Image Praxes 2 | RÓBERT VÁRADY | The Reality of Appearances

Curator: József Készman

Digital Labyrinths

Notes on the posthumanism of Róbert Várady’s paintings

In his essay How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later (1978, 1985),[1] Philip K. Dick admits that he is unable and unwilling to answer the question raised in the title, precisely because he likes to come up with alternative worlds that have a limited shelf life. He likes to see systems that are not properly glued together, that lack coherence. But how might a universe that has just been discarded feel? And how do the lifeforms inhabiting it relate to the fact that they have become ontologically “invalid”?  Maybe they are oblivious to it and just carry on with their daily routine, although technically their existence is just a form of simulation, a spectacle of fakery like Disneyland, which Dick believes will keep on producing its fake reproductions of creation until the end of time.

Róbert Várady’s paintings show situations that point to the same fundamental postmodern premise, namely that our world can be wound up and replaced at any time. A haunting opacity is created, which makes human bodies puppet-like and artificial. It is as if we are witnessing the birth of the “Schizoid Android”, who – as Dick explained – was created to “deceive us by posing as one of ourselves. All this raises a new, techno-paranoid aspect of figurative painting, in which the representation of the human body is constantly haunted by the possibility of medial deception, an attempt to conceal the loss of our world’s ontological validity, and relativistic nature of its values. This is the gnostic-apocalyptic interpretation of the virtual image culture culminating in immanence, which, through Dick’s intermediation, provided an important ideological substrate for the cyberpunk of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and for thinking on artificial realities. The Disneyland metaphor, in this regard, refers to “life” that become alienated from itself – technified – and roams the false “here” of the world as an alien, pursued by its terror of statelessness. “The world’s potentates (Gemaechte) barricade the road leading to the secret, so there is not road out of the labyrinth of roads (gemachte Strassen). The labyrinth of the world is the place of decomposed delusions (Irre). Humankind does not stray into delusion (Irre), but is always deluded, having existed in delusion from the beginning. Delusion (Irre) is not the periphery, but part of the world’s internal structure.”[2] The digital cultural medial “delusions” created by the de-anthropomorphised “potentates” of techno-capitalism close in on themselves to create a labyrinth, where discourse is only organised as the output of random generators in the history-free mechanosphere of recording systems.[3]

If this is the case, then what position does the “painter” occupy in this game? If we follow Dick, then obviously we arrive at a non-human subject, the terror of a passively observing machine incapable of empathy, or – in the gnostic perception – an “evil” painter god. “We are a garment created by God, which He puts on, uses and then throws away. We are also armour, which creates a misleading impression in certain other butterflies hiding in armour. Behind the armour is the butterfly, and behind the butterfly a signal received from another star.”[4] The android-forging god, the simulacrum of digital culture, which as a demonic power manufactures the “spectacular kinetic monstrations”[5]: the virtual “armour”. Since delusion is not the periphery, but the world itself, the painter is unable to show an “external” perspective on the simulacrum. We could perceive this as meaning that some of Várady’s paintings present us with a digital hell generated by the evil painter god, while he depicts the human form as “armour”; that is, the prosthesis of delusion, thereby revealing and reflecting on the xeno-aesthetic of the technology defining the structure of the representation, which negates the humanistic familiarity of our (self) images.

         A frequently recurring pattern underlying Várady’s pictures is the full-figure depiction of people, in front of an unrealistic background, whose relationships with each other are also often inscrutable. Sometimes we only see a lone figure (Overcalculated World, 2013, To Be in Compliance, 2012; Everything We See Could Be Different, 2018). Here, the genre codes of a sociographic figure study or portrait also come into play; but the special relationship between the figure and the space always appear more dominant that any distinguishing feature and/or characteristic of figure painting. In other words, while the human form appears to be highlighted, the space becomes the medium for presentation by extending its unrealising effect to the figure, which, not through its “presence” but by the way it gradually fades into the field of delusion – its negative contours – becomes emphatic. This necromedial ghost-formation is reinforced by the seemingly arbitrary “poses” of the figures, as if a random generator had cut them out of a coherent behavioural field, a former “meaningful” existence. In the compositions showing several characters (The Difficulties of Sensation, Virtual I–II, 2016), the meaning-negating effect of the randomly generated figures is strengthened by the absence of any communicative interplay between the figures; rather, what we see are bodies from various life situations arbitrarily superimposed alongside one another, resulting in the dehumanisation of the human form, its transformation into a visual formation (“digital armour”). The visual abstraction of the figures, however, is at its most extreme in the paintings where the spatial effect is disrupted by a tipping of the visual perspective, and the face perceived as the super-medium of the human condition also vanishes (Cf. The Row [Along the Line], 2010), so that the groups of people metamorphose into mere geometric structures at the null point of the emotional and intellectual group dynamic.

         The transformation of the human form into a digital ghost, and its projection and transmission, therefore, is always a spatial-poetic process that takes place in a framework of virtual vertigo in Várady’s paintings. The linking of the spaces – with their vortex-like negative pressure – to digital culture is sometimes emphasised by the title (Virtual, In Cyberspace, etc.), but the ghost-formation discussed above permeates the aesthetic of the paintings independently of any linguistic thematising. It is important to highlight that the labyrinth of roads creates a virtual space by negating the identity and history of any location that has been “experienced” location; in other words, the virtual space comes into being through the absorption or suspension of natural and historical places. We perceive discrete, ahistorical and incorporeal fields in which no “world” with any history and meaning is formed, because what’s happening is the creation of non-places manufactured by some kind of database logic from visual elements (icons, panels and linear patterns) that are repeated, combined and redesigned by the random generators. Some of Várady’s pictures (e.g. Ambivalences III, 2009) only depict the linear patterns of the virtual non-places; at the same time, from a posthumanist perspective, one of the relevant statements of this type of painting is that by morphing into a digital figure the human character functions as a visual element in the labyrinth of roads, essentially identical to the linear patterns, bereft of identity.                   

         In the context of visual culture in a broader sense, one archetype of ghostly non-place structures with non-figurative linear patterns can be found in Vincenzo Natali’s dystopian film Cube (1997). The basic premise of the film is that six strangers are locked in a constantly shifting labyrinth of cube-shaped rooms, with a different trap concealed in each cube. The characters cannot remember how they got into the cube, and they are unable to formulate constructive strategies for interacting with each other; in other words, the functioning of the random generator also determines the interpersonal, dramaturgical and visual relationships of the film. Besides survival and escape, understanding their situation becomes one of the characters’ central objectives, and this hermeneutic experiment takes on a technophobic character as their presence in the cube is interpreted as a punishment, and the space within the cube as the architecture of a digital hell where necromedial ghost-formation substitutes for the humanistic depiction of people. Survival in this context is a “false” issue, because it is possible that, as “figures”, the characters have already survived their own deaths and are digital copies randomly thrown together by the random generator. The cube, therefore, represents Irre, the non-place of technological delusion, which closes in on itself and the characters as a kind of armour. The virtual nature of life in the cube also represents the virtualisation of the world outside the cube: the negation of transcendence in the immanence of the labyrinth. This prison experience also features in Kafka’s The Burrow, in which a narrator of undefined species has no “outside” beyond the system of tunnels created for his own protection and punishment. The notions of virtual life are manifest as the spatial experience of self-punishing immanence in the techno-apocalyptic consciousness, although behind the armour is the butterfly, and behind the butterfly the signal received from another star. In painting terms, however, the armour is of greater interest because, when trying to answer the question of what a universe that is just being discarded might feel, the artistic interrogation of a person who is becoming a ghost of themselves can only yield temporary answers. In the non-places of Várady’s paintings, we can recognise the aesthetic of the technomedial cube, but the ideological or metaphysical “truth” of the cube is an extra-pictorial event, which can only be approached via the roads of our own delusions.


[1]     Philip K. Dick: How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, in: Philip K. Dick: Shifting Realities, Vintage, 1995.

[2]     Jacob Taubes: Occidental Eschatology, translated into Hungarian by Marcell Mártonffy and Tamás Miklós, Atlantisz, Budapest, 2004, 10–11.

[3]     Friedrich A. Kittler: Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2003, 249.

[4]     Philip K. Dick: Man, Android and Machine, in: Philip K. Dick: Shifting Realities, Vintage, 1995.

[5]     Scott Bukatman: Terminal Identity – The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Duke University Press, Durham – London, 1993, 107.




2019. December 13. - 2020. February 2.

Kunsthalle, Budapest

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