Aris Kalaizis

Comments on the Messianism in the Oeuvre of Aris Kalaizis

Prof. Dr. August Heuser signs in his essay a par­al­lel between Paul Klee " Angelus of Novus " and Aris Kalaizis' image "make/​believe". In it he sub­or­din­ates among oth­er things to both artists a mes­si­an­ic impulse which rebels against a mater­i­al­ist his­tor­ic­al understanding.

The ques­tion, what real­ity may be, has been answered fre­quently and vari­ously, but it still remains as one of the most dif­fi­cult ques­tions in the his­tory of philo­sophy. What is it that »whatever holds the world togeth­er in its inmost folds«? How, one may ask, is real­ity con­sti­tuted and con­struc­ted? From where do we gain cer­ti­tude in our world? Of course, the answers giv­en are alto­geth­er ambigu­ous and only few answers are indeed con­vin­cing, albeit pos­it­iv­ism and mater­i­al­ism have tried to per­suade us otherwise.

Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Silence of the Woods, 2010
Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Silence of the Woods, 2010


In the ideal­ist­ic-pla­ton­ic tra­di­tion of philo­sophy, real­ity is con­sti­tuted from above, from an idea down­wards. The word meta­phys­ics may also be trans­lated as after, behind, or bey­ond phys­ics. Accord­ing to that rationale, philo­sophy assumes that it must be super­nat­ur­al, if a thing does not enter into the world as phe­nom­ena. What Jew­ish theo­logy calls mes­si­an­ic is always some­thing prom­ised and providential.

In the pub­lic­a­tion »Rubbacord«[1], the Amer­ic­an art his­tor­i­an Car­ol Strick­land, while dis­cuss­ing the work of Aris Kala­izis, refers to the Brit­ish author Har­old Pinter whose drama makes »dark allu­sions and gives impulses laden with mean­ing« aimed at leav­ing the audi­ence in a state of uncer­tainty, in which they »sup­posed to arrive at their own con­clu­sions.« Some­where else she says, the behold­er is invited by the artist to »search beneath the sur­face, to immerse them­selves in the hid­den allu­sions like an arche­olo­gist search­ing out traces of a past civil­iz­a­tion.« This sub­al­tern world she calls »Sot­toreal­ism.«

Using the term »sot­toreal­ism« we may appre­hend all that which lies beneath real­ity, what is not real­ity con­struc­ted from above, but what is sus­tained from beneath and makes everything pos­sible from there. We are, so to speak, talk­ing about the basic struc­tures of real­ity, its ground­ing, and – quite lit­er­ally – its found­a­tion­al con­di­tions. In say­ing that, we must ask the ques­tion wheth­er it is pos­sible that real­ity is not only con­sti­tuted from above, but also from below. Since we have the term »sur­real­ism« refer­ring to the super­nat­ur­al, we may now also inquire if »Sot­toreal­ism« aims at that which is beneath the nat­ur­ally sens­ible and appre­hens­ible. Goya's »Caprichos« are aimed in that dir­ec­tion. They uncov­er the sub­struc­ture of being and show what real­ity draws upon, so that it may be real, and from where real­ity stems from, namely from the dual­ism of reas­on and fantasy. Using the title of the piece of art just men­tioned, we may describe this situ­ation a bit bet­ter: »The Sleep of Reas­on Pro­duces Mon­sters«. Is sleep­ing reas­on a pre­con­di­tion and could we thereby mean a pre­con­di­tion of real­ity, that is, is sleep­ing reas­on what lies beneath reality?

Aris Kalaizis | make/believe | Oil on wood | 59 x 80 cm | 2009
Aris Kalaizis | make/believe | Oil on wood | 59 x 80 cm | 2009

The Real­ity of Man­kind and of Angels

In 2009, Aris Kala­izis relied on two real­ity-makers – a photo he took him­self as well as a photo he took from a news­pa­per. He made those two pho­to­graph­ic images the point of depar­ture for visu­al cos­mos that is now titled »make/​believe«. The paint­ing shows Pope Bene­dict XVI. walk­ing into a cham­ber through a wide opened door. The scene may pos­sibly be loc­ated in the Vat­ic­an. He passes under a lighted dome, his arms spread out wide in order to greet – maybe a crowd of pil­grims or a del­eg­a­tion, or maybe only the behold­er of the paint­ing. Still in the doorframe, he is fol­lowed by three bish­ops, behind them vari­ous staff mem­bers. On the right side of the paint­ing, we see a Swiss Guard, to the right we see the fig­ure of an angel with larges wings dressed in an ordin­ary suit. The angel is a man strangely wear­ing con­tem­por­ary cloth­ing. While his left hand seems to be open­ing his shirt's col­lar but­ton, his right hand is poin­ted harshly down­wards to the floor.

Aris Kalaizis | The Scroll | Oil on canvas | 63 x 83 in | 2013
Aris Kalaizis | The Scroll | Oil on canvas | 63 x 83 in | 2013

The essen­tial sym­bol­ic sig­nals set in the paint­ing come from the lighted dome, which spills light into the cham­ber from above. But the fig­ure of the angel also gives us such sig­nals by point­ing down­wards to the ground. Of course, the eye of the behold­er will not find any­thing on the floor that may jus­ti­fy the angel's point­ing down. What is the angel's motion aim­ing while it is point­ing in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion of the light?

The picture's title »make/​believe« cites two atti­tudes of human beings in the world on the one hand, doing and pro­du­cing – to do things and to make things char­ac­ter­izes the mater­i­al con­sti­tu­tion of man­kind and on the oth­er hand, we have faith as the know­ledge of spir­itu­al things in the world. One is inclined to ascribe the heav­enly light and the fig­ure of the pope to the spir­itu­al inter­pret­a­tion of the world. Faith is gen­er­ally thought to be some­thing con­cern­ing the heav­ens and can­not just be pro­duced by humans – not even by the pope. It always stays a super­nat­ur­al event. But the heav­enly har­binger, the fig­ure of the angel, we might want to attrib­ute to a tran­si­ent domin­ion, a place in between. He has come from the heav­ens, but he is motion­ing us towards earth. And in doing so, he is refer­ring us to the place of cre­at­ing and pro­duct­ive doing. It looks like we are able to gain some spir­itu­al light from cre­at­ing and doing things, and then the vari­ous spheres of heav­en and earth (and hell) seem to some­how belong togeth­er – which would res­on­ate with Pope Bene­dicts thes­is that faith and reas­on belong together.

In 1920, Paul Klee drew his »Angelus Novus« – his »new« angel or »young« angel. Wal­ter Ben­jamin bought this pic­ture in 1921. Klee's wife Dora had giv­en Ben­jamin one of her husband's draw­ings before – it was »Intro­du­cing the Mir­acle« (1919). This gift let Ben­jamin take note of Klee, and he would become an admirer of his art. Ben­jamin incor­por­ated the »Angelus Novus« into his dis­quis­i­tion »Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory« (1940) as the Angel of History.

Benjamin's dis­quis­i­tion is an essay in the his­tory of philo­sophy or the his­tory of theo­logy. It makes a mes­si­an­ic claim. He argues against a mater­i­al­ist­ic inter­pret­a­tion of his­tory and speaks about the mes­si­an­ic impulse with­in the his­tory of man­kind. The cli­mactic ten­sion built up by philo­sophy and theo­logy also shapes the con­text of this paint­ing by Aris Kala­izis – the ten­sion between a pap­al fig­ure inspired by the heav­ens and the Angelus point­ing down­wards to earth. Like Klee, the Angelus of Kala­izis refers to that which lies beneath, the neth­er­world, and tries to make sense of it. Both fig­ures open up areas of per­cep­tion and understanding.

Wal­ter Benjamin's essay may cer­tainly not be simply trans­ferred fully onto the paint­ing by Aris Kala­izis. But using it, we may find the trail of an abund­ant inter­pret­a­tion. It is indeed aston­ish­ing that Klee as well as Kala­izis have both made the fig­ure of the angel fruit­ful when envi­sion­ing their pic­tures. In the case of both artists, the angel stands for his tran­si­ent and inter­me­di­ary qual­it­ies between heav­ens and earth, that is, between the vis­ible world and the world unseen, between the world above and the one below, between yes­ter­day and today – forever short of the future that wants to deceive us in believ­ing in mere pro­gress. The Angelus novus by Aris Kala­izis refers towards the found­a­tion of that which makes up our world. Fol­low­ing this train of thought, the Jew­ish Philo­soph­er Ger­shom Scholem, one of Wal­ter Benjamin's friends, could inter­pret the Angelus Novus as a mes­sen­ger of the Kabala, the rev­el­a­tion of the equi­val­ent ana­logy of the above and the below.

Aris Kalaizis | The Hour of Disembodiment | Oil on canvas | 55 x71 in | 2012
Aris Kalaizis | The Hour of Disembodiment | Oil on canvas | 55 x71 in | 2012

View­ing the »Wun­derbar« as Reality

The large-scale paint­ing »Die Stunde der Entwelt­lichung« (2012) cites a word used by Pope Bene­dict XVI in his fam­ous lec­ture giv­en in Freiburg when he vis­ited Ger­many in 2011. The Ger­man word »Entwelt­lichung« means some­thing like de-sec­u­lar­ize or de-world­ful­ness. Its usage caused an out­cry, because it was under­stood as a mes­sage to the church and its rep­res­ent­at­ives to refrain from sec­u­lar struc­tures and options and instead to turn towards more spir­itu­al mat­ters. Accord­ing to that read­ing of the whole issue, it was about an oppos­i­tion of sec­u­lar and sac­red realms, between the spir­itu­al life of church and the sec­u­lar life in the world.

Draw­ing on Klee's title »Vor­führung eines Wun­ders«, we might also use the title for this paint­ing. Aris Kala­izis depicts a bar room scene some­where in the red light milieu that bears a sig­ni­fy­ing sequence neon let­ters in cerulean blue: »Wun­derbar«. This ref­er­ence is indeed ambigu­ous. The »Wun­der« or mir­acle, as the pro­verb goes, is faith's dearest child. And the bar, on the oth­er hand, is the quint­essence of sec­u­lar life: alco­hol, debauch­ery, leis­ure time, self-centered­ness, the world's van­ity. The bar is, of course, also a place of yearn­ing, a space bey­ond or out­side every­day ordin­ary life, and without its commitments.

Two men are stand­ing at the bar. The hour is prob­ably an early hour in the morn­ing. The day is break­ing. The bar­tender wear­ing a white shirt has already cleaned off the sur­face of the bar. The morn­ing news­pa­per is already lying on its top. Is there the sil­hou­ette of a cler­ic on the front page of that news­pa­per? A first or final glass of water has been poured for one of the guests. Opposite

the bar­tender there is the fig­ure of a strange or mira­cu­lous guest, with long hair under his hat. He some­how seems to be removed from the peri­od implied in the pic­ture. He is wear­ing his­tor­ic­al gar­ments. His right hand is lean­ing on the bar, his left hand his press­ing the head down onto the bar. Above him, a woman's body is float­ing without some­thing that the painted wanted to be cut away – her head.

When look­ing at this pic­ture, the behold­er also will go away with a sense of an irrit­a­tion. It is really »The Hour of Dis­em­bod­i­ment« or in the Ger­man »Stunde der Entwelt­lichung«, the hour that is bey­ond or tran­scends the ordin­ary order of being. It is the hour of won­ders that the artist brings before our eyes. It is not clear if the oth­er two fig­ures in the paint­ing are actu­ally real­iz­ing the mir­acle hap­pen­ing in front of them. But it is also not cer­tain if the body float­ing out of the frame belongs to the head that is being pressed onto the bar. Many ques­tions remain unanswered.

A lot of things stay in the open, des­pite the painter's mas­terly clar­ity that marks the paint­ings by Aris Kala­izis. The real­ity of these paint­ings is a real­ity that is left open. It can­not be pinned down or fix­ated, but is a real­ity into which »the splin­ters of the mes­si­an­ic have been strewn about«. What Wal­ter Ben­jamin is say­ing with respect to his­tory, Aris Kala­izis asserts in his paint­ings. He paints pic­tures bey­ond and out­side the homo­gen­ous and empty imagery of his con­tem­por­ar­ies. In every second – or apply­ing Ben­jamin to this con­text: – in every square cen­ti­meter of his can­vas there is »the little gate through which the Mes­si­ah may enter«. In that sense, his paint­ings are search­ing and quest­ing mes­si­an­ic paint­ings, as Pius Siller said in anoth­er con­text. That is, they have mean­ing and refer to field of mean­ing bey­ond the ordin­ary con­struct­iv­ist tend­en­cies of our think­ing. He leaves real­ity open, so that altern­at­ives may appear therein and wide fields of mean­ing, if we notice them or not. Airs Kala­izis fore­goes the con­struc­tion of real­ity as some­thing already in def­in­ite exist­ence. It makes me think of what the philo­soph­er Markus Gab­ri­el said: »I claim that exist­ence isn’t the qual­ity of objects in the world or with­in fields of mean­ing, but that the qual­ity of fields of mean­ing is that some­thing may emerge with­in them and through them.«[2] I call the abil­ity to let mean­ing emer­gence mes­si­an­ic, and it is exactly what one may wit­ness in the visu­al cos­moses depic­ted by Aris Kalaizis.

August Heuser during the opening speech in 2014
August Heuser during the opening speech in 2014

Prof. Dr. August Heuser was born in 1949 and is the dir­ect­or of the Dom­mu­seum in Frank­furt am Main as well as the Museum of the Dio­cese Limburg. He has widely pub­lished on con­tem­por­ary art and lives in Frankfurt/​Main.

1 Aris Kala­izis: „Rub­ba­cord“, Biele­feld 2006.
2 Markus Gab­ri­el: „War­um es die Welt nicht gibt“, Ber­lin 2013.

© Aris Kalaizis 2024