A text and interview by Feđa Gavrilović for the catalog of the exhibition A Hunger Artist, Forum Gallery, Zagreb, May 5 - June 5, 2023.
Direction and Counter-Direction
In the new graphic novel “Kao pas” (Like a Dog), Danijel Žeželj’s visual narration successfully translates Kafka’s sentence into the medium of comics, using dramatic jumps in frames and alternating between details and mass scenes, often portrayed from a bird’s-eye view. This conveys the unfathomability of individual consciousness and the unfathomability of collective movements. The entire book is suffused with anxiety, yet also a certain hope.
But how can there be hope? Isn’t Kafka’s work known for being gloomy and nightmarish? Let us explore this paradoxical world through the door opened by Danijel Žeželj.
Although Kafka’s novella “A Hunger Artist” serves as the backbone of this graphic novel, it also incorporates other shorter stories by the author. The novel begins with the poetic sketch “A Wish to Be an Indian,” in which Kafka describes a liberating gallop that turns into a complete dissipation of the horseman riding it, who would be an Indian, according to Kafka. Like a Hunger Artist, he slowly vanishes. By rejecting food, he rejects this world. After his practical dematerialization, a panther takes his place in the circus - always hungry, strong, and vital. A true image of the Western man – an insatiable, gluttonous conqueror. In the paradoxical final of the story, the Artist confesses to the circus overseer that he had not eaten because he had never found food that suited him. Is this the greatest sensitivity and detachment from this world, or the greatest vanity?
Let’s return to the Indians (both real and those from Arthur Kopit’s Brechtian play). When Sitting Bull was led to the reservation with his tribe, he reportedly said to his son, “You will never know what it means to be an Indian because you won’t have a horse and a gun,” to which his son replied, “But the horses and guns came to us with the white man.” So, is Kafka’s disappearing Indian the only authentic one (and I shall trust the wisdom of the great chief here more than childish naivety)? And is, therefore, the only authentic artist the one who starves himself?
Kafka’s brilliant “A Little Fable” offers us a perspective that we can apply to “A Hunger Artist”:
“‘Alas’, said the mouse, ‘the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.’
‘You only need to change your direction,’ said the cat, and ate it up.”
(Kafka, Franz (2017). The Burrow. Great Britain: Penguin. p. 122.)
Conversation with Danijel Žeželj
Because he is inexhaustible. Every new reading of Kafka’s story or sentence opens new doors.
The backbone of this graphic novel is the story of The Hunger Artist. What prompted you to interpret this enigmatic story?
I have been interested in A Hunger Artist for a very long time. Several years ago, I created a multimedia performance called The Hunger Artist, which was performed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with projections of visuals, live music, and a narration by an actor. The Hunger Artist is an expressive combination of metaphor and realism. The graphic novel also integrates elements of several other Kafka stories, but it is my interpretation of Kafka, not an illustration of his text. Reality surpasses fiction, except in Kafka’s case. Kafka’s fiction always surpasses reality because it is a capsule of truth, simple and clear, and at the same time, extremely complex and completely elusive. This is where the possibility of countless kaleidoscopic readings of Kafka comes from.
A strong impression in the story is left by the contrast between asceticism and gluttony portrayed through the Artist and the panther. It seems to me that today’s society of unlimited growth and vitalistic imperative is embodied in that panther. So, what would be the conviction of a Hunger Artist today?
The Artist’s conviction was best expressed by himself in the final part of the story, so I won’t repeat it. The panther reflects society and its fascinations, Blake’s tiger in the circus cage. But if the question is what the meaning of art and the artist is today, according to Kafka, it lies precisely in affirming its own absurdity, which is also a confirmation of the chaos and absurdity that surrounds it. Ein Hungerkünstler was first published in 1922, but it seems that only now, today, it gains its full meaning and appropriate context.
Kafka’s descriptions of the city and the masses, and the alternating between the terrifying emptiness and the terrifying crowd, correspond very well with your style. How did you experience them?
Kafka is, in a way, terrifying precisely because of the prophetic precision with which he describes the relationship between the individual and society, but at the same time, to me, he is also extremely humorous and without that dimension of humor and spirituality, despite everything, he would be unreadable, unbearable. The conflict of contrasts is close to me, and the drawing that is built on the contrast of light and shadow seems to fit Kafka’s universe well.
Orson Welles proposed an interesting reading of Kafka's novel in his adaptation of The Trial. Namely, he found indications in the text that Joseph K, the paradigmatic unfortunate victim of bureaucracy, is actually a successful career bureaucrat and that he enjoys navigating the labyrinthine hallways of the court to some extent. With that in mind, I would like to ask you, does Kafka leave room for utopian thinking?
Absolutely. Although his utopia may seem negative at first glance, it is precisely because of that that it opens space for opposition and for thinking about the positive. Earlier I mentioned the contrast between light and darkness, but Kafka's work points to the immense complexity and interdependence of everything that lives between those extremes. Towards the end, Kafka dreamt of a new life in nature, in a commune where he would sow, weed, dig the earth, harvest its fruits, and so on - a logical utopia of a man who spent his life contemplating the absurd chaos of the bureaucratic, technocratic labyrinth.