Miroirs noirs

November 29, 2013 - January 11, 2014

galerie frank elbaz, Paris

View of the exhibition Miroirs Noirs, galerie frank elbaz, Paris, 2013-2014

Arno Schmidt's novel Dark Mirrors (1951) is the interior monologue of the sole survivor of a third, nuclear world war, a poet and the last man on Earth. Facetious and misanthropic, he is content to live with his books and pictures deep in the forest, beneath the canopy of heaven, railing against the human race that has so consummately organised its own annihilation and the devastation of the natural world. Although there are no more readers, he continues to write, for no other reason than to perpetuate the memory of the writers he venerates. In many ways a faithful portrait of Arno Schmidt himself, this narrator also has a lot in common with Dimitrije Bašičević (1921–1987), art historian and critic, museum director and, under the pseudonym Mangelos, an artist working in the secrecy of his Zagreb office. Just twenty years old and living on the family farm in Šid, Serbia, with the Second World War raging around him, Mangelos would take out his school notebooks each time he learned of the death of a relative or friend and draw a square – or sometimes fill in an entire page – in black ink. The black square, at once a symbol of mourning and an anonymous memoryscape, recalled the black hole of History, humanity's science of adversity. But for Mangelos it developed from a negative marker into a tabula rasa: a point of departure, a blackboard on which for the rest of his life, and using the childlike handwriting he contrived for his oeuvre, he would note down poems, passing thoughts, quotations and philosophical formulations – footnotes to his work as a historian, critic and member of the Gorgona group. Mangelos invented the name of this avant-garde circle that functioned in Zagreb between 1959–1966, and although few of his own projects for the group bore fruit, he contributed actively to its activities and correspondence. Mangelos's tabula rasa was both a starting point and a return to the wellsprings of language and memory. His repetitions of alphabets – Greek, Latin and Glagolitic (used for transcribing the first Serbian Bibles) – were a call for new beginnings and the founding of new meanings, invocations intended to ward off the looming threat of the end. One of his last works, a painted globe of the Earth, bears the words mane tekel fares, the 'writing on the wall' that predicted the fall of Babylon in the Book of Daniel: men, like words, are 'numbered, weighed, divided'. The Mangelos oeuvre is shot through with dilemma and the doubt of a sceptic: the dilemma of the sense and the senselessness of history and of reason, the dilemma that underpins the contrarianism of his approach, his 'negations of painting', his 'no art'. He saw the practice of history as a process of sensory disconnection, a 'functional thinking' extension of reason aimed exclusively at co-option and domination. This kind of history produced the 'society devoid of art' he describes in many of his manifestoes. Tormented by the idea that language is meaningless, Mangelos nonetheless endowed it with the ability to invoke and convoke the absent and the past: he devised incantations using secret, private words – the name of the family home, of his dog or his horse, and other 'names of the father'. For at the core of his work is his father Ilija, a farmer and later a naive painter, whose self-invented mystical cosmogony fascinated his son, the art historian obsessed by history's fringes and its obliviousness.