241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I think the essence of life reveals itself in traces, in all the mistakes, the broken pieces we touch, the evidence of usage of things and surfaces, more so than in the successes we encounter in life. But what is the essence of the trace (if it has such a thing)?

For me, Barthes clarifies this through writing about the essence of a pair of pants: ‘What is the essence of a pair of pants (if it has such a thing)? Certainly not that crisp and well-pressed object to be found on department-store racks; rather, that clump of fabric on the floor, negligently dropped there when the boy stepped out of them, careless lazy, indifferent. The essence of an object has some relation with its destruction: not necessarily what remains after it has been used up, but what is thrown away as being of no use’[1]

gerlach en koop, Opschuiven

The void comes to you as a revelation, it surprises, it amazes, sends you adrift into your own imagination. The void appears over time, through the accumulation of dust on a surface where a thing or an object is hanging, standing, lying. The trace appears only after taking the thing away. It is usually not made intentionally because it just appears on the spot where you hang your paintings, clocks, and shelves; place your furniture etc. The more time, dust, and light particles alter the surface area in terms of colour or appearance, the more the trace reveals itself.

Wolfram Scheible
The void trace has the ability to surprise, because it only shows itself after removing an object, an action that can give the person the idea that he or she has discovered something in their domestic space that was covered before. It is a revelation of a literal nothing, a piece of surface that has not been covered with the layer of dust that the rest of the surface embraced, because it was covered already by something else.

The theft of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1911 attracted an immense crowd of people from all over Europe, to visit and see the void in the place where the painting had hung before, [2] but not the thing itself since it was stolen. Thus the theft of the painting elevated its status even more. But what is the power, the driving force for wanting to visit the place, only to see the void? The void becomes the protagonist in the piece, but only because there once was a painting with a certain status. With the example of the Mona Lisa, it is obviously the status of the painting and the mental memory of the image that constitutes the status of the void.

Peter Wu

The spatter is a joyful trace. It is like confetti on the surface. It shows itself mostly in the shape of little drops like little points on the surface. Sometimes they are gathered around a big central blot. Sometimes spatters looks like stars with a thicker centre part where thin lines depart from and stretch outwards. It can be created by throwing a glass of wine on the floor: where the wine will hit the ground, most of the liquid will strike, but around this centre there are tiny drops bouncing up again and falling a bit further off centre or touching a vertical other surface like a table leg or a wall. It resembles the fun of water, of playing. It is also joyful because it describes an instant, a moment that doesn’t last more than a second.

The waterfall, which only spatters at the bottom, is purely energy. The clashing of the water on the surface, the uncontrolled way the drops shoot through the air and land until they merge with the flat water’s surface. The same energy is visualized in the spatter trace, but then fixed on a ground. One moment of action is frozen and never able to repeat itself. Just as photography is the freezing of a moment, the death of the object, the still image where all the energy has been drained from, so the spatter a singular event: a moment fixed for just one time.

Wolfram Scheible

The smudge is the touch. It is distinctive because of its physicality. The smudge is, in essence, something you would make with your finger, hand or elbow or another piece of limb, together with some medium that makes it appear. This medium can be grains of powder, greasy substances, or anything that stands out on the surface that is being smudged.

Smudges are made by people; people with dirty hands, or dirty working clothes that fall on the floor. The smudge is always a human thing, the result of a directional action, like smudge traces you find on doors that are always touched on a certain spot near the edge of their surface on a height between approximately one and one and a half meters from the ground.

There is no trace without a past. It tells you that something has happened that took place at a moment in time before you see the trace itself. A trace can tell what has been on a surface, or for how long the surface has existed. A trace can reveal the inner layers of a surface, or show the most used places in a space. A trace can be made in an instant, like a coffee stain, or it can take years for a trace to develop, like the expansion of a wooden door.A trace shows time in itself.

This text is an excerpt from a full essay, to be read here.


[1]Barthes, Roland. The responsibility of forms, page 158, University of California Press, 1991

[2] Leader, Darian. Stealing the Mona Lisa – What art stops us from seeing, Faber & Faber, London, 2002.
This occurrence is the starting point for Darian Leader’s about why empty gallery spaces are attractive and why we like to look at art.

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit's visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

Since I began working on my project The Neighbours (2006) every sound started to have an impact. At first I couldn’t work properly as I was constantly irritated by the sound of the upstairs neighbours. I was cross with myself that something so trifling could loom so large in my head. I lay on the bed. I tried for a while not to hear anything; it forced itself on the periphery of my consciousness, like a hum, like a dripping tap. I was quite astonished when I realised that this could lead to my making a work. Precisely because it is so trifling. Precisely because it is on the edge of my conscious perception.

The more I became preoccupied with my neighbours, the more sounds I’ve begun to notice. My ears have become more sensitive to detail since listening to my neighbours even for the subtlest of sounds. When visiting someone, I hear more. It is amazing how often you hear someone coughing in the house next door.

This applies even more to hearing the neighbours above me. In the six months they’ve lived here, my home has changed. They have taken over my space. I went mad with irritation lying awake on my bed and so I decided to reverse the roles by taking the noise they made as a starting point for this project . Ironically, I now miss them if I don’t hear them for a minute and I am glad of any strange new sound they start to make. Listening to them gives me a feeling of being busy with something (acute and exciting). I was devastated when they insulated their floor with new underlay flooring. I think it is new but I can’t be sure as I only hear their sounds and I have never met them.

Imperceptibly, the process of being aware of the upstairs neighbours in my daily routines reached the point where one Friday night I realised I was waiting for their shoes to fall next to the bed. I knew how this would sound. I knew that this would be followed by the dreary hum of the satellite dish above my window. I was, I realised, constantly preoccupied with them: people I once briefly spoke to over the phone but with whom I never actually met. I know their bedroom habits down to the most intimate (acoustic) details.

I try to imagine them, but the image remains vague. I imagine them as people who often go to the local gym (on the corner), with something inflated about them, as if they’ve been carefully pumped up to a critical point. But what am I actually basing this on? Also, it isn’t their physical appearance that keeps me awake. It is the space they take up in my home with their sound, since this makes me always aware of them.

Because I hear my neighbours, they’ve actually infiltrated my space: not with their bodies but with their sound. They disturb what my home is for me – a place where I can do what I want and others can’t.

The silence of my home is my home. My private space. But what is this silence in fact? It is not what I would term real silence. There are the birds, my fridge hums, and cars drive past. However, that is the background noise to my home, I am used to it.

There is a prodigious link between sound, space and awareness.

The notion of background sound, already has something spatial about it like a kind of environment, a private room you can always – when it is quiet – take with you. Certain people might feel exactly like this about a lot of sound, which is then their ‘background’ and perhaps they feel uneasy when it is missing. Unexpected noise is saying that this private space doesn’t exist, especially noise from which you can’t escape and about which you can’t do anything. A dripping tap is less frustrating as I know I can also switch it off, but the neighbour’s noise is uncontrollable. The only thing I can do is adjust to it, or phone them up and hear my phone upstairs, or have the music very loud, which gives a kind of temporary satisfaction.

If my upstairs neighbours are unexpectedly quiet, something strange happens. The quietness drives me mad. It is like a story I read about a man who every night was resigned to hearing his upstairs neighbour throwing off his shoes one by one. One night, the upstairs neighbour, in a sudden fit of awareness after having taken off one shoe, thinks the sound is antisocial. He is overcome with guilt. With the precision of a moon landing, he then places the right-hand shoe next to the other. After fifteen minutes he wakes up with a start. He hears a voice crying: ‘For goodness sake, take the other shoe off, then I can get some sleep!’ I am now so used to my neighbours’ routine sounds that they’ve become almost my background noise and indeed I now notice when they’re missing.

Last December, I went to Düsseldorf for my annual visit to the artist I wrote my thesis about more than 20 years ago.

In the early nineties I discovered, through an article in the art magazine Metropolis M and an internship at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the work of a relatively unknown German artist. He made small, grey, paper books with series of fuzzy black-and-white photos of small airplanes in the sky, women’s knees and swimmers doing their laps in a pool.
At the Boijmans I was stimulated to further study this –in my eyes- somewhat obscure artist. As I grew increasingly enthusiastic and found out that very little had been written about the man, I went to my thesis tutor, feeling both excited and reluctant, in order to inform him of my choice of subject. He suggested that I should meet the German artist in the flesh for an in-depth conversation about his work. Oops! It was not that common for an art history student to have a real rendezvous with an artist. But it was the only possibility to gather lots of information and I felt like adventure. After some dawdling, I took up the phone and called the artist for an appointment. As I was not impervious to some romantic notions surrounding ‘the essence of the artist’, I was surprised how quickly he agreed to a visit with a completely unknown student from Groningen (if only it had been Amsterdam). I took to Düsseldorf, tape recorder in my bag, and, timidly, rang the bell at a nice-looking apartment building from the early 20th century. Astonishment yet again! The man stood before me as awkwardly as I to him. He was around 50 years old and I was somewhere in my twenties. He wondered what on earth could be my business here with him, as an art history student from Die Niederlände. He also told me that he in fact had a dislike for words and that he had nothing to say about his, indeed, decisively visual work. Well, imagine: there we were then, the two of us, sitting in his study at a large desk on which there were many folders full of images! Out of shyness I took out my home-prepared sandwiches and began to nibble at them. In hindsight, this proved to be the magical moment in which the artist started to believe that this student could actually write an excellent story on him. In a later letter, he let me know that my taking my own sandwiches had brought us to the same wavelength.

the artist

The thesis was written and approved by both university and artist. And indeed, last December I paid him a visit for the umpteenth time. He as a much more famous man than back then, and I, after roaming about in the art world somewhat, as a teacher at the Art Academy in Groningen. This artist (now in his early 70s) has also come to win a prestigious prize for, note, young artists (the jury praised the work for its freshness). Not to mention a large retrospective in Hamburg.

Shadow Play (2002-2012)

And, surprisingly: the last time I visited him I felt again this tension of twenty years ago, when we met. An appointment between a now-famous artist and someone who wrote a thesis on him in his early stages: does that have validity? It is confronting how as an adult, you still relapse into old thought patterns. Immediately after my arrival in his town he takes me to a cafeteria in a shopping street in Düsseldorf and tells me how the regularity of our meetings is dear to him. I have been in this coffeehouse with him before and he is a daily customer who likes to sit here reading and, especially, watching life on the street. There is little noteworthy or sophisticated stuff that is said during our meetings and yet every time I see him, he manages to provide me with a few new perspectives on the world around us. However small they might be, I leave these meetings every time with extra air in my lungs. The late Dutch curator Gosse Oosterhof has once called him a “professional voyeur”. And indeed, this man accomplishes the feat of rendering the everyday world special for a while with his visual and, despite himself, verbal frameworks. A great gift, I find, and I am glad that I had prepared those sandwiches back then. The name of the artist, by the way, is Hans Peter Feldmann.

see the documentary on http://www.cobra.be

Hans-Peter Feldmann at gallery and bookshop Wien Lukatsch

http://www.ingemarleenbooks.com/blog/wienlukatsch/

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Ursula + Hans-Peter.
Gardner