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The signatures of things

What is it that ultimately holds the world together? This is a complex question regarding the reasons for the unfathomable variety and labyrinthine intertwining of things that constitute what we perceive as reality, and upon which our relation-ships to the rest of the world are based. For thousands of years, the search for an answer to this question has inspired the speculations and imaginations of philosophers and artists alike. Is it that our world is a reflection of a divine idea, is it the principle of motion and change, a principle that even the most disparate instances of our reality have in common, or is it the sober physical realization that everything that is real in the macrocosm or microcosm may, and must, be attributed to fundamental subatomic particles and energies, and, consequentially, our world is nothing more than an ephemeral collection of variously configured complexes having a common monadic basis? The similarity to an alphabet consisting of certain basic constituents from which languages, words, sentences, episodes, and entire world histories, may be instantly created should be obvious. Grammar and syntax provide the means for describing the actions and interrelationships (similarities and contrasts, sympathies and antipathies) of things. The world is a book whose deciphering has been an art ever since the diversity of the world’s languages that resulted from the construction of the Tower of Babel obliterated and obscured the chirography of things, their signatures.

This is Foucault’s starting point in addressing the universalistic theory of our knowledge of the world that arose during the 16th century and the transformations it has undergone since that time.1 To Renaissance thinkers, what held things together seemed to be ongoing „dialogs” with one another, discourses on the various means for referring to one another based on obvious or hidden similarities: „We have no way of knowing that monk’s hood might cure eye diseases or that nuts mixed with ethyl alcohol extracted from wine and crushed with a mortar might stop headaches until some sign has draw our attention to these facts. … How could we know that a person was a relative of Saturn or a rival of Mars if their body or the wrinkles on their face provided no indication that they were related to a planet or were at war with a planet? Indications of such latent similarities must be evident on the exposed surfaces of things. There must be visible signs of any invisible analogies that exist. … There can be no similarities without signatures. The world of similar things must be a world of visible indications.”2

One might well ask why have I ventured so far afield when all I promised to do was write about artist Bodo Korsig’s black woodcuts. The answer to this question should be immediately obvious. I sensed a relationship between the manner in which those sculpted objects were created and formed and the signatures of the things of the world, as recorded by those earlier epistemological systems cited by Foucault, a matter that I would like to pursue in greater detail below.
In terms of the genre involved, Bodo Korsig is dedicated to high pressures; he makes and prints woodcuts. Not only are most of his works, regardless of whether they were printed on paper or on canvas, and regardless of whether they were printed in color or in black on white, the result of his seizing upon and advancing this traditional technology, his three-dimensional subjects are related to the methods he employs and to the impacts woodcuts have on viewers. Although back in the early 1990’s, he assembled mechanistic montages of cut-to-size, black-framed, wooden blocks to create free-form, three-dimensional, structures, through the medium of combining spatial images the size of floor joists he ultimately graduated to bulkier subjects, ranging from handy-sized subjects to subjects up to three meters tall, whose oversize dimensions accentuated the darkness and sinister motions of their silhouettes. These more recent subjects are three-dimensional, even though they have been cut into planar wooden blocks and require a light background if they are to have the high contrasts they need for maximum effect. Included among these are similar configurations (arbitrary combinations of figures printed without use of patterned blocks), both imprinted and in the form of objects hung on, or leaning against, walls, where the colorful backgrounds provided by the sheets of paper used as substrates or the differing dimensions of the prints give rise to various effects. The interrelationships among the designs on his imprinted sheets of paper and his chosen subjects are also, and quite obviously, due to the formers’ having largely symbolic or hieroglyphic shapes. It virtually seems that through these shapes that Korsig has extracted from the realms of reality accessible to him and visually compressed, he is collecting the letters of an arcane alphabet that might be employed in deciphering intercommunications among things, which are necessarily alingual, since they are based on imagery only.
His camera, which aids the artist in pursuing his perceptions of the unusual among the wide variety of things in the world and adding to his collection while traveling or at home keeping up with his everyday life, allows him to capture and sharply focus on strange shadows cast on wooden planks, the outline of a stranded anchor, the schematized figures of prehistoric rock paintings, an unusually shaped lamp on a bridge, or the interrelationship between a water faucet and a drainpipe on the wall of an Alcatraz prison cell on an island off the San Francisco coast in order that he may have them in his presence once again at a later date, if need be. However, he relies upon his ability to impress these things upon his memory, where they may enter into new interrelationships with one another through free association or undergo metamorphoses before he puts his graphite pencil or fiber-tipped pen to these results of their hidden intermingling and defines, accentuates, and alters them until pregnant, dark-on-light, shapes, i.e., outlines, or strange symbols or letters that unite his inherently high-contrast, two-dimensional, chosen artform, woodcuts, emerge, rather than reverting to working directly with his fund of memorabilia. One might also describe this procedure as extracting hidden signatures from the things of this world. The network of this „language” of similarities culminates in these dualistic shapes that never seem to designate anything definable, but might well represent indications of archetypal interrelationships existing between, e.g., a necklace and the female sex, a light bulb, a head, and a knee joint, a pair of scissors and an insect, or between a gear, the rising sun, and an overgrown hillside, that have thus far remained obscured. Associative relationships that might seem to us rather strange, but, nevertheless, might be able to „communicate” to us long-lost interrelationships among things, just as the similar shapes of the seeds of the monk’s-hood plant and the human eye represented to the 16th-century universalists a signature from which the interrelationship between the two, in this particular case, a healing interrelationship, could be „read”.

There can be no doubt that modern societies have now turned to other means, primarily descriptive abstract mathematical models, for „reading” these signatures in conjunction with their efforts to find their ways in the world. There can be no less doubt that the similarities of the structures and shapes occurring both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm fascinates us if we alternate between looking through a microscope and looking into outer space through a telescope. Artists continually search the exposed surfaces of things for signatures that might be indicative of hidden interrelationships, special natures or characters, invisible interdependencies, or selective relationships.
In my opinion, Bodo Korsig’s works and his tracking down and creating symbolic imagery are entirely in this tradition.

Kai Uwe Schierz 1997