Project in Focus:
Project by Kristóf Szabó
Writing by Géza Kulcsár
The Alchemy of Abandoned Places
“Emptiness is not other than form, form is also not other than emptiness.”
/The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom, also known as the Heart Sutra/
EMPTINESS IS FORM
Perceiving a space as it is starts with leaving everything behind, everything except for its form. The sheer skeleton, posing as the essence - but now, being freed from all the knowledge, all the interpretations, it just stands in front of us as the big Nothing. It appears as its real self: embodied emptiness. This is the only possible starting point for entering and experiencing space. Experience is reality, and reality is emptiness, because nothing can be without form, and form is emptiness, just as emptiness is form.
Every day, we assume ourselves to move through space, which is, we just revealed, the experience of emptiness. Thus, nothing really happens but the fluctuation of our experience of emptiness through form. The only difference between light and us is that we still believe in this fluctuation.
Light is the medium of photography, the art of writing with light. Photography is the magic of becoming light, becoming void of fluctuations, becoming pure emptiness. Thus, whenever we are photographing space, we are just revealing, realizing its emptiness. But what happens if that space is actually empty? This is the question which KristofLab (Kristóf Szabó) is looking an answer to.
And again, the answer is revealed as emptiness. There is no question. As we assume ourselves to move through space, to be in a given location, we are realizing emptiness. The alchemy of realizing nothing, as usual, even traditional, takes place in seven consecutive stages.
The first stage is heating. We heated our world to a point where it started to burn. And while it burns, in the next stage, it dissolves. Instead of turning into a devouring, yet radiant flame, it secretly, silently collapses and turns into a void, clean and clear, but appearing to be dead.
Enter alchemist, enter artist! The world is dead, and we killed it! Kristóf is frightened now, and tries to recollect the pieces of what once seemed to be there. He collects photos from different parts of the world, however, in the language of alchemy, this is actually the primary separation. It is in this stage that, the tragic fragmentedness of the cosmos becomes obvious and visible. By staring into the apparent emptiness of these once-alive places, we reach the threshold of understanding: space was, is empty and will always remain so. The only reality is presence - and from this observation, the next chapter of the alchemical journey can begin.
FORM IS DATA
Digital photography is incapable of capturing light - therefore, it is the most adequate medium for capturing darkness, representing tragedy. It is not just the current social tragedy, it is the permanent cosmic tragedy of being separated through and due to space. As the immaterial flow of digital information, pretending to be pictures of empty cities, flows in to the alchemical KristofLab from different directions (from Moscow to São Paulo, from Tel Aviv to New Delhi, from Brussels to Hong Kong and many other places), we wonder with Kristóf if they exist or ever existed. And not because they appear to be empty - void of presence - and, thus, unfamiliar, unheimlich. It is because their only reality is the digital data whose representation I see on my computer. And that data was already empty way before humans left the place where it was taken — in fact, it has been empty forever, because the representation I see is not a revelation, but an arbitrary construction. In the digital realm of pure binarism, anything could be anything else, as any bit as a thesis encodes its own antithesis.
If I walk down a street, let’s say, in Madrid, I have at least evidence of me being there (in a pseudo-Cartesian sense). In fact, presence is a conjunction of sheer being, experiencing myself, and being located. In turn, my experience reveals to me that the place where I am right now is actually accessible to me and others, i.e., it is public in my private cosmos (which, in turn, is the only cosmos that is). However, as various traditional insights from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christian theology and contemporary Western philosophy take every chance to tell us, this volatile conjunction is just a double veil on emptiness, consisting of perception and location, of consciousness and space. Emptiness is really wise to have a double cloak, as while we might sometimes try to lift one of the veils, we will never be able to peek behind both - but wait, is that so?
While presence is purely actual, data is pure potential. Potential as in non-existent, but also potential as in revelative. If that potential is actualized, it actually reveals emptiness, regardless of its apparent subject matter. In the digital cosmos, a photo of any street in Moscow taken yesterday is the same thing as a palm leaf manuscript of the Heart Sutra, a sound recording of the Dalai Lama reciting a mantra, or a video recording of the pope standing in front of thousands of believers on Saint Peter’s square, or of an empty Saint Peter’s square.
The alchemist has carefully separated the components now, and is ready to start the next stage, the beginning of active operation. This is the phase of conjunction. We have mentioned the conjunction of being and space before, but we we did it along with its illory nature. Its conjuredness. KristofLab has to find the right alchemical operation to overcome separation not by adding another veil, but by lifting those which are there.
DATA IS EMPTINESS
Alchemy is based on, and concludes in, a cosmic analogy. (As above, so below - Hermes Trismegistus summarized a whole tradition in these words.) Therefore, the purificatory conjunction ritual to be performed by KristofLab consists in revealing the emptiness by emptiness. But, as emptiness is non-manifestation itself, he has to conjure a material revelation: making the pseudo-digital appear as digital - through the blessing of digital glitches. Error is emptiness, and while a flawless digital picture might pose as something actual, something approachable, a flawed one necessarily leads to awakening - opening up to emptiness. This seamlessly takes the alchemist to the next stage, fermentation - an alien element is added to the mixture, arousing the spiritual principle.
Error is a weapon of reality. A photo of an everyday place is a lie. A photo of a void place, emptied of itself, is a sign. It signifies the permanent reality of emptiness, of the apocalype. The apocalypse is always here, as the Gospels tell us. Thus, the apocalypse is not a tragedy, but a chance to be delivered from void realities into the fulfillment of emptiness. This is here, this is now, but we need psychopomps like KristofLab to make it apparent.
In the penultimate stage, he distills a reality of positive emptiness. The single photos in the series are ugly, meaningless, not of much use, neither esthetically, nor socially. They are indeed wrong - and this is what makes them perfect. An accompanying video helps in giving dimensions to emptiness: being spatially wrong is essentially the same thing as being temporally wrong. The message of adding a video is, in fact, that it does not add any new quality to a material which is utterly wrong - which is both secretum and gold, just as our world. We have passed the point of separation, but not in a historical sense. We are just passing it forever and it has always been passed. The pandemic is not an event - it is a sign of the double veil of emptiness, a sign of the emptiness of eternity, of the eternity of emptiness.
What is the last stage of the process? Coagulation is the solidification, the crystallization of the self. Thus, Kristóf has to leave us here, at the threshold, and let the final act happen within our hearts. Whatever appears to our mind, to our emotions while looking at the pictures - as humans, we might experience tragedy, but this all is, and has always been utterly and finally empty.