Note on several works by Judit Kurtág (From the exhibition catatlog ...)

I will not soon forget my first encounter with Judit Kurtág’s work. Two years ago I had the good fortune to be invited to a private screening of Une grammaire du temps and several other works at the Rijksakademie van beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. My first spontaneous reaction was: “Could I see that one more time, please?” What I was seeing and hearing was having an effect on me that I was having difficulty comprehending. The intimate context of the private screening immediately produced a certain pressure, the expectation that I would have some­thing to say about what I’d seen. But I couldn’t find the words to express what I was experiencing. My intuition said that these were works of great density and coherence. But coherent in what respect? I felt like a child that has reached the stage of being able to grasp complex situations and syntactical structures but is still unable to respond to them with appropriate complexity. This explains my expression of curiosity: “One more time!”

Ever since, I have been attempting to find words to express the things I’ve encountered in Kurtág’s work. This is a pleasurable, dif­ficult task—and perhaps it is the difficulty itself that produces the pleasure. The dif­ficulty stems from the fact that Kurtág’s work is itself struggling to find the right words, it is not based in any more or less circumscribed canon of expressive possibilities. In the case of this particular exhibition, the task is even more difficult than usual, since at the point of this writing the video in question exists only as a draft. This is why I will continu­ally be referring to older works as well, videos not included in this exhibition. They can be viewed, at least in excerpted form, at

That first evening, Judit Kurtág wound up showing her videos a second time, and it was this repetition that offered me my first point of entry into her work. Or perhaps I should say: the absence of repetition. I realized that the complexity and tempo of much of her work made a precise repetition, such as I had been expecting, impossible. In videos like Meet me (t)here and Moving forward, both marked by a breakneck-speed editing style, image follows image so swiftly that you might easily miss a few if you blink. These pieces teach us about the blind spots of perception. Since blinking is an involuntary action, each time we see these videos, different bits are missing. As a result, the remaining images fit together differently on each view­ing. Perception returns the viewer to his own interiority.

To this day I have been unable to ascer­tain whether the brief moments in which performer Jimmy Robert (in Moving forward) appears to be in motion are actually contained in the video images. Or are these “real life” motions (which come after a great deal of motion simulated by a succession of still images) a sort of after-image of the body: just as the firm ground beneath our feet always seems to sway for a while when we step off a carousel or boat.

In Sans titre (11’), the slowness of the transitions places the viewer in a similar situ­ation. The slow fades between the individual still images take too long for us to be able to perceive the changes as they are occurring. Only when the image has become clearly different does the change announce itself to us. And thus it can be perceived only retroactively, as the memory of a different state. And yet this different state is itself a moment that has been arbitrarily separated out from its context through its perception by a viewer. For the image on the screen is constantly flowing, constantly in motion. So while viewers are watching this video, they are simultaneously remembering this same video at an earlier point in time. Thus the temporal spheres of the video and its view­ers are interlinked in a way that is almost uncanny. As a viewer of these works, I keep finding myself falling into uncertainty: Is it myself I am observing here?

ArtitsSpace Catalogue - CoverThe way Judit Kurtág confronts her viewer with his own perceptions seems to represent a fundamental approach her work brings to the world. Her videos do not dif­ferentiate unambiguously between subject and object, between video and observer. They in no way depict the world. What they show is not things in the world, but rather things in perception. The puddle in Puddle, gently rippling into waves in the wind, has the same value as the skin of a girl that is being caressed; it tells the story of how a gentle touch has turned into In Kurtág’s videos, there is no longer any inside and outside. These catego­ries blur together, much as they do in dreams: Every element of a dream potentially signifies what is being represented. And it signifies as well an aspect of the dreamer himself. And so Kurtág’s decisions as she searches for a par­ticular element for a video can appear rather mercurial. What does a cat have in common with cigarette smoke? Judit would respond: “Both move in the same way.” Therefore one can stand in for the other. When Kurtág is filming, if I understand correctly, she is looking for things that transmit motion as an uncontrollable surplus of information. She is looking not for something that is to be com­municated intentionally, but rather for what is unavoidably implicit in the images. When she works with actors, as she does in these last two films, this can result in her selecting out from a filming session of several hours only those few moments that are technically waste material. She likes to incorporate just the beginning or end of a sequence. She uses those moments when an actor has stopped acting but hasn’t yet entirely returned to his civilian persona. This naturally leads to con­flicts when an actor objects to being perceived in ways unconnected to his artistic ability. But it is precisely this uncontrolled mark of the transition that provokes Kurtág’s interest and turns her into a passionate observer. After all, it is this involuntary surplus that causes the person to be recognizable. And to depict these observations, Kurtág takes advantage of a particular feature of the camera. The cam­corder does not naturally distinguish between people, animals and objects. Therefore the puddle can become a girl, or an old woman a ghost that appears in and through the interior of an apartment (Phantom).

In Faces, the back-and-forth between perception and recognition is most readily evident. We see bizarre, distorted faces such as one can glimpse in the bark of trees at night in the woods. But then the face of the artist is revealed for one brief moment, and the other “faces” turn out to be images of her hair. These real and imaginary faces are brought into immediate proximity with one another. At the moment when the real face is recognized, an exchange takes place: an exchange between inside and outside, between interior perception and external recognition. Kurtág’s videos embrace both these states, making no fundamental distinc­tion between them. Both are given the same value as elements of a person (or an identity). The identity of a person is always presented in these videos as a many-voiced web of contradictions. They are less identities per se than non-identities displaying the structure of a crisis. Once one accepts that the indi­vidual is not an indivisible thing but rather a divisible one, a dividual that is split in many ways (like an atom, which has long since ceased to be an átomos [ἄτομος]), then these two categories (the internal and the external) no longer appear fundamentally separate.

In an interview, Judit once said that many if not all of her pieces are like portraits of people. But they do not (always) show the faces of the ones being portrayed. Sometimes only their characteristics are depicted. But are these then still portraits? “This is just what makes them portraits. The depiction of a face without the characteristic qualities of the per-son is nothing more than a mug shot. I don’t want to depict or describe anything. I’m just trying to create a representation. The way in which something comes to light is utterly fascinating to me. Every contact I have with the world results in my feeling not only whatever it is I am touching but also myself. It’s the same when you come into contact with other people. Maybe even a little more intense.”

Perhaps this experience is what allows me to keep discovering in Judit Kurtág’s work something very much akin to the structure of the unconscious. All points of reference are continually shifting. Left/right, up/down, inside/outside lose their sense of opposition, but without becoming synonymous. It is also part of this form of perception that various spaces of time can exist simultaneously, con­tradictorily. In the process, the intuitive dif­ferentiation between me (the subject) and the world (everything that isn’t me) sometimes gets lost. In the same interview quoted above, Judit Kurtág also remarked: “When I am filming a video, I think of the camera, the movements and the performers as a single unit.” All these elements form one entity, but without being identical to one another. Each of these ele­ments is a voice in a cosmos not held together by a center. In this sense, her videos have no solid core. They do not have as their point of departure a theme or idea that can then be explored via artistic means. Rather, they derive their meaning from a signification (in Roland Barthes’s sense), from this plurality of voices and their interrelationships. And thus every film becomes a subject in its own right: Each of these pieces speaks of a particular way of perceiving the world.

Kurtág’s films do not know the distance of a narrator such as has been developed in documentaries and commercial cinema. This becomes clear particularly in her two most recent works, the video midway and the installation exhibited here episode (work­ing title): These works are not attempt­ing to objectify but rather to subjectify. Subjectifying for Kurtág doesn’t mean just giving expression to a personal opinion but rather depicting from the perspective of a subject. Her work observes with meticulous precision how an experience or a (self-)per­ception comes about.

For good reason, we consider real any­thing we are able to perceive. This is reassuring; after all, it allows us to observe things with an air of finality, to take them as self-evident. But Kurtág’s work prompts us to begin to doubt the reality of these real objects. The objects and the worlds that appear in her work are not self-evident or understood in the usual sense. They are understood in the sense of being things that come about by means of a certain self- understanding.

To be sure, Kurtág’s art is treading on shaky ground if it intends to understand itself as, among other things, a possibility for col­lective expression. For can such a radically subjective depiction be of any interest what­ever to an outside party? This is a rhetorical question, and it has a straightforward answer: It can. And yet this span can be bridged, paradoxically, only when the works themselves are consistently read only on their own terms, just as some of David Lynch’s dream-like movies can be described only on terms they themselves propose. (One might also say that these films can be deciphered only from the interior perspective of a psychosis.) And just like these films of Lynch’s, Kurtág’s works are in search of contact. They by no means wish to remain isolated in their own subjectiv­ity. They intend to encounter an audience despite all the difficulties that arise from their perspective. In the most original sense of the term, they are coherent.