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The Age of the World-Picture is a Fine Thirty-Two (at the Time of Writing)

Dieter Roelstraete

The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture.
Martin Heidegger, The Age of the World-Picture

There are currently two rival positions (in contemporary art practice) concerning the state of the image-world—concerning the state of the relationship, that is, between “image” and “world.” According to one such position—by far the most popular, or at least the most widely held—there are too many images in the world, so much so, that the “real” world is in constant danger of disappearing behind the “virtual” world of what may be called the imagosphere. This is really so self-evident a point of view as to require no further illumination. It conceives of the present-day hypertrophy of visual media¬ and of images and retinal stimuli of all kinds as a form of pollution or socio-cultural ill which it is the artist’s job to either counter, correct or diminish. (The basic cultural pessimism underlying this diagnosis likes to think of artists as people with special duties.) According to this adage, the world is full of images already, most of them bad, and it would be unethical to add even more, meaning that the correct stance for the artist to adopt is one of critical inaction and ascetic restraint. However, given that it is one of the basic requirements of art that the artist “produce” artworks, there is only so much room for the endless repetition of this well-meant mantra of non-production, or for the production of variations thereof. This is where the magic of appropriation comes into play: if the world is full of images already, why don’t we just make art with those that exist, even (and especially) the bad, discarded, or forgotten ones? Much of the work currently being produced under the aegis of what Hal Foster has called the “archival impulse in art”—and which is in turn related to a historiographic turn in art—stems from this Protestant conception of the image-world, one that has been transformed beyond recognition by the advent and popularization of the Internet, as well as by digital revolutions in image production, reproduction, and distribution. An artist friend of mine, a photographer by training, has developed an exemplarily anguished practice in response to this apocalyptic state of affairs: overcome by the sensation that there is somehow nothing left to photograph, he now devotes his time mostly to sorting through other people’s photographs, preferably those that can be viewed on such websites as Flickr and other bottomless treasure troves of photography made by non-photographers. Tellingly, the spectre of the amateur (she who puts the professional, such as the artist, out of business; also, if only merely etymologically, she who loves) is one haunting presence in the domain circumscribed by this debate. Although the photographer-artist-friend I am talking about must remain unnamed, this much I can confide: Marjolijn Dijkman it certainly isn’t.

So far so good. But what is the second position concerning the state of today’s image-world? According to this (oppositional) point of view there aren’t enough images in the world. That is to say, the world constantly wants more images (whether it also needs more images is another question) (1).  Naturally, this “lack” primarily concerns good images, or at least better images than the ones we have today. Needless to say, this conception of the image-world’s current state of affairs exerts an even greater pressure on art, for the challenge of taking on today’s society of the spectacle—so much more spectacular than anything Guy Debord, who originally coined the formula, could ever have imagined—is not merely a matter of quality (better images), but also one of quantity (lots of better images). This requires artists who are as tireless as they are mobile, and whose powers of concentration and confidence in the unfailing critical abilities of their own eye should at all times be matched by a sense of faith in the world’s essential pictorial worth—after all, one must really believe that something is truly worth photographing (i.e. depicting) yet again.

Now where does Marjolijn Dijkman fit in? First of all, it is important to note that, like most real artists (or like most good artists), she doesn’t “fit” in anywhere and enjoys blurring boundaries much more than insisting on their inviolability. Much of her photographic work consists of pictures she has made herself (and they certainly constitute convincing enough proof of both her mobility and her tirelessness), but she works just as often, and just as extensively and comfortably, with “found” footage. On the one hand she happily adds to the image-world and on the other hand she is quite content to merely order that which exists already, choosing to resist the lure of addition and accumulation instead. (2)  Moreover, the resulting question of whether Dijkman’s is either an image-world that requires containment (one that needs less images) or instead one that invites enrichment (one that needs (or wants) more images) is complicated by the simple fact that much of her work quite literally deals with the very topic of the world’s depiction and of the history of its representation (in maps, encyclopedias, atlases, etc.) and with the equalization of the world with its image. It is no coincidence that her most ambitious archival project to date is titled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, after the first modern atlas, published in 1570 by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. In Dijkman’s own words, the project operates as “an ongoing worldwide investigation and an attempt to rethink existing representations of the world.…It is my aim to gain insight into the way in which the world is organized. Not by means of abstract maps and purely geographical data, but by arranging photographic registrations of the world according to personal criteria.” Nor is it a coincidence that one of the main categories in this photographic database, titled References, basically functions as an “atlas of representations of cultural and geographical elements in new surroundings,” pictures of urban motifs that reference an “elsewhere,” thus occluding the reality of the actual place depicted: here too, an image of the world stands in front of the world, or what could be considered the reality of the world appears dissolved in the nebulous hall of mirrors that is the imagosphere—the scatter of its imagings and imageries. (3)

“An image of the world stands in front of the world.” And what about it? Looking at Marjolijn Dijkman’s work, one is reminded of the futility of trying to distinguish between the world (“real”) and its imagery (“virtual”), between the world as “presence” and the world of representations. Here, those of us who believe (or rather, fear) that all that is solid is about to melt into air yet again, only this time in the even more toxic ether of the post-modern imagosphere, make the crucial mistake of denying the image its own reality, as well as of misjudging the image’s fundamental role in the production of that which we call “reality.” And isn’t the very process of the production of that reality as a simulacral spectacle —one that is not necessarily always “spectacular”—one of the preferred objects of Dijkman’s slightly bemused quasi-anthropological gaze?
Finally, the question should be asked whether something can be expected to ‘stand’ (or lie) behind the image of the world at all—it’s not like the image-world is one giant Potemkin village! So rather than trying to find out whether there are too many images or just not enough, it is worth wondering whether there is anything other than images. Merely looking at it, i.e. merely looking along with Marjolijn Dijkman, and merely realizing that I have just used the word ‘looking’ twice, I should probably conclude: probably not.


1  I am summarizing one of the basic arguments of an important book by Dutch art critic Camiel van Winkel here, namely The Regime of Visibility (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005).

2  Marjolijn Dijkman’s work was included in The Order of Things, an exhibition I organized at MuHKA, the Antwerp museum of contemporary art in 2008. Many of that project’s basic ideas concerning the archival impulse as well as image accumulation and classification also inform the current essay.

3  Inevitably, echoes of Jorge Luis Borges’ well known story about the 1:1 map of a fictional empire can be heard in this brief summation of Dijkman’s encyclopedic project – a story short enough to be recounted in full here: “In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Borges ascribed this fragment to a certain Suarez Miranda, naming his 1658 travelogue Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV as its apocryphal historical source. See: Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (trans. Andrew Hurley), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Written for: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum - Journal (2010)

Published by: the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, California

On the occasion of: Marjolijn Dijkman : Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, MATRIX 234, September 28 – November 26, 2010