Damir Očko - On Ulterior Scale, by Magdalena Holzhey

Damir Očko - On Ulterior Scale

by Magdalena Holzhey

It was I who produced this sound. I was almost the sound itself; I maintained my existence by emitting this sound.

On Ulterior Scale is the name Damir Očko has given to the series of his most recent drawings in white and grey pastels applied to paper and replete with partially cut out, partially pasted on elements, sentence fragments, and lines of musical notation. The fact that the spectrum and scales of varying kinds, such as the music scale – means of categorising and charting the world – move in an enigmatic, hidden and otherworldly way seems to be a paradox in itself. It corresponds to that very poetic fusion of the apparently rational with the inexplicable which characterises the work of the French surrealist René Daumal (1908-1944) from whose collection of essays The Powers of the Word (original French title: Les Pouvoirs de la Parole) the above epigraph originates. Daumal, whose fragmentary novel Le Mont Analogue Očko had already referenced by in his earlier works, revolted against technological rationalism of his era and invoked the certainty of the existence of paranormal worlds in a quasi-scientific line of argument, in which the rational and the irrational could no longer be separated from one another. Whether Damir Očko avails himself of Daumal quotations, lectures by Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono or talks by the American composer and pioneer of indeterminate music Morton Feldman, mystery is engendered by means of the very isolation from the original context, by means of a shift in perspective. The Daumal quotation on the aforementioned drawing is complemented – as it were – contrapuntally by an empty line of music on the lower edge of the paper. A zone of quasi-immaterial colour extends itself between both pieces of notation, suggesting the genesis or disappearance of something, that is to say, a scarcely palpable manifestation. Music and literature frequently serve the artist from Zagreb (b. 1977) as a point of departure for his films, drawings, artist books, and installations. Situations and quotations are invariably mere starting points for an excursion into a metaphorical realm, a journey which moves from a specific, concrete area into zones of the indeterminate by expunging everything obvious and translating it into a unique artistic idiom. His intellectual approach, which one might situate in the vicinity of symbolism and pittura metafisica, is in itself too well-reflected and deeply humorous to throw the balance between pathos and sense of distance out of kilter.

“Three songs for a muted voice and various sounds” is the name Očko has given to the subheading of his film The Moon shall never take my Voice, thus opening up the musical basis of the composition written in the classical three-verse song format. On an empty, sparsely lit stage and using expressive sign language, a female performer declaims texts, the sense of which can initially only be surmised. The reduced coloration of the drawings is continued in a setting that eschews props and places the protagonist in a space dominated by the blackness and individual isolated spot lights. The viewer’s concentration is guided wholly towards the face and hands, the gestures, facial expressions of which duly transporting the “silent voice”. The performer’s gestures are accompanied by sounds precisely attuned to her, produced by unusual ways of playing the instruments, such as stroking piano strings with the fingernails or the toneless breathing of an accordion played with an open valve. In a similar way to a symphonic progression, recurring musical means and motifs create references in the individual verses, but above all else it is the sublime interplay of gesture, facial expressions, use of the camera, and sound that captivates the viewer. The thoroughly magical dramaturgy is reminiscent – thematically also – of Tacita Dean’s film Stillness (2008), in which she had Merce Cunningham perform John Cage’s 4’ 33”, and thereby subject himself to the challenge of choreographing silence by translating it into immobility. In contrast to this, the performer exaggerates her signing to such an extent at times that her expressive gestures seem as though they actually might produce sound as a kind of sculptural act; the sounds begin to create their own space on the empty stage, the suggestive effect of which being particularly strong as soon as the camera focuses wholly on the face and hands of the performer in an otherwise dark, indeterminate environment.

The shift in perspective occurs thus by means of a multiple process of translation: the transference of the physical presence of the voice into another physical presence, which in turn finds further form of expression. The third verse contains one of the most powerful theatrical moments in the film when the performer covers her ears as though assailed by an unbearable noise, whereupon the moon rises shortly afterwards. By means of focusing the camera on one of the spots, not only is there an allusion to a shift into the cosmic sphere – and thus into a transcendental space – but the performer, who is actually a deaf-mute, simultaneously channels our attention towards inner hearing. And this is the precise focus of the texts upon which the film is based. In the first verse, Očko uses one of Gustav Mahler’s memories in which he is watching a burial ceremony from his hotel window in New York; he experiences the beats of the drum as a rhythm made up of silence, i.e. out of the gaps between the individual beats – a motif that would later introduce the final movement of his Unfinished Symphony. The second text refers to John Cage’s famous experience whereby he hears two sounds in a soundproof room at the Harvard University in Boston that, as he is later told, emanate from within his own body. The third and final verse makes use of partially real, partially fictitious sections from interviews with Neil Armstrong who relates his experiences on the moon from the “Sea of Tranquillity”, and about the desperate attempts to create sound in a vacuum. Silence is the continuous theme running through all three episodes: silence as the eternal entity, as a gap between the outside world; absolute silence as a utopian place, unattainable for the physical conditions of human existence. It is always about a moment of absence – in the drawings, too, the gaps, that is to say, negative shapes of which have been aptly described in this catalogue in an interview with the American composer Alexander Sigman as “visual silence”. Referring to Daumal’s revelation quoted at the outset, can then Cage’s experience of an inner hearing within silence (“a tone in which all tones resounded while at the same time it contains all silence”) be equally understood as a utopian vision, as well as the attempt, itself destined to fail to hear one’s own voice on the moon – which in turn must call one’s own existence into question?

The longer one views Damir Očko’s œuvre, the more the clarity of his method of working begins strangely (?) to contradict the effects of the works themselves. As precisely as the sources are revealed, as unequivocally they seem to define their chosen topic, the more elusive an apprehension of the artworks becomes. The fact that the sources themselves already refer to areas beyond the manifestly self-evident and superficial may indeed intensify this impression – the artist succeeds nonetheless in recreating spaces of ambivalence.

Magdalena Holzhey

Essay is published in the exhibition catalogue, Damir Očko - On Ulterior Scale, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, 2011