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Ján Mančuška │The Missing Bit
in catalogue "Ján Mančuška First Inventory", ed. První inventura, 2015

These days it is no longer art that is false, it is the art viewer. If there are bits of reality in an exhibition, they are immediately destroyed by the visitor’s “falsifying” way of looking at things. It is a conscious way of looking, which, in advance, incorporates the rules of a cultural order involving the simulacrum, and does away with any possibility of a real experience. We shall be dealing with experience here in a traditional sense, whose disappearance is observed by Giorgio Agamben, commenting on Walter Benjamin.1 Namely, an edifying practice of reality that is strictly distinct from knowledge, but which proceeds by way of “words and narrative”, and stems from disorder, uncertainty, and imagination2 (3.1). What is in fact being played out in art today is overdetermined by its structures, institutions and history, which lay a set of affective and behavioural prescriptions over the exhibition. Henceforth, and despite himself, the visitor becomes his own go-between, passively respecting the terms of a tacit contract which has corrupted his relation to the work (7.1). As if experience (in the diachronic sense) had killed experience (in the synchronic sense). The result is that there is almost no longer any experience possible in the art field, though it might have been experience’s last refuge.

Let us imagine some spectators who know nothing about art, or who forgot everything they did once know about it. Then the relation to the work ought to be actively re-invented at each and every moment through a kind of cognitive mobility. A jointly productive way of seeing things out of necessity. We would then have the conditions of an immediate experience (im-mediacy literally without mediation), relieved of the “false” artificiality projected into the art dispositive by a pernicious habitus. It would thus be a matter of rehabilitating the notion of experience based on amnesia and ignorance, or, more simply, of organizing the conditions of a subtle form of incomprehension (8).

It is perhaps this deep-seated design that has guided Ján Mančuška in his critical reconfigurations of the art space (2.2).

What typifies art, as we see it, is first and foremost its space. A physical and symbolic space. A functional architecture that legitimizes a power and conveys an ideology, producing its own rules which guide bodies and affects (7). Insomuch as Ján Mančuška’s work is permanently thwarting these determinations, it proposes a critical examination of the institution, which is based on inversions : forced awareness of what we are supposed to forget about (the visitor’s body), and distancing of what is supposed to be in front of us (image, work, narrative). In so doing, the work executes subtle transactions between what is visible and what is felt, the present and reality, consciousness and knowledge, which weaken certainties and upset meanings (8.2).

This specific space of art cannot be separated from a specific time-frame, and it is precisely the complex correlations that are made between these two dimensions of experience that define the limits of Ján Mančuška’s ballpark. In the visual arts, all works are set within a de-synchronized relation between the artist and the onlooker, between the production of an object and its presentation. From now on, the work of art is just the trace of a past situation. In its spatialized narratives, which prompt visitors to physically encompass the outlines of a story, it is precisely this memory (of a gesture, a gaze, or an initial experience) that Ján Mančuška projects, both literally and figuratively, into the exhibition space, and which he suggests that the viewer re-interprets. A kind of choreographic transfer of experience (7.2), which underscores how memory always has to do with space. As France Yates describes it in The Art of Memory, the ancient tradition of Ars memoriae consisted in constructing a mental architecture that was as complex as possible, in order to be able to disguise the facts to be remembered, and all you had to do to rediscover them was mentally criss-cross that architecture3 (4). An updating of a past image whose receptacle can only be topographical.

We know, furthermore, how, in Antiquity, the Peripatetics saw philosophical praxis merely incarnated in the walk, in a way synchronizing the meanders of intellectual logic with the circulation of bodies in space. A geometry in space does indeed exist, so why would there not exist a philosophy in space ? And even a psychology in space ? In tangibly formalizing these hypotheses, Mančuška’s oeuvre reveals a sort of cognitive and affective spatiality. Like thought, this discursive use of space is based on logical connections as well as on unstable trajectories, leaps, ellipses, intersections and comebacks4 (4.1). In so doing, the artist associates a way of thinking about space with a way of thinking in space. He makes the link between conceptual art and a certain classical art, by constructing its representation in accordance with strict vanishing lines and multiple perspectives.

If Ján Mančuška’s oeuvre is indebted to conceptual art, it belongs to a corrupted filiation of it. Certainly, the work appears process-bound and analytical, made of theoretical intentions. But its methods of formalization dispute the principles of conceptualism on several fronts. First and foremost, he prefers literature to philosophy, and anecdote to demonstration. Next, he directly broaches psychological and even psychic themes sidestepped by the historical advocates of conceptual art. Without veering towards the romanticism of a second generation of conceptual artists, Ján Mančuška’s work stems from narrative more than from discourse (6.1). On this side of a universal truth, what the artist is aiming at is a complex and multifaceted experience of reality, even if this means using the paths of fiction (3.1). A radically present praxis of time and space. In Mančuška’s oeuvre, there is no “elsewhere” which would be a remote territory of ideas. Here, concrete physical experience precedes and determines intellectual experience. A form of empirical conceptual art. It is precisely this way of making conceptual dogmas comply with a sensual regime that represents the originality of the oeuvre.

Mančuška’s oeuvre is opposed to conceptual art insofar as the work is not asking to be deciphered, but directly felt, by leaping over the notion of comprehension (8.2). It is in this sense that the artist managed to make reference to the thinking of Susan Sontag, and in particular her text Against Interpretation (a title borrowed for one of his catalogues).5 Attempts at interpretation destroy the work, so the artistic experience is not situated in a chord of the eligible, but of the ineffable. Running counter to the clearest possible translation of a thought by a form, Ján Mančuška proposes confusions, dissonances and breaks in the fabric of sensibility (5).

We know that dealing with things in space is also dealing with the space between things. Pushing this logic to its limit, Ján Mančuška’s works focus mainly on rifts, and even often appear like a sum of space-time intervals. Just as shadow hollows the canvas to bring out figures in the works of classical painters,6 so it is the absences of things and their missing parts which structure representation in Ján Mančuška’s work. Hence his systematic recourse to elliptical narratives that literally have holes in them or are amputated, which propose implicit narratives in the negative, so to speak. It is incidentally in this sense that his oeuvre is deeply cinematographic. Technically speaking, we know that celluloid film records only a very small selection of 24 frames per second, and that it is the interval of black via the closing of the projector’s shutter that gives the illusion of movement by playing with retinal persistence. So it is the blind spots of reality, the non-visible and the non-recorded which make it possible to bring forth the image. In a word, there is no moving image without missing images. All films are flicker films. In this sense, cinematographic technique is a copy of the way memory functions, meaning it is also fragmentary and fragmented. There is no memory without forgetting : a system involving permanent selection and rupture which is not a problem but an actual condition of its possibility.

There are meaningful voids everywhere in Mančuška’s oeuvre : cut-out texts in material, through which you can see a concealed scene7 or a picture,8 bullet holes in the wall which represent a chair “by default”,9 the remains of a lecture whose subject we will never know.10 Elsewhere it is the parts of the body which remain invisible for oneself that are designated.11 More generally, everything looks as if it is being enacted off-screen with Mančuška, in the blind pleats of reality, be they material or psychic. The protagonists of the stories seem to have lapses of memory, absences, losses of reference in the heart of the everyday life (6.1). In the textual pieces, instead of specifying the facts, the relativism created by the many different viewpoints shows rather how any given perspective designates a dizzy infinity of excluded perspectives. In a word, in Mančuška’s work, as much in these sculptures of pieces of furniture literally eaten by the wall12 as in the narratives, what is hidden is much greater than what is shown.

Memory and thought are also “cinematographic” insomuch as they are merely matters of editing. All reminiscence is just a selective recomposition based on a shapeless magma of simultaneous sensations, which every instant is made of. Similarly, Ján Mančuška’s textual works involve a sort of parallel editing which forces visitors to make ongoing reappraisals of the perspectives based on the viewpoints. Henceforth, like an endless duplication of this arrangement, the actual meaning of the work depends on the critical perspective of the way we look at it. Just as certain texts floating in space are only readable from one viewpoint, which changes with every visitor, an understanding of Ján Mančuška’s oeuvre remains contingent and becomes blurred as soon as you move (8.1). In cognitive terms, it is the viewer who will carry out a personal re-editing of the work based on the disparate elements which are given to him (7).

The psychological motifs which govern Ján Mančuška’s narratives are deliberately commonplace, not to say indifferent (6.1) : passive descriptions of the context, missed meetings, misunderstandings, and fleeting moments of paranoia. Even serious and tragic events (rape,13 suicide14) are broached with a disturbing remoteness. Without any heroism, his characters broadcast a kind of existentialist philosophy expressing the futility of life and its fragility, without any excessive affect. But indifferent does not mean lacking in substance. Because, it just so happens, these narratives take up space. This even seems to be their main role : occupying the terrain in an absurd way. As if the narrative was a pretext for measuring space, a simple utilitarian material, just like Chinese firecrackers are made of folded bits of newspaper which potentially contain anecdotal or tragic events, over and above their function as filler. A volumetric use of fiction. With Mančuška, the narratives are floating, autonomous entities which are “deposited” on objects and forms of matter, or in the mouths of the protagonists. Linguistic ghosts, squatters, which move readily from one medium to the next.15 In any event, if the narrative is neutral, if it only arouses a little empathy on the part of the spectator, its psychic consequences are no less profound for the person speaking. In a nutshell, the words work like imprints, meaning that they are at once superficial and leaving marks.

(7.1) One of the strategies for dodging the terms of a contract is to get rid of one of the co-contractors. This is what Ján Mančuška does to art, by passing above the figure of the author. In fact, if there is an initial onlooker, the trustee of a lived experience, he does not seem to have his own identity. As such, there is nothing autobiographical in Mančuška’s narratives, nothing that reflects the artist’s private psychology. Emblematically, when he says “I”, in The Other (I asked my wife to blacken all parts of my body I cannot see (2007), this is a relative (ici je veux dire que c’est relative, c’est à dire un je qui ne depend de qui parle, un jeu impersonnel) I, because it is a third party who carries out the action described. A literary practice which links up with the bases of the nouveau roman, in which, in a famous lecture given in 1969, Michel Foucault analyzed the self-effacement of the dominant figure of the author starting by quoting these fine words of Samuel Beckett : “Qu’importe qui parle, quelqu’un a dit ‘qu’importe qui parle’” [No matter who’s talking, someone said ‘no matter who’s talking].

(7.2) With Mančuška, if the author effaces himself, it is to leave the leading role for the spectator who, when all is said and done, becomes the story’s narrator and protagonist. His works appear like an apparatus to be appropriated, proposing that another person should be a staging-post of experience. If Mančuška re-uses conceptual art in the form of an incarnated situation, it is not—in the manner of body art or performance—the body of the artist which is in question but that of the spectator. So it is not a matter, as with the experiments of artists like Bruce Nauman or Valie Export, of illustrating an already experienced situation in which their body, their eye and their camera become the gauge of space and time. It is rather a matter of reviving the conditions of an experience, by inviting the spectator’s body and mind to relive it in his own way.

Far from being a simple manipulation, this type of practice might rather be a homage to the figure of the “Emancipated Spectator” described by Jacques Rancière as a responsible and active person involved in the protocol of art.16 For the French thinker, the principle of an equality of intelligences leads everyone (teacher as much as pupil, artist as much as art viewer) to create his own economy, and his own system for producing knowledge. In so doing, the simple gaze and the observation, as well as the links woven between these observations, are already a form of action. Jacques Rancière challenges the classic contrasts of eye/knowledge and eye/action, proposing an abolition of the hierarchies between the so-called activity of the creator and the so-called passivity of the spectator. With this he restores to the latter the re-appropriation of his consciousness and his intelligence in his very position as spectator, as one who uses his power to “associate and dissociate” (5)” (thus his power of editing) and one who composes “his own poem with the elements of the poem facing him (6)”.17

(8.1) This responsibility on the part of the spectator is only possible if the significance of the work remains suspended, not frozen, and can thus be endlessly appropriated. With Mančuška, as we have seen, it is as much a matter of hiding as showing, in one and the same movement and without contradiction, because one is the condition of the other (and vice versa). In this case, it is not even a matter of hiding but simply of shedding light on the way in which all reality is presented to the intelligence in a fragmented way, naturally masking a part of itself. So, just as the artist (or rather his double) tries to define the blind spots of his body,18 the whole of Mančuška’s oeuvre seems to be trying to define a blind spot in its meaning (8.2). The work is not there to be grasped or understood. It only functions by blurring the meaning that it proposes, and the vertiginous abysses of ignorance that it creates before our eyes (8.2). It is this part of Ján Mančuška’s oeuvre which discreetly draws from Mallarmé, hermetic poetry, Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, and the Kafka of The Silence of the Sirens, but which we also find among literary conceptualists such as Ian Wallace and Art & Language. It is this indecisive part of the work which gives the viewer an area of investigation and inclusion within the work. It is this “cognitive withdrawal” that offers the possibility of experience, which, no matter how slight it may be, represents an area of freedom won in the much signposted territory of art. The artist’s premature death, which adds to this impossibility of interpretation, emphasizes the impression, which is already so significant in the oeuvre, that the true experience, the ultimate experience, the experience which art can give back to us, is that of a “non-knowledge”.

Guillaume Désanges
Translated by Simon Pleasance

1 Girogio Agamben, Enfance et Histoire, 1978
2 “L’expérience trouve son nécessaire corrélat moins dans la connaissance que dans l’autorité, c’est-à-dire dans la parole et le récit/ Experience finds its necessary correlate less in knowledge than in authority, that is to say, in words and narrative”, Giorgio Agamben in Enfance et Histoire, 1978
3 Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (1966) ISBN 9780226950013
4 A cup…, 2003
5 Ján Mančuška, Against Interpretation, edited by Hilke Wagner, 2011
6 Cf Max Milner, L’Envers du visible, essai sur l’ombre , Seuil, 2005
7 Space behind the wall, 2004
8 And back again…, 2004
9 800 ways to describe the chair, 2004
10 Konference, 2001
11 The Other (I asked my wife to blacken all parts of my body I cannot see), 2007
12 You will never see it all…, 2003
13 A fragment of asynchronized history : Jana’s story, 2005
14 Killer without a cause, 2008
15 The sought-after object, 2010 / This is how it really happened, 2010
16 Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé, Editions La Fabrique, 2008
17 In Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé, Editions La Fabrique, 2008
18 The Other (I asked my wife to blacken all parts of my body I cannot see), 2007