Anders Krisár: Aurum

By Arnaud Gespacher

From the shattering collision of neutron stars came gold. This origin theory of our 79th element—aurum—makes gold a witness of cosmic events before all human witnessing. It is extraterrestrial. Much of our planet’s water also predates our solar system, making our oceans not of this world. And really, like all else, if we think of the big bang as a cameraless flash producing a celestial image of multiple dimensions in bending space and time, nothing on Earth is of this world, even ourselves. These are not metaphysical claims, though it is easy to see how gold became earmarked in human history as an access point to transcendence (to that which is not of this world in a theological sense), or as a monetary fetish with magical value that preys on so many hearts and minds, making them forget the world, the Earth, and its earthlings.

That tracing gold back to its origins finds two dead stars fusing in a gravitational dance explosion offers us a larger insight about origins. The great driving idea of Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophical work is that all origins are two. All begins in pairs—light and dark, mother and child, you and me, an expanding universe and the unknown limits on the other side of its expansion—even the concept of a god requires a creation in mutual recognition of maker and made. Our pre-existing condition of Being is singular plural and everything passes between us.[1] Politics and art need to be a restitution of this condition—so much violence and confusion might be avoided—for we are either with or we are not.

Hurtling through space and time, gold is not only an elemental access point to a past before all witnessing, but to an equally witnessless future. Once our own star dies out, all the gold in the world will drift away, melding back in the wordless world of an inhuman universe (along with everything else that survives us billions of years onward in the cold, collapsed night of our solar system, which, according to laws of conservation, is everything, albeit in entropic configurations that cannot allow for the discrete complexity of our minds and bodies as we know them). We will have lived and made things that long outlive us. Radiating bodies of elemental mass that once made up our technical and artistic materials will float outward alongside the dust of our bodies, of all bodies, in the expanse of a universal crepuscular future.

Why do I begin an essay on Anders Krisár with such strange ruminations on the philosophical implications of speculative astronomy? Because it is impossible to write about a body of work that communicates emotion far more directly than any writing could hope to. This is especially true of Eva (2016), the face of the artist’s recently deceased mother cast in gold from her death mask. I can only orbit the bittersweet sorrow of such a private and mournful object. I can only write from a distance—but in a distance that draws me in and touches me, since mourning is everyone’s fate. And discussing Eva with this cosmic production as a backdrop is not simply a whim. It is Krisár himself who sees it this way. It is the artist who told me, with a sense of fascination, you know, gold is made of stars. So the restitution of cosmic origins and of personal origins is one in this work (though really, always two—two stars, two humans, two temporalities). Eva quite literally embodies the wonder of a resplendent element existing before humanity now coating the face of a mother who comes before her child. Since we all originate from a pre-existing time-space—first, from a solipsistic womb that must have felt like the universe, and then from a universe and solitary planet that is so often imbued with maternity—there is a sense of returning the mother to her pre-eminent place in life.

There is additionally a more terrestrial tension at work in Eva, namely between the general value of gold and the singular value of a person. Though gold is no longer the standard for the world’s monies, it retains the qualities that for so long made it the basis of human currency, including its relative scarcity, its timeless indestructability, and its undifferentiated luminous elasticity. The value of a person, on the other hand, rests on a singularity of existence, an ephemeral and irreversible perishability, and a highly differentiated complexity in limited plasticity. Here is where Krisár’s gesture is rather stunning: by casting his mother’s death mask in gold, he makes us subtly aware that the value of gold is no match for the value of a person, a relationship that might be stated more generally as that between monetary value and the value of life. (Adding to the richness of this work, the artist and his brother obtained the gold from the sale of their mother’s home, which introduces another form of restitution).

Gold, no matter how rare, is replaceable and exchangeable. It is abundant in reserves. The complex singularity of a person, however, is absolutely irreplaceable. And so in Eva, it is not the preciousness of the gold that adds value to face of the person, but the preciousness of the person that adds value to the gold. Eva is an auratic image of a mother’s physiognomy—the lines on her face, and a touching of skin that is now ash. The impressive force of the facial imprint makes this quantity of gold unexchangeable in its singular impression. Melting it down to recirculate the gold as malleable exchange value would be a crass net loss. And since this physical trace is of a loved one who is no longer alive, it is infinitely more scarce and valuable than its gilded substrate (like a photograph whose negative has been lost or destroyed). If Krisár were to destroy the death mask from which the work is cast, Eva would forever be an edition of one, making the gold even more subservient to the existential value of a person. And in this way, against the grain of the exchange value of gold, Krisár’s work reproduces and thematizes the precarity and value of singularity, which can never be exchanged, can only be lost, and absolutely must be shared. 

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, trans., Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O'Byrne (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000), 5.

Download PDF