Blesok no. 64, January-February, 2009
Gallery Reviews

A Victory of Language over the Act of Looking

Miroslav Popović

Shut your eyes and you shall see
James Joyce, Ulysses

There is this question – the one which doesn't force us to provide an unequivocal and immediate answer – what is the specificity of a black painted surface? When we are looking at the canvases of Dragan Petković from an ideal point of view, that is, from close range and under the sweep of a side-light, we will notice the exquisitely rich facture of his paintings. Therein, in the techniques spanning refinement to that which is spontaneous, raw and crude, one may experience the neat, nigh fused brushwork, the traces and sediments of paint as well as ridges remaining from the previous, unsatisfactory and partially scrubbed-off layers. By that, the material body of the paintings proper is reaffirmed as it is by resorting to frequent reworking and perfecting touches until the desired result and the air of time is attained. As if by the rule, a twofold dating appear on most of the works wherein the later date indicates that the pictorial result adequately met the painter's exacting criteria.

    In front of these black painted surfaces we feel as if we were in front of a dark, somewhat disturbing space which is virtually impressing upon us the evocation of a “negative theology”. Moreover, there are these titles such as, for example, “Deaf” (Sordo) or “Disturbance” (Astasia), which are aćordingly denoting the apprehensive nature of the artworks.
    The opaque surfaces wherein “there's nothing to see” while, at the same time, “there is so much to be looked at” are standing as an iconographic “Ground Zero” in want for their referential strongholds. Their detachment puts into question the very act of seeing, as well as of its aesthetic, psychological and ethical implications. Thus, moving the centre of gravity towards the act of seeing proper, appears to be a logical consequence which is actually confirmed by Petković himself: “… the vision is changed and upgraded when it touches the matter. The paintings – as a final result – are leading an independent life irrespectively of the explanations and narratives of their author”.[1]

    “That with which we see is important to us and is present in our eyes – only because it concerns us (or because it looks ar us)”.[2]

    In the mentioned work of Georges Didi-Hubermann there are two distinct types of “viewers” and two unfit comportments. The first type of viewer is always prepared to believe, as an apostle before the Christ's tomb who, regardless of the view, is transcending that which is seen onto some different level. On the other hand, the other type of viewer is firmly entrenched in the seemingly obvious apparency of things, in the tautology aćording to which “what is visible is visible” and there is nothing more to it. This position is grounding the act of seeing as a tautological act within some “planar truth” which is stating that “what I see – I see”, something which, in the end, may be labeled as a veer into the obvious banality asserted in the spirit of a “Lapalissade”.[3]

    Actually, it is a victory of language over the act of looking – the language which being enclosed in itself as a “Lapalissade” claims that in front of us there is nothing else but a black surface, and that it is not something that would be different from itself. Thus, it is evident that the tautological approach means discarding the hidden aspects of the work, while at the same time it is merely corroborating the work's nominal tautological identity. In this way the temporal dimension of the work is rejected from consideration, as well as the action of time, the alteration of the very piece, the function of the memory or – the obsession of the regard. It is to do, in terms of W. Benjamin, with rejecting the aura of the artwork which concurrently indicates an indifference towards that which is beneath, hidden and delayed.

    The second experience of looking is related to the religious act and its verity which is presented as being superior, heavenly and authoritative – which is how the dogmatic stance always assumes a theological and metaphysical sense for the obviousness. It is that great phantasmal construction which is directing our view towards the aesthetic (the sublime) and at the same time towards the temporally defined (as hope and fear) universe.

    Both distinctions appear to be functional within the indicators which are relying on the phenomenology of perception: it is about distinguishing the visible from the visual. This may be rendered as an illustrative explanation: it is like being awake during the night-time when nothing can be seen and yet knowing from the experience that this does not mean looking at the invisible since the eyes are open, which only agrees with the fact that it is actually a matter of visual experience.

    To us, in this sense, Merleau-Ponty represents an excellent guide: “When, for example, the world of clear and articulated objects is invalidated, it is upon our perceptive being, which is torn away from its proper universe, to outline the spaciousness without the objects. It happens at night. The night is not an object standing before me but rather a wraparound, it is entering through all of my senses, it is repressing my memories and is all but wiping out my identity. I am no longer nailed to my view-point wherein I can make out the distance and contours of the objects. The night has no outlines. The night itself is touching me so that our unity is the unity of mana [4]. Hence, besides its resident voices and the distant light, the night is experienced in its entirety as a deep without planes, without surface, without a distance from oneself. In view of reflection, the space consists of thoughts, of thoughts that connect the parts, while during night-time that awareness is lacking its proper place. On the contrary, it is incorporated within the night space in the heart of that same space.” [5]

When we are experiencing the night without restrictions, the night becomes the perfect place wherein we dwell in its centre in an absolute way, and it will remain a point in the space where we are. In this invocation of the night where one is losing the visual stability, the night is revealing before us the meaning of the objects and the essential fragility of theirs, that is to say, their aptitude to vanish just when they are closest to us. At the level of perception, the night manifests itself as a factor of the “voluminosity” of the place while at the level of the signified, the absolutely neutral character of that which is barely discernible is transformed into a significant operation wherein the constitution of senses is based on absence. The paradigm of night with its concomitant visual anxiousness (an additional reflex that is related to the paintings of Petković) which is, by the by, assumed self-evident, encourages us to label the artist's works as “sleeping” surfaces or volumes – in a way only the night can be.

    There is yet another dialectic image that seems appropriate to approach the parable of the view – that image is the door or the doorstep. The black surfaces with Petković do not appear like doors, but their dialectic nature aćurately condenses the two spatial conditions. Actually, we are either in front of or inside. We all know only too well the riddle of the doorstep from the metaphor presented in 1927 by Marcel Duchamp in his Porte 11, rue Larrey. Namely, Duchamp had noticed the ambiguous coalescence of the arrival and departure – an act that is regularly associated with the door. Thus, he had set up a door between two doorsteps forming two doorways that are inevitably and simultaneously open and closed. The artist is reminding us that the sensibility and senselessness are coexisting in the very paradox, practically bordering the absence of sense. In many a plot and conundrum used in the mythical constructs there is this ambivalent property of the door (as a place of crossing from here to over there or, as a spot of transition or, finally, as a location that cannot be passed across). The door stands as a figure of the opening, or more to the point, of a conditional opening, the one which is blackmailed and blackmailing, capable of taking or giving everything. In front of the painting we stand as if we were in front of an open door whose doorstep we cannot pass over: the believer wants to see what is on the other side, while the man of tautology will turn away since he thinks that he knows the door simply by glancing at it. Looking means simultaneously taking into consideration that the painting is structured as in front of-inside, as a doorstep. The image of the open door is indicative of the unity proper, of the intertwining of that which is open and closed. As for the canvases of Petković, the riddle or ambiguity of the doorstep originates in their inter-space. There, a meeting is taking place between, on one side, the obscurity itself – an ingesting obscurity or the one that is created upon its proper diluteness or its absolute denseness, and on the other side, the physical traces and facture, the free handwriting or simply the liberally applied dreg.

    While looking, it is important for us to understand the form as a process of deformation or as a figure of perdition. A place where to see means to lose and wherein the losing object is not seeing, represents a place of weirdness (das Unheimliche) which on the other hand corresponds to the auratic image that Benjamin called “strange” (sonderbar) and “unique” (einmalig). With auratic objects, Freud's Unheimlich reveals the powerful hold of the viewer by that which is looked upon. The object of disturbance is attracting us by obsessively mixing the attraction and uneasiness, because the condition of distress exposes us to a risk of not seeing it anymore.

    The distress is disorientating. We do not know exactly what lays ahead and what is not there and whether the place we are taking our orientation from is inside. The disorientation of our view is separating us from ourselves, within ourselves. Thus we are held to ransom by the absent. This division in us (we look at and we are looked at) is initiated by the doorstep. We are between something which is in front of and something which is behind.

    In case we name the object of our observation as painting, then in front of the painting one is standing as if it were an open door which cannot be entered. We carry the space by way of our body and this space may solely appear within the dimension of the encounter: releasing it from the limitations, separating it from that which is here, from the visual closeness; concurrently, the space is presenting itself in that which is there, in an “opening” distance that allows to be opened respectively. The threshold between the memory and expectations, between that which already had met the ending and that which is yet to see the closure. Every painting is a doorstep that opens toward its deepness – retrieving it, retreating from it and attracting it. From the painting proper our gaze can discern the sorrow and the desire as it can simultaneously feel the time slipping by and its own perdition.


1. Interview, Nova Makedonija, 26.04 1988., p.9;
2. Georges Didi-Hubermann, Il gioco delle evidenze, Fazi Editore, Roma 2008;
3. It is an expression denoting a truism, a banal obviousness which originated in the renaissance song dedicated to the perished Marshal La palice (La palice is dead/Dead in front of Pavia / A quarter hour before his death / He was still quite alive).
4. Mana is a term of Malaysian origin denoting an impersonal supernatural and immoral power which is manifesting itself in particular natural phenomena. On a social and political level mana stands for a symbolic way of aćepting the special values of some person as well as the basis of this person's authority.
5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fenomenologia della percezione, Bompiani, Milano 2003, p. 372

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