The word ‘autopsy’, which is of Ancient Greek origin, has three different meanings. The most well-known is the medical one meaning the medical examination of the corpse in order to identify the cause of death. A lesser-known meaning concerns the investigation of a work of art in order to determine authenticity and date of origin. The third meaning designates personal experience, self-inspection. The formation named Autopsia (or AutopsiA) that was created at the start of the eighties in Yugoslavia plays with all three meanings, and yet cannot be fully identified with either of them, as the formation chose the phenomenology of death as its ultimate subject of investigation.
Unser Ziel ist der Tod – the sentence can be read on several artistic objects and publications of the formation. I use the word formation as it is not obvious how many members Autopsia is made of. It is not certain also who are behind IkkONA film (graphic design), Illuminating Technologies (publishing) and other names that can be linked to Autopsia. These all manifest different fields of Autopsia’s self-representation.
From the beginning of the eighties Autopsia has been incarnating in actions involving music, arts, video art, performance art, and in the forms of peculiar and original publications, book-multiplies. Besides Laibach and Borghesia it is the third significant independent musical export product from the former Yugoslavia (nowadays the formation works in Prague). The difference between Autopsia and the other two is that with the former authority remained a secret. This secrecy turns the attention of the observer from the author to the work.
The elimination of the authorial subject directs the attention of the receiving subject onto the supervision of her/his own ideological attitudes, or rather of her/his own individual experience. According to Bálint Szombathy, the name Autopsia has a “self-revealing tendency which throws an instant light on the formation’s conceptual construction; the standard of this construction is nothing else but the astonished admiration of death. The metaphorical transference of the doctrine consisting the respect towards death is conceived in the adoration of death’s spelling power.” (The Signatures of Death) Vladimir Mattioni claims that Autopsia is concerned with the self-disciplined, programmed personality who is “completely aware of its own possibilities and its place in the world.” The elimination of the authorial name and subject and the resulting emptiness become the definitive feature of authenticity. In this case authentic being manifests the subject’s death, its illusion and simulacrum. Indeed, authentic being is the Hölderlinian “poetical dwelling”, the form of realization of one’s own individual death.
For Autopsia, however, the term borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy is not merely an existential and symbolic category but an artistic attitude, too; the formation deliberately withdrawn itself from the simulative and competitive field of mass media. In the 1980s, the formation explicitly manifested itself in the underground sphere, with the exceptions of some occasional performances in Yugoslavian state institutions. Later Peter Greenaway used Autopsia’s opus titled Je suis la resurrection in his 1996 film The Pillow Book, but afterwards Autopsia self-consciously distanced itself from any further capitalist marketing. Bálint Szombathy claims that “Autopsia has a similar multi-medial ambition like Neue Slowenische Kunst, but the former’s multi-mediality is represented in an enclosed framework, without any risk of direct connection with the audience.” (Signatures of Death) For Autopsia this means a counter-attitude towards consumerist mass culture and also towards the subject-position of modernity. From this perspective, Autopsia’s art might be regarded as a critique of so called “high” art and mass cultural canons. The formation clearly declares its attitude in its latest, stylishly-edited publication Apocrypha: “The authors of similar orientations operate by way of appropriation and disguise, which becomes the characteristic of the entire strategy of activity.”
Here it may be worth considering Thomas W. Adorno’s remark on contemporary music: “The frightful mass reactions following the latest music are far away from the real transformations of the music itself; nevertheless these reactions clearly designate the difference between former new music and the recent one: in the former the subject refuses affirmative conventions, in the latter there is no space for this subject and its suffering. Anxiety gives way to an icy loathing when there is no possibility left for emotions, identification or living sympathies.” (Philosophy of New Music) In a similar way, Autopsia applies the results of industrial music (Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Test Department, Last Few Days, early Laibach, etc.) Autopsia’s world is also familiar with ambient music in its electric mixing of different musical traditions. For Autopsia, however, the central category is not abjection or transgression (e.g. Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Borghesia), nor the ideological-critique of political aesthetics (e.g. Laibach), but rather the question and metaphor of death. This concern represents itself in the musical language (especially in Autopsia’s early works) in an autopsy, necropsy and reassembling of Romanticism, avant-garde, Baroque and other musical conventions. From these elements, musical collages and montages are made. The differing elements, however, often tend not to disintegrate, but rather to homogenize into a definite atmosphere. The atmosphere is frequently dark, and it evokes the fear of death, the anxiety of elimination in the subject. The question of what comes after death. And the question of what comes after the annulled aesthetic and political ideologies and crises.
In its early period Autopsia published its musical materials on tapes. These early works were made using analogue techniques from tape loops and other analogue recordings. The experiments with recordings followed the thread of futurist Ferruccio Busoni, early electric music and musique concrète. In these times the formation was more concerned with the joy of spontaneous and unplanned discoveries than with conscious application of the erudition in the history of music. Later the compilations titled In Vivo (1985, 1988) and Wound (1991) were published containing some of these early pieces.
The decisive change occurred in the elaboration of its musical material in 1988 and 1989. That was the first time when Autopsia had the chance to work with professional equipment in Novi Sad Radio Studio 1. This was the time when the album Death is the Mother of Beauty was recorded. The up-to-date technology resulted in a more complex sound. This multi-layered method of composition might be discerned on the 1989 album Palladium, too.
Both albums were published by the German Hypnobeat. Palladium was first published in a boxset in 1991; as before, the issue was visually designed by Autopsia itself. The second edition of Palladium was published by Old Europa Café in 2013 with additional material called Factory Rituals, also from 1989. The design of this later issue has been enriched by new elements. The background colours of the cover are black and a silver part (as opposed to the original pink and black). At the heart of the image there is an industrial symbol: in its center there is a large-holed buzz-saw with black lightning-icons on its sides, in front of them, in the middle there is a nail pointed upwards. At the feet of the nail the script AUTOPSIA can be read, and the title of the album is situated above the symbol. This visual element already points at the possibility of multi-layered reception. The lightning-icons referring to dangerous high voltage contain the connotation of death. It is also important that the lightning-icons point towards the bottom black, while the nail towards the upper silver background of the cover; the lightning-icons towards the name AUTOPSIA, while the nail towards the title PALLADIUM. The unusual symbol might imply the critique of consumerist production. The rigid objects evoke the impossibility of iconographic identification, the alienation from the picture and from industrial production itself.
The front and back cover might be interpreted as the Heracletian struggle and unity of a pair of contradictions. On the back we can see a duel between two knights. On one’s shield there is the lightning-icon of Auopsia, on the other’s there is an imperial motif. The contradictions at once signify conflict and mutual dependence.
The titles of tracks also emphasize contradictions: 1. Trotz und Hingabe (Resistance and Self-Devotion); 2. Abfall und Aufstieg (Fall and Rise); 3. Das Gesetz des Tages und Leidenschaft zur Nacht (Daily Orders and Night Passions); 4. Der Reichtum des Vielen und das Eine (The Richness of the Multitude and the One). The titles of the movements revoke the tradition of Romantic programmatic music; they help the listener to imagine the music, to receive the music as image. The contrasts contained in the titles are represented in the musical material, too, with the appliance of counterpoint.
In the first piece, themes of different tones are switched and mixed with each other. The initial tone is determined by a deep, slow and continuous choir sound; this is mixed with a passage from Prokofiev’s last, so-called “Children’s Symphony”. The passage from its fourth and last movement is made up of xylophone and bell sounds; their jingling and playfulness counterpoints the dark tone and slow tempo of the choir. On the other hand, the mechanical repetition of the Prokofiev’s theme gives it a minimalist afterthought, and evokes the monotonous nature of mechanical reproduction, thus depriving the original piece from its aura. Autopsia uses the technique of montage when it combines the two distinct musical scores. There are no hierarchical relations between the two planes. No triumph on either side of the struggle of contradictions; the interpretation of their relation depends on the openness of the listener. Each element recurs from time to time in order to enhance the affective differences and similarities between the parts. On the other hand, the gesture of dispossession abolishes the function of the authorial subject.
The second movement starts out with a rapid and repetitive baroque-like harpsichord then fades out. Meanwhile a slow reed motive loudens, disturbed by harsh and clean-cut drumbeats, then again the choir can be heard. The finale comes with the silencing of the repetitive harpsichord motive. The clearly distinguishable parts mirror the program title of the piece: Fall and Rise. Through the language of music this is realized by the fading in and out, and then at the end with the silencing and (sound) cessation. The song’s video footage can be seen on youtube; here two scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence are montaged repetitively on each other (picture in picture). Both scenes thematize the psychological relationship between mother and son, and the train journey into the unknown. It seems that Autopsia observes the phases of anxiety in hardly telling moments, in silent body language.
The third movement marches in with a funereal introduction. The touching repetitive melancholic melody is counterpointed by harsh drumbeats and sneaking string sequences. Then another passage of the already used Prokofiev symphony comes in, the mysterious flute play of the first movement; it is mixed then with a Buddhist chant with the already-familiar rigid drumbeats. The heterogeneous elements swirl around each other like ruins of a civilization.
This dark ferment is somewhat resolved by the finishing fourth movement’s higher-pitched choir. The repetition of the concluding violin motive seem to indicate an advent. The question is whether the reign of “the one and the multitude” would be the reign of collapse or of ascent? As a review remarked: “Palladium is a declaration of the end – or perhaps the announcement of the beginning?” (Music From The Empty Quarter, 1991.)
The album’s title, Palladium suggests an “open work”, like the name of the formation. The album title works both on religious and scientific registers. As the symbol guaranteeing the safety of the town, the statue of the goddess Pallas Athena was named likewise; the name also designated sacred objects, picture and spirits offering protection, or plainly was used as a synonym of protection, safe-guarding. In the field of chemistry the element of the platinum group is named thus, and also the corresponding heavy metal. The color of the metal is represented on the cover work of the album. It is worth noting furthermore that palladium is a resistant metal and also a rare element.
If we take a look at the limited edition, graphically designed black-covered album of Autopsia (with the symbol of the album Palladium on its front cover), then we can see that it is not only with musical, but also with the visual works that the formation tried to play on the religious and scientific aspects of the Greek word. Different scientific illustrations are complemented with religious slogans. On one of the pictures we see a chemist working in a laboratory. Under the outlined black and white picture there is the passage in huge red letters: ICH BIN DER AUFERSTEHUNG (I AM THE RESURRECTION).
On the right bottom side of the script we see a blue seal figuring a goblet and the outlashing Autopsia-flame (besides lightning the flame signaling fire danger is the most common of Autopsia-icons). Around the flaming goblet there are three words following each other: Medicina + Catholica + Praga. Various interpretations might be given about the juxtaposed elements. On one hand, the pairings might be conceived as the resurrection of religion in science in the form of rationalism. On the other hand, it might be claimed that the religious statement is desacralized due to the illustrative scientific picture. However, these meanings might even extinguish each other, as a result of their dragging away from their original situation and of the lack of initial meanings in their new context. In this sense, Autopsia-pictures paradoxically represent a void resulting from absence and meaning-extinguishment (Miklós Erdély).
The poetically condensed musical pieces of Palladium work in a similar way: varying elements work against, or desacralize each other. The atmosphere of all pieces is basically dark, however, and has a fermentive effect. The second part of the present edition also comprises part of the 1989 Factory Rituals, which was originally made for a Belgrade exhibition. It is also more explicit about the interplay of religion and production: Gregorian chants are cut with the industrial noise of harsh metallic sounds. We can hear the apocalyptic ritual process of desacralization and aura-deprivation. This thought also appears in an image containing a language game: TEchnOLOGY. Above the script there is an illustration of an industrial tool. Apocalypse here warns about the inevitability of the emptying of a world based on production. Autopsia observes these processes in the metaphors of culture and individuality. With the necropsy of exhausted contexts the flayed layers of meaning disintegrate. The signature of death signs the final civilized points of culture- and self-production where silence and waiting constitute a possible being outside.
In its recent works Autopsia works with digital technology; the sound is more refined, sometimes perhaps even sterile (as for example on the 2009 edition titled Karl Rossmann Fragments). We cannot say, however, that Palladium has a similar effect like late sci-fi films whose once-marvelous views of the future have now become comical, uneasy and artificial. Autopsia do not serve the utopia of technology, quite the contrary: it utilizes TEchnOLOGY to dissect the past. At first sight it might seem that Autopsia exerts the postmodern glorification of the rationalism of the enlightenment. There is one thing though that the dissector cannot penetrate. Palladium agelessly respects and protects this inconsumable event.
From Hungarian translated by Zoltán Lengyel