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"Eye-snipers – The Iconoclastic Practice of Tahrir”

by Mikala Hyldig Dal 


Seismopolite Journal of Arts and Politics






he dialectic of the iconoclastic image

During intense transitional phases at times representational and political paradigm shifts coincide with processes of image-breaking to bring forth what we have called the “iconoclastic image”. The paradigmatic iconoclastic image occurs when the process of subverting one icon effectively brings forth another. A line of such images could be drawn from the black cube of the Kaaba in Mecca, Malevich’s painting Black Square from 1923 (emblematic of the outlook of this essay even Malevich’s Ur-Bild of artistic iconoclasm hides beneath its surface another image reality: Cracks in the paint of the Black Square reveal handmade drawings on the bottom layer of the canvas), Ai Weiwei’s falling Dynasty urn, the bombing of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in March 2001, the loop of the collapsing Twin Towers on Manhattan later that same year, the American flag draped over Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in April 2003; a story line that comes to a strange collapse in Alfredo Jaar’s May 1, 2011 (2011) that juxtaposes the American president’s long-distance monitoring of the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with a monochrome LCD screen and a blank text field.


That iconoclastic dispositions can fertilize the ground for new modes of image production can also be traced in the deep-time image connections between the ornamental image tradition brought forth by 7th century Islamic aniconism and the progression of abstract painting in Europe in the 1800s, a research that the artist-researcher Kaya Behkalam and I pursue in the installation piece Atlas, a commissioned work for the exhibition Istanbul Modern Berlin in Martin Gropius Bau Berlin 2009. We approach the iconoclastic image as an ambiguous field of practice; the image produced here is a tentative one, a mere frame perhaps around a constant process of image-absorption and re-formatting. We might classify such an image as a “cannibal”, in the indigenous sense of the word: it “eats up” (consumes) its opponent, in an act that transfers the strength of the devoured enemy to the consuming body. The occupation with such an elusive image type requires us to assert a gaze that is aware of its own working, with Derrida: Before doubt ever becomes a system, skepsis has to do with the eyes. The word refers to a visual perception, to the observation, vigilance, and attention of the gaze [regard]during an examination. One is on the lookout, one reflects upon what one sees, reflects what one sees by delaying the moment of conclusion.


The subject of interest here is not the outward appearance of the image in question but instead the inner, co-dependent working of the images that emerge through iconoclash, i.e. a process of iconoclasm that carries visual productivity and social transformation with it.

Gottfried Böhm asserts that every new image destroys or at least re-organizes the frame of reference of the images pre-existing it; image production itself unfolds an immanent iconoclasm. In a similar logic of thought Hannah Arendt describes the very fabric of political participation as an in its essence iconoclastic practice: by applying any type of new political objective in one’s action, one is inadvertently performing an act subversive, even destructive, to the existing order of things. If we accept that the practice of iconoclasm and the practice of political participation share an intrinsic logic in their inner working we might create a frame of thought that connects the two as instances of an essential incision that moves the status quo into a state of transition.

Within such a frame of reference we would be able to find that the point in time in which these two instances become inseparable from each other, indeed merge to a point of no possible differentiation, is the momentum of a paradigm change that is moved simultaneously by political and representational desires.

Jacques Ranciére’s and Hannah Arendt’s theories of the political can serve to focus our attention on the times and places in which such collisions are activated; I will suggest that Egypt today is such a place. The icon of Midan Tahrir might be a good point of departure for us to examine how the dynamics of the performative field of (political) action thus outlined is reflected contemporarily, in the working of an iconoclastic image that too finds itself in a continuous state of becoming, manifesting and equalling out in continuous cycles.”

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