By Rolf Thiele
When there was still enough time left, and something already existed I replied when asked that the work was almost finished. A permanently recurring experience, a kind of déjà-vu, geared to the future, which quite evidently belongs to the realm of the absurd. Previously, when there was still a lot of time I let it mature – too early and then too late – never on time. There was this unease connected with it, a feeling of alienation towards the task taken on and which describes a distancing from the same. But the assumed task does exist, it is real, and things happen in real time – but the individual time, which gives rise to the lack of production does not correspond with the elapsed time. You are either too early or too late.
Alienation seizes space, creates a means of expressing something that is separated from yourself. It was only in this space that I could begin to understand what I intended to do. According to Antonio Tabucchi too late means the longing for what we will never be again, and for what we might have become but have never been. The productive moment, triggered by lack is the negative moment in the aesthetic experience. Much of what we could have done was put off, sometimes a work planned in youth and put off until old age.
Art operates in intermediate spaces, it is premature or always too late. An insight that might at first sight appear paradox since foresight presumes something in the future while knowledge refers to something already known, and therefore to the past. Artists as people who do not know everything they know. The divisions are fluid and always were. This, that, indeed many things serve as a framework for artistic development, philosophical discourses, psychological debates, sometimes for social criticism. Time issues are the pressing aspect. The no longer against the not yet. A constantly recurring dilemma in the aesthetic experience. Everything aesthetic comes from the past, was already there, I can perceive it but do not know it yet. A space that opens up for the necessary interpretation. You know that you can do this or that as you do it, and you know that you do not understand this or that or are not in a position to do it. So what is it about? About the truly artistic life? Arguably the best thing about it is that there are no answers, and no witnesses.
The aesthetic experience as that moment when spiritual emotion encounters material observation they come together and swap places being transformed into the respective other. It is not possible for something like that to be evident for another person. Your own actions create a materiality that you not only did not reckon with but that is almost identical with what evolved through sensations and was manifested in actions. There was always something mysterious about experiments of this nature. Combinations, even word combinations assume something material. A kind of mystical resonance takes place. Experience lives through a reality that is located way beyond rationality. Such work which requires patience is generally carried out by an impatient person which is asking too much. But there is no other route to the kick, the spark that infuses life into everything.
Naturally, it is difficult to live with the feeling that nobody really understands it. You feel alien to yourself. Yet you would not want to miss it, this flaring up of strength and energy, which results in you being able to conduct your life in a certain manner. It all depends how you live and work and how you love. Instead of running after people it is better to have them run to you and your work. It is much easier to observe them there than you could do anywhere else. The artist, the artist as observer? A fundamental swapping of roles vis-à-vis the conventions and rules of the art business, that does after all exist. In our case the artist invites her guests so that she can then indulge in her observations from a position of physical proximity. The observers who are attuned to observing and experiencing art become the observed objects, who, should they notice or feel this become annoyed, feel at a loss and typically object to this highly scandalous overstepping of the mark. Despite or precisely because there are delicious things to eat and drink. A guest is welcome because you know he will leave again soon. The name of the project that everybody expects to have a beginning and an end acts as a symbol: dreijahre.(Three years). The art announced and expected by this title which is to be enjoyed by observation is cancelled with her work of art, disappears in the everyday. Since art is not a matter of taste or at least should not be, and your own opinion alone would always be too weak there must be a search for explanations. The body enjoys, the intellect remains empty, for the time being. Where is the art?
After all, everywhere where the senses are required, where the handed out plates, cutlery and glasses are employed as everyday experience, the physically conveyed everyday enjoyment of food and drinks is confronted with razor-sharp intelligence in order to satisfy your own expectation of art, and empathy dozes peacefully. You want to understand how to deal with the claim art and the heralded, intrinsic aesthetic experience it involves. Something is supposed to be art, and not because it looks like it but because it is proclaimed and named as such. In order to be able to alter this first reaction, filled with doubt and suspicion, to make this gap, this rent palpable, and then to later bridge it, there requires this lack produced by the catastrophe of not understanding. Such elusiveness of meaning as is also expressed in aesthetic negativity, is not simply meaninglessness but rather something that eludes explanation or translation. It follows there is nothing to understand but much to experience at present in art; an art which is revealed in the visibility of its works, in their surfaces as non-art. In this detour, the disappearance of the importance of things lets the intrinsic absolute nature of art emerge all the more clearly. You experience a system, which through the disappearance of its symbols is transformed into its opposite yet is not lost. The designated replaces its own symbols in a negative manner, only requires them as a no. Non-art as art.
What do we actually experience when we are confronted with the intermediate space that opens up powerfully from the transformation into the opposite? It is a known fact that sensitivity for time together with the ability to reflect is the main characteristic of the modern age. This is why we always ask in what order things were conceived – and how they are now articulated given this reversal that has taken place. Depending on the context we name these events breaks, fractures, transformations or catastrophes. However, this current series is topped by negation of what is expected across the board. We might be able to grasp that in art a thing, also understood as an event has little to do with that same thing when it is employed to convey a purpose in life. After all, aesthetic reduction, so we have learned from the cognitive modern age, follows its own rules. In art symbols only have to come to terms with other symbols and not with things or the facts of life. However, should this happen by the material level remaining in the everyday and thus not being exuded by art or even infusing it in the first instance then we experience the catastrophe of not understanding.
Such a move by the artist, relying on the omission of the material levels and giving them over entirely to disappearance compels us though originally attuned to observing to productively open the aspect of the absolute, actively open the aspect of art. And the artist looks on, has changed completely to the side of the observer, disguised as someone who only seems to be devoted to the everyday. She is exposed to this suspicion, must enter into this risk. After all, it is well known that in dealing with art, and not only there, there is a tendency, almost a culturally acquired characteristic to criticize, observe and analyze expressed opinions with the object of altering them. If you select a medium for your comment then its deployment is always connected with a compulsion to restrict and formalize. Every expression is a determination, in other words a restriction between what you would like to convey and what you can communicate. Everything is connected with decisions. There is a peculiarity arising from all the comments. It depends on every single comment and arguably on who expresses it. Observation has long since become a matter of taste, everybody has their opinion and rightly so. The experience following from everyday facts teaches us that life has an economic structure, a kind of capacity to learn from mistakes. Simply letting yourself fall into the never-ending depths of art is a willingness that is difficult to learn in this manner.
We have the change from announced art to non-art because it was promised, non-art as art, and the change of the observer to the observed and the artist without an actual artwork to become the observer, the call of the artist triggered by this equation, and expressed in more general terms might be: Life, art, the world should be traversed erotically which means being prepared for the unexpected. The future is with us, we cannot see it. And to remain vigilant as regards abysses, which might constantly open up given the bottomless nature of art. Reconcile the weighty gravitas of the real with the bottomless aspect of the invisible? Equate it? At least connect it? The abyss is chaos. Chaos lurks on the dark bottom of the abyss. Likely they are the faces of Eros; down into the seductive darkness. The way is never straight. The two faces mean to turn around and to speak, a rule of rhetoric or the vigilance of aesthetics. Whirling and turning away = turbulences. It swivels and turns. According to Sigmund Freud turbulence is the mechanism of Eros.
After all, where there is no longer any movement and no activity prevails, the fulfillment of what is expected and desired prepares for death. When our expectations are more than fulfilled we call it heat exhaustion or kitsch. And it is no secret that often enough artists consciously or unconsciously aid and abet being able to sit and as a result of the seated reference to art expose themselves and their works much to their own disappointment to taste. In the course of modernism and liberation of the artist from the observer they now see themselves exposed to an observer who has become entirely independent = I like it, I don’t like it etc.
That is the cunning of the artist, in the face of what is at least for the artist a profoundly confusing attitude, to elicit a role reversal and consequently prevent the return to the respective separated roles. Such a new indifference, new because until then only reserved for the artist, would suggest a more in-depth view.
The observer must act, become active. What you want to understand you have to do. Being able to imagine it also means being able to imagine the extent of the fall. The knowledge of the fall is united with the hope: facing these views, entertaining the possibility can be read as an act of intellectual courage, which is in turn encouraging. On the one hand placing yourself in the impersonal, historical series and on the other hand leaving this position for personal reasons. Two opposing forces. You have to address both. Artists have always admitted to such an approach. Since the modern age you refer to it as inspiration. Love is the human model for both forces. Art is not life. Life is not art. Only love of both can make it into one. Transcendence, what is always separated, reveals a glimpse of the other and lets it shine through. In the art event what is long since past rises up into the here and now. Art then forms the space of the origin (myth), in which time elapsed backwards and in the process unraveled the net of errors and transgressions. It extends life and explains it to a certain extent by letting us become a stranger to ourselves in a strange way. In order to escape his own conflicts man came up with art and its many guises. Desire, will and objective thinking are its foundation and that leads to conflict and hesitation. This conscious and considered endeavoring always remains within the confines of convention, and there is no liberty about that. Every strenuous effort to want to make art makes art impossible. And should it only ever be artists who can produce art? Only taking this thinking and this kind of endeavor to the end opens up a different dimension, which to some extent lies beyond time. What now happens previously seemed impossible: the artist appears as an observer without an artwork, you might say as a non-artist, and the observer is transformed into the observed object, or also becomes an artist without an artwork and as such with an immediate tendency to disappear again, hardly has it been created, and noticed. We negotiate the passage and emerge a different way around from which we entered. In this process the aesthetic experience transforms us almost imperceptibly. We have become alien to ourselves but we can recall that we were this or that person and can re-invent ourselves, be transformed to another person. Life as a stranger. Where does the reason for such pathos lie?
Remaining calm on a shaky ground
The cunning of using a distancing technique with whose assistance we have entered into the special realm of art and using a reverse yet certainly comparable movement have found our way out again can only lead to the impossible via the detour of the useless. We are familiar with such migratory movements in order to get for example from the real to the potential, they are known and familiar, and not only since the Romantic period. They extend back to the origins of our culture, our thinking. In Phaeton Plato has a Socrates appear, who with startling bias expresses a concept of knowledge in which recognition seems inconceivable without dematerialization. “And arguably he can do it most purely who mostly approaches each thing only with thinking and neither takes his eyes as an aid nor any other other sense organ when engaged in rational reflection but seeks solely to grasp every thing in its essence by using reflection alone, and ideally without resorting to eyes, ears, but rather entirely without the body because the body confuses the soul and it cannot achieve true knowledge as long as it is in cooperation with it…“
That can be understood in such a manner as if the so-called sensual observation did not contribute anything other than disturbances, distractions and distortions. It remains unclear why Plato had his teacher, this image of the wise man drawn by him, say this in the Athena prison hours before his execution, as otherwise he reports of a Socrates whose nature is more like that of a moral philosopher, who during his life addressed with his fellow citizens – the academy with its regular discussions not established until later by Plato – questions about what constituted a proper life. But all of this is described by the history of philosophy before the invention of the art world and the emergence of the artist which followed as a result.
The artist, preemptively still called this here in the text, undertakes the attempt to no longer listen to all the heartless, infantile bastards and so-called artists, who operate in the art world. It had happened often enough in the past that she had got into senseless arguing with them conducted with a shaming brutality of language. After all, in the course of such discussions she had evidently realized that nothing which she undertook in such situations really worked, had ever worked. Nonetheless by working with her memory she succeeded in penetrating the obscuring wall consisting of rhetoric, deception and harassment and to see it as follows: It was after all her occupation with art, and art studies that had got her into this situation, and art must help her out of it again. The problems generated in addressing art can only be worked through and possibly solved by remaining in it and not by talking about art. Remaining in this system, in this space called art is then everything you have, and even though your life in it was never made easy and was embedded in perpetual repetition it is after all the only thing that you can rely on. That said, every time it takes you a considerable amount of time to find that out. Only then do the force and momentum of the problems you created yourself allow you at least for a moment to take off and float to rise above reality.
A world of art
The figure that appeared early on in this text, the person of the artist, who somehow remains an invention and assertion, represents the possibility which a description turning into a narration is prepared to admit. The problem is that a text like this one does not tolerate a narration – beginning with the background and then pressing forward – remains. After all, such a personification is highly likely to entice us into wide, endless labyrinths and ultimately lead to nothing even remotely similar to what this text originally intended. That may be so, but nobody knows the intention anyhow.
The artist. This definition is intended to alter everything. The gaze into the old, yellowing and fuzzy mirror of myth permits her to clearly recognize her own glance. Only this dull mirror lets her see clearly. “She is a crazy woman.” the artist heard the others say, and they meant her. There are sentences that have etched themselves in the memory. Typically, you hear these utterances about yourself thanks to an unlucky coincidence. “Do you think that’s good?” and “That is supposed to be art?” are just two of them. Every time she tried not to lose sight of herself, to observe herself, when art was discussed in this manner and to her own surprise she ended up leading the conversation. But she never began to speak but instead developed her projects using different techniques, and always relied on her passions even though she did not yet know whether they would be any good in art or not. Light-heartedly she left the initiative to speak to the other one, this countenance in the old mirror that remained out of focus. Yet she claimed that this other one, this mirror sister were the only good thing that had happened to her since she had set out on her way to art – from time to time and from one moment to the next in order learn something about art by remaining in it. Precisely in such moments self-observation not only lent her the ability to be attentive but also filled her with a seductive mixture of self-confident innocence and a timid thirst for adventure. The consequence was always silence, long and eloquent enough in a diffuse manner to raise her intention and predecessor to art imagined and dreamt of with passion into the sphere of art.
She had always enjoyed cooking, made cakes, baked bread and other delicious things, wanted to open a cafe or something similar, and at a time when she was still far away from the threshold that you have to cross in order to enter the art world. She encountered this memory instantly in that moment when the realm of art had opened up as a realm of opportunities for her. She was overcome by a kind of enthusiasm for herself when she began to understand and discover that she could infuse the old dreams and wishes in the now of the aesthetic experience through the work she had chosen. But she was always accompanied by a gnawing doubt. She could not understand what this vague space of potential really meant for her own artistic intentions. And she went through this every time, again and again. First she had to digest this wealth of opportunities. And indeed she felt amazement about it – and astonishment. Being astonished at something is the natural manner of encountering art, daring to engage with art; and least this is how she experienced it in regular repetition over the course of years. She thought: What kind of an artist am I, am I an artist at all, what kind of a person am I to do something and to keep it for myself for years for fear of having to justify myself? And then she realized, she knew and needed her chance to get out of all this at least for a moment, this need to justify herself, this responsibility. Something like this had to happen, as if nothing lesser would have sufficed in order to feel free on the unsteady ground of art, in order to realize her dreams and illusions by working in art. That said, it did not necessitate her going out, not that she would not have gone. But she always wanted to leave, repeatedly. And every time the question: How am I to understand that? And then to come almost to the point where she would lose control of herself. To sense this feeling of not being able to cope that nothing could prevent, and yet not being able to imagine how it would be if she really were beside herself. What it would feel like. How could she remain true to herself and still work on the realization of her dreams? Could she not even begin to appreciate the charm of such a feeling? The artist did something contradictory: she suddenly turned around and went out yet simultaneously remained on the spot. And how is that possible?
The gap of the intermediate
Non-art as art means transforming something into its opposite so that it can find itself via this detour. But how can you pass from non-being to being or from rest to motion? As we know the self requires something different from itself. And what is created in the process is something intermediate. How are you to grasp this transition or this intermediate zone? You turn around and then you leave. By capturing in a purely successive manner these two moments that are placed next to each other and which are totally superficial to one another, the “then” refers to this gap that is in-between. But what happens between the two? What happens with his intermediate gap? You cannot simultaneously do the one and the other; or neither the one nor the other: you turn around, you leave, and then you leave; first there are the two successive movements and then dis-simultaneously and conversely comes the calm of remaining in this place, which is forms in the first place in an impossible manner. This place is not a possible place; it has been created as something that is beyond both time and space. And so it is down to thinking after all, this thing with art, that is characteristic of every phenomenon, has neither figure nor location and yet needs both in order to be manifest.
The foundation of the transformation
The flourishing of the change
The term transition understood as a non-place or no-man’s land, just like art itself, seems like a border term, which was exaggerated and literally refers to what is being questioned but does not make it possible to think further about it and then understand it. It is only when you have crossed over this border term by connecting it with its opposite that your realize the distance, the detour to be the shortest route. On the one hand this is convenient, you can deviate and pass by many things on this self-extending route which serves as distraction. On the other hand it is a long route and demands more strength and effort if you are to arrive.
You encounter various things on the periphery in passing; you take on the one thing the other you do not bother with. An experimental communication. A breaking up in remaining together. Change-continuation. These two expressions require a third, as they are opposites. Transformation is the opposite of continuation, change “branches out” and continuation “continues” (I Ching, The Book of Changes). Simultaneously each of the expressions describes the condition of the other. Thanks to change the process that has begun is not exhausted but rather is renewed by it and can continue; and conversely it is continuity or rather continuation which makes it possible to communicate through change and to make a time of transition out of it. Art is communication and artists are communicators. It is not the view of the essence of something and not that of identification, but rather develops the view of difference and consequently the energy invested in the process of things. It follows that there is constant communication between change and continuation, the course begun does not falter, and it becomes clear that the meaning, in effect art develops as a third entity between things, to some extent is developed in the course of things; a connecting passage, the passage of passing. In walking you venture from a secure position – firm ground enables a firm footing – out into uncertainty. A path trodden in this manner might contain sections that are soft and slippery. This anticipation makes us sense the danger of losing the ground beneath our feet and falling into an abyss. Given the uncertainty of the situation we ourselves become unsure, a state like that of not understanding. However, every determination requires firm ground beneath your feet; walking presupposes sitting, raising yourself up, leaning on something or standing. How does someone stand, what stance does he occupy? Does he have a goal in sight? From where or how do we find a balance between the pragmatism of the real, facts, things, works and the bottomless and absolute nature of art?
There can be different responses to the situation between thing and absolute: Do you remain caught in the situation or do you cancel it by stepping out of it? Leaving it begins with the first step, en route while walking you are then open and susceptible to incidents, indeed you make a beeline for them and hope that something will happen so that you have something to relate. Every artist, including the one transformed into an artist temporarily is engaged in a kind of journey that is both adventurous and dangerous because the outcome is uncertain and unpredictable. The realized works are the narrative of such a journey, determined through a material track; but art by contrast remains absolute. The material track is close; the absolute appears distant. You might have been entirely geared towards thinking but remain reliant on seeing. Vis-à-vis the material work that you stand or sit in front of, and then have to go again into the distance, into uncertainty, Into what is not yet known, into the absolute. And conversely, you were geared towards seeing but in the now of the artistic, aesthetic event without a material work you are entirely reliant on thinking. Going – foreknown as a leave-taking – is then a having to go away. By looking again at the outside which exists after all as a place without a thing, it can be transferred inside. Art, understood as absolute half is the third, like a ship traveling inwards on the sea of possibilities. The journey by ship in this image, above all when it is a ship with a motor, if we were to switch off the motor for a moment it would cause an interruption but the ship would continue to move; the ceasing of the engine’s thrust, which would not however stop the journey for a certain time can be conceived as a time of transition. And that means that during the journey you cannot remain at the destination. Art is a location of transition, from one to another, in other words, the one can assume the place of the respective other: a place can be understood as a thing and a thing as a place. When there is a state of being overly challenged the place of transition can be read as follows: where you become tired, cannot remain or rest, where everything becomes flat and empty, in other words an empty space of broad field opens up. You sense very precisely the finest and slightest inconspicuous movement. As in the movement from being awake to sleeping. In other words, when you are engaged in abandoning the one in favor of the other, are going, in transition, then for a certain moment the attention is long, and then as it disappears it is very alert. Departure and arrival, beginning and end, Being and non-being are mutually dependent and our expectations are never empty in this intermediate space, this gap. After all, we reckon with the return of something, though we no longer know what, it is merely vague and strange and we sense it in us as a deficiency. As such a true artist is something remarkable, there is something contradictory and nonsensical. Expressing yourself artistically also means not showing, but to conceal, means being silent, sometimes means setting the mark of a dumb scream, nobody hears it but you could see it if you can conceive it. And what is conceived as a deficiency in art?
Deficiency and continuation
Deficiency – the philosophers in classical Antiquity called it Eros – is the key, productive element; nervousness about emptiness, about the empty place. Deficiency represents the truth, things are the truths. Without doubt truth that can be precisely formulated would be nothing but a lie, would be untrue. You don’t really know what the lack is. And that is the truth. A truth that could be formulated, re-worded, expressed if it were something like the end, the collapse of the (art-)world. What is lacking? You do not know. You feel this strange pressure closing in on you – it will not work. The question of whether you can leave such deficiencies is quickly answered: You can leave it because you have no idea where it is. Very frequently the back itself is not the cause of back pains. Everything comes from this lack, it is unavailable. If you knew what it consisted of then it would no longer exist. It is the essence of what you do in art; the nature of art. In French: l’entre deux, between two or interstices or duality, describes the part of making art that omits yourself. You could talk about what you cannot grasp or understand. The absolute. Something that resists every form of expression and indeed resisting is precisely the phenomenon. It pressures you, you cannot do anything about it. As Martin Heidegger did not say: The thing is still at work in me, it is there.
Non-art as a term, in effect the thought that negates itself, has seemingly lost itself, and yet continues by coming up repeatedly, is potential, finds the power of its continuity again by proceeding in a discontinuous manner; at the point where the message by creating space for something that is lacking is called upon to bind itself up again. Non-art as art.
Exhaustion gives way to change, change gives way to continuation, continuation to duration. (I Ching, Book of Changes.)
The perspective of difference offered to us initially should be given consideration. The difference refers to identity as its opposite and thus the call for identity. Perhaps we should stop talking about differences and start – following up a proposal by Francois Jullien – to use the term distanceso as to unearth a new chance to think what we have not thought. After all, this can only be achieved in a roundabout way by looking at it from a certain distance. In the aesthetic experience the detour is the shortest distance. Otherwise you would have to leave it in the conventions of your own thinking, because it is known, already existed and was consequently familiar. You can only grasp at it obliquely – from the other side of the gap created by non-understanding. But let us return to the core of what is sensually perceivable. It can still be perpetually encountered. It is said that we feel more comfortable in front of things. But what might happen if this level of the material could no longer be spread out in front of the observer as a work of art? This then necessary third level, the zone of the transition dissolves. It is the indefinable, and as such has no end nor does it permit a possible division to occur. We have to turn around, after all the circle does not close but repeatedly revolves in and around itself. Probably once again we are dealing here with an embodied, situative aesthetic experience. And as we know the need of needlessness can be averted by third parties thinking along with us.
I would like to thank the intellectuals whose works gave life to this text: Peter Handke, Francois Jullien, Peter Sloterdijk, Antonio Tabucchi, Milan Kundera, Boris Groys, Martin Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Georges Steiner, Heinz von Förster, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Phillip Roth, J.M.D. Le Clézio, J.W.v. Goethe, Haruki Murakami, I Ging and others..
Rolf Thiele, born 1942; taught as an art professor at the University of the Arts in Bremen until 2007. He lives and works in Galan/France, for example in the Kunst-Leben-Projekt „Académie Galan“. Publications: Rolf Thiele: Ästhetik der Überforderung, Band 1 – 4.
(published in: dilettantin produktionsbüro: No ART Around – About the (Im)possibility to Operate a Restaurant as Art, Berlin, 2012)