Art Beyond The Pictorial Turn by Miklos Peternak

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Art beyond the Pictorial Turn

Miklós Peternák
Translation: Andrea Szekeres

In the spring of 1991, three young Hungarian artists organized a group exhibition in Munich under the name of Ostmodern (Eastmodern). If we imagine the letter p in front of the word, its implied absence could in fact be considered as an elegantly construed ironic comment on the then still vividly present international discourse. Moreover, the title, addressing the questions of “where are we coming from, who are we, where are we going”, postulates a witty and determined place and denotation of placement regarding the East- West relations. In fact, the title in question has given me the inspiration and the incitement to view Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák’s artistic endeavour, more specifically his works created more or less at the same time as his pieces for the Paks Gallery exhibition, in terms of a divergent theoretical framework, or rather in the context of a fashionable theory. I would like to contend that the majority of these works were not created under the influence of or as reflections on the “Pictorial Turn”; instead, they were conceived prior to it or concurrently, in many respects signifying the state after the “Iconic Turn.” What follows here is the thematization of peculiar and specific pictures, if the term ‘picture’ is still adequate enough for these meta-pictorial shapes and space-time relations, which are experienced mostly through our vision, and which are concerned with the specificity and cognizance of these visual experiences, rather than with depiction or representation itself. If anything, they could be compared to a cognitive process.

As noted above, one of the participants of the Ostmodern exhibition beside Róza El-Hassan and Attila Csörgő was Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák, who applied (Polaroid) photographs and a computer for the realization of his installation. He combined these two tools which from then on have dominated the conception of his work. He installed a hundred Polaroid pictures on the wall of an industrial exhibition hall, creating a 48×64 pixel resolution picture matrix with the help of a computer algorithm, following the course of an arbitrary graph’s flow chart in a way that every installed photograph depicted all of the earlier existing photographs on the wall. In this case, the hundred Polaroids also bring about a hundred exposures in the course of their development, since in order for the pictures that appeared earlier on the wall to appear again in the next picture sequence, one should proceed step-by-step in real time. The French terminology for the drafting procedure applied here is mise en abîme. The Dutch term for such recursive picture types that also integrate the preliminary occurrences is Drosteeffect, based on a cocoa advertisement from the early 1900s. Along these lines, the same picture type in Hungarian is called bear-cheese-effect (referring to a Hungarian cheese advertisement using recursive picture types), to avoid a lengthy digression towards fractals.

The Ostmodern’s picture sequences, which look like random dot patterns on reproductions, reveal the process of their creation to the observant viewer, illustrating the course of each phase following the next, step by step. In this regard, what seems like a pixel- agglomeration from afar is, in fact, an integrated sequence in which each picture evokes the memory of a distant view. This is a type of picture-puzzle, in which contingency and rigid determinism, the precision of the program, and the arbitrariness of sensual/material occurrence, result in a new viewing experience. The physical movement of the artist (a hundred times towards the wall, and then away from it) mobilizes the viewer’s mental-state.


The mise en abîme appears on the monitors of SeeThrough as an endless mirror pipe, since the web installation planned for and shown in public spaces employs one of the most exciting picture types, namely, the sequence of facing mirrors forming a video tunnel, a version of feedback video-loop. The sub-heading (“Infinite Image and Reflection”) quoting filmmaker Gábor Bódy creates an unmistakable situation. In Bódy’s study, as well as in the last sequence of his film entitled Four Bagatelles, the non-localizable course of events in the interconnected, distant places appear in the eyes of a naïve viewer, who is unaware of the functioning of the system, as fictional thought constructions that are indeed imaginable yet hardly realizable. Via SeeThrough, however, it becomes possible to experience this state. The video-feedback system is a space-time simulator, writes James P. Crutchfield; in other words, the video image synchronized through the speed of light could be the sole connection between disparate distant worlds. The individual stages of SeeThrough is comprised of two connected screens, with one of them placed lower so that one can draw on it, while the other is placed above head-height, on the top of a stall, with its screen depicting ‘live’ the space where it has originally been set up. If you choose to draw on the touch screen with your fingers, the figure – the fingers’ trace – appears on the top monitor by way of repeatedly puncturing the existing image. Thus, we are able to ‘see through’ to a distant location through the drawing. It is as if by touching the screen the hand erased its own immediate surroundings, or more precisely, its indirect, technically reproduced image. This view is in fact at the viewer’s disposal, so with the gesture of erasure s/he recognizes that by rendering the picture surface transparent, a completely new picture world is being revealed behind the top surface image.

The video feedback revealing what is there beyond the picture depends on the exact application of complex technologies. There are other elemental image phenomena that are likewise basic, but that require no (or just minimal) technical support. The pinhole camera or camera obscura and the photogram alike render the images of light (photo graphs), the natural (primordial) pictures or pictorial archetypes, conspicuous. Along with light, these are to be considered as natural occurrences. The basis of the photogram is photosynthesis, the colours of the visible world, or to make it more palpable, the suntanned human skin. It is also a well- known fact that one does not need to build a box for the camera obscura. The phenomenon can be experienced in a cave or in a forest of dense foliage without any artificial intervention. With his sequence of pinhole camera recordings on a film crumpled in a hole-punched tea box, Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák aims to evoke this elemental, primordial state. This is even more evident in his Camera Obscura/Photogram sequence combining the two approaches of scene recording in an inter-referential manner. The similarity between the two types of light deflection is due to the fact that they are both reversed images. The pinhole camera records the image upside-down, the photogram reverses the relationship between dark and light, and light and shadow. The difference comes from the different geometrical transformations, and from the fact that in one case the object(s), while in the other a little opening or optics, is/are placed in the way of light. If these objects happen to be transparent (and identical like two light bulbs), then these pictures appear reflected on the same plane on top of each other, inside each other, and through each other, and all that simultaneously. We discover elemental pictorial spaces on these plates, which is due to the fact that the sight manipulated by the simplicity of the preparation technique presents us with a specific, complexly sensual picture world.

In the case that the camera obscura has only one opening, and when a photo- sensitive film is placed on a single plane, Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák is most probably trying to gather adequate material for a moving picture (film). Some of Real Time’s digital images have been created through long exposure – compared to the film camera’s 24 exposures per


second, the exposure time of any pinhole camera seems too long. Moreover, pictures created as a result of the fluctuation of the recording time span (lasting between a few seconds to several hours) are arranged in a sequence on a computer. When they are shown rapidly in succession, like in the cinema, we can in fact contend that through this effect, Zenon’s fourthaporiahasbeenaccomplished,where halfagiventimeisequaltodoublethattime.The project and a group of works entitled Achilles and the Turtle, in fact, evoke Zenon’s first paradox according to which The slower will never be overtaken by the quicker, for that which is pursuing must first reach the point from which that which is fleeing started More precisely, the quick footed hero has no chance of winning a race against the turtle if the latter is granted a head start. This ‘head start’ is doubtlessly visible in the case of analogue pictures if we imagine the racetrack to appear on a historical time-line. One of the basic differences between analogue and digital images is based on the exactness of the latter one. Every digital image is in fact perfectly describable and clearly given as a single sequence of numbers. Thus, the exact number of pictures in a series under a given resolution is perfectly determinable in the digital world. Their number is always finite. The computer as a display device is a monitor which virtually contains all possible ‘images’, including the image of this very text that I am writing at the moment. Obviously, no matter how difficult it is to define the meaning of the word picture or image, the ‘picture’ displayed on the computer differs from the ordinary analogue picture types. It is rather seen as a meta-picture, a picture beyond a picture, the visualization of a data sequence. The pictorial form, in fact, is only one of the possible instances exacted from among the representations.

We may simply contend that the different concepts of the image throughout human history are either based on the destruction of the image (iconoclasm) or on image worship (idolatry). These different concepts problematise the ways in which we understand the relationship between the picture and the depicted, or between the picture and reality: we either search for the meaning on a given surface or ‘behind the picture’, beyond it. Is it a window or a wall; or perhaps rather a curtain, a veil? Does it show or represent something, or does it stand for something else? Is it an allusion, a referential data, or an idol, a cultic object? Is it an index or an icon – a symbol or an enigma? Since the appearance of technical images, it was to be suspected, and today it is known, that there is a third way to be revealed with the help of new image types, which commenced with photography and end with digitalisation. These were at once qualitatively new, with forms reaching into the spheres of the immaterial, the virtual, and in some ways the transcendent. By putting aside the magic duality of nature (reality) and picture (creation), this new medium reinterprets the existing relationship between the image and the cognitive process.

Exaltarcation, created for the Iconoclash exhibition, and Camouflage, presented at the Vision – Image and Perception show, are two installation projects (in both cases in collaboration with Márton Fernezelyi) which employ an interface that could at once be seen as a constructive tool and/or a destructive weapon in the hands of the user/viewer. The possibility for an alternative mode of reception is established through the direction of the intention, or of interpretation. The merit of this interactive installation is that it instigates the viewer to chose from and interpret the existing camouflaged picture variations in the installation. The choice depends on, for example, whether and when the viewer will recognize that a face could be constructed from the projected digital images that are subjected to his/her movement and positioning in space, like in an animation (vivification). On the other hand, the picture identified as a face and subjected to the same movement could be taken apart, transformed into different shapes that are linguistically inexplicable, or mimetically unrecognizable in the course of the same continuous, dynamic changes. What

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we are able to experience here is the instance when a graph finally gets to resemble a real face in our mind. And where is the point where we seize to view the image as a face, to consider it only as a disintegrated formation.
How do we experience this process? Where does beauty appear? Are the forms containing the different versions of facial features beautiful?

The interface, a true technical innovation utilized in the installations, was developed during the creation of the Promenade project. In 1999, such an ultrasonic tracking/navigation device, used on such a scale as the space of the Promenade, and with the exactitude that the project required, practically did not exist. If we assume that the Camouflage project aims to present, analyze, and make tangible the relations and the parallel courses of spatial positioning and pattern recognition, then the first version of the Promenade project addresses the relationship between a given perspectival image structure and the position of the privileged viewer (supplemented in its version 2.0 by the illusion of the third dimension, of stereoscopic space). The essential element of a perspectival image is the viewpoint: the way the view of the world unravels by looking through one eye, from a fixed point. The Promenade project aims to present this with the help of different virtual ‘rooms’, where the place/positioning of the spectacle depends on the place/positioning of the viewer who controls the image by holding the interface in her/his hands. The viewer moving about in space with the interface realizes that s/he is the prisoner of the gaze: s/he needs to realize that the image is following her/him, so s/he can only view the image from her/his own point of view. At the same time, other visitors present in the space can only view the images that the one holding the interface manipulates, although not from the same privileged viewpoint but from their own. Could the picture be right from an ‘improper’ viewpoint? The artwork is not only about the viewpoint but also about this specific viewer. The precisely localized and controlled viewer belongs to our era: the human of today, whose ‘intelligent’ cell-phone with a built in camera is able to fix its immediate coordinates, the time of picture taking, and its technical conditions – so that the picture can be reset or flashed back onto the same place virtually later on.

In order to move from one room to the next within the installation, the viewer needs to move close to the projection surface. In order for the image to change, one should almost be touching the wall of illusion . Another major characteristic of the perspectival image is that it presents us with the illusion of a three dimensional plane – Promenade 2.0 recreates this stereoscopic image as a three dimensional illusion, which results in a surprising effect where the visitors see each other moving about in the ‘real’ as well as in the virtual space. The viewer becomes the modificatorof the picture and also an integral part of the image.

The passage from 2D to 3D already appears in Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák’s first interactive installation, although in a completely distinct manner. In Cryptogram, presented at the Butterfly Effect exhibition, he constructed a 3D sculpture from each text that was written by the viewer on a given computer. The coding is based on a real sculpture; the wire- frame model of Leonardo da Vinci’s horse sculpture. The internet version of the installation did not only present us with its function of translation from sculpture to text and from text to sculpture, but this web piece also became a real functioning communication system that utilized the VRML sculptures as the basis for a mail cryptogram program, created for the purpose of encoding and camouflaging messages. The latter, stenographic quality added to cryptography arises from the fact that certain web-surfers would not necessarily suspect these virtual sculptural bodies to contain hidden message exchanges, but might view them as art.


Variations on Steganography is a series explicitly dealing with this mode of camouflaging, with the different pictorial positions of a code rendered visible and obvious. The question arising in the first place, and which is also the theme of this body of work, could be defined the most easily in the following manner: Does a picture (generally) show, or does it rather hide or conceal something? An everyday example could be a person using a digital camera, who is probably entirely unaware of the fact that with every clicking, the camera records different pieces of (Exif) information in the form of meta-data that could not be detected on the picture but are nonetheless ‘within it’. On/in the black and white family photographs, used as the basis for the piece, colourful pixel diagrams are made to appear in a form of corrosion, decoration, concealment, or rather as digital noise, as error. According to Plotinos, colours are images of light; in Variations on Stenography, different texts from Plotinos were hidden in black-and-white family photographs, to be only rendered visible through the sudden appearance of colour sequences altering the original image. In this regard, the piece is a model for the phenomenon of picture creation, as a contemporary characteristic or a new territory seen in a scientific context. Béla Julesz – the inventor of random-dot stereograms (RDS) asked the following question: do we invent or discover mathematical structures and formulae such as, for instance, the Mandelbrot Fractal? With the question posed in such a manner, one could suspect that he is probably referring to the discovery of something existing.

Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák’s autostereogram studies are based on Julesz’s method, which becomes more apparent on one of the image layers of the work entitled Steganogram: Stereogram. Here, the given task was to condense different kinds of viewer/viewing modes in a still image; moreover, Szegedy-Maszák set out to create a multi-scopic image so that the observer would be compelled to accommodate disparate viewing techniques if s/he was curious enough to discover all the existing picture layers. “…I printed the word ‘enigma’ on a blurry backdrop in the form of character-coded autostereograms,” he writes. At a first instance, the pixel picture evokes the enigma of the Ostmodern, but here the relationship between the blurry backdrop and the foreground’s sharp contours coded as an autostereogram is imbued with a completely different meaning. Enigma is the name of a German cryptogram machine used in World War II. Alan Turing participated in the braking of this code, but this might not be the right reference here. According to the Bible, the specificity of earthly experience, i.e., that of the state prior to ‘face to face’ cognizance, is that now we see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). Instead of the word dimly, the word enigma is used in the Greek version, which according to St. Augustine’s etymological interpretation is seen as an ambiguous or hardly intelligible allegory. Thus, we see limitedly in two ways: enigmatically (coded) and in the mirror; i.e., not directly but through a reflection. In this sense, Steganogram: Stereogram is a tautological work, as it says and shows the same thing, and makes it recognizable on a visual and linguistic-conceptual level.

Block Diagram presents a similarly special situation, although in a different manner. Via an image of double views, but in this case via one that is not two-layered, the painting repeatedly poses the questions of How should we look? Wherefrom should we look? How long should we look? The acrylic painting composed of colour squares, of painted pixels, depicts the expanse from the pixel to the image as a real distance. Scaling down and enlargement appear as an act of distancing when you observe the painting from far enough, so that instead of the raster, you only see colours and darker or lighter tones.

A similar visual meta-communication is established in OCULUS ARTIFICIALIS TELEDIOPTRICUS 2.0: RE:MBRANDT, by way of posing the invisible as visible.


Four small-size paintings of pixel-like diagrams are hung on the wall. A monitor is placed in front of them, which can be held and moved by the visitor. In its initial position, one can see through this screen, to view the diagram paintings as if through a window. When you block out the view of one of the paintings on the wall by means of the monitor, so that you view the picture through the image on the screen, and move the monitor closer to the painting, then you will see a 3D-modelled, virtual painting reproduction emerge from the data space: a converted digital Rembrandt. The screen is at the same time a camera. By positioning it on the painting code, it finds the corresponding virtual image data from the computer, which is also the aura of the absent original work. Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive telescopium is the title of a book by Johann Zahn, published at the end of the 17th century in several editions. You can also discover illustrations from this book amongst the images of Camouflage and Aura 2.0. The projected anamorphosis of Aura was planned in relation to the geometry of a movable mirror cylinder. The circular projection always follows the location of the mug with a reflective surface, since the image can only be rendered visible ‘in the right position’ at that place. Such an augmented evocation of the Rembrandt paintings on a screen presenting the image of a real space, and of the Zahn or Muybridge illustrations’ moving, anamorphic images rendered on a mirror cylinder as if they were reversed panoramic images, also belong to Szegedy-Maszák’s series of images with double views, although each in a different manner. These two installations may be considered as sources for Visual Communication, a work dedicated to Jonathan Swift and illustrating an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels. The Reality Puzzle (Study) is an immediate precursor to these works, one that can be clearly connected to the standing images of the Aura 2.0 studies with skulls, anatomical drawings, and models of the human brain serving as an iconographic basis for both works. As early as the mid-17th century, Comenius – while explaining the role of images in his Orbis pictus – proposed that the most important and most appropriate method of learning is to show the thing itself or its image at least, so that one has a better understanding of words and meanings. Jonathan Swift was more radical in the Voyage to Laputa. When looking for the universal language, professors of the linguistic institute of Laputa suggest that instead of using language or speech, the simplest way to communicate is through the depiction of actual objects. A bundle is also mentioned in which one could carry things to serve this type of communicational need. In our era, it has come to belong to the category of reality, easy for us to imagine it in the form of a laptop bag, with a single universal representation of objects in it. Visual Communication evokes the world of objects on a monitor showing the ‘live image’ of the exhibition venue in a way that you have the illusion of objects actually floating in front of your eyes, only you cannot see them directly. They are only rendered visible through the computer’s window – in the same way as you can only observe the stars through telescopes and the microbes through microscopes, as it is impossible to view them with the naked eye.

Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák’s photographs taken on large-size sheet film and enlarged on gelatine silver paper, entitled What does photographing mean?, seem to serve the same purpose. Images of light surround you, awaiting the moment to be recorded. The work intends to show theseimages as they truly are. Let me conclude by camouflaging a quote here from Plotinus so that it becomes apparent to everyone:

Why, then, can it be said that they truly ARE? Because they are beautiful.

Budapest, December 2008