For Bourriaud, the new art he dubs ‘altermodern’ addresses this new possibility head on, for it is characterised, or so he declares, by a sensibility that is fundamentally ‘heterochronic’, denying any clear linear conception of the relationship between the Now and the Then, present and the past. The altermodernist, Bourriaud writes, thus produces work ‘with the aim of revealing our present, in which temporalities and levels of reality are intertwined.’
Such a new engagement also entails re-thinking our relationship to time, argues the French theorist Georges Didi-Huberman, and he goes on to ask: ‘If we…..refute peremptory death sentences as well as nostalgic rebirths, what time must we suppose from now on?’ This would be a vision in which the past ‘is neither to be rejected nor to be reborn, but quite simply to be brought back as an anachronism.’ Just how this task could be realised, Didi-Huberman suggests, is addressed by Walter Benjamin in his meditations on history, and in relation to the visual form that might arise from such an engagement, Didi-Huberman points to Benjamin’s formulation of the concept of the ‘dialectical image’. Thereby, Benjamin hoped to evoke the possibility of a return, as Didi-Huberman puts it, ‘to the fragile moment of awakening’, which was necessarily ‘a dialectical moment in his eyes because it lies at the evanescent, ambiguous borderline between unconscious images and necessary critical lucidity.’ As Benjamin writes:
It isn’t that the past casts its light on the present or the present casts its light on the past: rather, an image is that in which the Then and the Now come into constellation like a flash of lightening. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of the Then to the Now is dialectical – not development but image, leaping forth. Only dialectical images are authentic…images.
The confusing status of the ‘dialectical image’ suggests that it is neither quite here nor there. It is transitory and indeterminate, contradictory and evanescent, sited on an ambiguous borderline. The ‘dialectical image’ is unfixed and in continuous process, conveying a sense of the fluid and unfolding. It implies a preference for the subjunctive mood, insofar as it produces transitional effects rather than steady states. The ‘dialectical image’ exists, we can say, in an ambiguous zone, and eexpresses condition, hypothesis, contingency, possibility and process rather than stating anything definitive. It may imply the existence of a deeper totality and homogeneity lying beyond the ‘definite’ structures of traditional vision, but this is something that can never be declared or fixed. We can say in short, that the ‘dialectical image’ is a decidedly liminal entity.
Contemporary artists who consciously look back to the 1960’s may thus be exploring liminality both in their chosen sources and also in their methodology. For they address a period in which anti-structural and anti-disciplinary energies irrupt into society. But, as I have argued, they are more likely to succeed in evoking a living and dynamic relationship between the Then and the Now of the early twenty-first century when they implement strategies for keeping liminal energies in circulation in their own work. This is what Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image describes – an attempt, as Didi-Huberman puts it, to engineer the ‘productive collision between the Now and an unexpected, reinvented Then’.
In this context Margreiter’s co-opting of the East German communist’s typography is an allegorical meditation on how this moment of collision can be actively incited in the Now through the exploration of typographical forms. The contradictions and ambiguity that are evident in Margreiter’s medial nomadism involve shifts in character from image to text to sculpture to moving image. As Barbara Clausen writes, ‘after the initial uto¬pian impulse and the revival of its forms in the fashions of mainstream culture several decades later’, Margreiter’s hopes that ‘there is still the possibility of a new lease on life, for a critical-reflexive relationship to the Then’. Specifically, as Clausen writes, ‘Margreiter documents and redeploys the remnants of modernism before they disappear and, subsequently, keeps them “alive”….. ‘Since’, as she goes on, the typeface regains presence because ‘the zentrum font is neither an homage to the original nor an imitation of its ’60s copy, but rather a graphic set of modules existing between the two- and three-dimensional’. As a consequence, the use by the East German state of this style of font succinctly embodies the uneasy relationship that exists between modernism, nationalism and totalitarianism, as well exposing the shared roots of these impulses in a modernist rhetoric of liminality.
Margreiter’s works in general are emblematic of the possibility of a shifting borderline between the Now and the Then. Because of their inherent ambiguity, lack of clear synthesis, and absence of teleological reconciliation, they qualify as constellations of ‘dialectical images’. But in this sense, Magritte’s works aim both to be in themselves luminal-charged ‘dialectical images’, while at the same time also invoking through subject-matter an historical moment during which the nature and role of the liminal experience was especially contested within western society. They are definitely ‘betwixt and between’.