An essay by Žarko Paić for the catalog of the exhibition A Hunger Artist, Forum Gallery, Zagreb, May 5 - June 5, 2023.
A CAGE IN THOUGHT OR ON THE CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE
Danijel Žeželj and Kafka's A Hunger Artist
Franz Kafka is a paradigmatic writer of our modernity. The reason for this can be seen in the fact that he understood the essence of writing as a breakthrough of the network of the inhuman that transforms into a multitude of new forms and characters and creates a soulless machinery of the process of disappearing and shaping the world. Language, therefore, is both an alchemy of freedom to create something new and a tool of complete dehumanization in reducing it to a mere technical means of communication. In his literature, which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their inspiring study entitled Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Matica hrvatska, Zagreb, 2020, translated from French by Ugo Vlaisavljević), call "rhizome and burrow", the monstrous and terrifying as a completely alienated state of existential throw of human freedom in the modern world comes to light. It is a state that has the features of aesthetic-ethical ambiguity. Man appears as a singular disobedient individual and as a homogeneous submissive mass in the social order of a kind of interactive solitude. His aesthetic fascination with the idols and fetishes of mass capitalist production-consumption to which he surrenders to the last stage of narcissistic frenzy and vanity soon becomes as empty and hollow as Duchamp's readymade Bottle Rack, and the ethical unconditional love for the neighbor disappears in indifference to the Other. Kafka has brought this ground zero of the existential situation of contemporary nihilism of the world to perfect symbolic ambiguity in the short story powerfully titled A Hunger Artist.
Why does Danijel Žeželj, a painter, graphic artist, animator, illustrator, and comic book artist, author of the exceptional graphic novel Fractalia, which follows events from the life of Vincent van Gogh, take this Kafka story as a challenge for his own authorial interpretation in the synesthesia of image and word? The answer seems self-evident. Because it is, after all, like many other Kafka's stories, certainly an unsolvable artistic allegory of this era marked by organized madness, the entropy of a society of spectacle, and an almost futile act of individual rebellion against the rule of inhumane control over the world of life. Moreover, Žeželj takes in creative reflection precisely the writer who lived his short life in constant conflict between two worlds, that of a bank clerk and that marked by artistic visions of the future. Life itself, in its contingent indivisibility, happens between the boredom of bureaucratic work in the rational order of capitalism and the absolute freedom of imagination in the ecstasy of creating something new. Let us not forget that Kafka's story A Hunger Artist is a parable and necessarily has a surplus of symbolic meaning beyond what belongs to the realm of the traumatic Real, to use Lacanian terminology. Žeželj, who expresses his commitment to the figurative over the abstract precisely because of this ecstatic dimension of complex contemporary reality marked by the gap between dark urbanity and alienation and the wild force of disobedient nature beyond so-called civilization, and who draws aesthetic inspiration from the heritage of baroque painting, finds in Kafka's parable a kind of crack in the essence of time. As an artist who always sees a picture as a story, and a story has the meaning of an authentic event, apocryphal or factual, so in his graphic novel Like a Dog we are confronted with the fundamental question of why this time of illusions and technological acceleration is also a space of loss of the aura of authentic meaning of sacrifice for freedom in general. Why must an artist, as a condition for the possibility of the idea of art "here" and "now" to fulfill the vow of the mission of the creative life, be in a permanent process of hunger, while everything else seems like a mere ethical-political compromise in alliance with the institutional repression of society?
As is well-known, Kafka's story A Hunger Artist is a parable about the relationship between the artist and his audience, or in a broader sense, society in general. It speaks of alienation and separation between the exceptional and the ordinary. Artists necessarily live on the fringes of normal life, as an imperative of obedience and order in a system that functions like a machine of government and society. They are misunderstood by the masses and abused by patrons and financial supporters in the name of God, Nation-State, Empire, Corporation. Therefore, Kafka's idea in the story is to present the artist as a subversive "holy fool" and harlequin who paradoxically embodies the very mode of action of modernity in the form of a capitalist society of the spectacle. This paradox consists of the following: for the artist to have recognition as an authentic subject of disobedient freedom, he must become the performer of his own bodily act of starvation, in a cage, in front of a mass audience. The space of the performance is the popular entertainment called the circus. His performative act of exposure-to-the-public appears as the essence of modern art, but also of art in general beyond the passing of time, which in the story is symbolized by the clock in the cage that rapidly ticks off the time allotted to the hunger artist. That time is synonymous with his biological clock. And no matter how much he struggles to transcend his physical limits without the intake of food necessary for survival, such an act belongs to the realm of the impossible. Giorgio Agamben, in his analysis of the contemporary world of capitalism, which is based on the rule of symbolic or cultural capital over industrial capital, and which means the dominance of aesthetic and artistic over all other forms of work, shows that politics has itself become a performative act. Thus, the society of the spectacle, from entertainment and frivolity, enters the stage of synthesis of cruelty and total violence against the human body. And this is no longer through the proven methods of political dictatorships and tyrannies, but through the medium of voluntary slavery of the individual as a subject of narcissistic culture. (Giorgio Agamben, 'Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London, 2000., pp. 73-90) The paradox, therefore, is that the artist must starve to survive in the hell of the Real, that is, to gain recognition and respect from the masses who worship him only up to the limit of his power to transcend life itself. Since that limit can only be reached through his death on stage, it is self-evident that this performative act of absolute freedom is necessarily doomed to failure.
Žeželj visualized Kafka's story with his precise and striking neobaroque chiaroscuro strokes of a master draftsman. Although in recent hermeneutic analyses of Kafka's literature it can often be seen that he was one of the first modern writers, along with Alfred Döblin and his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, who had a pure cinematic sentence, i.e., a cinematic writing style, Žeželj brought his parabolic and diabolical narrative to crystallization in the form of a comic as fragments of almost metaphysical iconography. The thought that flows from the hunger artist's body is simultaneously a shining cathartic freedom and gesturality of silent resistance to the gaze of the mass that impatiently awaits the outcome of this performance. Will the artist break under the superhuman effort of this narcissistic and tragic asceticism, or will everything end with an ironic event of mere survival on the stage, when the artist's strong body in the cage with the flow of the biological clock becomes an exhausted and almost monstrous body of a pseudo-ascetic who no longer interests anyone because he has fulfilled the purpose of his own exhaustion in the spectacle of time that reconciles both sanctity and perversion, encyclopedia and circus, as Peter Sloterdijk masterfully describes the combination of modern media in Critique of Cynical Reason (Globus, Zagreb, 1992, p. 306. Translated from German by Boris Hudoletnjak).
The problem, however, is that the entire performative event is a representation of the necessary separation of the artist and the mass, of the creative way of life and the one that takes place in the constant repetition of mechanical processes of reproduction. Therefore, such duality presupposes that art, as the only worthy way of overcoming nihilism, as Friedrich Nietzsche clearly reflected, must fall into a cage before the audience as a symbolic gesture of the singularity of freedom. The prevailing thought of contemporary society is anything but that process of spiritual-physical starvation. It is completely opposed, and thus Danijel Žeželj must emphasize in the final scenes of this defeat of thinking in a cage or chronicles of disappearance, the power of the powerlessness of the black panther that becomes only the last sign of the wild rebellion of the body's ecstasy in an abandoned world as a cage after the death of the hunger artist. The animal cry as Unheimlichkeit is what remains of art as such! Indeed, was not the neo-avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys who experienced this in a completely different way when he locked himself in a gallery as a kind of cage with a coyote in his famous conceptual performance I like America and America likes me from 1974 in the René Block Gallery in SoHo!? He then uttered these words which are the credo of contemporary art. ʺEvery human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.ʺ (Joseph Beuys, What is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys, edit. Volker Harlan, Clairview Books, 2004.)
What, then, remains in a world where art and artists become performative prisoners of their own freedom which occurs within the limits and on the edge of the spectacular global-planet circus of total mobilization of Power? Kafka himself provided the answer in A Hunger Artist. What remains is the subversive gesture of wild thought, the one which Claude Lévy-Strauss finds outside the rational structure of alienation and indifference of Western civilization, but not as a salvation alternative, but as an act of creative rebellion without which art and life become meaningless. Against the cage in thought as a chronicle of the disappearance of the very essence of art in the era of the rule of the society of spectacle or the universal code of modernity, there is nothing left but the desire for self-recognition in the pursuit of establishing, from one's own life, what Danijel Žeželj spiritually calls "embodied painting". It is an experimental act of interaction with the Other in community as a living encounter and witness of how every form of true communication is simultaneously a justification for devising this world in which the hunger artist lives and experiences Kafka's story as his own permeation of freedom-in-body with an image. In overcoming the anxiety of the cage and the closedness of all other perspectives, his visualization of this inexhaustible gesture brings us back to the memory of the artistic-philosophical correlations without which this spiritual world would remain barren and empty.
Gershom Scholem explains that his friend Walter Benjamin wrote his notes on Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus while on Ibiza in a state of complete poverty. Furthermore, as Scholem continues, it was precisely in such unfortunate circumstances of being reduced to elementary needs that Benjamin could rise above the mire of everyday life and concentrate on his intellectual work. Benjamin dissected the very word concentration in his essay on Kafka to its bare substance, demonstrating that it is a natural prayer of the soul. This can be found in the text of Paul Celan's speech, Meridian, given at the Georg Büchner Prize ceremony in Darmstadt on October 22, 1960. (Paul Celan, Crna mostarina, Meandarmedia, Zagreb, 2011, p. 238. Selected and translated by Truda Stamać). Let us consider the series, Scholem-Benjamin-Kafka-Celan. Kafka writes A Hunger Artist, Benjamin writes his prophetic essay on Klee's Angel in a situation of extreme starvation as a harbinger of the end of history, while Scholem and Celan each in their own way immerse themselves in the mystical field of concentration of thought when the body is on the brink of subsistence. Benjamin's natural prayer of the soul leads us through life like Angelus Novus, pointing the way even when everything is marked by catastrophe and apocalypse. Scholem goes even further, which is worth mentioning. In his writing "Walter Benjamin and His Angel," he claims that Benjamin's cousin quoted him this unforgettable sentence from a lost letter: "I gather flowers at the edge of the existential minimum." (Gershom Scholem, "Walter Benjamin and His Angel," in: Walter Benjamin, New Angel, Izdanja Antibarbarus, Zagreb, 2008, p. 147. Translated from German by Snješka Knežević).
Concentration arises from the depth of thought. It is directed towards a spiritual goal and everything else seems secondary, including the experience of hunger. The body suffers immensely, but it cannot be overcome by the impulses and urges of the so-called primary craving for survival. Kafka and Benjamin, as well as Scholem and Celan, are devoted to what angelically guides them beyond the boundaries of this world immersed in the misery of survival. However, life is not lived just to live, but to outlive what the so-called existential minimum does to the soul-spirit. To concentrate on something sublime is only possible if one is completely honest with oneself that this decision to write and paint, despite everything, is the first and last meaning of existence. Žeželj's graphic novel Like a Dog finds its act of creation in the traces of Kafka's concentration of thought, with which this time also transcends the limits of its own emptiness. To read his images and look at Kafka's words means to be able to hear the complete silence of the abandonment and solitude of the world in the disappearance of authentic art and artists from their "essential" needs for spectacle. Reading images and looking at text is already the first step towards liberation from indifference.