Arp in Virgin Forests and other Familiarisations with the Unfamiliar

Julian Heynen
(Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott)

Not long ago Stefan à Wengen came up with the title Nightology for an exhibition of his paintings. This focus on the night refers not only to the darkness that shrouds the colours in many of his compositions. The term is also an allusion to the Romantic tradition that so often sets its sights on deeply shadowed, obscure worlds – places filled with forebodings and fears, but also with the promise of some alternative to normal, everyday life. This black Romanticism is a widely ramified labyrinth of literature and art, set on a parallel course to the Enlightenment and Modernism, or even taking on the role of an alter ego to one or the other. These realms are separated by the thinnest of membranes; there is nothing easier than slipping involuntarily from one into the other. And anyone who invents a word like ‘Nightology’ for one of his own visual worlds, is clearly not afraid to enter the realms of extremely dubious, glib promises, for who could fail to notice the distorted resemblance to ‘Scientology’? A title is only a title, a verbal guide to the pictures, but in this case it shows that the painter is well aware of the fragile basis he is working on and with in his paintings.

Be it a swimming pool with a moonlit airbed floating on its murky surface, a deserted tree house in reddish-brown ‘wrong colours’, or a futuristic climbing frame in an empty park, lit by an unidentified light source – in each case the object of interest is beleaguered by the opaque darkness of a night of uncertain duration and, even more so, by the rank growth of an impenetrable Nature. The outlandishness of these scenarios – which often look like stills from similarly dark films – is heightened and intensified in a group of more recent paintings with the multi-faceted title Mission.The settings are obviously exotic, and seem to be located far away from what was once arrogantly only ever called civilisation. Dugouts painted with magic signs floating in jungle pools, huts and cabins on stilts cast in the improbable, almost fluorescent light of tropical nights loom into view like visions of adventure stories remembered from childhood or images of isolated jungle encampments in the novels of Joseph Conrad and others. But it is not only the settings and the seemingly filtered colours that give these paintings their uncanny atmosphere. It is also the way these pictures are painted that strangely dislocates the situation and makes the settings appear deeply alien. The brushwork is consistently meticulous, with the intention being to depict as precisely as possible the surfaces and the spatial relationships of different things. Anyone attempting to penetrate their tangled textures will soon find that they have been painted slowly and with thought, and that the overall effect is the outcome of a highly skilled craft technique. But the results have little to do with simple realism, and even less to do with photographic exactitude. On the contrary, there are errors, deviations and dilutions built into the fabric of the painting. For example, a stretch of water is bordered by virgin forest, but something seems to be destroying the illusion. It seems that the dividing line between the two is not entirely of this world, with the result that the blue, that was water a moment ago, suddenly turns into a shimmering zone of colour that is no longer about imitation of any kind. In other places changes of this sort are more gradual. The painterly description of an object or a surface changes its physical state, dissolving into a diluted rivulet or veil of colour until it is no more than that, namely a self-referential gesture of the painterly material. But these ‘contradictions’ are always extremely subtle; they are never introduced or exploited for their own sake. The paintings are accomplished examples of depiction – as one used to say – and draw us into a certain illusion of reality. But they also resist this notion by creating the feeling of not really belonging in a particular place or situation – without one quite knowing why that should be. 

Distinctly out of place are the Modernist sculptures standing around outside some of the tropical cabins. Connoisseurs will think of Hans Arp, but that is of no consequence. The sculptures seem to have landed here like UFOs, lost interlopers from another world, utterly beyond comprehension. What was the purpose, what was the mission they were sent here to fulfil? Could they perhaps be intended to convince the indigenous peoples of the value of a different culture, like Christian missionaries going into the bush in the hope of converting others to their God? Or are they perhaps evidence of a cargo cult – revered, imported items that are regarded as highly desirable and integrated into the locals’ world view? The paintings offer no immediate answers to the questions they raise, not least because they are bereft of human beings. The inhabitants of these jungle locations are nowhere to be seen and it is impossible to say whether they have left their homes and possessions for just a few hours or forever. But then it would also be no surprise to discover they were hiding in their cabins or in the jungle to observe – unobserved – the strange changes taking place in their lives. Of course all these are only poetic speculations suggested by the odd combination of dense undergrowth and desertion presented in these paintings. But these fantasies also convey something of the fundamentally alien nature of an encounter between two so very different worlds. It is only in our eyes that the sculptures in these paintings appear to relate to objects made here, in that other culture, items that we – for simplicity’s sake –  call art. Modernism sought and still seeks analogies wherever they may be found; it readily draws inspiration from exotic things that may seem similar yet are not to be compared. But a re-import to one of the original locations, as we see it here, makes the product of Western artistic appropriation look weak, absurd even, or just weird. The inhabitants of these primal forest clearings would hardly be likely to recognise anything of their ‘own’ in these alien structures. And so it appears that the sculptures in the paintings occupy some kind of a no-man’s land, as far from ‘us’ as they are from ‘them’. It is as though they now owe allegiance to no-one, equally disconcerting to all who set eyes on them. Thus they mark the chasm between different cultures, into which grasping and understanding so often disappear. 

In the forty-nineGhost Portraits (2005) the sense of alienation is interwoven with a intricate game with our collective and media memories. This group of global, male heads looks like a gallery of images of the kind one might easily put together by leafing through any newspaper. But then one is brought up short, because some clearly feature a number of times: here a striking skull-shape stands out, there a hairdo, and there a pair of spectacles. And one’s subconscious butts in, ‘I know this person!’ But are they really no more than everyman’s faces, seen so many times before – or are they even famous people whose names momentarily escape one? That sense of uncertainty grows as one is drawn into physiognomic judgements, and sympathy or antipathy well up. And that feeling – quite rightly, as one later finds out – can even turn into assumptions regarding certain characters’ moral status. On closer examination and comparison of different images, one’s attention is drawn to the eyes and it becomes clear that in fact the painter has consistently replaced the eyes in these portraits. Some, with a romantic, psychological tendency, like to call the eyes the ‘window to the soul’, because they regard them as a true reflection of individual character. The fact is that the eyes in these portraits are taken from an archive of notoriously ‘evil eyes’ – belonging to figures such as Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, Reinhard Heydrich and the like. Moreover, with the portraits being presented in long rows on the wall, not unlike sepia-tinted black-and-white photographs, one might easily take this for a psychosocial experiment designed to test visual prejudice. Can we recognise evil when we see it, when it is directly inscribed into a person’s face, as in these portraits? Or, by the same token, if one were to insert other eyes into the faces of proven criminals and monsters, would their faces be just like anyone else’s? Of course the days are long gone when scientists studied physiognomy in order to extrapolate someone’s character – or even value – merely from his or her external appearance. Although that is of course not to say that that kind of thinking does not still colour our day-to-day assumptions. And do today’s neuroscientists simply relocate the questions, so to speak, inside the subject’s head in their efforts to explore and define the physics of what once was called ‘the soul’?

The Ghost Portraits raise questions of this kind, but they do not answer them. As images they investigate possible connections between the visual and other factors, but their signs and symbols are more about poetry than definitions. Yet the questions they are asking concern the same matters that are behind the paintings discussed earlier here. Clearly, once again it is the Other or the alien that is at issue here. These are of course terms and concepts that enjoy a particular status of their own in Postmodernism. The self-confident, self-aware Western Modernist discovers and/or longs for the unfamiliar out there in the world and deep within him or herself. He has the will or the desire to think of his own identity as uncharted territory. Not long ago, in a conversation with the philosopher and Sinologist François Jullien, the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour pointed out that hitherto it was above all through the ‘powers of arbitration inherent in objective, material Nature’[1]that we were at all able to distinguish something along the lines of different cultures (either internal or external). However, now that we know of the fundamental human threat to the world’s eco-systems, it has become clear that ‘Nature’ is only another term for the way that human beings behave towards what is outside of themselves – that is to say, it is just another form of ‘culture’. But this also means the dissolution of such apparently clear concepts as the alien or the Other that mark the dividing line between here and there. According to Latour, this coincides with the advent of a new ‘diplomacy’, an epoch of global interaction between different cultures aimed at creating a ‘new, coherent world’ where the referees known to us as ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ no longer have a role to play.

Of course, paintings such as those of Stefan à Wengen are not intended as illustrations of these particular thoughts and concepts. But in their own way they demonstrate a productive uncertainty about our relationship to the world and its cultures by introducing scenic and painterly ambiguity and hybridity into apparently common-or-garden images of things uncanny, exotic or evil. The negotiations concerning the Arp sculpture stranded in the jungle can begin. They will take long enough. 

[1]See ‘Das neue Gemeinsame. Andersheit, Ungedachtes und Universalisierndes in den Kulturen. Bruno Latour im Gespräch mit François Jullien’, in Lettre International, no. 80,spring 2008, pp. 63–65.