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Babylonian confusion once again?

Robert Zahornicky and the library corners

We are at a turning pointing the history of science and photography alike. Although we are forever reading that nothing will bethe same as it was before, that we have long been witnessing 'post-photography photography', we just continue to act as though it were 'business as usual'. Yet the chemical process in the computer has replaced the completely different reactions of chemistry on paper and negative. The material aesthetic has changed completely; it would be much clearer to speak of Photographie first and Fotografie afterwards. The German spelling reform as an indicator that science and photography alike call for radical different approaches, yet we bash on regardless as though we had not reached that point.

Artists know the role they play as mediators between what once was and what everybody wishes to remain the same. The confluence of science and photography is to the benefit of photography as a widely used medium since it has always mediated between the two fronts and served them both. It was the concept artist - above all Joseph Kossuth - who in the seventies first brought all three together in a more intensive union, but also set photo-artists the task of changing museums and public space (from Public Art, art in public space, published by F. Matzner, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p 199 ff).

Over the past few years Robert Zahornicky has been asking searching questions of his own medium and focused on the phenomenon of uncertainly and unease arising out of the digital revolution, above all on current issues related to realism and the truthful depiction of reality. What started out in 1994 as a series on the shifts in perception of traces of algae on the sea-shore that akin to terraforming created the impressions of satellite imagery shot from afar in outer space found its continuation in a series of photos entiteld Horizon: film directly exposed to sunlight hinting at genuine landscape phenomena. Even here, however, he has not resorted to the computer, but with a high degree of technical perfection has tracked coincidence and similarity, prior to which it was the order of size that was the deceptive factor.

In the period of 1996-2001 Zahornicky took his reality drama a step further with his Wilderness, a series of photographs taken in his studio - still lifes of real and arificial pieces of turf as well as flowers in bloom with roots and surrounding soil. Not without good reason are they are an allusion to Dürer's masterpiece in the Albertina, a small watercolour - the history of art in photographic reality set against a sterile white backdrop lit in such a way that any shadows are minimal. For all that, it retains a touch of the trompe l'oeil, offset by artificial flowers (crochet flowers on metal stems in vases or patches of grass). Uncertainy has become an issue in its own right.

The new group of works retains this ironic stance towards the zeitgeist. It started out acusticially, using a sense that has atrophied in contrast to sight. A radio play on Ö 1 (Austrian radio programme 1) brought together 26 people of different origin, mother tongue and gender, with each of them reading names and numbers out of their home town telefone directories and each one blending into the next: the alphabet comprises 26 letters. A - Z evokes associations by the way of alpha and omega with the first confusion of tongues in Babel. Once the tower had been built by 'homo faber' who aspired in exessive pride to being a creature of God (creatura dei), they were scattered. In keeping with Biblical punishment, their language was confounded "so that they may not understand one another's speech". Today we can al learn languages, but above all we must acquire a command of the langauge that computers speak. Libararies are disappearing into cyberspace after having collected in many books (previously scrolls) our languages as well. This global networking, like comon markets and an expanding Europe, confuses many of us and we are disconcerted anew.

In the series entitled Shredder dating back to 2002, Robert Zahornicky photographed the strips and jumbled bits of paper, the detritus of shreddered books, newspapers and letters, bringing to the fore visible fragments of words and phrases - by 2005 ha had restricted himself exclusively to the stock exchange selections of the Neue Zuricher Zeitung and the official Viennese gazette that serve only special interests. From the discernible fragments of the Pressbaum telephone directory one can read the letters 'ahornic', part of the artist's surename that reveals the artit's own signature and his place of residence (I. Gebetsroither, Robert Zahornicky, Writings in: Eikon 43/44, 2003, p 10). Often mere fragments can be discerned, such as 'use' or 'item' that hint a shreddered version of Goethe's Faust.

The tons of shreddered paper are then compressed into large rectangular blocks: back in the sixties on the nouveau frealists (aboce Cesar and Tinguely) were already resorting to accumulation, as did the German sculptor, Wolf Vostell, who as an actionist compressed motor cars into cubes for display in museums. Zahornicky installed a large paper cube as a part of a show in the National Library in Vienna: once again it was a quasi-transformation and retention of names, concepts, symbols and ciphers that had been duly recorded and stored that were indicative both of names and their loss. What is lost can, however, be retained using other means: that may almost be taken as a paraphrase of digital technology in photography, which in more recent times has stored old films, photos and video on a new storage media.

For all the storage something still goes missing - and artists want to remind us of that loss. Scientists use the term alexandrisme (after André Malraux) to describe the urge to save things for posterity, harking back to the first large library in antiquity. The avant-garde in Fotografie (like their predecessors in Photographie) have to establish archives without any space to accommodate them, very much in keeping with the 'imaginary museum' described by André Malraux that is primarily based on that medium. Itt is almost as though Zahornicky were constructing new artificial libraries from old: he introduces corners into flat photographs of library shelves, yet the pictures he takes are of actual corners (in the National Library and the Provincial Library in St. Pölten) and they offer new insights. By taking the corners apart the reconstructiong them he takes delight in focusing on those 'cramped corners' ('gezwangte Winkel') that Gaston Bachelard described in 1975 as 'the vilest of all refuges' (G.Bachelard, The Poetic Nature of Space (Poetik des Raumes), Frankfurt-Berlin 1975).

Looking out the window in the Provincial Library - with shelves to the right - 'the reader in the sorner' allows himself 'to drift off' towards _the historic spectre in all corners', driven by desire to 'reduce the simmering tension between the competing walls'. All that remains is residual mysticism in the post-industrial age of information, as well as denial (The compewting walls and their explosive tension stem from thoughts by Jan Turnovsky in: The Poetic Nature of the Buttress). Outside a road, crucifix or glass walling could mean 'the earnestness of life', while inside 'a corner for those in a sulk' clould be retained for the individual who might well still be the artist or the resident scientist in a fusy ivory tower. Realities are depicted in a corner shots, thus opening up a complex universe that the medium of Fotografie registers the knowledge that has been listed and duly stored - for that very moment when the corner is also perceptile as art. Science and art were one long before photography came into being, particularly from that point in time on wehen the image become the word. In their thoughts the viewers can travel to Babylon and back, but not beyond the confusion of tongues since the primeval house, the yurt, was a round tent without any corners.

Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer

Translated by Peter Lillie

Schon wieder Sprachverwirrung?

Robert Zahornicky und die Ecken der Bibliotheken

Robert Zahornicky hat sich in den letzten Jahren intensiv mit der Befragung seines eigenen Mediums beschäftigt und die Phänomene der Verunsicherung durch die digitale Revolution, vor allem aktuelle Fragen nach Realismus und wahrheitsgemäßer Abbildung der Wirklichkeit, thematisiert.

Robert Zahornicky hat in seiner Serie "Shredder" 2002 vom Papierwolf erzeugte Streifen und Gewölle aus Büchern, Zeitungen und Korrespondenzen photographiert und dabei Schrift- und Sprachbruchstücke im Vordergrund sichtbar gemacht - 2005 ist es schließlich der nur mehr für spezielle Interessenten wichtige Börsenteil der Neuen Züricher Zeitung und das Amtsblatt der Wiener Zeitung. Aus lesbaren Fragmenten kann im Fall des Preßbaumer Telefonbuchs mit "ahornic" ein Namensteil des Künstlers und damit die eigene Signatur und der Verweis auf seinen Wohnort erkundet werden, aber er gibt uns auch Hinweise auf Goethes zerstückelten "Faust"..

Die Tonnen an Papierschnipsel wurden danach in einen viereckigen Block gepresst: Zahornicky installierte den Papierblock für die Zeit einer Ausstellung in die Nationalbibliothek in Wien: wieder ging es um eine "als ob"-Umwandlung und Aufbewahrung festgeschriebener und verzeichneter Namen, Begriffe, Symbole, Ziffern, die auf Orte verweisen, aber auch auf ihren Verlust. Das Verlorene bleibt mit anderen Mitteln erhalten: fast könnte das eine Paraphrase Ÿüber digitale Technik der Fotografie sein, die neuerdings auch alte Filme, Fotos und Videos auf neuen Datenträgern aufbewahrt. Doch im Bewahren geht etwas verloren, daran möchte uns der Künstler erinnern.

Es ist als würde Zahornicky solche neuen Kunst-Bibliotheken aus den alten konstruieren: er macht Ecken in flach fotografierte Regalwände, hat aber auch die real vorhandenen Ecken aufgenommen (in Nationalbibliothek und NÖ Landesbibliothek von St.Pölten), die neue Blicke ermöglichen. Durch Auseinanderschneiden einer Ecke oder deren Neukonstruktion widmet er sich genüsslich dem mit der Architektur verbundenen Aufspüren jener "gezwängten Winkel, die Gaston Bachelard schon 1975 als "die gemeinsten aller Zufluchtsstätten" bezeichnete.

Der Blick aus der Landesbibliothek durch ein Fenster - rechts ein Regal - lässt "Winkelleser abschweifen" in die Richtung "Geschichtsspuk in allen Ecken", gefolgt von dem Wunsch nach "Abschaffen der explosiven Spannung zweier wettstreitender Wände". Was bleibt ist Restmystik im postindustriellen Informationszeitalter, aber auch Verweigerung. Außen könnte eine Straße, ein Kreuz, Glasfassaden den "Ernst des Lebens" bedeuten, innen könnte der "Schmollwinkel" des Einsamen erhalten bleiben und dieser ist immer noch der Künstler oder als Wissenschaftler der Bewohner des verstaubten Elfenbeinturms (nicht ohne Bibliothek). Die Realitäten sind in Eckaufnahmen abgebildet, damit erschließt sich ein komplexes Universum, das mit dem Medium Fotografie das verzeichnete und damit gespeicherte Wissen festhält - für den Moment, in dem auch die Ecke als Kunst begreifbar wird. Wissenschaft und Kunst waren auch schon vor der Photographie eine Einheit, insbesondere ab dem Zeitpunkt, in dem Bild zur Sprache wurde. Bis Babylon und zurück können Betrachterinnen und Betrachter gedanklich wandern, aber nicht vor diese Sprachverwirrung, denn das Urhaus, die Yurte, war ein Rundzelt ohne Ecken.

Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer