Anders Krisár/Mårtin Havalai—Black Holes/White Holes

by Arnaud Gerspacher

Look closely and you see little points of light. They are somewhat larger than the holes that create them, small openings in a quicksilver mirror the artist has positioned across what appears to be his own bare torso, photographing the results. Fittingly, each print is titled Camera Obscura (numbered 1–4, all 2020). There are four of them. Each photograph is shot from above, closely framed to show only the torso and a mirror that partially reflects it. In the first photograph, the holes in the mirror are barely noticeable; in the second photograph, a bit more; but they are quite evident in the third and fourth, where they create miniature spotlights on the skin. If you look even more closely, you will see a delicate feedback effect as the points of light bounce off the torso and back onto the mirror. You can tell the difference between the actual holes, which are hard edged, and the reflected holes, which are soft edged.

If the torso had been enclosed in darkness—a darkness that could isolate the light coming in through the holes in the mirror—small images might have appeared on the skin, views of the surroundings in miniature, upside down and reversed. This is the principle of the camera obscura, which was already known to Chinese, Greek, and Arab thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the camera obscura’s effects, which he saw as analogous to the human eye, with which it has physiological affinities. In a completely closed system—like a black box or black hole—light could not escape and might circulate forever unseen. The light, with all its information, would be completely engulfed and all viewership would be foreclosed. But the fact that the light gets in means it can also get out. It also means that we can see at all. Such are the luminous preconditions of the camera obscura, our eyes, and ultimately life as we know it.

But eyes alone cannot be trusted, especially in these images, where things are not quite what they seem. For one thing, this is not really the artist’s torso. It is a polyester impression: every pore and skin crease registered in resin, every mole and vein meticulously painted. Uncannily, this hyperreal torso is also a negative image, or rather a negative object. Look closely at the photographs and the shadows will reveal the reverse of what the eye expects: the rib cage and sternum sink inward where they should protrude, areolas are concave, and the belly button extends outward to a sharp peak (you can see this most clearly in Camera Obscura 1, where the mirror reveals the torso in profile). It is the mirror that appears to restore the torso to a positive state, a visual trick created by the raking light, the angles of the mirror, and the painstaking rendering of the skin. Strictly speaking, however, this is impossible.

But complications come fast, because do not forget, these are photographs. Krisár uses a large-format analog camera in his work, a black-box recording device that uses the same principles as the ancient camera obscura. This means that the photographic process, in a visual echo with the mirror, performs its own inversions: the light from the torso enters the camera, registering on its film as a negative image, which is then developed into a positive print on paper. But because the polyester torso is already a negative impression, the photographic negative, in its own procedural reversal, will therefore show a positive image of the body—that is, until it gets printed, whereupon the torso will appear as the negative impression that it is. Yet, like the mirror in the photographs, this inversion is only an illusion. The negative cannot truly make this torso positive. And like the artist’s body, whose living tissue made the impression, the negative (the image in the analog camera) can only be an intermediary for the positive image. Similarly, the negative image in the camera quite literally cannot be taken out of its dark chamber—it can only travel when fixed by the printing process.

It is as if this work is conditioned by a double absence: first, the living body of the artist captured by the negative cast of its torso, and second, the photographic negative in the camera obscura that registers the torso and mirror. Both intermediaries are necessarily unrepresentable and cannot be in the picture. They inhabit the same inaccessible gap between the polyester resin surface of the body and the printed surface of the photograph. In other words, the inner space of Krisár’s body, which made the original impression, and the camera obscura, from which the prints were developed, coincide—and their inner working can never be made visible, only translated imperfectly through the photographic process and the traces it leaves behind.  And there is a final complication: that we viewers, too, are living, invisible presuppositions in all this. We access these photographs and their vertiginous reversals and inversions through the blind spots in our eyes—our very own pinholes, which allow light to travel inside, inverted like a camera obscura, only to be flipped back again in our minds.

These intricate photographs give us the sense that our insides can never be made directly visible, for if we could somehow be turned inside out—as Krisár’s torso seems to be, in its concavity—the surface of our insides would simply become another outside. In the process, we would perish from the exposure, since our phenomenological interiorities would evaporate like the precariously living images in camera obscuras, which dissolve upon opening. This is why the torso in these photographs is so uncanny—we as viewers are technically situated inside the body, beneath skin and amongst bone, blood, and organs. But clearly this too is impossible, which means there is a living parallel between the camera obscura and the intractable, immovable intensities that are our bodies: feelings, sensations, moods, and, ultimately, consciousness itself. Scientific technologies may be able to image certain biomechanisms—specific portions of the brain lighting up, for example—but this is only a by-product or outward appearance of a phenomenological state, i.e. of being an entity that experiences these psycho-somatic intensities in the first person. So, Krisar’s photographs not only build on the obscura of the black box camera, but also on the obscurity of living itself, the trace-structure of interiority that no photograph, scalpel, or MRI has been able to fully disclose.

The camera obscura is a rich analogy for the mind, but only up to a point. In its original form, the black box alone could not reproduce what it held within. It would take the invention of photography in the nineteenth century to solve the problem by fixing the image on light-sensitive plates; later, cinema would add liveness to the scene. But again, what is inside the human mind-body is far richer than any recorded image: both camera obscura and its technological offspring are only fleeting impressions of light (or, today, data), and ultimately lack blood, breath, tactility, and the synesthetic sensorium of memory. No camera exists for exposing the phenomenological richness we carry inside us but are never truly able to translate or communicate transparently to others. If we could, we would be the opposite of a black hole from which nothing escapes, not even light. We would be white holes from which everything escapes, overpowering and merging with everything and everyone—paradoxically, even ourselves.

Both black and white holes are fundamentally difficult to wrap our minds around. Even for physicists, they are shrouded in mystery—one because its gravitation pull is so massive that its contents are locked in pure unescapable closure, the other because its contents are uncontained and in complete exposure. Though opposites, their power coincides. Should we ever risk getting too close, both would overpower us, either by sucking us into a pure cryptic darkness or by subsuming us in a pure luminous emanation. This is why the self can be neither a black hole nor a white hole. We exist at some midway point, where some things get out, while others remain forever inside with no hope of escape. This is also why words, paint, film, photographs, sculptures, and all other aesthetic mediators are necessary: they are the surrogates for this essential gap between our insides and everything and everyone around us.

But what happens when the mind-body can no longer tell stories about itself? Go back to the photographs again: notice the cracks that run along the face of the mirror. Unlike the holes, these fissures do not reflect any noticeable light on the torso. They are too diffuse; their luminescence does not consolidate into discernible shapes. Too much gets in and too much gets out. If the pinholes represent our common human ability to communicate, then these fissures might be read as non-normative mental states. Dementia, for example, can be described as a state in which what enters the mind fails to be internally cataloged or externally communicated. The afflicted lose their memories gradually, with the most recent failing to register entirely—like a faulty camera obscura, the mind is an increasingly occluded black hole where only older memory-images escape, and towards the end, none at all. Schizophrenia, too, is a state of compromised storytelling, a form of consciousness that has difficulty differentiating between inside and outside. The schizophrenic mind is split between inner thoughts and outward realities (the term comes from the Greek skhizein, to split, and phrēn, mind) in a perpetually fragmented state, folding and merging with the world in ways a non-schizophrenic mind cannot understand. (At its most severe, psychotic episodes, delusions, and hallucinations emanate from the mind-body.) French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari invoked the schizophrenic as a transgressive figure who productively destabilizes the normative strictures of society, especially the Oedipal family; artists, for their part, have long been inspired by the art of “the insane,” as with the Surrealists’ fascination with the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922).

Krisár’s relationship to schizophrenia, however, is far more personal. He was raised by a schizophrenic father, Mårtin Havalai (born Bertalan Pál Krisár), who is also an artist. If Krisár shows his work alongside his father’s drawings and paintings for the first time in this co-exhibition, it is because he is genuinely in awe of his father’s creativity. The art historian might play the paternal game of fishing for influences, as his drawings and paintings variously evoke Picasso, Matisse, German Expressionism, Dubuffet, maybe Baselitz. Havalai’s work shows a recurrent preoccupation with human faces, vividly rendered physiognomies in a profusion of colors and styles—some built up sparingly through hatch marks, others lusciously formed by luminously thick pigment. This fascination with faces is a fitting companion to Krisár’s work: what traditionally has been deemed the privileged access point to human interiority, especially the eyes, which were long deemed to be windows onto the soul, is undercut in both bodies of work by a constant push and pull between accessibility and inaccessibility. Havalai’s portraits tend out towards the viewer in their generous chromatic profusions, but they also withhold themselves—some through missing facial features, some by virtue of a mask-like opacity of paint, and others by the sparse negative spaces of their hatchwork, as if the faces simultaneously appear and disappear all at once.

Krisár is especially fond of a specific painting on paper, the work he has chosen to exhibit directly alongside his own. It shows a human figure, the head lowered as if in prostration. Thick, expressionist brushstrokes give it palpable weight, but also convey speedy execution—the arms are drawn in continuous brushstrokes, the hands represented by bursts of pigment, and the body is no more than a few quick passages of brushwork. The figure is isolated, with no spatial coordinates marked on the page. But there is an oval-shaped hole towards the top left of the paper itself, which is likely a repurposed paper palette. The hole just touches the figure’s lower back, making it seem as if the body is in danger of being sucked into this non-space, which pulls everything into its inward-consuming aperture—a black hole. But the hole might just as easily be read as part of the figure itself, an emanation bursting out of the back or ballooning from the lower spine, suggesting the start of an outward-consuming fluorescence—a white hole. In his exhibition, Krisár has positioned this specific work by his father next to another example of his Camera Obscura series, this one a black marble copy of the torso used in the four photographs. The polyester resin meticulously painted to look like skin is now a black landscape from which the negative impression can be more clearly seen, as in the sternum area, which reads like a ridge in a sunken valley. Where the painted torso in the photograph literally reflects light, both as a painted and photographed object, here the black torso literally absorbs light, drawing color into itself. Once more we find the push and pull between a radiating white hole and an implosive black hole. In placing this black marble carving of his torso next to his father’s drawing, we find two body cavities—concave renderings of back, spine, and sternum—in rapport with an absence. These two works, one a sculpture, the other a painting on paper, evoke two black figures touched by the same abyss—one standing in for the unrepresentable insides of the artist, the other for his father’s.

The constant oscillation in Krisár’s work between revealing and concealing—and disclosing only to reach yet another level of inaccessibility—resonates even more clearly in the four large blocks of pale yellow wax resting on black bases, titled Bronze/Wax, 2019–20, which seem to live and breathe alongside the four Camera Obscura photographs in the gallery. Buried inside each block is a bronze cast of the face of the artist’s mother. The casts, which are connected to an electrical source, heat up and cool down at regular, staggered intervals: one block will be at the highest setting, revealing the serene face beneath an oval pool of translucent amber liquid; one block will have just begun heating, its features not yet fully visible; one will be cooling, the head growing cloudy beneath congealing wax; finally, one will be completely cool, its contents entirely hidden beneath. With the first heating and cooling, the wax blocks will reset in coagulated waves and magma-like pourings, drips, and splatters; there will be no going back to their initial pristine condition. Here, the mind-body is fixed in death, the wax material recalling associations with death that go back to its use in encaustic funerary portraiture in Ancient Egypt and Greece. No true return is possible, despite the melancholic and paradoxically cyclical reappearance of the face of a loved one who is no more. One might see the effect as a ghostly haunting, a reincarnation or literalization of the bipolar condition, which Krisár’s mother suffered from. But ultimately, the work may simply point to the fact that all mothers, fathers, loved ones, memories, affections, afflictions, and the intensities of what it means to live with others remain encrypted in the relative obscurity of our insides, with no chance of ever seeing the light of day. They can be translated with more or less success in expressive mediations. We can tell stories about them. They might visit us in dreams. We might revisit them in the memory boxes of our minds. But ultimately, they inhabit a black hole—when all that is left of them is the them that lives in you.