Infinity Enclosed

(text in catalogue, 2004)


As in some recurrent dream, we see a man from the back: while standing on a high peak, he is immersed in observation of a magnificent sight of distant mountains over the sea of clouds, given away to this view as someone who will stand there long after our gaze. In fact, his gaze is the one to which we confide our own - for he certainly sees more that we do - and what he sees is being translated into a silence of his and our peaceful contemplation. All the sensibility of the moment is manifested in this gesture of sudden stillness. Because the sight is truly amazing, so the traveler may have stopped to indulge himself in an entirely exceptional experience: after a strong and disturbing feeling that nature burst out in front of him in all its magnitude, he can hardly doubt his own limitations. On the contrary, his sensible world is completely abandoned to this awesome power, and his need to form his own estimate of this greatness (which, as far as he is concerned, may be next to infinite) seems to be dangerously inadequate. Still, our traveler may be a man of cosmopolitan manners, dedicated to travel literature and watercolor painting documenting, in the spirit of the times, his own Grand Tour; perhaps on his way back from the great Italian journey, where only few weeks ago he observed the Colosseum in Rome (back then entirely emerged in vegetation), thinking about how the art of tragedy enforces moral independence in front of the laws of the senses. Therefore, he realizes that the momentary feeling of terror at the sight of nature’s greatness is soon being substituted by the feeling of moral superiority, and so the sight in front of his eyes becomes a reflection of his inner being, which suddenly reveals in itself an unexpected magnitude. The feeling is fulfilling, egocentric in part, and the traveler quite certainly feels how appropriate it would be if he decided to, say, just remain there for good, how time would eventually change its pace and bring more amazing views to his eyes, of landscapes in flames, and dark clouds in a rush, as a gift to a life that burns with unsatisfied passion.


Many years later, in his writings on aesthetics, Freud will apparently overlook a direct connection between two terms that open these pages: unheimlich (uncanny) and the aesthetic concept of the sublime. The experience of the negative pleasure which Freud considered to be strangely disregarded in the aesthetic science, has been, in fact, previously discussed by Edmund Burke in his study of sublime and beautiful, where he analyzed those human experiences that stem from awe and terror as an announcement of pain, danger and death. Here the feeling of fear is the source of a particular form of delight, for fear is seductive, just like death, and it is in the nature of man to find a close connection between pleasure and personal termination. The uncanny appears where the continuity of meaning is interrupted and where the unrepresentable requests to obtain a form in our imagination: because uncanny is about the fear of the known, yet repressed, masked by a desire of oblivion. The sublime, on the other hand, as classified in Kant, appears precisely as an experience of two distinct forms of subjection: a) the power of dynamic nature involves the viewer into an observation of a force that may revolt against his very existence; b) the experience of mathematical greatness carries the viewer into an impossible contemplation as he attempts to comprehend the entirety of something astonishingly vast.

In both cases, man is gratified by a fearful pleasure of abandonment and ultimately by the visible closeness of his own death. A cloud of unnamable feeling forms in the mind of the one who faces the edge of a precipice. Tempting one to a leap, towards a presumed encounter with infinity, it is a demon within the man that guides this desire, as speculated by Schiller, apparently the same force that some time later, in a story by E. A. Poe, will lead creative minds into the absurdity of creation, into an encounter with nothingness that precedes it (for every form of creation is a potential leap over the edge).

In order to live the eternity, as written by Kaspar David Friedrich, one must often abandon oneself to death. To live with the mystery of this final precipice man has no other tools except for his own imaginative power, conceptualizing the appropriation of the abyss. As it is the only way, according to Schiller, for a man to preserve his humanity, one must confront every source of superior violence by submitting oneself to its effects, by means of a moral choice. Thus, it is precisely in confrontation with nature that an extraordinary dignity in man is found: a greatness which is nothing else but an internal reflection of eternity.

Death is therefore an acceptable companion, and not without a peculiar sense of humor, marked by pleasurable absurdity and morbid hopelessness that inevitably find their ultimate expression in irony. The death of a poet, or an unfulfilled genius, a failure of a fruitful life ending in madness, were the cause and effect of particular aesthetics of disaster (melancholically expressed by Romantic artists and poets), of man’s limitations that repel and attract, and ultimately cultivate an eroticized desire for self-destruction.

In photographic and video works by a Florentine artist Melania Lanzini, death is a protagonist in a game of representation, an ecstatic experience promoted by the means of ex voto, a populist expression of hope in the after life. The kitsch aesthetics, as a colorful overstatement of an improbable faith, is an amalgamating material for the co-existence of fear and desire: beauty and vitality exist by virtue of their inevitable ending, and the doom of death is therefore the source of erotic unease. Flesh is made sensual for the very fate that grants it corruption and decay.


In search for an iconography of the contemporary sublime, we look for points in time that may connect into a coherent map: we draw lines between recognizable edges and visible horizons of memory, desire and death. And doing so, we observe how the contemplation of immensity that we find in diverse forms of desired and imposed experiences reveals a particular dislocation of horizon. The similarity of the gaze is inherited, one image gives birth to another, just like ideas and deeds are blood related, if not bathed in the same blood.

In the centuries that were marked by large movements of populations towards cities, with the growth of industry and development of modern social institutions, once again, to the eyes of an imaginary traveler, the appearance of infinity is revealed; only this time, the immensity of nature is replaced by the power of a modern state, by the falsehoods of national histories, by collective memory and collective identification, and finally, by the psychological impact of the city, an incomprehensible organic matter that expands, assimilates and absorbs. So, the horizon is now elsewhere, perhaps not as far as to the eyes of Friedrich’s traveler, yet unreachable as ever. The inferiority of man is measured in front of Kafkian mechanisms of bureaucratic tragedies with the iconic backdrop of architectural grayness of cities where individuals fade and vanish. The state, as previously suggested by Rousseau, was needed to operate as a pursuer of a modeling force practiced upon each citizen, whose education, work and free time is to be subordinated to an ideal society, the interests of which are performed through efficient reduction of individuality.

In totalitarian ideologies of the XX century we can recognize essentially two manifestations of the aesthetics of sublime: passive subjection to an incomprehensible power, on one hand; active investment in the rhetoric of iconography and architecture, on the other. Sublime, according to its classical, rhetorical origin, is an announced representation of immensity (and concealment is a part of the strategy of representation) created or simulated by a political power aware of the importance of the image and of tools for its reproduction. Then, we see how in years, even those images that are part of the investment in history eventually change; how speakers on certain balconies disappear, reduced to a borrowed hat on someone else’s head, creating a gap in time, an abyss potentially open for every citizen to fall into. Before any human act or creation, what appears to be a true and irreplaceable source of awe in its purest rhetorical sense is the principle of power itself (a liberated organic presence) which from this point, as announced in Rousseau, seems to reside beyond any tangible political body, carried out by language and social relations as a structured set of regulations that represent the citizen’s only comprehensible reality.

If the romantic traveler contemplated the infinity that spread away from his gaze, the infinity in the modern times originates in a view that tends to move inwards, into the structure of human institutions, into the elementary particles of matter and language, into the abyss of the self.

The image of the city in the world of Luca Matti is a reduced, comic-strip version of a big machine populated by a strange set of characters. Artificial illumination, in what appears to be an eternal night, recalls the popular science fiction visions of the future, as a world reduced to a dominion of technological artifacts. This is a world of claustrophobic spaces and announced tensions, in which home appliances and skyscrapers provide an iconographic background; yet they are not part of some consumer friendly environment. On the contrary, they are imposed, reduced symbols in a world without symbols, without past, or else forgotten in some hybrid time.

The bodies of black rubber that we can see hanging in the artist’s studio, made out of used tires, could be the costumes of some temporarily absent super heroes, or else the result of a desire for the adaptation of the body, which takes place in exchange with technological or genetic materials: an expression of an era in which the body is granted choices of what was previously beyond decision - reconstructing features, changing gender, reproducing organs, programming death - followed by the establishment or adaptation of adequate social institutions and variation of moral response. Cults of hygiene and nutrition, adjustment of facial features according to the standards of beauty, fashionable punctuation and penetration of the skin, surgical implants for the sake of the sex-appeal and other forms of denying age and death reveal the bare sign of an era falsely identified with fulfilled desires, as the counter indication of its progressive, boundary breaking, evolution. Because the body happens to be at focus at the point when the infinity beyond it has been eliminated, discouraged, or just made pointless. The potent telescopic view towards the distant galaxies is not sublime. It is flat and hopeless, and it only confirms that even nothingness isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. On the other hand, we are aware that the real limit, the real edge is the body itself, a vessel filled with time, an abyss populated by unreasonable desires, fears and memories.

As prisoners, who develop shortsightedness while locked inside the cells where the most distant object is at reach of hand, and whose edge of freedom is the edge of their own skin, we observe how the precipice no longer offers a fall over but a fall within, as the inner abyss is no more a reflection of an external landscape, but the only possible gaze towards infinity. The body of a prisoner, marked by self-inflicted wounds and tattoos that seem to designate a territory, is in fact his last frontier. A paradigmatic body of our time is the body filled with scars and punctuations all of which are longing to speak of itself and mean to others.


What exactly begins where the body ends? That which we observe as a body, in the works of Robert Gligorov, becomes a consequence of this question. A body, in fact, is a strange set of coincidences. We observe the ways by which it assumes its outline according to its biological and semantic environment, until it reaches a form which satisfies some sort of interorganic desire. The exchange that follows may best be described as the one of mutual consumption, which finally results in a new body, in some sort of anecdotal symbiosis (if there is such thing as biogenetic humor or a tragedy of organic spectacle).

As in Arcimboldo’s portraits, the body provides a measure and a shape of things that are part of our daily organic environment, thus becoming itself a receiver of a returned (reflected) anthropocentric projection (it adapts itself according to its reflected self) which practically gives back to the body all that the body invests in its surrounding. Mimicry, in this case, is more than a mechanism for defense. It is a strategy of seduction, apparently an expression of a desire that body is all and all is body. Therefore, the body is edible, soft, slimy, green, layered, enclosed, cut, overgrown, replaced, damaged, marked: the body, no doubt, is out of its borders now, extended to a realm where body ceases to be, replaced by a desired communication between forms and materials, tastes and smells, their contents and meanings. But the real search for the answer to the question: what after the body? begins with the analysis of death or its partner in crime: human sexuality. For death and sexuality share the common biological origin, both are mechanisms for the continuation of the species, both in a given moment may be expressions of hope and nothingness to which the body readily abandons itself without choice. The desire for mimicry seems to satisfy the need to vanish, to disappear by fading into environment, or by turning into an edible matter with practical and semantic function reduced to a satisfaction of another’s appetite. It seems that the last instance of this narcissism is a form of gradual destruction which prepares the body to be liked to death, by provoking a physiological desire for consumption, until its final loss.


The night before they were taken into darkness, Hansel and Grettel overheard the plan for their abandonment. They’ve heard the voice of cruelty and the voice of compassion overlap, but what they heard and understood with utmost precision was the word woods. Abandoned, across the edge of safety, Hansel and Grettel followed the path of pebbles they inscribed in the dark. The forest, like the mind, is the place where fear and imagination produce monsters whose names are hidden in the deep regions of memory. Yet the forest we encounter in the images of early childhood may also be the one of romantic warmth, a natural self-sufficient environment, that provides us with food, protection and precious invisibility. An image of a forest: a dark and untamable reason, a world in which imaginative powers become limitless, but at the same time where immensity is entirely dependant on its boundaries, like a curtain that obscures the daylight, and contains the mystery of the enclosed. It is the space where immensity spreads within, an extension of the mind that seeks for abandonment in imagination.

The signs performed on the surface of collected photographs, in the work of Aroldo Marinai, reveal patterns of interconnected points in space, and we are informed that these are, in fact, related to a particular theory of paths, meant to help wanderers through the woods understand and communicate their position. The points are grouped on the surface of the picture, connecting a series of locations within a potentially disorienting space, into a coherent and retraceable itinerary. Then, we see that photographs on which these signs are inscribed, like a rather improbable map, have been passed through a number of processes of reproduction, reducing the image to a faded memory, possibly borrowed, interpreted, as one would interpret a scene of unrecognizable time or context.

What is directly juxtaposed is an image of the past and a method of orientation in an archetypal space, associated with both protection and fear. Yet the inscriptions that indicate a spatial position by a simple method of left and right turns, seem to give a possible reading to the image beneath, which inevitably becomes part of this method of orientation, like a guide to a hidden treasure.


Memory is contained in the architecture of the past: a house provides our thoughts with shelves for archiving sensations, as if memory needed to find its way through time by connecting to particular spatial points, to meaningful locations that relate to our lives. By recreating an image of an interior we once inhabited, as in that notorious method of memorizing a speech, we walk through rooms of intimate significance, through places of personal meaning; and in doing so we find, behind doors and heavy wardrobes, in the corners and beneath the stairs, in long hallways and in a room that overlooks a street with trees, the relation between space and past. We observe how memory finds its way through time by recreating the spaces of past in our dreams, providing dreams with a stage constructed or assembled by diverse interiors that once gave structure to our world. These are spaces of immensity, though not of seas and mountains, and we are aware of a horizon that is guiding our gaze through the intimate spaces that store events and recall nostalgic solitude in which we reclaim, more than anywhere and more than ever, our true selves. In order to experience again the sense of childish immensity, we need to draw a map of interiors that still appear in our dreams.

As if standing in front of a portrait whose eyes are fixed on our own, a photograph of a space offers particular psychological traits that operate as a returned gaze. Photography creates borderlines of oblivion: outside of the picture we are leaving deserts of forgotten time. What is left out may have been recorded by some other gaze, we think, and so the image of the past comes to being as a fragmented photo collage of which every single piece may be contained in another’s recollection. We are fascinated by the possibility to reassemble a childhood as a puzzle in which a missing part may be someone else’s memory. (The edge of a picture, we assume, is the edge where someone else’s memory begins.)

Silent and still: the pictures we are observing now are those of empty hotel rooms, bathrooms, and hallways, or else those of empty exteriors, deserted beach resorts, those spaces for temporary, seasonal stays. We have seen this space before, or at least we share that sensation, even though it may have been elsewhere: as the reproduction of similarity is perhaps nothing else but an attempt to remain in the state of permanent recollection (which many of us strive for). Among hundreds of photographs by Krista Steinhauer, we notice some regularities, we separate them in two groups according to time: open and closed pictures, those that find their order and their harmony within the space they show, within the visible, and those whose aesthetic balance is located a moment before or a moment after the image was recorded. In this second group, the aesthetic attention is directed towards the missing, towards what remains outside of the picture. One more time the gaze is fixed on a site that requests to be completed, from an observer it is required to provide an aesthetic judgment which escapes the evaluation of the visible: by interpreting the emptiness that surrounds the picture.


It was he that stopped first, and so we followed, as if joining a queue; therefore, the traveler may claim a certain advantage in time. Our gaze, on the other hand, comes from a strange place and age, and he seems to be located rather centrally within our visible field. We could say that if, by accident, he were to turn around, our eyes could end up being at the same level, as if by some optical system of reproduction we, as observers, represented a cut-out image of his body. His form, along with the rocks he stands on, delineates a vertically distributed plane on the surface of the picture, while in front of him, and in contrast, we see the distribution of a horizontal space of nature that spreads into infinity. His stillness is pleasant to observe, but the longer we look the more we are intrigued by feeling someone else’s gaze at the back of our head (if by accident we were to turn around, our eyes could end up being at the same level with someone else’s eyes). Aside from the abyss that opens up in front of him, we believe in the existence of another, uncertain abyss, considering that we cannot tell with any certainty what is located between us and the rock on which the traveler is standing. Still, in case our turn comes, we will be obliged to commit ourselves to that step. Because the abyss down below us is certainly one of many of those that open for everyone accordingly at the end of experience, in the appearance of sense, providing each one of us with the utter expression of solitude, gaping into infinity at the place where the picture ends. We wonder if the person staring at the back of our head may feel the same way.

Infinity Enclosed

Belgrade Cultural Center / SACI Gallery

Works by: Robert Gligorov, Luca Matti, Melania Lanzini, Aroldo Marinai, Krista Steinhauer

in occasion of the Outside Project, Belgrade 2004

Melania Lanzini: Ex Voto (Infinity Enclosed)

Luca Matti: Le Animaux Fantastique (Infinity Enclosed)

Robert Gligorov (Infinity Enclosed)

Aroldo Marinai (Infinity Enclosed)

Krista Steinhauer (Infinity Enclosed)