The Ephemeral and the Eternal
Posters are a quizzical artistic medium, especially if one mistakenly assumes art to be part of an exclusive “high culture.” Posters are ephemeral and populist. They are extremely democratic in distribution, creation, and subject matter. And, most importantly, they are concerned with the present. By their nature posters are not meant to last.
A poster becomes the voice of a specific time and place, capturing a pressing sentiment that arises from a particular occasion—and yet does so in a way that transcends both its context and its medium. The ideas expressed in ink and paper, in other words, outlast any attempt we might make to poster over them. What better way to express ambiguity and uncertainty of the present than through a poster, something that slips away in time? Through something that is meant to be glimpsed only briefly by society before being covered and replaced? Several of the works found in The Graphic Imperative express the pressing presence of ambiguity.
One example of this is Savas Cekic’s “Attention the System.” Cekic confronts the world system without definitive meaning. Or, we might more aptly say that his picture does not clearly cut a meaning for us. Is this a portrait of the “System” (here we might think just as much about German philosopher Hegel’s System as with the present perturbations of capital)? If so, what do we make of its essential two-sidedness? It pictures a safety razor, after all, designed to keep us from cutting and injuring ourselves. Such mass-produced artifacts replaced earlier straight razors, and simultaneously the beauty of craftsmanship and the skill found in a barber’s chair. Cekic’s system is reminiscent of Janus, for its double blade cuts both ways. Further, it is decorated with a bar-code, which symbolizes both ease and anonymity in contemporary existence. Ambivalence is found in the midst of crisp black bars and serial numbers.
To take a second example, “Neus Leben Blunt ans den Ruinen,” by Klaus Staeck, also presents us an image of the contested state of contemporary existence. An almost geometric beauty is created in the patterning of highway lanes. The certainty of the road—clean lines, monochromatically expressed—marks the boundaries for the chaos of organic life. Yet it is the colorful branches of a tree that infect the center of our vision, and this oversized living thing blossoms in the midst of concrete. If such roads are really “ruins,” how should we understand human society? Are we creatures of the wild, or of the ruin? What is our place in a world that is sometimes colorful and sometimes black-and-white?
By asking the eternal question of human meaning in the impermanence of ink and paper, Staeck’s work not only asks the question—it embodies it. And an answer? Perhaps we should see that we are the protectors of natural places, but we construct ruinous roads as well. From birth we inevitably fall into the world as destroyers and creators, blind and insightful, violent and peaceful, filled with sorrow and joy. Human existence is defined in the impossible space between certainty and uncertainty. Facing this, Staeck asks us: shall we participate in the ruin, or in the blooming of new life? In many ways both opportunities reach their fullest potential in our everyday existence.
Other images from this exhibition evoke similar ponderings; in fact, this is what justifies gathering these images together outside their original place and time. For these mass-produced images, created for particular purposes and periods, nonetheless speak out across time in individually unique and important ways. The concerns of the past are the concerns of the present. And the memories instantiated in these works—contentious and ambivalent—present us with the need for decisions today.
Dr. Forrest Clingerman is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy
image: Klaus Staeck, “Neus Leben Blüht ans den Ruinen (And New Life Blossoms From the Ruins),” Germany, 1980, 85.5 x 59 cm. Photography: Dr. Georg Gerner, Zürich