06.03.2014. - 06.04.2014.

Vlado Martek, Pictographic alphabet

The exhibition "Pictographic alphabet" represents a selection of Martek's drawings and collages created in the period between 1987 and 2002. Up to now, they have mostly been unexhibited, and in the artist's words, they belong to the "side of me which vents my emotions". The drawings and collages testify to the spiritual turmoil in an almost diary-like manner. Love, fear, loss, pain, happiness, mutiny, doubt, ecstasy, rage... are just some of the emotions manifesting openly its strength. The establishment of a contact with another being, with society, in other words, is one of the backbones of Martek's work. By ignoring all other aspects of a painting except the communicational one, Martek formed an assembly of signs (pictographs) with the purpose of expanding the space of conversation and compassion. If we have in mind that Martek considers his paintings, including also the works presented in this exhibition, poetry, the range of possible communication is additionally widened.

Vlado Martek was born in 1951 in Zagreb. He graduated philosophy and literature and has been exhibiting since 1974. He is a conceptual artist and a poet. The forms of his artistic work encompass art actions, paintings, sculptures, publicist writing, murals, graffiti, books, poetry, land art, graphics and photography. He authored 22 self-published works, 5 books of pre-poetry/poetry/post-poetry, 3 books of essays, 2 books of theoretical and philosophy texts and 5 graphic maps. He is a member of Croatian Writers' Association and Croatian Association of Artists. Martek's art is found in the most important Croatian and foreign museum collections.

Read the pictographs

After attending Vlado Martek retrospective organised in 2008 in Glyptotheque of Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in the production of Modern Gallery in Zagreb, I remember I was most impressed by Martek's paintings. No matter if I was standing in front of easel paintings or drawings and collages, anywhere, where the surface of the art object was dominated by different motifs and signs, non-colours such as black or white or primary colours, I felt strangely attracted. Presently, speaking from perspective of an expert, it is possible to say that I was drawn by Martek's approach to the phenomenon of pictorial representation. To illustrate: quite a portion of the paintings and drawings were created during the 80s, in the so-called transavantgarde or "New image painting", so I soon realised that I have to change the list of canon authors of the so-called "return to painting", although Martek does not share much with that art movement. It is possible, I say, to consider the encounter with Martek's paintings within this framework, but there was something more than that.

If the return to the 80s painting can be observed as the attempt of new articulation of the image (imago) as a particular manner of representation, then Martek's paintings even today figure as exceptionally suggestive and unusually alive. Especially considering their extremely modest realisation – there is no monumentality, no typical fascination of painting by itself so characteristic of the art period. Martek's paintings don't seem to try to be paintings. Everything is reduced, restricted to the most basic elements: surface, colour, contours, symbols. No skill, no secret.

Image had a special status within the 20th century art theory, ensuring it a special treatment. As its presence in everyday life grew, so grew the suspiciousness towards its alleged social power. Instruments of art criticism predominantly originated in the area of philological humanistic disciplines, so the visual form of communication was either avoided or interpreted in another context. Trends in humanities and social sciences can be explained through certain epistemological paradigm shifts. Although their number increased in the end of the 20th century, the so-called linguistic or language shift started at the turn of the 19th to 20th century marked the modern humanistic theory more than any other theory (feminist, media, visual, etc.) dealing with the interpretation of cultural phenomena. World as text, an aphorism ascribed to Jacques Derrida, rightly illustrates this predominant tendency. In culture, that, which was not produced in the language as a medium, had to be subjected to textualisation from the perspective of this paradigm. That presumed the search for the smallest distinguishing units based on which it would be possible to establish a certain structure subject to mathematical operations, such as quantification, reduction, comparison and so on. The formalist art criticism had been searching the image, the music, as well as the non-verbal forms of performance arts for a certain "language", a set of isolated elements liable to various organisations. Geometric, painting and sculptural abstraction, soon followed by various forms of artistic experiments with technology (a machine, a computer, etc.) were examples of formalist paradigm. Any other artistic representation not giving priority to numerical organisation was declared unreliable, ambivalent, obscure. Moreover, in the Derrida's world of text, the image was just a new way of writing, "a type of graphic sign which is a direct transcript of what it represents".

In his own admission, Martek turned to images – drawings, collages, acrylic on canvas paintings, photographs – at a time when, on one hand, the pressure of emotional experience became too great to be ignored, and on the other hand, at a time when he thought that unlike words, i.e. poetry, image communicated with people more easily. In a manner, that change marked the end of Martek's believing in the possibility of a new society which was supposed to arise at the point of erasing the boundary between art and life. Martek's agitation flyers, which he posted in public spaces, persuading people that reading Malevich, Mayakovski, Rimbaud or Miljkovic is not just an esthetical but also an ethical need, did not bear fruit. Being a librarian, he could witness the readership volume of poetry and world-class literary works on a daily basis. Nobody besides a small circle of his friends and fellow artists gave considerable importance to poetry, philosophy or modern art. Poetry, together with the pre-poetry he performed during the 70s – a special form of Martek's critique of literature as an institution aimed at the demystification of authorship, language analysis and raising awareness of the material conditions of writing and reading – were obviously unnecessary to the world.

As a poet caught in visual arts within the framework of conceptual art and neo-avantgarde tendencies of the second half of the 20th century, Martek strived with all his might to avoid the myth of a skilled and inspired creator. While the process-oriented artistic practice enabled him to achieve such a distance in visual arts, the poetry, and consequentially the language, remained the last bastion of the romantic concept of artistic creation. So, it is no wonder that his most impassioned art actions implicitly (also) included poetry criticism. Martek's relationship towards poetry is not just deliberate; it also constitutes the heart of his entire artistic work. For example, he thinks of his drawings and collages as poetry – "They are simultaneously both articulate, and not. My drawings can not be deciphered. (…) I prefer that they are observed as a drawn poetry." – and through autopoetics sheds a light on his work by employing a three-part system, consisting of pre-poetry, poetry and post-poetry.

Pre-poetry encompasses what Martek, running away from writing classic poetry, works at within the framework of the world of visual arts: performs actions and agitates, draws graffiti, organises art events, postpones writing of the poetry, refuses to enter the language, creates objects as a preparation for writing poetry etc. Pre-poetry coincides with all important art trends of the second half of the 20th century, that is, with the so-called New Art Practice of Croatian art. Martek's criticism of institutions of literature and art contains evident traces of the so-called institutional critique; in the shift towards the material conditions of artistic work it is possible to recognise the principles of minimalist and analytical art, as well as Arte Povera, while in the transposition of linguistic topics and aporia to the field of visual art, we can recognise the application of conceptualist artistic procedures (writing the word "wall" onto a wall, the word "book" onto a book etc. is, inter alia, an intertextual reference to Joseph Kosuth's major work "One and Three Chairs"). The pre-poetry is mainly characterised by the activities of research and criticism; it is dominated by the activist and rationalist artistic procedures.

Poetry is that which Martek is in a constant shift between dialog and conflict with, in a way, poetry is his Achille's heel. It is also the plexus of his artistic work. Even when he gives up on writing poetry, the awareness of its central role does not disappear. It is dominated by the perception of an artist as an exceptional individual – a bard, a melancholic, an eccentric, a revolutionary etc. – who, in Martek's words, "creates value out of something that has no value". The poetry Martek first writes, then rejects, then writes again is situated within the context of institution of literature somewhere between private and public, between soul and society, between contemplation and action and as such, it can synecdochically represent the art as an autonomous social practice. The poetry is thus characterised by "the metamorphosis of liquid (yearning) into the formalised structure of language" (Valery) and because of that, the question of representation of reality is its central interest – figures of speech, experimenting with verse and stanza, changes in relationship between poetry forms and genres, etc., all represent issues the poetry deals with. If the pre-poetry is characterised by research, the poetry is characterised by creation, by something colloquially called the creative force or creative will; if the pre-poetry is defined by activist rationalist procedures, the poetry is defined by sublimation.

Post-poetry is, as it seems to me, the key feature of the later period of Martek's work. Nowhere else, among other things, as in the field of post-poetry, the media of visual and linguistic representation mix so freely, penetrating one another and resulting in hybrids surpassing, on one hand, the gender boundaries of poetry and visual arts, and on the other hand, the genre boundaries of visual poetry, paintings or drawings. However, besides mixing of various "texts", discourses also mix, so Martek's post-poetry opens itself to visual discourses of religious, Christian and Buddhist culture, as well as to visual discourses of political propaganda and magic and alchemical practice. In spite of such abundance, the post-poetry is characterised by reduction, a sort of boiling down to visual and linguistic elementarity. The reduction does not arise from the rationalist and analytical artistic procedures that dominate the pre-poetry, but from the absorption in the phenomenon of representation: "I created some twenty-odd symbols, motifs of my own. (…) The embryo was the letter B, for example, not because of the graphical similarity, but because it ranks second in my hierarchy. The first place belongs to the house, the basic element, the archetype of safety", says Martek.

The post-poetry is formally marked by pictographs and image as the medium; conceptually, this is done by the author's aphorisms and paradoxes. Thus, to Martek, the post-poetry is "the liberty of being what I am"; it is "the articulation of the language of soul and rebellion". On the other hand, his often quoted verses ("In order to be a poet / I have to overcome / the obstacles / go to Iceland / pick up the garbage from my street (…)") is not just an ironic witticism or a reflection on poetry, but an expression of a paradoxical state. Martek's paradox, however, is not only logical ("This sentence is false"). In the light of post-poetry, for example, even the psychoanalytical interpretation of these verses – the one that does not see the reason of postponement anywhere else but in the pleasure of the postponement itself – does not cover their meaning. It seems to me that Martek's paradoxes are of rather religious origin, because they suggest that some things are contradictory and logically inexplicable, they are either to be trusted or not. In the Zen Buddhism tradition, not doing is the highest form of doing; consequently, the postponement of writing the poetry is not the negation of writing, but its inexplicable affirmation. Island is just a linguistic figure, a trace in the Zen-garden. If image could really be the primary medium of post-poetry, as the artist confirmed to me during a conversation, then, regarding the fact that Martek turned to drawing in the moment when the focus should be on his own feelings, it could be said that post-poetry is more interested in the life of a soul (psyche) than art or society. Thus, the post-poetry is characterised by testimony ("To me, art is testimony. You testify of what you are going through."). And while the pre-poetry is defined by the active will and reason, the poetry by yearning and sublimation, the post-poetry represents the area of Martek's work dominated by love, religious and spiritual tradition, problems of liberation, intersubjective communication, compassion, etc. (Perhaps the post-poet is close to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, "a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life".)

But why is an image a more desirable location of a testimony, when, without a doubt, the testimony can be given in a text as well, as pointed out in Joyce's quote (namely, Stephen Dedalus is a poet). Why should the poetry be painted, drawn or assembled from pieces of pencils, glass, mirrors, etc.? There are at least two reasons, as it seems to me: because of the readers/beholders and in order to avoid the well-trodden paths in the reception of art within the framework of institutions of literature, as well as art.

In his essay "What do pictures want?" W. J. T. Mitchell focuses on those aspects of pictorial representation which disregard the problem of explaining the image or the problem of the social power of the image. What do images mean and how they communicate with us is an important question, Mitchell writes, but it is time we also asked ourselves what do images want. Instead of regarding them as mere mediators in conveying the meaning or as the instruments of power, we should perceive images as desiring subjects. After all, unlike texts, images are always somewhat alive, always somewhat personified through a person or a real event. Everybody knows that an image of one's mother in a photograph is not a live person, but they will nevertheless hesitate if it should be destroyed or thrown away. An image, or let's say, a photograph, preserves life, it is "a return of life into a non-living substance", says Mitchell. Within the framework of West European rationalism and enlightenment such relationship towards an image was frequently referred to as backward and atavistic. However, no matter if we name it fetishism, totemism or superstition, declare it undesirable or push it aside, our relationship towards images is obviously psychologically determined and not only that it did not disappear, but perhaps it did not even change. Images still amaze us, seduce us, scare us.

Drawing an analogy between images and marginalised social groups such as Afro-Americans or women ("What do women, actually, want?"), Mitchell says that, unlike Afro-Americans and women, images can not express their desires, can not explain their social status. Maybe this is the reason, Mitchell claims, why we unconsciously feminised them, quoting art historian Michael Fried: "a painting... had first to attract beholder, then to arrest and finally to enthrall the beholder, that is a painting had to call to someone, bring him to a halt in front of itself and hold him there as if spellbound and unable to move." In the world of male, rationalist and logocentric dominance, using a series of analogies and associations, image was associated with socially inferior groups (women, Afro-Americans, children). Image is unreliable, ambivalent, seductive, naïve, dangerous, suspicious etc., and due to those reasons, I daresay, Martek loves it.

On the other hand, are Martek's pictographs an attempt of textualising an image, of applying a certain number of distinctive signs with the purpose of putting it in order? To W. J. T. Mitchell, pictograph is a half way between a word and an image. Pictograph is a form of representation, neither linguistic nor painterly. In other words, it is as hybrid as any other medium. Gotthold Lessing was the first to describe, in a way, the logic of hybrid, pictographic representation. He claimed that it is not typical for art of painting to tell stories and thus descend into a grotesque allegory. The set of idiosyncratic symbols and motifs Martek calls a pictographic alphabet and which he paints and draws from 1975 to 2005 without a doubt tells an important story. He does not negate the image, but introduces a virus of a medium into the area of another medium, destabilising our position of beholder/reader. Martek, basically, acts as a dilettante in relation to media of representation – he draws and paints, because he can do neither, and when he is supposed to write, he does not, claiming that he does, but actually doing something he knows nothing about. Martek, if I may paraphrase the title of an exhibition, simply avoids places where we expect him ("Come on, Martek, finally decide, are you a poet or an artist!", the colleagues reproach him).

The desire of an image is neither the desire of its author, nor the desire of its beholder, nor the desire of figures, motifs and signs present in the image, as W. J. T. Mitchell says. Maybe, similarly to people, images do not know what they want, but it is not important, because the reason why the desire of an image is important lies in emphasizing the beholder's position and the area of exchange opening between him and the image. Martek opens this area of exchange not only by implying the immanent hybridity of each medium or cluttered communication channels within the institutional area of literature and art, but also through accentuating the material aspect of a painting/a poem. We are used to the notion of painting as primarily a material phenomenon, the notion of its being a physical object preceding both the text and discourse, but the notion that even a poem can have a body is something Martek brings to our attention through his drawings and collages, through the unusual renewal of visual poetry genre. It seems Martek was intuitively aware of something that seems so obvious today in the light of post-internet culture. Since poetry – the poetry positioned between the pre-poetry and post-poetry in Martek's opus – is realised through language, is constructed using the letters of the alphabet, the differentiating units forming a single informational structure, it is possible to say that poetry in a certain manner and to some extent belongs to the digital culture medium. Relative to the image (of the poem), the words of the poem seem as a predefined algorithm, which can, if need be, appear in various media: in a book, on a computer, TV or mobile phone monitor, in a street, etc. As Florian Cramer says in his text "What is Post-digital?", digital does not only mean that something consists of ones and zeros (of electronic signal and non-signal) and as such is subject to computerisation: " (…) Roman alphabet is a digital system; Guttenberg's printing press is a digital system; piano keys are a digital system; the largest portion of Western music notation systems is digital." Classic poetry, thus, has no body; it is an abstraction of language realised in various media (book, graffiti, speech etc.) in the form of a program or a procedure. Martek's drawn poetry is, on the other hand, a poetry that has its body (background, colour, trace of a pencil, piece of glass, mirror, pencil, etc.). It does not address only the mind of the beholder/reader, but his body as well, as a single instance in the public space of a gallery or in the private space of an apartment, wherever. Each new exhibition/reading alters the space of relation between the body of a painting and the body of the beholder with regards to the exhibition space, exhibition layout, choice of works, etc. In this twofold variability – instability if you wish – dwells, as it seems to me, Martek's post-poetry. The emotions that had to be vented at one moment could not appear anywhere else in Martek's work as they could in the painting. In this manner once again the weak, vulnerable human body of artist and beholder appears in the painting and besides the painting – the detested medium of the modern age.

For social relationships, the vision is as important as the language. Images can not be reduced to signs or text. Martek's pictographs are not here to be interpreted. Rather, they are instigators of certain emotions or states. There is something deeper here, as Igor Zidic says in his text "Martek, rituals of auto-creation". Maybe this very obscurity an image in its way owns hides its wish to have the same rights as language. In that case, our every encounter with an image will have to count on processuality, emotions, insecurity, with our own position – the freedom to be what we truly are. (Klaudio Štefančić)