Lifelines

Jan Avgikos

Mark-making is fundamental to art, however one construes and assigns meaning to the “before, during, and after” of the event: as embodied act, as reference, as residue, as trace, as incidental, as accidental, as concept, as communication, as metaphor, as holding ground, as taking off, as point, as line, as nothing more than itself, as the beginning of everything else.

Semiotic flexibility is key to Otto Zitko’s art, which manifests formally as a sustained investigation into the chameleon potential of painting to be both action and object and environment. He works directly on the wall. Occasionally, he produces his line paintings simultaneously on aluminum panels and the walls upon which the panels hang. The painting, the line, the mark—it is all these at once—is stripped down to bare essentials and rhythmically revved up to Dionysian frenzy. It is also extremely willful. Not only does it breach the traditional frame of painting, it runs rampant at high speed on the walls and ceilings of exhibition spaces as if it were laying siege (or, perhaps, making love) to architecture and space itself. From the viewer’s perspective, the explosive energy of Zitko’s painting, fueled by environmental scale, creates an immediate sensational roller-coaster effect. It is as if we were inside the painting, right there with the artist in the midst of production. The imprint of dance and body movement is so strong that it animates our viewing. Before we know it, we are twisting and turning and performing the work ourselves, responding to it as if it were one grand, epic choreography.

Tuned to full conceptual pitch, Zitko’s painting is motivated to be everywhere at once. This impression is fueled by the speed of his free-style gestural line—a line that looks and feels as if it were one unbroken and absolutely continuous stroke. If that were actually the case, it would mirror an image of the artist as a super-being able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” and to sustain a veritably limitless spree. We witness what might be regarded as the spectacular effects of escape—from the limitations of the body, from easel-sized framing devices, from two-dimensional display. Zitko’s streaming linear compositions ricochet in architectural settings, from walls to floors to ceilings, devouring interior space as though there were no end in sight. We are taken for an incredibly wild ride and imaginative sparks fly, igniting ideas about art and artists as free from all constraints.

Yet, contrary to appearances, the line is not one continuous mark. We know it couldn’t be. In order to run his paint up the wall, in and out of remote crevices, back and forth on the ceiling, skidding around and around a couple of times before streaking off in a new direction, Zitko must use ladders, scaffolding, and a lot of improvisation to extend his reach. It is a measure of his skill that the seams between spontaneous and premeditated, expressive and schematic, transparent, and tromp l’oeil, are invisible.

The experience of Zitko’s painting installations supersedes purely visual engagement. We feel the wound-up tension that drives the fluid line with convulsive urgency, pulsing through space with the promise of expanded sensual and visceral dividends. We are drawn into the painting as if it were a score for breathless bodies. Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” called for an “erotics of art,” as opposed to what she termed a “hermeneutics of art.” “What is important now,” she wrote, “is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all.”(1)

Sontag’s observations point to qualities of immediacy and sensory engagement, which are the manifest content of Zitko’s art. His environmental installations are characterized by an insistence on painting as a field of experience hinged to physical and social contexts. The mural-like scale of his compositions, as opposed to the static relations engendered when we encounter art at arm’s length, implements the viewer’s absorption. But it is the dynamic power and theatricality of the protean two-dimensional line, in collusion with architecture, which activates interior space—the space reserved for the viewer. Movement arcs from surface to structure to body, disturbing spatial relations and collapsing distinctions between here and there, inside and outside, now and then. Under these circumstances, thresholds of difference become very difficult to locate.

From building to body, from artist to viewer, line is the conduit, the catalyst, for interactivity. The line may not go down as one unbroken and continuous mark, but it is, nevertheless, a one-time event—no erasures, no second-takes, no painting it out and starting over again. From architectural environment to aluminum panel, from one installation to the next, in Austria or India or the United States (all locations of Zitko’s installations), the line goes on, picking up where it left off on its mission to map the interpenetrating worlds in which we live. Speed, and the appearance thereof, is an important catalyst in this process. Speed is the subterfuge of Zitko’s art. Geared to cultivate a cascading barrage of special effects, speed is the “noise” that blurs boundaries; and yet, it also underscores an inherent restlessness glimpsed in the ceaseless marking and mapping, as though the artist (and subsequently, we) were forever circling the site of art, scratching it, sniffing it, in an attempt to arrest it long enough to glimpse the thing itself. “Transparence,” Sontag noted, “is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”(2)

Through an increasingly varied vocabulary of marks, from pencil-thin lines to wide ribbons of color, scribbled, tangled, looped, bunched, and stretched in ever-changing and adaptable configurations, Zitko’s compositions surge through exhibition space as if to liberate (our senses) and restore (new possibilities for) art. The inventive transformation of exhibition space directly implicates the viewer and catalyzes our vicarious engagement with the art. We are drawn into a drama that unfolds palpably before our eyes, its momentum and many rhythms sending us shooting up walls, speeding across ceilings, lurking up in the rafters, and crashing into corner niches. Space is activated and our bodies are charged with movement as we re-enact the abstract visual score. Yet, it is debatable whether we ever get anywhere—at least in the traditional sense. Zitko’s linear extravaganzas, residing so expertly on the surface of things, might take us on a real-time high-speed chase, but with the caveat that we are often delivered, with much pomp and circumstance, to the most incidental, out-of-the-way places.

We play along, entering into and re-enacting Zitko’s compositions as we take in the panoramic dimensions of the full-scale room drawings. Viewers’ bodies echo the movements of the artist’s body in the production of the work, a piggy-back relation that unlocks the performative dimensions of the art and confirms the centrality of viewer in the aesthetic situation. With the artist as our avatar, we flex in and out of place, reading composition as choreography. Perhaps this is the ultimate horizon of possibility for the work. By channeling the artist’s activity, we shift into “virtual body mode” as a means to be as present as we can be; as a means to make the painting more real.

The direct manner in which Zitko’s art solicits our attention—all at once from the moment we encounter it—is amplified when architecture is activated as a material dimension of the work. In some instances, the collusion between painting and architecture is so aggressively staged as to obliterate the features and finishes of the exhibition space; nevertheless, this edgy symbiosis reveals the importance of relational thinking in a practice that is situated in-between the disciplines and discourses of painting, drawing, installation, architecture, dance, and performance. We might also append “fencing” to this list, for Zitko was a practiced, competitive fencer in his twenties.

The “Art Brut” style that characterizes Zitko’s art links it with various of its visual “doppelgangers”—including children’s art, forms of graffiti, and vandalism—and points in the direction of collapsed distinctions between a gesture that is “informed” and one that is “unschooled.” A lexicon of the affinities in Zitko’s practice with methodologies pioneered in the historical Avant-Garde, would certainly be cross-referenced with chance operations—automatic drawing, automatic painting, and other spontaneous acts—performed in the name of art.

Consider Zitko’s installation, produced in 2006, in the extraordinary building that houses the Kunstverein Salzburg [Art Association of Salzburg]. The harmonious proportions of its interiors, characterized by monumentality, soaring space, and lightness, exude a sense of restrained beauty. The setting is the perfect foil for Zitko’s painting, which tears through the place as if it were bent on destruction. Yet, violation is never far from celebration in Zitko’s art. In the Salzburg installation, bold red marks, crudely rendered, rupture the heretofore perfectly sedate interior, holding Apollonian order hostage to Dionysian intervention. Staged like a break-in in the night, the marauding never stops.

Inadvertently, automatically, perhaps intuitively, we respond to friezes of explosively violent gestures, picking up one passage and then another, riding orgiastic rhythms, exploring their episodic qualities. From one perspective, it is a spectacular invasion; from another, it is a risky odyssey. Either way, Zitko’s art aligns with anti-aesthetic impulses that congealed in Modern art in the early 20th century. We might compare the physical aggression and athleticism that foregrounds the production of his art with Futurist performance—I’m thinking, in particular, of Filippo Marinetti’s pugilist matches. Marinetti as boxer, and Zitko as fencer—the two artists share combative approaches, with a critical distinction: whereas Marinetti collaborated with others, Zitko fences with himself alone. We can imagine him, in at least one of his guises—fighting with himself as artist, fighting with himself as subject, fighting with architecture, fighting with the world.

Zitko’s art strikes chords of correspondence, as well, with Dada and the well-known propensity of its practitioners to disturb viewer complacency and to shake up the aesthetic status-quo. Trajectories link Zitko’s installations with Kurt Schwitters’ territorial-minded Merz-Bau, which consumed their architectural surroundings with startling voraciousness. Schwitters formulated Merz performance art as an unrehearsed event activated by all manner of “performers,” from opera singers to guinea pigs. We might also compare Zitko and his “take no prisoners” approach—an apt description of his installations at both the Kunstverein Salzburg, at Galerie Elisabeth and Klaus Thoman in Innsbruck, in 2007, and elsewhere—with Marcel Duchamp in his infamous 16 Miles of String, produced at the Sidney Janis’ Gallery in New York City in 1942, as part of an important group exhibition entitled First Papers of Surrealism. The last artist to install, Duchamp tangled string throughout the gallery, from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall, effectively inhibiting viewers from entering the exhibition unless they were willing to grasp the string and forcibly move it aside in order to navigate the gallery. The string was configured as one continuous antagonistic gesture—consuming space, breaking decorum, demanding the viewer’s active engagement in both a productive and destructive sense.

Duchamp’s 16 Miles of String is an important precedent for Zitko, not only for the automatic quality of the installation and the continuous (and continuously unruly) line, but for the limited life of the art as a material object. When it was time to de-install, Duchamp’s piece of string was gathered up and thrown away: it had no value beyond the temporal event of the exhibition. By a similar token, Zitko’s tour de force paintings, though they may occupy a designated space for a specified or an unspecified amount of time, are not produced to be preserved. The work of art that cannot be preserved or conserved—perhaps this is a work that remains fundamentally unfinished. In Zitko’s practice, the uniqueness of each painterly event, ultimately, is forfeited to the highly temporal circumstances that inscribe its existence.

The energy of the work is indexical with its chameleon shifts from thundering physicality to extreme ephemerality. The painting goes up hard and fast, but in many instances it is with a built-in expiration date. Easel-size panels inserted into the scheme of the installations modify this situation somewhat. At Galerie Elisabeth and Klaus Thoman in Innsbruck, wall-mounted aluminum panels, painted in situ, are indivisible with the linear skeins of paint that assertively cover the walls. For the duration of the exhibition, the panels and the walls exist as one—one surface, one installation. Neither panel nor wall has hegemony over the other; rather, they are conjoined to produce a continuous, albeit modular, surface.

From a procedural point of view, Zitko hangs the show, and then he paints it. The panels aren’t determined as points of origin or completion in terms of the overall painting scheme—if anything, they exist as speed bumps during the production process, just as molding and other architectural details slow down gestures and interrupt the flow of the paint over shifting surface levels. The panels are never intended to function as two-dimensional microcosms of the larger picture that unfolds in architectural space. They are completely integrated within the installation. However, when the walls of an exhibition space are restored to white and readied for the next show, the painted aluminum panels become autonomous and take on a life of their own. They don’t represent the installation per se, but they distill the polarities of experience that characterize Zitko’s installation work. They reference both the robust physicality that is a hallmark of his art and they reference a sense of loss and absence in that they derive from (and are bound to) an installation that no longer exists—as they are to a lesser degree with every other installation Zitko produces. The installations and the panels alike belong to a continuum of events—a field of relations—characterized by kaleidoscopic multiplicities. One of these conceptual constellations has to do with temporal textures driven by shifts from present to absent, in ways that resonate with Robert Smithson’s interest in activating “site” and “non-site,” as a means to activate questions about framing devices and the limits we impose upon art.

Zitko shares company with several contemporary artists who work in the expanded field of painting and construe the idea of surface to include architectural planes and spatial environments, thereby enabling viewers to experience the sensation of walking into and being surrounded by art. Matthew Ritchie’s paintings have evolved from traditional stretcher bar and canvas constructs not only to occupy walls, ceilings, and floors, but actually to manifest as hybrids of painting, architecture, and sculpture. Franz Ackermann’s mental maps leap from two-dimensional surfaces, and assume environmental proportions with built-out architectural elements and painted panels extending the surfaces of exhibition interiors. Ritchie, Ackermann and others, including Julie Merehtu and Shazia Sikander, extend painting’s reach with pictorial elements and narrative fragments that colonize architectural space.

Despite his affinity with these artists—from the perspective of the viewer’s engagement and the high-volume theatricality that results from walking into a painting (as opposed to merely looking at it)—Zitko accomplishes his maneuvers with the singular device of a painted line that proves sufficient enough to support both the abstract life of painting and the viewer’s concrete experience of it. Transparence—a word that comes back to mind together with Sontag’s meditations about seeing the thing itself, and using all our senses to do so.

Notes:
(1) Sontag, Susan: “Against Interpretation.” In: idem: Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York 2001, p. 14.
(2) Ibid, p. 13.

This text was published in: Otto Zitko – The Construction of Gesture, Hemma Schmutz, Barbara Steiner, Ingeburg Wurzer (Ed.), Berlin 2008, ps. 164–170.