241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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).

This morning, Marina Abramović stands at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery to welcome the first visitors of the day to her performance piece, 512 hours. ‘Most artists do not say good morning but I do! Good morning!’ she says, and looks deeply into our eyes as we each enter. Once inside, we’re asked to leave our phones and belongings in lockers before stepping into the exhibition.

I’m handed a black strip of cloth to tie over my eyes and coaxed into the white room filled with more than a dozen other blindfolded visitors slowly shuffling around, many with their hands tracing along the side of the walls to keep themselves in check. Muffled noises reverberate through the large gallery space where the bodies of the others are the only obstacles for sound to bounce off of. Robbed of my vision, I am reminded of diving to the bottom of the ocean where the blue extends into an infinity that is endless as well as stifling and claustrophobic.

The invigilator who blindfolded me gently spins me around and I, disorientated, rely on my hearing in a bid to understand my position but can make little of the dull acoustic. My hands, too, find a wall and follow the contours of the room. Every so often I brush against another body and we both erupt in muted giggles. The touch of warmth, the physicality of life and energy within the other is a striking contrast to the cool of the wall. As I move through the space I find myself looking forward to these physical encounters, these intimate meetings that, devoid of eye contact, are based on senses that I’m usually far less aware of.

Suddenly, a soft hand reaches out to mine—it’s been a while since I’ve held a hand and this unexpected contact spreads like the warmth of an enveloping embrace. A calm, hushed voice begins to speak: ‘Walk very slowly, in slow motion. Pay attention to each of your movements’. His soothing voice echoes a semblance of love. Silently, we walk together, hand in hand.

This stranger’s words stirs a feeling deeply nestled within: I am taken care of while I am in a state of near helplessness. For an instant I am in love, that home-coming type of love, perhaps the greatest kind of love! Minutes later, he releases my hand: ‘Carry on without me’. And I continue, gliding through a sightless world and floating on the remnants of the briefest infatuation I’ve ever known.

Rolf Nowotny, Deaf Parent, 2013

Relieved of my blindfold, I walk into the next room where a kind faced girl, another invigilator, leads me to a space where row upon row of cots are laid out. Most of the cots are occupied by visitors wearing ear defenders. They seem to be asleep. She gestures to an empty bed and I lie down. She pulls a thin purple cotton sheet over me and her face floats above me as I close my eyes. Once again, I am pulled into a worriless childlike world, where the maternal figure moves me to a long forgotten state of surrender. Like the shepherd was my lover during my minutes of blindness, the girl momentarily becomes mother.

After my session, I visit the toilet. The girl whose face lingered in the darkness of my closed eyes exits a stall as I await my turn. When our eyes meet, I smile at her and she returns the gesture, although the tenderness of our previous exchange has disappeared. Strangers once again, indeed, and the gallery, too, has reverted to just that: the white cube.

And I realise that I have just fallen for the Marina method despite numberless reasons to be wary: Marina’s embrac of celebrity status and that odd goddess-like persona she strives towards, how my ‘authentic’ experience is induced by paid invigilators repeating the same gestures daily, and how the performance is basically a series of new age mindfulness exercise. And yet, despite this awareness, I’ve gladly given in.

I met an art critic, a man well into his seventies, who told me of New York in the late sixties and of Max’s Kansas City: an unreal sort of meeting place where you could glance over the Velvets, William S. Burroughs, Stanley Kubrick, Janis Joplin, Dan Flavin, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper… the list is mind boggling and seemingly endless.

Max’s was a collision point for many of the most creative minds of their times. With some luck, you would have seen early incarnations of Blondie, Lou Reed, or David Bowie perform. Or you might have caught Bob Marley and the Wailers' New York debut with Bruce Springsteen as their opening act.

Critical art writers typically deal with resistance along the way and this critic, too, at times met with the steely glances of slightly scorned artists. But walking into the bar with the bulky Robert Smithson would make him feel a little bit safer from the evil eyes cast by the glamorous Warholians at the back, and from the sneers thrown his way by the Abstract Expressionists between their heavy discussions.

"I met Iggy Pop at Max's Kansas City in 1970 or 1971," recalled David Bowie. "Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other's eye makeup."

Myra Friedman, visitor to the bar explains:

Max's was a lot more than a magnet for sex, games, and drugs. It was an earthy, invigorating hangout, and the people who Mickey let stay there for hours and hours were definitely a breed apart, when being "apart" had real meaning in the world. I remember it for lots of conversation with lots of people who had lots and lots to say, and looking back on it now, the hum of the place strikes me as sort of the last hurrah of a genuine American bohemia. Like a great piece of writing, it was airborne from the minute it opened. It had beautiful wings; it soared.

It won’t come as a surprise that many of Max’s visitors had trouble paying their tabs. And in the typical artist’s tradition, they often paid their debts with artworks. Mickey was so eager to surround himself with artists, musicians, and writers, that he would allow them to spend thousands of dollars worth of food and drinks. A few beers in exchange for a Carl Andre? Doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all for Mickey.

But the exchanges wouldn’t suffice. “Artists do drink, but they don’t pay,” Mickey said. Indeed, Mickey went bankrupt in 1974.

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