Mark Gisbourne


It could well be said that the aesthetic strategies of appropriation and displacement, be they either conceptually motivated or otherwise arrived at by chance, have determined much of the art that has been produced over the last hundred years of conceptual modernism. From the appropriated formalism of Cubist papier collé, to the diverse surrealist or socio-political strategies of collage, photomontage, assemblage, cut outs, and textual cut-ups with their subsequent redirected de-contextualisations, there has been a revolution in our understanding what constitutes the formerly opaque semiotics of visual culture.[1] If a definitive and completely secure semiotics of visual culture has failed to be fully established—since visual signifiers retain aspects of slippage—distinct from an argued sense of coherent semiology expressed through the structure(s) of written and spoken language—we have come nonetheless to understand much of the conceptual nature of what takes place between the floating visual signifier, signified, and the sign.[2] That is to say the means that point towards meaning (signifier as expression), through evocation (signified as concept), and what is embodied and codified (the sign). Given this prefatory statement and to take an example such as Michalis Pichler’s Untitled (Mondrian), which uses the intervention of the De Stijl master’s trope of primary colours and forms, a unique re-orchestration of relations between text and psyche has emerged. The artist Pichler has superimposed the conventional formal properties associated with the neo-plastic language traditionally ascribed to Mondrian upon appropriated reproduced illustrations of modernist sourced architecture, furniture, and common domestic room settings. The motifs have then been transposed onto a canvas support suggesting a mediated relationship between collage and painting that questions the status of original sources of reference and the appropriated use of reproductions.


This being said Pichler has revealed a complex dialectical nub or point of engagement between the Mondrian referents and the reproduced design source materials he has chosen to appropriate in Untitled (Mondrian). The levelled effect created through his use of appropriation takes on another meaning and contexualisation when cast anew through ideas expressed in Mondrian’s neo-plastic theories of formal aesthetic equivalence. The Dutch master’s idea of a plastic levelling of universal equivalence both inside and outside of mental human experience, the “direct expression of the universal in us—which is the exact appearance of the universal outside of us,”[3] could well be understood as being synonymous through Pichler’s act of appropriative equivalence. I call it synonymous equivalence because it follows from the apparent synchrony (occurrence) of the moment when it is appropriated, and that moment maintains a state of undefined appropriative atemporality. The images mirror themselves within consciousness notwithstanding the obvious and variable material visual distinctions that are set up by the pictorial design referents chosen by Pichler. In this the artist magnifies the “the absolute and annihilating opposition of subjective sensations,”[4] argued for by Mondrian. If a work of art formerly had a claim of specificity that affords it a location and place, affixed it within a time parameter as having a pre-defined historical moment of identity with stable properties, then appropriation displaces or destabilises its former secure historical status and localisation. But it does not surprisingly have an effect on the condition or status of its equivalence. In the world of post-Benjamin and reproductive media, when arguments of aura no longer perceptually pertain, appropriated equivalence like repetition is a forward and progressive declamation and not a mere retrospective projection. Or, as Kierkegaard long ago explained, “so will modern philosophy teach that the whole of life is a repetition” and as a consequence “repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards.”[5] Appropriation is a displaced material repetition that, while it loses its immediate contact with its origins, still nonetheless retains a formal equivalent through its continued progressive evolution in terms of meaning value. It is not a material or commodity-based exchange value, but an evolving ontological or perception-based essential value of that which it stands in displaced relation to as an appropriation.


Hence Michalis Pichler’s use of appropriated modernist illustrations and their inferred formal relations to Mondrian’s practice reveals ideas that are further extended by Pichler the artist. Whereas appropriation is often understood in terms solely of pre-existing discursive analysis (the original referent that is being appropriated) and the reframing or questioning of systems through prior transmission, something new in this instance has been brought into play.[6] We enter a discourse of extended atemporal consciousness, that is to say a state of mirrored consciousness shaped by the equivalence of inferred meaning between pre-established yet now undefined referent identities. This is best understood in terms of systems of agency, that is to say in the current media age, what constitutes the prevailing contextual conditions by which meaning is able to substantiate itself.[7] If we consider the four-part appropriated imagery of Untitled (Mondrian), the use of the parentheses or bracketed Dutch master is in itself a clue. The use of bracketing (epoché) is by definition a phenomenological atemporal suspension.[8] And atemporality is by nature a continuous state of suspension and therefore an inevitable non-comparative equivalence. With the idea of the pause or punctum, the state of suspension becomes self-evident by the superimposition of the familiar Mondrian geometric modules and use of primary colours, his rectangle, square, lozenge, onto the sourced black and white period images of architecture and domestic settings as reproductions. Yet it remains important to stress at the same time that their equivalence is not born of a simple simile (sameness), but that of a relational equivalence where its new meaning is able to be generated in extension and currently resides. If for example we take the reproduced element depicting an Individueller Wohnzimmer Schrank (Individual Cupboard Unit), the relations are formal as well as psychical in that they dispose the mind towards affinities and not necessarily the historical specificities associated with origins. Rather they emphasize the trope of appropriation in terms of loosely associative updated generic modernism. Also at the same time they are quite literally and intentionally appropriated design illustrations (disegno) brought into a new reproductive relation.[9] The words appropriation and reproduction form the new basis for origin as the salient point that is expressed, since it refers to reproducible phenomena and not to an original. And in today’s mediated computer world, where the screen has replaced the material page, the idea of the reproduction takes on a near infinite possibility—a potential endlessness of space and time without specificity.[10] In fact in many respects the term reproduction as a concept falls away and is displaced by that of repetitive replication or facsimile, since to re-produce implies material presence (produce: to make, create or form, cause to exist) whereas the computer screen is a site of intangible virtuality. It is a pixelated and coded world of insubstantial space and invisible-visibles, the assertive replica that is its own perfect picture as such—hence the ironic title I have chosen for this essay.


In Untitled (Mondrian) Pichler posits an array of questions as to why and what are the functions of appropriated images and the re-presentations in terms of their re-cycled associations, are they he asks not simply the departure point for future grounds that create new systems of visual formulation? The function of appropriated sources of reproduction then are no longer that of mere evocation in regard to an original referent, but have become a trajectory into a newly formed and potential zone of translated meaning. This does not mean that the original referent image is completely negated, but rather that it has either been weakened or lost its power of a priori determinism as to its reading and contents. It can no longer be said to determine and/or condition the field of response, but is subsumed within the provisory context where the creative artist finds new ways of constructing meaning.[11] If we look again at Untitled (Mondrian) we come to see that the images are as it were displaced allusions to ‘design modernism’ on the one hand, but more importantly they represent an advance upon earlier uses of appropriation that concentrated on the interstitial nature posed by what was being displaced. That is to say the bringing together of pre-existing formal or imagined distant realities, as in Cubist papier collé, or Dada and Surrealism’s use collage or photomontage. But neither do Michalis Pichler’s appropriations and reassembling of relations concentrate on the original intrinsic nature of the source for itself. Hence he is less concerned in this instance with the space between the temporal language as text and spatial aspect of images, as might be the case in conceptual art. He focuses instead on the open-ended nature of appropriation suggesting that the act of appropriating is a creative forward projection, since it generates a meaning that lies ahead or itself, and has less to do with the recycling of source materials that have a predetermination imposed by their historic origins.





[1] Dennis Busch, Robert Klanten, Hendrik Heilige, eds., The Age of Collage: Contemporary Collage in Modern Art (Berlin: Gestalten, 2013).

[2] Attempts at establishing a definitive ‘semiotics of visual culture’ have largely failed perhaps, the most successful art historical approach was that of Meyer Schapiro, Words, Script, and Pictures: The Semiotics of Visual Language (New York: George Braziller, 1996).

[3] Piet Mondrian, “Neo-Plasticism: the General Principle of Plastic Eqivalence” (1921), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 287–290, page ???.

[4] Ibid, 287.

[5] Soren Kierkegaard, “Recollection is a discarded garment” (1843), in Uwe Fleckner, ed., The Treasure Chests of Mnemosyne: Selected Texts on Memory Theory From Plate to Derrida (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1998), 128–131, 130.

[6] Margot Lovejoy, Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age (London: Routledge, 2004). See also Christiane Paul, Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), also Wolf Lieser, Digital Art (Potsdam: Ullmann Publishing, 2010).

[7] For a series of essays dealing with media and issues of conditions of agency see Margot Lovejoy, Christine Paul, and Victoria Vesna, eds., Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts (Bristol and Wilmingon, NC.: Intellect Books, 2011).

[8] The usage or intellectual act of ‘bracketing’ (German: Einklammerung) was used by the founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), and as a process it was referred to in terms of continual ‘phenomenological epoché’, see Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology (1913), trans. F. Kersten (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982). Again the term epoché was used by the leading Post-war theorist of phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61), Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962/2005).

[9] It should be remembered that while Mondrian has become commonly associated with subsequent design and reproduction theory, he was in fact a painter who produced with his hands, see Yves Alain Bois, Joop Joosten, Angelica Sander Rudenstine, and Hans Janssen, Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) (Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

[10] See Anna Bentkowska-Kafel, Trish Cashen, and Hazel Gardiner, eds., Digital Visual Culture: Theory and Practice, vol. 3: Computers and the History of Art (Bristol, and Wilmingon, NC: Intellect Books, 2009). See also vols. 1 and 2, Digital Art History, and Thirty Years of Arts Computing, 2005 and 2007 respectively.

[11] Margot Lovejoy, “Defining the Conditions for Digital Arts: Social Function, Authorship and Audience”, in Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age, 13–30.