Particularly in his more recent works, in which peopled and unpeopled landscapes, photography and sculpture are inextricably linked and interwoven, Manfred Wakolbinger touches upon the tireless question of the essence and appearance of categorical givens, which in the subject area at hand refer above all to the concepts of reality and fiction, illusion and reality, image and language, thing and object. For on closer inspection the matter-of-course way the images present the assemblage of their heterogeneous elements as a homogenous whole here is revealed as illusory; a game of intended deception and montage. Indeed, an orchestration takes place here such that the metallic creatures inserted into the picture not only become strange, foreign beings, but are also rendered alien to their pictorial surroundings. In having primarily the nature of a “thing” despite their obvious “objectality,” the sculptural forms that have mutated into frames distance themselves from the reality of the pictorial scenario and become silent, speechless witnesses to a discursively composed portion of the world that surrounds them. Such a shattered image points to the fissure that holds in its vast expanse the potential to touch upon the raison d’être and open up an existential space beyond meaning, beyond images and characters. Comparable with the so-called “Dream’s navel,” which marks the point where the dreamer departs from the realm of dream interpretation, it is at this point that the look perceiving the world of objects disappears in order to encounter itself in the form of the gaze as experienced by the “other,” namely as the primal object of curiosity and voyeuristic desire. This also means that during the development of the sense of sight, seeing itself was preceded by being seen. It has yet to be shown that Wakolbinger’s sculptural monsters, which invade these landscapes and appear to protrude from the images, amount to an allegorical avowal of this reified view. With this kind of symbolism and with their virtuality they represent images of the third order, if we are to identify the reality we immediately perceive as the primary reality and the reality that has been reproduced, more specifically photographed, as the secondary visual representation. In this way, Wakolbinger references the distance that always has and always will separate us humans, as beings that command culture and language, from nature, such that even reality is always a human construct.
From his position between the interpretation of existing worlds and the creation of new ones, the artist remains fully aware (throughout his search for the truth) that on the one hand access to the primordial basis of all existence and all existing things remains off limits to us and that, on the other, every notion of a Creatio ex nihilo shall be considered as belonging to the world of mythology. Thus it is inevitable that any corresponding pursuit will never get further than halfway to the echelons of the demiurgic, i. e., the level of that ancient and gnostic creator deity who does not assume the position of supreme authority but, like a craftsman, molds the world from the extant chaos.
In such restricted conditions, human experience ― with the exception of peripheral and border areas, in which remnants of an initial immediacy determined by the state of affairs can be grasped without a reflected-reflective quality of experience or genuine memorability ― is bound to mediating entities. As agencies of culture and civilization, such entities balance out that loss of nature and instinct that humans ― who can be considered deficient beings owing to their premature birth ― are forced to accept as their condition. Reliant on the power of revealing utterance to master life and all its difficulties, we turn to our “Nebenmenschen” as Sigmund Freud termed them, our neighbors. Consequently, the individual and the social element are inextricably linked from the outset. In the same spirit Aristotle also spoke of man as a zoon politicon, who as animal symbolicum (Ernst Cassirer) faces the “legibility of the world” (Hans Blumenberg) as the sine qua non for understanding that world.
In terms of media theory (and here standpoints within linguistics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis complement and illuminate one another) these representations, by means of which we register and comprehend both ourselves, that is to say our “inner world,” and our environment, belong to two distinct orders. Namely, the order of the linguistic/symbolic and the order of the imaginary.
Following the processes of representation, what remains of the objects depicted, or what the representation has failed to capture, is consequently precisely those remnants of immediacy that could also be described as the “real.”
The imaginary element is the image in the sense of an imago, whereby the visual image primarily associated with the pictorial concept represents nothing more than an anomaly in this category of the imaginary. It is an external and sensorily perceptible similarity to the object it is meant to represent that lends this imago its indicative power and function as a medium of meaning in the different sensory modes. Accordingly a point-for-point correlation between the object represented and the representative is of great importance. In this regard a fingerprint or a phonogram of a human voice would be an equally significant imaginary representative of the individual as his photograph or reflection in a mirror. With regard to the latter, here we encounter a privileged imago, for as a rule this is something that helps a human child to establish its own identity. For a baby’s rawness leads one to justifiably assume that the “ego” in the sense of a definite, physical self and self-awareness does not exist from birth but evolves as part of a dialectic process in which the inner world and external environment have to be separated. Here a primitive self is established in an imaginary movement by means of identification with the image of that which is similar as a whole figure; in real life this phenomenon is experienced in the perception of their own image in a mirror. This fundamental identification process enables the individual to anticipate the perception of their body as an entity before their motor functions are even fully developed and able to provide individual support. In turn, this ego as a self-image is confronted by a subject, the product of a dialectic process of identification with the other triggered during the process of language acquisition.
This unfolds the field of the symbolic, whose representational elements, namely signifiers and characters, are characterized by difference and arbitrariness in the face of the object they are used to portray. Therefore the distinguishing attribute of a phonetic or literal signifier consists in a complete lack of similarity to the object to be represented.
This arbitrariness toward the object also has a secondary effect, namely, the signifier does not assume its identity from the object portrayed but obtains it through its difference to the other elements in the chain of signifiers alone. In other words, in order to denote something a signifier must be differentiated from other signifiers; it lives off this differential, i. e., off difference and not identity. In opposition to all nominalist concepts, such a symbol is always unconsciously supporting its fellow symbols, it even seeks the other symbols out for the purposes of its own self-affirmation; as a result, the subject also adopts this behavior upon its active entry into the linguistic domain and becomes a desiring subject.
Looking now to the imaginary, we must consider that the apparent primacy of the optical and the evident precedence of the visual must be contrasted with the clear anteriority of the acoustic. Indeed, regarding the development of the subject and the evolutionary history of the senses, the audible universe clearly precedes the visual world. That said the undoubtedly greater appetite of the eyes and greater persuasive power of visual images constantly aspire to eclipse acoustic images, determined as they are by their immateriality and intensity. This also manifests itself in the numerous versions of the myth of Narcissus, which, preceding the story of Oedipus, illustrates the origin of human self-reference and the role of the mirror and reflection in the construction of the ego. The fate of Narcissus’ admirer, the nymph Echo, who embodies these character-forming reflections on an acoustic or linguistic level, is often suppressed within this context.
It is precisely the predominantly vocal discourse ― which determines the inclination of that mirror ― that provides us with an excerpt from the infinite visible world, in that it specifies what can be seen and therefore gives direction to seeing in its active, intentional form, i. e. looking. In this way, language and linguistic composition are granted the function of organizing this raw, impulsive world of things. This in turn implies that the order of words precedes the order of things and that it is precisely language that creates images and objects.
In order to demonstrate this concept, a model propounded by the French physicist Henri Bouasse (1866―1953) provides an appropriate point of reference. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan also used this model to show that reflections ― in other words the figure of the “other” ― not only enable the establishment of the ego as the physical self in the external world, but also that humans too comprehend and come to recognize the other as the environ that is delimited from them, as a reflected entity. This model is based on an optical experiment conducted by Bouasse, which has become known as the “experiment of the inverted bouquet.”
The experiment involves a vase positioned on a stand in front of a concave mirror, with the stand concealing a bouquet of flowers hanging downwards underneath (→ fig. 1). When standing in front of the stand and looking at the image in the curved mirror behind, one sees a vase filled with flowers: a combination of the real-life object, the vase, and the seemingly upright mirror image of the flowers (→ fig. 2).
First, as regards what is of interest here, the vase and the bouquet have exchanged positions such that one can actually see the flowers and the vase is only visible as a virtual or mirror image (→ fig. 3).
The stand is now intended as a representation of one’s own body external to the eye’s visual experience, the vase inside the box being read as the body’s shell. The bouquet signifies the body’s first “real,” ergo the “id,” the proto-objects in the sense of experiencing things, drives, and desires, etc. Evidently the only thing to be determined by the emerging subject is the raw experience of an “it is” in the sense of an establishment of its existence.
Accordingly, what exists there is not isolated, rather located both beyond internal and external and beyond good and bad (meaning beyond the pleasure/ unpleasure principle). For the subject, the virtual image of a receptacle (in the above model the vase) constitutes an initial body image and provides the experience of real content in an imaginary receptacle. This determines precisely what belongs to the ego and what does not (which in turn is informed on the one hand by the question as to whether something that exists in the ego as a notion of something also exists as a perception, i. e., reality, and on the other by the inclination to hold on to the good and to project the bad onto our external environment).
The following diagram (→ fig. 4) shows another of Lacan’s modifications to Bouasse’s experiment, intended to demonstrate how the intra-subjective structures within the relationship to the other evolve, how the mirror effect transforms the thing into a visual object, and how in the process the double incidence of the imaginary and the symbolic comes into effect.
In this new arrangement the eye does not discern the image in the concave mirror directly but only via the image reflected in a plane mirror (A) placed in front of the stand (C). Consequently the beholder can no longer register as a real perception the real flowers in a virtual receptacle. He can only view this as an image, as nothing more than virtual reality, that is to say both elements can only be seen in their simultaneous unity in the external realm and in the realm of the other. Thus the body image is presented via the device of the mirror; this informs the narcissistic structure of the ego, which has now been alienated due to a lack of clarity.
On the left-hand side the body image does not have its own place within the structure; as a shape it is not integrated into it. On the right the body image only exists as an “other” in a virtual realm. I can only conceive of myself when I see my ego-ideal in the other and identify with it. At the same time a logic takes effect, according to which that of the same kind is also viewed as identical. This imaginary identification arises from a kind of transitiveness, with me being a divided subject, located both here and there. I appear in the imaginary space as
However, the diagram goes beyond this notion of identification alone, for it also refers to the dependence of this imaginary definition of the image on the symbolic coordinates. The introduction of the plane mirror (A) provides a visual rendering of this idea, in a way embodying the voice of the other along with its messages and statements.
In the model, the other is located in the real space, upon which the virtual images behind the plane mirror (A) are superimposed. The mirror relationship is bound to the symbolic coordinates before it even exists in this form. For language precedes the mirror relationship, just as the child exists for an other before it exists for itself, in itself, and through itself.
This other confirms the child’s recognition of an image that was there the entire time, which is why, when placed in front of a mirror, a child first turns to the person who placed them there. This is the source of the image’s consistency. However, if this confirmation is not provided by the other, the image collapses into its various components.
That which can be considered the prerequisite for the experience of the body and its image also applies to every object in our environment. Only as representations, captured as images and symbols, can they assume their function as agents that shape our reality and subsequently find their way out of their state as things and out of the realm of the “real.” Accompanied as it is by an inundation of animalistic enjoyment, the encounter with this meaningless situational world is inextricably linked with fear. In the above model, this would be the case if one were to perceive the bouquet on the left-hand side in its real state, neither reflected in the mirror nor as some kind of representation. The bouquet would no longer have any kind of basis in reality and would also be left without its imaginary receptacle in the form of the vase, perceived only as a reflection. Yet it is precisely this connection between the object and its illusory container that together with the symbolic signification via the other (in the sense of a linguistic confirmation of the experience) leads to an inner connection of the three orders of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary, thus clearing the way into reality.
It is obviously the linking of the three orders in the perceptive process that leads us to attribute a sign of reality to that which we perceive, enabling spontaneous recognition. Under the condition of such recognition or rather acknowledgement, an object is immediately identified as something familiar, thereby removing the necessity for repeated, tiresome decoding, as is required for recognizing lettering when learning a writing system, for example.
If at this point we return to Wakolbinger’s photographic Placements, we are reminded of how we have assigned to the forms inserted into the secondary (i. e. reality-related) pictorial world the character of “things;” yet artistic sublimation and idealization neutralize their inherent threatening nature, which is seemingly transformed into something tame and calming. As has already been established, on a visual level and in the realm of the visible that primal object of voyeuristic desire presents itself as something that is neither a sexualized object nor a veiled or unveiled material body part, but rather a part of the eye itself, which always accompanies and controls us from its location in the realm of the other and which we are required to identify with an imagined gaze. In this respect there is always an eye somewhere according to Lacan, so that we are literally photo-graphed in every single moment of our lives.
The visible is consequently dependent upon something that is before our seeing eye, is dependent upon the pre-existence of a gaze which we feel ― most of the time subconsciously ― is constantly observing us from every angle, an entity that lacks in substance and physical presence and can ultimately be reduced simply to something dot-like or patchy. Indeed, considered from a phylogenetic perspective the eye developed from a single lightsensitive patch of skin, with the result that patchlike objects always also have an eye-like quality.
For Lacan, this patch function, which is moreover coessential with the gaze function, forms not only the foundation of mimicry and that uniquely human phenomenon, pretense (as encountered in disguise, masquerade, and intimidation) but also one of the foundations of visual art in general.
For that which the subject ― guided by the eye’s appetite ― desires to see the most in the artwork goes beyond what is clearly visible and ultimately
is the fascination of the gaze, which simultaneously transforms the beholder into the beheld and thus accommodates their narcissism.
Unless playing with light and radiance is enough to place the trammeled visual quality within the image and unless something patch-like with a stronger, more destructive visional function can be detected in any artwork without deliberate intention, artists always have to make arduous attempts to render this gaze in a more specific way too, be it in the form of an anamorphically distorted skull as seen in Holbein’s The Ambassadors or the use of the mask in its symbolic function as in Goya’s oeuvre.
This gaze may not be that which one sees, but it is the gaze that one imagines to exist within the realm of the other. As such, it reminds us of the eye’s fundamental malignancy, which owing to its propensity for appropiation based solely upon compulsion is a violent and gluttonous organ. Wakolbinger’s robot-like visual creatures, reminiscent of mutant dinosaurs and opposing the virtual nature of the photographed realm of reality as placeholders for the real domain of things (and thus taking the position of the unreflected bouquet in the above model), appear in contrast to be full of astounding curiosity and much less threatening as they explore a world in which body landscapes and landscape bodies merge into one another and in the process reveal the anthropomorphic or rather egomorphic origin of all experiences of objects and environments. In so far as all visible objects subconsciously carry the first bodily experiences within them, the human body is a product of the respective civilization. Even if one seeks to fathom human nature in its stripped-down form, in the end one only encounters this naked culture.
It is possible that our artificial comrades at the nudist gatherings also see something of the categorical ridiculousness that is always inherent to humans in their naked state.