edition: 500 Copi,es
Texts about the Photocartoons from Meinhard Rauchensteiner
Various sizes | Edition of 5 + 2 a.p. | C-Print