Infinite Jest

Jim Hicks

One day, during the years I hung out in Paris, Gilles Deleuze opened his lecture with a brief comment about the death at age sixty of his friend and colleague, the philosopher François Chatelet. Along with Foucault and Deleuze, Chatelet had founded the department of philosophy at Vincennes; he had also launched, with Jacques Derrida and a pair of other visionaries, the Collège international de philosophie. Deleuze didn’t say much that day; he simply reminded us that the works of Chatelet had survived their author, and that, as his students, our job was to study them.

Today, as I return to the works of the Bosnian artist and designer Anur Hadžiomerspahić, after the news of his sudden death this week at age forty-six, one feature of his art strikes me as crucial—something that one cannot not see differently now, sub species aeternitatis, as the saying goes. Though his work masterfully manipulated—and took the piss out of—every digital platform worthy of notice, and although his subjects tended themselves to be digitally manipulated, in very many cases the base material of his art was in fact composed of flesh and blood, his own and that of his family. In short, Anur’s work came out of the most intimate and personal matter that any of us have, from which only very few of us ever create anything worth a moment’s notice.

As a first example, let’s take a quick look at the 2002 work, “Until Death Do Us Part,” (published in MR 51.1). This image, like many that Anur composed with painstaking precision, can be read with a glance—and, as it happens, many may have trouble looking longer:

I was lucky enough to hear the back story behind this work from Anur himself, at a conference in Torino in 2009. The false teeth photographed here actually belonged to his grandparents, and they were in fact soaked together in a single glass each night. Some might perhaps find only morbidity or mortality in such an image, yet, for Anur, commingling of this sort was the expression and emblem of love. Simple and pure.

Early on, Anur referred to his process and product as “Artvertising”; he never really strayed from that credo. Unlike much of the art world (since the time of the German Romantics), Anur refused the usual utopian gesture that attempts to avoid or exceed the market; instead, his was an intervention into the agora itself. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in Italian supermarkets as well, often with the exact same works. If aesthetic production indeed generally gives us, as the Marxist critic Tony Bennett would have it, “really useless knowledge,” Anur instead strove to redefine the terms of use for our images; he called us to task for selling ourselves short. And, I have to emphasize again, by “us” he meant himself, as well as his own. Take, as a second example, his 2014 work, “iFamily” (earlier referenced on this site by Una Tanović, in her commentary on Anur’s Retrospective Exhibition 1994-2016):

I doubt I’ll surprise many readers with the revelation that the “i” in this case is synonymous with a “my”: the man at the laptop is Anur himself, with his wife Ulvija on the right, and his boys Jan (next to him) and Noa (using his iPad to update Michelangelo). The point is unmistakeable: what we see here is “quality time” for today’s iFamily. And yet the jest is also infinite. As Noa makes clear, the image reflected in these screens is in each case that of the observer—an observer who is, of course, watching a screen with an identical observer, who is. . . etc., etc. Computerized, terminal narcissism, all the way down.

Except, of course, that it isn’t only that. This is also a sagrada familia: though the iFamily is isolated, scattered across cyberspace, they are also sitting together around a table. The lure and abyss of this image would lack all power if it weren’t for their collective presence, an ensemble that belies their collective preoccupations. The painterly manipulation of the photogram emphasizes this point; a simple photo would have seemed voyeuristic, the usual gotcha moment decrying a small clan of vidiots. As a painting, or even as the simulacrum of the painterly, the image begins to celebrate, rather than simply recoil.

Those of you who don’t know his work may wonder how and why Anur Hadžiomerspahić came to his apparently jaded, ironic takes on the way of our world. Because those of you who don’t know this work don’t know Bosnia, or, I’m guessing, much about its history (other than that, long ago, it became the brand name of misery). Anur did, in fact, come to international prominence in those years, or shortly after, and his sensibility was clearly carved out of his history, both national and personal. So I would be remiss not to offer at least one of the key works from that period:

This work, from his first “Human Condition” series, for the 2001 Venice Biennale, again doesn’t take much time to take in, and again might be difficult for some to linger over longer. I never had the pleasure of any beach time with Anur, so I can’t be sure and will confess that only now, after his death, did it occur to me that the hair, skin, and nipple here may well be his. Rather than midway between Nazi lampshades and a surrealist fur-lined teacup, Anur’s handbag is closer to the Wafaa Bilal project “And Counting. . .” (where the Iraqi artist tattooed a map on his back, one point for every Iraqi casualty—in invisible ink—and another for American casualties—inked in black, or blue). Or Bilal’s “Dog or Iraqi” performance (where the artist first polled an internet audience on who should be waterboarded, and then, having lost, had the torture done on himself). As an observer, one can stare in amazement at Anur, at Bilal, or Abramović and wonder how, given their histories, it is possible to rise above, to control and create, out of such agony. What one tends to forget is that this achievement only comes out of the agony itself, and that the artist never really leaves it behind—and that no one ever really controls it.

The best analogy I can come up with is climate change. It works for me, so I’m sticking to it, and I recommend it to others. We all know that no single storm can be attributed to climate change, but we also know that every storm is made worse by it. Under such conditions, what ruins becomes devastating, what devastates becomes apocalyptic. And what we humans have done to ourselves is no different than what we have done to the planet. The storms of circumstance rage through all of our lives, but those who carry the historic trauma of war—or that of a so-called peace—know the water won’t stop rising, yet they keep swimming, as hard and as long as they can.

When I came on as editor back in 2009, we asked Anur if he could design the cover for my first issue. I told him I had only two goals for the magazine: to build on and revitalize its great legacy of political writing, and to do so by internationalizing—by any means necessary, including much more in translation. He sent us the bubble boy:

By now, I suspect that you, like me, will wonder if the wide-eyed boy in this photo is none other than Anur’s eldest. By now, I assume that you, like me, will read the look in this boy’s eyes as equal parts wonder and terror, and that you will also note the geographical placement of the gleam on his bubble—a shine that covers some of North Africa, much of the Middle East, and all of the Balkans. Could it be conflagration? For Sigmund Freud, any instance of real humor works as a spoonful of sugar: wit allows the id out, albeit clothed in mufti. Anur’s work doesn’t bother to sugarcoat; his jokes are daggers, without the cloak.

You will be familiar, I’m sure, with the saying common to both Judaism and Islam, that the loss of a single human being equals the destruction of an entire world. By now, I feel certain that you, like me, understand that in some cases such losses may destroy entire galaxies. And yet we still have the work, and we have his family as well, who will surely continue that work.

Let our thoughts then focus on it, and them, as we remember Anur Hadžiomerspahić.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.