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Polyvalence as a Principle of Art and Life
Notations on Heinz Cibulka
There are no rules for how to read the picture.
Setting the Tone
After casting even a brief glance upon Heinz Cibulka's artistic oeuvre, its abundance, diversity and stringency prove astonishing. The eye of the public was long focused on his photographic work, presumably not least because the protagonists of Autorenfotografie (subjective photography), which rapidly spread through Austria in the 1970s, quickly began to advance him as an artist who had genuinely appropriated the medium of photography for his own aesthetic projects. Here it was not his origins in and his experiences among the 'Vienna Actionists' that were placed in the foreground, but, at least to a certain extent, his individual photographic gaze and his conceptual-poetic use of photographic images, or in short: his 'fine art photography'.1 At the same time, however, his works' relevance for the art establishment primarily derived from an Actionist perspective, which was linked particularly closely to Hermann Nitsch (it is no coincidence that it was chiefly those commercial and public galleries more closely associated with Actionism which continually presented Cibulka's work cycles).2
In this context his photographic documentation of the 'Vienna Actionists' is also relevant a body of work that is often granted fine art status as a result of interests related to the art market. It is nonetheless appropriate to assume that there are complex interconnections between his fine art and his 'documentary' photography, particularly in relation to non-intentional factors. From a thematic-aesthetic perspective, these are aspects of the synaesthetic, the olfactory, in brief: dimensions of the Gesamtkunstwerk as developed by Nitsch since the late 1950s.3 The substantiality of the Actionist photography of Cibulka or of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, one of Cibulka's most important artistic reference persons, becomes apparent in relation to the question of the work’s author and the autonomy of photography. Peter Weibel even considers Actionist photography to be one of the orgins of the so-called Autorenfotografie (subjective photography) in Austria.4
Without a doubt, photography serves in many respects as the 'royal road' of his work as an artist, above all, because the pictorial potential of this medium permitted him to succeed in fulfilling many of his artistic aspirations. These included issues such as the moment of visual-imagistic associativity; the unobstructed course of the viewers' visual interpretation; the uncovering of synaesthetic potential; and above all, the repeated realization within ever new contexts of the narrative power of the photographic image, beyond rationalistic limitations (reproductive ideology!) With his famous, mostly four-part 'picture poems' he also succeeded in developing a subtle and polyvalent photo-visual musicality that is unique within the context of Austrian photography since 1945.5
It was the exhibition Bild Material, organized by Peter Zawrel at Vienna's Landesmuseum Niederösterreich (Lower Austrian State Museum) to mark the artist's fiftieth birthday in 1993, that first (but definitively) led the public to truly perceive the artist and his work with new eyes.6 Material pictures, material installations, stage-like settings of natural materials, material boxes or retrospective references, for example, to the 1977 action Kompost (Compost) in Bologna, dynamically resituated his photographic work in the context of a form of Land Art, Spurensicherung (securing evidence) or phenomena reminiscent of Arte Povera. Practically overnight this revealed his work's international dimension, which, without any deliberate reference, had become manifest in this complex of works based on the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk.7>
Accordingly, photography was no longer situated at the centre of his work as an artist, but became the mechanism, even the source, of a multidimensional artistic self-image. Here, the photographic image becomes a form of being that serves to certify the photographed objects, things, and people. 'It has always been about the relationship of the photo to the material it is based upon; this is what sparks the artist's curiosity and passion, and this is what confronts his will to form with a solidity and plasticity [to manipulate] …', thus Peter Zawrel in the publication that accompanied the exhibition.8
From the Photo Collages to the Digitages
No 'picture poems' were realized between 1987 and 2005. This was a process involving both letting go and clarifying. Once Cibulka became certain that he 'no longer wanted to return to painting', the issue of the potential for transforming and developing the 'picture collages' became his primary focus.9 He discovered this potential in the digital imaging processes that were gradually becoming available at that time. 1–17 Tatsachen (1–17 Facts), a seventeen-part series of images from 1993, presented him with the opportunity to redefine his four-part picture collages. In Cibulka's own words: 'In this cycle, I wanted to undermine or expand the working principles characteristic of most of my photographic works.'10
The unpretentious title already points to the serial nature of the seventeen works, whose images are taken from an amateur video and provide impressions of Bosnian war zones in 1992. Once again in Cibulka's words: it was the 'shock' and the 'irresistible curiosity to make artistic use of this sensitive instrument'. He goes on to say: 'This work stands between the poles of my concept of the formal definition of the presentation, and an emotionally stirring content.'11
The transition from analogue to digital required a long process of investigation, exploration and experimentation. For almost ten years, Cibulka still continued to use chemical, analogue photography as the base material for his pictorial inventions. The transfer into digital was carried out with a scanner; the shift from a working procedure involving real, materially existing pictures to one involving a computer screen represented a substantial challenge for him in terms of the artistic process of composition. The experience of the immateriality of images as electronic 'effects' was not only absolutely new, it also entailed a fundamental dislocation of the photographic. Thus the artist has had to permanently struggle with the aspect of authenticity, the loss of the aura of the real photographic reference. 'After the machine has translated the slice of reality into the theoretical vocabulary of the photographic process, the elements of this reproductive surface are translated into digital codes and the individual parts are arranged in such a way that they appear in a form which corresponds to the artist's idea,' thus summarized Hanno Millesi this aspect of the new imaging process.12
Quickly, however, Cibulka became fascinated by the possibility of developing new and much more complex images by means of digitalization. This form of breaking up the photographic picture plane led Cibulka to overcome a concept of the collage as a one-dimensional, additive, discrete and individual combination of photographs. The new digitage (i.e., digital collage) lead to a depth of the images and overcame the plane of the photographic collage. Here his training in graphic design significantly assisted him, as he had already learned to think in terms of multiple pictorial planes, and thus was able to develop a particular sensibility for perceptually oriented pictorial strategies and macrostructures. It is no longer a linear thinking in images, but the poly-pictorial that has become dominant in the digitage. The formation of numerous digital pictorial planes, the basis of the previously mentioned depth of the images, also evokes a new complexity in terms of the associative construction and the pictorial vocabulary. 'In contrast to the four equally weighted pictorial fields presented next to each other, which can be combined beyond their individual edges to permit countless potential interpretations of the image's message, viewers of the works constructed out of a digitalized vocabulary of images are truly cast into a thicket of details, whose apparent concentration makes them no less ambivalent.'13
In the process, the individual analogue particles of photography's pictorial reality digitally merge into archaeological explorations of reality and everyday life, as is fundamentally characteristic of Cibulka's oeuvre. The transfer from the procedure of (analogue) concentration to a (digital) merging of pictorial planes is fundamentally relevant to the relationship between representation and idea in the process of the image's creation. Unlike the photographic collages, the digitages move back toward the pre-photographic creation of images, insofar as photography's 'reality effect' (Roland Barthes) increasingly shifts towards a 'representation effect', or in Robert Musil's words: from a 'sense of reality' to a 'sense of possibility'. The retinal aspect of perception mutates into the intrinsic representation of the image and implies the complete loss of the photographic aura. Because of the decades of previous photographic experience, the subtleness and visual acuity, the caution and pictorial balance of both the mental representation and the external presentation demand particular attention in the digital imaging process. It is a question of new 'perception complexes' (Cibulka). Viewers are thus also confronted with a new 'openness' of the artwork; however, this openness cannot be verified with just a quick look (there). Cibulka's dictum that there are no rules for how to read the pictures does not imply a (new) arbitrariness of viewing, but rather, in the face of digital pictorial worlds, it indicates an exceptional challenge to seeing, in order to reach new shores of vision. Cibulka thus also shows that a new pictorial technology does not permit an analogizing transfer of previous pictorial techniques in the imaging process. Instead, it demands a new form of thinking in images in order to be able to have new picture experiences.14
Two thematic fields define Cibulka's entire work: city and country. Born and raised 'in the atmosphere of the city's outskirts / Favoriten [a district of Vienna] between garden plots, fields and the Laaerberg and Wienerberg hills. Happy, playful within a circle of numerous children of about the same age and from the same block council of flats, creative poverty and carefree lightness. Playing on the piles of dirt next to the new [post-war erected] buildings, chasing through bushes and bomb craters near the Laaerberg, romping about in clay-pit ponds', thus the artist's description of his childhood.
This ambiguous experience combining the rural and the urban was to decisively shape his aesthetic-thematic view of the world. His fluctuation between the urban and the rural runs like a common thread throughout all his creative work.15 However, it is not exoticism that interests Cibulka here. It would be much more appropriate to say that he has become an artistic ethnographer in his work cycles, regardless of whether his subject is Lower Austria's Weinviertel, Berlin or China. Seeing and experiencing the foreign, the unknown - whether near or far - is an essential motivation behind his work and also implies the ethnographic drama itself: often being able to perceive something at the last moment, even as it disappears in the course of the process of civilization, just barely capturing the exposed tip of a world that has already become history (whereby his very early childhood war-time experiences of the forces of destruction also surely play a role). Particularly his material pictures ultimately represent a poetry of city and countryside relics: they are ethnographic objects of nearby worlds, which have become or are becoming foreign to us.
Wolfgang Denk is correct in writing of 'dynamic energy fields of an individual cosmology' that open up within Cibulka's work.16 The great ethnologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote already in the 1930s that 'hot' societies, based on the principle of permanent change, were increasingly beginning to annihilate 'cold' societies, based on the principle of constancy and permanence.17 In the area of tension between the urban as 'hot' society and the rural as 'cold' society, a process has been evolving since the 1960s that is, in many ways, structurally similar to that which we know from the history of ethnography. In this context, Cibulka's seismographic sensitivity as an artist has played an especially significant role in his artistic production since the 1960s and has thematically 'formatted' his work.
Paths to Lower Austria
Following Cibulka's path to Lower Austria is certainly comparable to an ethnographic voyage, whereby various traces of his family history also point back to the area. His father is from the Marchfeld, and Cibulka described Loimersdorf, where he spent time during his childhood, as a 'paradisiacal oasis', an 'anti-city'. The first station after childhood was Königsbrunn, where he lived from 1967 to 1979; subsequently, he moved to Strebersdorf, his second stop in Lower Austria, where he remained until 1989. While searching for an atelier in the countryside, and through the intervention of Johanna Kandl and Helmut Schäffer, his path then brought him to Ladendorf, where he has since lived and worked, together with his wife, the artist Magdalena Frey. It was the enchanting landscape of the Weinviertel that transformed him from 'ethnographer' to inhabitant and led him to make Ladendorf the setting of his life and work.18
However, he has not solely concentrated on the development of his own work as an artist over the course of the more than two decades spent in Ladendorf. He has also pursued a further aspect, one that has received too little recognition to date: his activity as a mediator and communicator of art, and his engagement for art institutions. In 1983, he was among the founders of the Österreichisches Fotoarchiv (Austrian Photo Archive) in Vienna. In the 1980s, he served several times as a Visiting Lecturer at the International Summer Academy Salzburg (where he met his wife); and in the academic year 1997/98, he served as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. At the same time, he carried out numerous artistic workshops in Austria and abroad and became a highly respected expert on art communication, both as a leader of workshops and as an academic lecturer.
Before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, he rendered an invaluable service to Lower Austria through the founding of 'FLUSS – Niederösterreichische Fotoinitiative' (FLUSS – Lower Austrian Photo Initiative) in Wolkersdorf Castle. In the midst of those years of an emerging cultural scene and together with Helmut Schäffer, Renate Bertlmann, Andrea Sodomka, this author and many others, he created Lower Austria's first institutional facility for photography, one that soon achieved the international significance that it has maintained to this day. Cibulka was President of Foto-FLUSS until 2000, when he passed this responsibility on to the younger hands of alien productions (Martin Breindl, Norbert Math and Andrea Sodomka). Aside from the programme of exhibitions, it was primarily the photographic summer academies, with their international instructors, that created a furore and has made Lower Austria a centre of fine art photography since the beginning of the 1990s. It was the personality of Heinz Cibulka, as an artist and as a man, as well as the recognition of his artistic achievements and his reputation throughout Austria and internationally that led to this rapid and lasting success. His personal charisma played a substantial role in ensuring that the artistic use of photography also recived its social acceptance in Lower Austria. Foto-FLUSS was an indispensable element in guaranteeing that the status of photography as a self-evident medium of artistic discourse was also established.
The quality of life and the wealth of a state or region depends not only upon material conditions, but, to a great extent, upon its cultural climate and its cultural level. The Weinviertel and Lower Austria can be proud of the gain and benefit Heinz Cibulka (and his wife, Magdalena Frey) constitute in this respect. In this spirit, I would like to express my most appreciative thanks and wish him, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, many years to come!
1 | On this subject, see: Michael Ponstingl,
'Heinz Cibulkas Präsentationen montierten Sprachmaterials – Zwischen "Kiahdrichln",
"Hollunderblütenversprechungen" und "Eiterpink", in Heinz Cibulka, Saft aus Sprache:
Abschriften, Notenbild-Verbarien, Freie Reihungen, Texturen 1970–1990,
ed. by Michael Ponstingl (St Pölten, 2010), pp. 224–238,
where the significance of Cibulka's literary work is recognized;
this is also emphatically confirmed by the numerous art photography
awards that he has received since 1981, e.g., the Rupertinum Fotopreis (1989),
the Landeskulturpreis Niederösterreich für Fotografie (1994)
and the Österreichischer Würdigungspreis für Fotografie (1997).