Sparking a different light
Willem van Weelden

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First notions about a materialistic theology - The path to salvation does not reside in overcoming our sins, but in overcoming our ignorance, and in transcending the world of material appearances by way of achieving the True Knowledge. That, at least is the foundation of the Gnostic tradition. A tradition that, in the shadow of Christianity, has shaped much more of the occidental belief-systems than we usually acknowledge.

The basic scheme of Gnoticism is that the Creator (demiurge) of our material universe, the visible tangible world, and thus the visual arts, is none other than the Devil. He is complemented by an albeit completely impotent yet infinitely good God, who is cut off from the world. This evil Creator has done a rather silly job by producing man in his image, without having the ability to create spiritual life. He asked the good God to breath a soul into the body of clay; a divine spark. And thus was man created as eternally divided and left to struggle with both sides of his being:   good and bad. With the rise of neo-liberalism, this simple dualistic frame has become the basis of our moral considerations. Perhaps we have lost our God but secretly we rely upon the agency that he used to embody in our everyday choices. On the one hand, we make a pact with the Devil by just happily playing along with neo-liberalism and making money, but when we are put into a moral dilemma, we are reminded of our divine spark, and we try to do good and to take a distance to all worldly matters.

Modern art thrives precisely within the abyss that separates these primevally formulated domains. For it can correct the false view that the human Self is a pre-existing Soul thrown into a foreign, hostile and materialistic environment. If art has some function than one of them is to uncover the social patterns that spring forth out of our dealings with these dominant dualistic formations.

The art of Saša Karalić can be understood as a practice that deals with the uncovering of social patterns, along with the analysis of the beliefs that support them. For as a deconstructionist, his work is not to excommunicate what is apparent, but to shed a different light upon it, and to show it in an alternative fashion

But for a better understanding of his work, it might be instructive to turn to a scene of the Francis Ford Coppola's film epos The Godfather which shows how inventive Western man has become in mixing spirituality and moral questions while at the same time acknowledging the dominance of money and its worldly power. In this particular scene, the main character Michael Corleone bargains over the price of his conscience by buying his access to the wealth of Immobiliare, the world's largest real estate company in which the Vatican has the major share. In a completely absurd scene where it is being determined what exactly Michael has to pay to the Holy Church, the fusing of financial debt and the gnawing moral debt he is subjected to after having commissioned the murder of his own brother is beautifully demonstrated.

The hard-boiled negotiator Corleone finally gives in with an exorbitant price of his moral cleansing. The scene shows how these businessmen silently share this mutual understanding about the price of a conscience. The proselyte Michael Corleone shakes off his sterile gnoticism and kneels sincerely for the crucifix. Through this act of faith, which is symbolised by his costly pardon, the Church is granted the opportunity to offer one of the biggest crooks in the world absolution. The economic interests of the Church are safeguarded as well as her moral supremacy. This exemplifies not only the fact that classical humanism has definitely become subculture and that 'goodness' has just become a perfidious semblance of itself, but also that the ephemeral matters of belief in the end are ruled by material practices.

Views from the cockpit - Although I have never had the opportunity to discuss this Coppola scene with Saša Karalić, I most definitively think that he would like the tenure of it. For some of his works (e.g. Schwabo, The Artist as a Church) show a keen interest in the ambiguous side of religious belief, while equally acknowledging how belief-systems in general structure society and determine the frames of perception and understanding. Karalić seems to have set himself the task to uncover on a micro-political scale how collective beliefs, (and not necessarily religious ones), come about, and how they are reinforced by imagery and the icons that flood media and the visual world.

The formats which he uses in his work are unsettling, for they seem to be as ambiguous as the content which is addressed. Schwabo mimics the documentary style, including dramatic effects and subtle camera-work (e.g. the use of reflections of the interviewer), but on the other hand he breaks down these tricks by not completely complying with the implicit 'rules' that apply to this genre. Using unsettling edits and shifts in tempo, he confronts the spectator with an awkward position by not offering the comfort that resides in the recognition of the format. The spectator is faced with the question: 'What to believe?' This question is made even more urgent as the self-made priest Schwabo in the work utters vis à vis art being made by non-believers: 'Non-believers are not to be believed!'

Drama exists by grace of identification, but with the blend of narrative styles that Karali? is using, it remains difficult to determine with certainty upon what level of fictional account do the works communicate with us. With what should we identify? Are we forced to follow his views from his cockpit and to 'read between the lines', or is the intended decomposition of the format a hint of a more radical break with the conventions that rule aesthetic response? For it is clear that his work forces its viewfinder upon the problem of contingency not only by playing out conventional approaches to various 'formats' of expression, but also by leaving out instructional accommodation.

Not only do we have to understand that unpredictability is both a constitutive and differentiating element in the process of interaction, but also that contingency is a necessary attribute in the making of meaning. For contingency attacks the 'behavioral plans' that rule the expectations with which we communicate. It shakes up the ritualization of communication, and installs new viewpoints and interactive modi. It gives rise to the birth of new regimes of subjectivity, because the interaction based on a certain form of contingency touches upon the fabrication of subjectivity per sé! Karalić acknowledges that the making of meaning is a reciprocal activity that is ruled by the politics of subjectification. Not only the subjectivity that is embedded in the work and intended by the maker, but also the subjectivity that the work produces in the minds of the viewers. The delivery of a work is accompanied by the responsibility for that realm of subjectivity which it produces. In the renewed interplay between work and viewer, access is gained to new meaning.

In his video-work, On Certainty, Karalić has chosen to concentrate on the concept of communicational indeterminacy. Borrowing the title for the work from the last publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karalić stages a character who is confronted with a strong spotlight, a video camera and a series of questions which he is obliged to answer. The questions range from general ones ('How many days contains one week?') to personal ones ('Who wouldn't you kill in self-defense?'). Every time the character answers a question correctly (or at least when he thinks he has given the correct answer), he is obliged to run for 25 seconds. Telling 'the truth' is punished in this way, and 'lying' is rewarded in the process.

The series of questions are confusing, not only to the character who is obliged to answer, but also to the viewer. The questions put you in the position of doubting basically everything that is uttered: both the answers and the questions. The work functions as a deconstruction of the certainties and 'truths' we have constructed. The communicational breakdown of this 'system of knowledge' sparks the desire to start anew, and reinvent the structure that allows communication to happen. With this breakdown and the desire for a new level of understanding, Karalićcreates a meta-level in the relationship between the intentional object (work) and its aesthetic response.

On certainty convincingly demonstrates a Wittgensteinian shift towards the unsayable. It also demonstrates a deconstruction of received language and opens it up to a new playful assemblage of language.

This reassembly functions as the mediator in the multiplicity of all the fictional levels that are at play, and leaves us with the task to unravel the question whether the statement, 'knowing is believing', is enough of an instrument to guide us beyond another abyss, the speechless abyss of meaning.

The Crucifix of Art - Parallel to the divine spark that brought Michael Corleone to his knees amidst his dilemmas, with these indeterminacies Karalić sparks us to kneel for the dilemmas that are intrinsically part and parcel of art, and for which there is no absolution at hand. Dilemmas that perhaps should not be attempted to be resolved in any way if we were to believe in any form of humanism. Not unlike true religious belief, the arts share this potential of being an antidote to cynicism, gnosticism and easy choices that are advocated by the global market of ideas. Perhaps, equally the gaps between aesthetics, ethics and politics should not be 'solved', but seen as the necessary terrains vagues between the various domains of our daily choices. They can be used to connect these different registers in an ecological fashion as part of a larger ecology of articulation and assemblage and allow space for speculation, doubt, experimentation and false beliefs.

But on the other hand, Karalić is also realist enough to acknowledge the insight that the Corleone scene conveys, namely that economics and human conscience have since time immemorial a long and often complex relationship. Through the passage of time we have learned to recognize the ideal of a conscience economics, often embodied by managers with a green agenda, or by feeling a heartfelt sympathy for underdeveloped countries, or even having a conscience that questions limitless growth. The opposite side of that ideal is, because the entanglement of worldly and religious power is by far the most popular: the economization of conscience. Guilt pays!

For the arts there seems to be no other option than to capitalize on this ecological program, ensuring in this way its own survival under the suspense that one day all mercy of the market will end. The memento mori of the arts is that it runs a risk without such a politico-spiritual engagement to perish in a prosaic way. It is this meditation that the work of Saša Karalić reminds us of. Art is something ephemeral and has to be revived time and time again in the eyes of the beholder.