A scratch proceeds from the top to the bottom of the image across its entire height. Not a small scratch, but a veritable laceration. One can still almost hear the crunching sound the tool must have made in the process. It did not glide easily across the photograph; this is no clean cut. The force that was used is visible. The tool must have bounced off the surface multiple times, leaving a quick succession of deep notches, which now dominate the image scarred over in a rusty brown. Only by moving close enough to the image does one feel somewhat comforted, as one discovers with a relieved sigh that it was not the photograph that was perforated, but that the scratch is contained within the image and the unspoiled surface of the photographic paper is still stretched over it.
According to tradition, a photograph’s surface is sacrosanct. When I looked through our vacation photos as a child, my father would warn me to only hold the photos at their edges and not to grab them with my greasy fingers. Of course, my father had not come up with these rules on his own just to annoy me; it was rather a sort of inherited wisdom. The inviolability of the photographic surface has a tradition that spans from the beginnings of the medium to the present: from the brightly polished copper plate of the daguerreotype to the velvety shimmer of the albumen print, the subtle gloss of baryta-coated paper to the cheap gloss of resin-coated paper, the immaculate surfaces of Diasec to the slick finish of the Retina Display. With the invention of photography, the traceless application of paint was passé in painting; artists were suddenly able to use their palette knives and spatulas to their hearts’ delight, torturing their canvases with painting knives and icepicks—although, of course, it had taken a few years before word got around about this new freedom. In photography, then, the dictate of the physical integrity of the surface was all the more applicable, particularly in connection with the kind of usages which emphasize their ability to exactly represent and faithfully document, and which become more effective the more transparent the medium appears. If one wishes to use photography as a window to the world and enjoy the view uninterrupted, the screen better not be cracked. A photograph’s illusionary space, constructed by every trick in the book on perspectival art, can be traversed with little difficulty if no fingerprint obstructs one’s entrance. A photo can provide the world with continuity, coherence, and seamlessness, which, in actuality, it never possesses. Additionally, in the undamaged surface, remnants of the belief in a quasi-automatic emergence of the photographic image are conserved, which has in fact always been a relatively manual process, but to the image-retentive layperson its dirtiest stages have always remained hidden beneath the dark cloth, in the darkroom, or in the photo lab, from whence, as if untouched by the human hand, a flawless picture emerged.
The inviolability of surfaces is not really Marko Lipuš’s thing. In his previous series, he treated image carriers with an angle grinder, cut up and reassembled negatives, sanded photographic paper with different grits of sandpaper, and scratched the emulsion layer with needles. To date, he has mostly reintegrated these interventions in the final order of the image. What he is after, then, is not so much a declamatory gesture of iconoclastic fury. For the moment, breaking open the surface remains merely a sign, but a thoroughly programmatic one at that. By tearing the surface open, Lipuš exemplarily retraces from analog to digital the opening of a medium that has long been negotiated in absolute categories. A hybrid creative process is moved into focus in which the traditional end-products of photography—negative and print—serve primarily as raw material for further processing. With this, the artist also emphasizes the act of subjective arrangement, both on the side of the producer and the viewer, with all its fractures, constructs, and idiosyncrasies.
The series “Scratchings blue” consists of sixteen large-format C-prints whose subjects oscillate between abstraction and surreal landscapes. The jumping-off point for these works is a series of details Lipuš photographed as part of a residency on the premises of the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei (a cotton mill)—a prime example of rezoning a former industrial location for cultural purposes. The original space only figures as a distant reference in the final version of the series. The transformation of raw material is too radical; analog and digital processes and mechanical interventions intertwine. Lipuš juxtaposes the traces recorded on site with the traces of his working process, putting both on equal footing.
The individual images of the series are presented as variations of one subject. In each instance, the viewer looks at a karstic plane which seems to stretch out to the horizon, but its actual extent remains unclear due to a lack of objects which might help to compare scale. Despite the intrinsically planar composition, the images develop a veritable maelstrom of depth; the dominant shades of blue in combination with the shallow depth of field and the brownish surfaces occasionally have a similar effect as spatial illusions in the old masters’ landscape paintings. A jagged gap—in some works also a straight line—guides the viewer’s eye into the expanse of the pictorial space until it gets lost in the hazy blue of the horizon, as if it had to penetrate the atmosphere for the length of several miles. In one work of the series, a rusty brown monolith rises at the outermost edge of the visual field; a colossal slab which could not even have been rendered more powerfully by Richard Serra himself. The coloration of the surface is reminiscent of oxidized steel and evokes the industrial element of the series’ place of origin, not so much as a trace, however, than as a symbol.
Lipuš’s scratchings foray into the sublime peace of the blue surface like fireworks. Thin hairline cracks extend across the entire image, at times chaotic, at times concentrated, and reconverge in reticular plexuses only to spray apart again; they hover in the sky like rosy-fingered, shimmering northern lights or pour into the image like a shower of sparks. Occasionally, the scratches expand to become deep furrows and black abrasions whose edges are smoldering yellow and red, as if substances were still reacting and further eroding the surface of the image. As a matter of fact, one does look at the result of a chemical reaction here, a chemical reaction with which the light-sensitive layer of the scraped negative replies to its wound, displaying the scab of the analog material, as it were.
With his scratchings, Lipuš inserts additional layers into the photograph, which on the one hand place themselves like barrage in front of the pictorial space, but with which they, on the other, also interact from time to time. A dark scar, for instance, continues a crack in the floor with an elegant line; sometimes the fine scratches follow the vectors of the room only to suddenly break away from the direction they were headed. What is thus created is a pictorial space which no longer has anything to do with the static linear perspective of traditional photography, but in which individual image and reality layers intertwine.
The blue color of the works provides the perfect stage for this process. The color itself is a hybrid creation. In these images, the blue that confronts us is a color of distance, of the expanse which makes us appear small in comparison, the cracked ice of an arctic sea in which the light is reflected in blinding white. Blue—perhaps the most poetic of all colors and the subject of many a verse, from Novalis and Oskar Loerke to Konrad Bayer—is no longer a local color in Lipuš’s series, but is generated in a digital whim, a scanner’s twitch, which, overwhelmed by the hues of the original material, has made sense of it all by itself. Moving close enough to the image, one can make out the irregularities in the blue surfaces, a suppressed storm of red and green dots, marks from the digital processing.
In the noise of the surfaces the lines blur between the digital traces, the traces of mechanical intervention, and the remnants of the photographic documentarian forensics on location that Lipuš used as source material. Apart from experimenting with the potential of contemporary art photography, the series is also a poignant appreciation of the series’ provenance: on a factory floor, on which people toiled for decades under strict regulations, punching time clocks and burning away years of their lives, Lipuš constructs a blue space of possibilities.
120 x 100 cm | Edition of 7 + 2 a.p. | C-Print