Searching the Grid – or: The Recurrence of Signs

Cardboard tubes tower up toward the camera; they form a small shadow; a foot peeps into the square image from the side, from below, from the right, from the left, or from above. This is repeated eight times; together the eight panels form an image, a composition of tube and foot. In one of Serge de Waha’s many “allegorical sketches” the artist’s feet reappear, photographed as a pair from above as they peep out from under a pillowcase. In this case the individual photographs are in vertical format, while the pillow is square. But here too the grid becomes a fundamental motif of a way of thinking artistically that is not at all restricted to logical coordinates. The artist’s allegory always manages to duck out of such dry logic. The grid merely gives him the necessary room to play, to give words to the desperate attempt to gain insight: the foot in front of a mountain of socks; in one of his rare videos, both legs up to the thighs loom into the frame, almost motionless; they appear to be lying in a bathtub; the artist sings along. De Waha’s works celebrate the recurrence of the same as a game that establishes structure as well as meaning.
Twenty years ago, in her groundbreaking essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” Rosalind Krauss identified grid structure as one of the defining categories of the avant-garde. In a way almost inherent to the work, it is a form of denying any claim to originality in order to produce instead a kind of antireference, a silence that eludes both language and narrative.1 The elimination of all hierarchies through the use of grid structures, the motif of “repetition and recurrence” that Rosalind Krauss discusses with respect to the “grid,” negates only partially the illusion of a text that can be spoken or read. For repetition and recurrence are not per se strategies of a linguistic or narrative denial. In the end they lead to a new pictorial grammar – to continue using the terminology of linguistics – one that, though it differs structurally from other grammars, nonetheless has narrative features.
Serge de Waha’s photographic works are not narratives in the classical sense whose readability is connected to “an irreversible order (of logic and time).”2 Rather, they consist of arrangements of individual photographs that structurally establish the grid for a larger whole but without professing any irreversible order for reading them. Consequently, no statement has yet been made about their narrative character. It is, however, precisely the recurrence of identical or similar motifs that establishes a horizon of meaning that seeks and explores connections of form and content, leveling them out or muddling them. In a literal sense Serge de Waha turns an act of insight on its head. And this act of insight goes far beyond the purely visible structural pattern. It also reflects on the circumstances of its origin: the act of the artist’s motif and the act of the viewer’s attempt to understand it.
In this sense the room for free play of action in the photographs is taken up only by the fields of the grid, and very much in a narrative sense. By plumbing the depths of these spaces for structural and narrative play, filling them out and expanding them, de Waha presents his order of things. The objects have the character of objet trouvés, found objects, whose repetitions beyond simply structural patterns reveal multiple personalities. “A foot is a foot is a foot” this variant of a phenomenology of objects holds neither for the individual photograph not for its recurrence in the whole.
Seen in this way, Serge de Waha’s pictorial grammar proves to be a grid in Krauss’s sense, but one that certainly keeps an eye open to the possibility of new linguistic arrangements. His works speak to the representative function of photography, to the visual simultaneity of various circumstances, and to the way the photograph, and the camera, presumes to take the viewer’s perspective, which remains connected to the artist’s act of completion, and not just physically so. These are the prerequisites for an understanding of these works that attains more from the grid than mere structural explanations. The object is therefore just as significant as the medium, the act of photography, or the struc-ture of the image as it ultimately becomes visible. In de Waha’s eighteen-part work “The Power of Destiny,” for example, all of these aspects find their captivating culmination: as the artist wanders through his apartment at night, wearing a headlamp and a camera, he becomes a detective in search of clues. Only in this search do the traces of everyday life become visible and observable by means of an interaction with the medium.
His most recent works reveal that aspect of recurrence that calls to mind the historicizing features of pictorial appropriation: it is the structure of a grid that reflects on the prerequisites of the image and on the existence of entire pictorial traditions.3 For example, a recurring feature of Serge de Waha’s photographs is the emblematic arrangement of the Stars and Stripes, as found on the American flag but also in Jasper Johns’s flag paintings. The supposed realism of the photographic image copies something that is itself a copy. More precisely: it bases itself, deliberately or inadvertently, on a predetermined reality that has long been aware of the horizon of meaning of the corresponding sign. No matter whether it is an object, a foot, or a flag, in the photographic works of Serge de Waha the recurrence of signs obtains the contour of a pictorial grammar that does not betray the object but rather, on the groundwork of our knowledge, embroils it in ever new constellations of pictorial language.

Ralf Christofori 2002

translated by Steven Lindberg