Mojca Oblak's Work
I mean by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be—in a light better than any light that ever shone—in a land no one can define or remember, only desire, and the forms divinely beautiful… —Sir Edward Burne-Jones
he development of abstract art, and conceptualism and installation works, have created all sorts of interesting artistic configurations, but whilst new works can be made, they no longer allow for the kind of radical exploration and great breakthroughs that have characterized art in the past. Duchamp's ready-mades marked out the logical limits of art—anything in principle, can be a work of art if the artist wants it to be.
There is, however, an interesting ambiguity to the end of art phenomenon. Perhaps art's incapacity to be taken forward in structural terms is actually a gain rather than a loss. Could it be, even, that art is now a fully developed concept in terms of its structure and scope? This means that its purpose is to be used in more intimate experiential exploration without recourse to the world of galleries and market forces. For Aristotle the complete and fully-realized form of any kind of being is its Entelecheia. One might say, therefore, that art has attained its Artelecheia. We know what art is and what it can do, it has been completely realized as a concept. The thing is now—to put it to use. Let's use it to explore personal situations and experience, rather than search for newphantom art geniuses and breakthroughs.
The Crowther/Oblak Collection serves this artelechtonic purpose by inspiring theory and practice simultaneously. Paul Crowther's essay on "Style in Victorian Art" (which precedes this discussion) is his attempt to show how the question of iconology—the intrinsic meaning of a visual artwork can be solved in terms of the Victorian context. But he would never have been able to develop the empirical knowledge and analytic historical skills to do this without the Collection.
Likewise, Mojca Oblak's recent artworks involve continuous interaction with the Victorian images. Her space is a sanctuary for them. But the point is that, rather than being stared at in a gallery, these pictures return her gaze and make suggestions for shared ideas and secrets. Instead of operating through a gallery, she has created an aesthetic space where her own works can emerge and find completeness through dwelling-alongside Victorian art. Through this, a special aesthetic meaning emerges through being shown rather then said. It is a truth of relationships whose intimacy exceeds descriptive linguistic formulation. Mojca and the Collection, in other words, together create a meaning that engages with Paul Crowther's ideas, just as his ideas engage with it.
To understand the way in which this is expressed in the exhibition, we must first make some general observations about Mojca's art. She has always been deeply interested in the relation between freedom, contingency, and system. It may seem that the first two of these concepts do not fit much with the latter. But they do—freedom is empty and cannot allow rational insights if it is not rule-governed. However, no rational system of thought can be absolute, it has to be surrounded by, and must negotiate contingency, as these are intrinsic to finite being. Mojca's Transcendental Mannerism, responded to this through creating a visual art system with a vital place found for contingencies of appearance.
Mojca Oblak, Draping the Square, Threading the Code, stitchwork, 2010–2013
In all this, a constant source of inspiration for her was the theory and practice of Malevich, and in particular, his complex use of the Suprematist square as a bearer of complex metaphysical and aesthetic ideas. For Mojca, the example of Malevich's square, and of her own previous art theory and practice, points towards a further problem—is it possible to make theory visual in a literal sense, through the creation of visual texts? This question has, of course, been an issue for many conceptual artists since the 1960s, but, in the age of artelechy, the point is to find new and highly personal way of dealing with it.
This is the context for Mojca's contributions to the Awakening Beauty Exhibition. She has pursued the possibility of the visual artwork-text, through intimacy with the Victorian works that she is at home with. The Exhibition includes a drawing derived from a contemporary photograph of Burne-Jones. It can be regarded as a friendly greeting extended by Mojca to her Victorian pictorial friend. There are, however, three much more important works by her included in the Exhibition.
The first is a cabinet used to support a triptych representing scenes from The Song of Solomon by a follower of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Mojca has contextualized this work not only through having the cabinet purpose-made, but also through the enigmatic artefacts which she has placed in the cupboards. This alludes in part to her own previous creative practice in creating a wunderkammer (exhibited under the title Chamber of the Flag at the Equrna Gallery Ljubljana in 1999, and now in the Collection of the Art Collection of Factor Bank, Ljubljana) (Brejc 94–97). But it also has more enigmatic meaning. There are forty two small triangular boxes, each one containing three folded papers, each paper, in turn, being a specific color (red, green, blue, or yellow) and inscribed with a message. Mojca regards these message-papers as "seeds" (an idea suggested to her by an allusion to pomegranates found in The Song of Solomon). Some seeds contain quotations (for example, from Gilles Deleuze's book The Fold), others contain remarks or wordplays devised by herself, for example, "just as a butterfly is folded into the caterpillar, it will soon unfold."
Mojca's second important contribution to the Exhibition is her major work of the past few years—Draping the Square, Threading the Code. This is a square sheet of white linen embroidered with regular rows of numbers in yellow, or black, or blue or red. The numbers cover the entire sheet, apart from the borders. The origin and meaning of the work is complex. It began on January 1st 2010. Every day for the next three years, Mojca chose a word at random from a dictionary. At the end of that time, she linked the three words corresponding to a specific calendar date. So, for example, January 1st, 2010, 2011, and 2012, yielded (respectively) the words "Christian," "me," and "essential."
Mojca then made the key decision, to invent a code whereby the words for each date could be translated into numbers. She did this by constructing a square divided up into four quadrants, each with rows of fifty numbers on their horizontal and vertical axes. Through a complex coding strategy, she was able to devise a correspondence between them and letters of the alphabet. At first, Mojca considered doing this on a computer, but, for her, digital means were not material enough, and did not contain enough contingencies to satisfy her. She needed a mode of making rather than programming or software design.
Mojca Oblak, Embryonic Threading, 2013, assemblage
It was at this point, that the proximity of Victorian art proved decisive. One of the words that Mojca had found at random in the dictionary was "embroidery." In the course of looking at Pre-Raphaelite works she had been deeply impressed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shalott. This features a woman cursed for unknown reasons to be confined to a tower, and allowed to see the outside only through the window's contents reflected in a mirror. If she looks directly outside the curse will take effect and she will die. The Lady's only respite from the monotony of confinement is embroidering tapestry.
For Mojca, this image links up with other ideas that came to her through reading Aristotle's essay On Coming to Be, and Passing Away, and through her interest in word plays, and, indeed, through associations suggested by another aspect of Victorian art. The phrases, "thread of life," and "text[ile]" are very illuminating in this respect. For Mojca, they connect to the notion of drapery. Drapery is a feature of décor or clothing whose essence is to cover something else, and to be transformed by every movement of its bearer. How drapery appears is determined by that which it covers, and which we do not, of course, usually perceive directly. In Victorian art—especially Lord Leighton's work—drapery is one the most powerful vehicles of aesthetic effect. And for Mojca, it evokes how appearances in the visible world are dependent upon the underlying biological and/or physical codes that bind all things together.
Her Draping the Square, Threading the Code work alludes to this dependence. Most viewers, of course, do not know the code used to translate the letters into the coloured numbers on the embroidery. But just as we can see the beauty of a flower without reference to its underlying biological coding, so too, Draping the Square, Threading the Code allows us to enjoy the embroidery's discursive visual beauty without knowing anything of the code which enabled that beauty. The square which carries the code, is, metaphorically speaking, draped from view. However, the third important work that Mojca contributes—Embryonic Threading—plays a game with this draping over. It incorporates an actual needle, and composes an exhilarating whirl-pattern of threads using the same colours that were used in Draping the Square, Threading the Code. In effect, it reveals the means whereby the large work was created.
Mojca Oblak, Pomegranate Seeds, 2014, foldwork
But this gives it an ambiguous significance. For even if we can see the means whereby Draping the Square, Threading the Code was made, we still do not see the logic of the code which was the purpose of it being created. The original square is cleverly draped over once more.
However, seeing the needle and thread does emphasize the particular physicality of the main work. The very fact we know the main work to be a piece of embroidery is of great significance. Qua embroidered, it has obviously been brought into existence through the constant folding of the cloth and the working into it of different threads. And whilst the illusionism of drawing and painting easily distract us from their physicality, and the conditions under which they were created, a piece of embroidery finds this much harder to conceal. As cloth and thread, it looks manifestly like something that was brought into existence, and which is destined to come apart. However, through the very act of disclosing this aesthetically, Draping the Square, Threading the Code, appears to suspend its own finitude. By this means, beauty is awoken…
Brejc, Tomaž. Mojca Oblak-Crowther, Likovna zbirka Factor banke. Ljubljana 2000: 94–97.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014.
Created 13 January 2014