Suspicious circumstances

(An Artist’s Statement on Artist’s Statements)

I hit on the idea of Artist’s Statement during my preparation time for the documenta11, early in 2002. I had just returned to Germany from a residency in Canada and started a job as an art mediator for the documenta11 in Kassel. In our team, the majority of my colleagues came from a theoretical background—I was one of the few artists. During our phase of preparation we gathered information and discussed each particular œuvre of those artists who we knew would exhibit at the documenta.

I watched closely how my colleagues approached the artists’ work and how they analyzed it. I realized that while I preferred to work with the artwork and draw my conclusions above all from the form, they tended to adopt from ideas the texts other authors had written about the artists, and they concentrated their analysis on the contexts and cultural backgrounds of the artists.

Since, however, many artists arrived in Kassel at various times during our training to install their work, we all had an additional opportunity to get to know them personally and to see if our conclusions and ideas about their work matched the impression of the actual person. Given that the artist is the source per se.

There are almost no generally binding criteria left with which to measure the quality of art.

A means to bypass this lack of criteria involves questions of authenticity: a criterion for the consistency of work, person and background. The more congruent these three factors are with each other, the closer to an idea of reality is a work of art—the more it mirrors the world.

For me the most astounding reaction of my colleagues, after having met the artists, was how obviously their analysis and assessment of the artist’s work changed due to a personal, emotional factor, antipathy to or sympathy for the person. Luc Tuymans showed 150-200 slides of this work and, while doing so, he spoke more to the table he sat at than to the public in front of him. Thomas Hirschhorn stood there with his legs apart, giving a resolute impression. Joëlle Tuerlinckx was open, personable; it was towards Tanja Bruguera that I myself reacted very subjectively. I found her simply kind and nice.

From these experiences during my work as an art mediator for the d11 grew a crucial suspicion: whereas artists still argue from what they see, it seems that other people follow the rule: I see only what I know (of). Furthermore I suspect artists have the ability to think visually, as opposed to the need to verbalize the visual on behalf of the observer, the recipient, or those who make use of art. It seems to me that the idea of comprehension is assigned to language and the familiar logic of understanding, which is linear, gradually leading from thesis to synthesis.

Other suspicious circumstances occurred: From time to time the curators of the d11 spoke of the function of art. Remarkably often the term "knowledge production" was mentioned. Linking "knowledge" plus "production" so many times sounded like an alibi used to justify an otherwise rational and materialistic world. I suspected the intension of a science-obsessed society to look at art in a scientific way, in a test arrangement where it can be analyzed and categorized. In any case, art was being connected with knowledge, characterizing it therefore as teachable and learnable – but there was no mention of contemplation.

Based on differences that I had observed between the Anglo-American and the German reception of art, I assumed that in the Anglo-American culture there exists a stronger urge to verbalize what has been perceived. In Canada I had come across "the artist statement," a form as such unknown in Germany—perhaps because Friedrich Schiller, a father of German aesthetics, once said: Do not talk artist, give form!

Even more striking is the development of art history, in particular theory, as compared to that of art itself. Here, too, it seems a greater split between word and image is taking place. In the beginning an image was still an image and the word was God. In the end René Magritte points out to us that: "Ce n’est pas une pipe!" Because it is no pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Perhaps in the beginning there was the magic of an image, a magic that captivated everyone equally. My first art teacher, Professor Gerhard Wendland, once told me this story, that in the dim and distant past people felt a physical pain looking at some tones of red, much like today still when we are drawn to certain acoustic tones.

Were images long ago more readable than script, not only because in the past most people were illiterate, but also because, in general, a wider consensus prevailed and people were less individualistic?

Did Modernity start with a schism that disbanded all agreed upon criteria for judging quality in art because the individual became the sole measurement of itself? Is the centrifuge of the avant-garde a gradual separation of criteria? Is the avant-garde an act of deconstruction done by a Homo Sapien’s Sapiens, thirsty for knowledge?

In the end what remains is the word?

I would like to mention one last observation, even though the word observation in this case is attached too much to the notion of seeing: Time and time again people speak of oral art, or artworks on an oral level. One talks; nobody has seen them. The artist remains the only witness. Those who do not trust their eyes—there is anyway nothing to see—test the credibility of the artist. If he or she comes across as authentic, the artwork is also legitimate. The artwork of an artist is given meaning and relevance through the statement of the artist.

Artist’s Statement is my test arrangement. I leave it to the gentle and willing reader to answer the question what kind of image the artist creates. As to my own intensions (as the artist behind the camera), I would like to leave you in the dark.

written for "Proximities - Artists’ Statements and Their Works", published 2005, Kamloops Art Gallery, British Columbia