Thursday, October 26, 2017

Where am I ? – Queer pictures, crooked houses - breaking the spell of artistic powerlessness

Where am I?
Queer pictures, crooked houses - breaking the spell of artistic powerlessness 
Holger Bunk, Madrid April 2001

This lecture was first presented at the art academy in Stuttgart, as part of a colloquium sponsored by the architecture department and held in January 2000. During the talk, you will see a series of 160 slides from my photographic archive, all taken between 1977 and 2000.

The roots of my talk today can be traced back to the fact that the academy in Stuttgart is an institution in the privileged position of housing a number of departments under one roof. Apparently, the architecture department had already had some experience with artists, and so I was politely asked not to use the colloquium as a forum for self-promotion. Despite this, I decided to talk about myself anyway. I see no need to deny myself, my art or my role as a teacher in order to hold a lecture on a subject that is of both general interest and public significance. Put simply, the subject of my paintings is ‘space’ or, perhaps better, ‘human surroundings.’ 

In what follows, I will therefore speak about spaces that are perceived more or less unconsciously and the emotional spaces in which we might find ourselves, were we to permit consciousness of them. I hope also to make it clear why the lecture is called ‘Where am I?’ In looking more closely at our environment, namely, we discover the extent to which the ‘queer images’ and ‘crooked houses’ of the subtitle determine our everyday reality. Perhaps you, the audience, will find parallels with the things I have observed in your own life. And if not, you may nonetheless profit from my reflections on how such perceptions come about: what was my first impression of my surroundings? What is the first image I can remember, and how has my understanding of it changed over time? Thus, although I will only speak about myself, perhaps what I have to say has larger implications, particularly about the way one moves from a vague awareness into more clearly oriented regions. In my opinion, this process is never-ending. It is always possible to improve and refine our visual and intellectual apparatus and our abilities. The question is: how?

As a young art student, I felt it was my most important task to learn to look more closely, to become more perceptive and sensitive in life in order to become more precise in my art. The aim was to become more receptive to the finer nuances so as to be able to accurately describe the complexities of reality and its underlying structures. Painting was thus a means of learning to see more subtly. The more my fellow-students and I looked, the more sensitised we became. The result was that a whole series of simple, previously uncomplicated everyday activities suddenly became highly problematic. The daily journey to the academy, for example, was a nightmare, as it was no longer possible to ignore the aesthetic atrocities that are so much part of the urban landscape. The art student, who naturally concentrates on perception, is subjected to abominable advertising, an abuse of materials bordering on the criminal, and buildings whose proportions lack all sensibility. Not to mention the traffic, which irritates not only the eyes, but also the ears and nose.

Through this increased visual awareness, then, I suddenly became conscious of the sensory overkill that is so much a part of our daily lives. I began to question the value of this sensitisation process: did it not simply lead to more suffering? And what about the art-viewing public? Are we doing them a favour when we ask them to partake of our acute vision of the world? I began to think that anyone who wants to actively create aesthetic objects and release them into the world should not only consider how feelings are created and intensified, but also what admixture of sensitivity and toughness are wanted and needed in the society of the future.

In my ideal world, architects and artists would aim to create mood consciously, rather than simply hoping it will ‘somehow’ become apparent. Advertising, of course, has long since discovered ‘atmosphere,’ but sets it to work subliminally, and is always willing to sell it off to the highest bidder. It is a widespread misconception that artistic and architectural production is merely a form of personal expression. In reality it is a kind of communication and has a (social) function. I once told one of my professors about how a group of viewers had reacted to some of my pictures. Apparently outraged, he said in a tone of utter disgust: ‘What! You mean to tell me you do what people want?’ Of course not, but I am interested in what ‘people’ think and feel. And in order to learn this, one of the most important questions one has to ask is: ‘How, in our society, do the tools of perception develop, and how does the individual progress to active and responsible engagement as an artist or designer? 

To help answer this question, I will now tell you a story. It is what I call ‘my personal fairytale’ and I think it may be interesting in this context. I believe it is important to analyse the influences to which the individual is exposed long before he or she has decided to take on an operative role in visual production.

B was born in a hospital in Essen run by the great steel manufactory Krupp, and he continued to live in this large city in western Germany for the next six years. He then moved to Soest, a small town, and, as a young adult, to the provincial capital of Nordrhein-Westphalia, Düsseldorf. Later, he no longer had one residence, but instead began commuting between Amsterdam, Stuttgart and Soest. The notion of ‘home’ lost its meaning.

As noted, B was born in Essen. Although Germany had started a war – and lost it only nine years before – the country as a whole was not in bad shape. Indeed, one half – the Federal Republic – was doing remarkably well, and B grew up in a world that, although damaged and only just beginning to recover, was nonetheless secure. His universe was comprised of ruined houses and shattered people, whose efforts to forget the past went hand in hand with an overwhelming desire to rebuild and begin anew. Fortunately, children always begin from scratch, and they mostly grow up without the burden of history. B’s first memory is thus of a tiny room, entirely isolated from the problems surrounding him. This is also his first awareness of space.

B likes to play with a mirror and a piece of glass. He hopes to make another mirror out of the piece of glass by placing some paper behind it. Naturally, though, all he sees in the glass is the paper itself; no magical transformation takes place. Inexorably connected to this realisation – which is H’s first memory both of materials and his own learning process – are the space of the kitchen and its surface substances. They imprint themselves on his mind, as if part of the same file: the yellow and white wooden furniture; the tiny-patterned wallpaper; the fabric of his mother’s apron and the curtains. In his memory, the dimensions of the tube-like kitchen, which ran from the darkness of the hallway to a small balcony outside, are an integral part of this small but important lesson. Much later, B would ask himself if spaces are capable of imposing themselves on one’s mental state to such an extent as to actually catalyse development, and that if only for this reason, we should be careful about the things with which we surround ourselves and others.

Later, B and his parents move to a council flat. Their new home complies with modern standards and the social ideals of the time: it is much lighter and more colourful. B can remember all the rooms: his own bedroom with its space-saving bunk bed; the ‘master bedroom’ with the chequered curtains in which B thinks he sees the head of a dwarf. Lying sick in his parents’ bed, he is plagued by a ‘philosophical’ question: can others see the dwarf, or is it merely a product of his semi-conscious imagination, his illness? The living room is decorated in grey wallpaper decorated with tiny kidney shapes, the height of fashion in the 1950s; they seem to float about in space, having neither rhyme nor reason.

In other parts of the flat, too, surfaces are ‘activated’ with lines and symbols. In an unobserved moment, B uses a coloured pencil to leave behind a personal sign on the walls of the long corridor – perfect for running one’s hand along. The liberal ideology of the 1960s was still a long way off, however, and so B’s parents failed to see this as a form of creativity. For years afterwards one could still see the traces of their attempts to destroy B’s ‘work.’

The unauthorised use of surfaces and spaces can thus be checked, even if remnants remain on the wall and on a child’s conscience. In a block of rented flats, one learns about concepts of property not only by learning to distinguish one’s own front door from all the rest. The small patches of grass at the front and back of the building are just as off limits for playing as the street. For this purpose, there are only the paths between the houses, and the area where the trashcans are kept. Not an ideal combination, but at the time, playing around the trashcans was nothing unusual.

The official playground is somewhat further away and is a zone of permanent territorial conflict. Located next to the estate’s transformer, the terrain – a supposedly ‘free space’ – is subject to a number of hostile takeover bids. Teenagers spray graffiti and rowdies drive away both mothers and children by staging wrestling matches in the sandbox. At regular intervals, the playground becomes unsafe and run down and it is often entirely deserted. Sometimes poorer kids from an underprivileged neighbourhood nearby stage an invasion, stealing toys and starting fights. This results in still more control rounds – by guards and cleaning and sanitation crews. 

Naturally, playing on or near the few remaining war ruins, half-hidden behind now-decrepit fences, is strictly forbidden. The question of their origin is never touched on. Sometimes an unexploded bomb is found in the neighbourhood and B is forced to stay at home while it is defused.
By now, though, the air space over Essen is perfectly safe. The planes leave behind vapour trails that inspire B to make drawings. His parents like them and put them away in the family photo album. The skywriters paint the letters IMI and ATA in the heavens. The first words the young B puts down on paper are thus the abbreviated names of Germany’s most popular household cleaning products. The first framed images B becomes aware of – his first paintings, really – are the ones hanging in the church-run kindergarten he attends: a Good shepherd, with a lamb over his shoulders, and a Cross in the mountains, images whose sadness the child easily understands.

Painted on a windowless wall next to an empty lot, on the other hand, are two smiling cars; they are in complete agreement: ‘Autos love Shell.’ 
Later B likes to go to school, but a dreadful dented wire fence is running down the centre of the schoolyard. It divides the yard, like the building itself, into two symmetrical halves: one Protestant, the other Catholic. Barely 40 years ago, a barrier between the confessions was thought to be the proper way of preparing the next generation for the future.

With this, my exemplary tale of the patterns of childhood comes to an end. One can say that with the individual’s entry into the school system – no matter how poor the pedagogy – he or she become equipped with the means to react to society, and to take a more active and conscious role in it.

In the 1960s, the emotional helplessness and narrow-mindedness of the previous decade was replaced by the competition between ideologies, none of which managed to gain the upper hand. The struggle itself, however, resulted in a great number of developments and changes in the intellectual, political and economic spheres. Increasingly, all systems of thought were seen as relative and this left the individual with a far greater freedom of choice. The canon of possible forms and means of expression expanded as well. Since then, coexistence and plurality have been the battle cries of the visual world.

In the meantime, an abundance of new, equally inharmonious ‘queer images’ have come into being, aided by a variety of developments, technical and otherwise. Today, ‘style’ has been replaced by ‘styling,’ that is, a game of surfaces, something that can be changed instantly, like a piece of clothing. Style, on the other hand, as the visual manifestation of an idea or fundamental conviction, demands depth. When, however, a statement can just as easily mean its opposite, there is no room for style. In addition, radical change becomes impossible; what we are left with is simply a network of possibilities, which either develop or stagnate, at anyone’s discretion. Because the viewer can always change position or perspective, creating a new relationship to the surroundings or background, the same object can easily be simultaneously beautiful and ugly. This aesthetic double bind applies to both works of art and architecture. The enormous amount of information that plays a role when we look at a building, design object, painting or sculpture can lead us to evaluate one and the same artefact as aesthetically positive and negative at the same time. 
After the war, the ruins were cleared away and the empty lots built up as quickly as possible. With the result that the most varied visual ideas and ideologies frequently collide, often in a way that is almost unbearable. The most irreconcilable dogmas and purisms, each with their own particular ‘blind spot,’ are forced into grotesque relation. Uncomfortable but intriguing spaces emerge where these visual contradictions are the strongest. These may be discovered by artists and thus experience a re-evaluation. A whole generation of contemporary German photographers, including Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, Martin Kippenberger and many others, was responsible for creating a new vision of these architectural coincidences. 

As artists, however, we cannot simply stand there, staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed at these jarring contradictions. A musician always follows the order of the movements in his piece, paying careful attention to changes in mood and rhythm. A painting is also part of a sequence of visual impressions; a building may end at the perimeter of the lot on which it is built, but its visual impact does not. This is what we have to pay attention to.

In the third part of my talk, I would like to show you a series of structures that are located in cities I know well, places I live or have lived in the past. The question I want to explore is whether the plurality and relativism described above necessarily results in chaos, or if, perhaps, it can be used to more constructive ends. Is it possible that the end of the hegemony of style might represent the beginning of a kind of formal and thematic liberation? If this were the case, I would be glad if we could expand this freedom in new ways. That would be a task one could take on happily. I will now present a number of concrete examples that will illustrate the types of tasks this new liberty gives us.

Interestingly, I have often lived in cities and towns with lots of odd angles, unusual perspectives and crooked houses. Over time, I seem to have developed a personal taste for these things, and this is probably what led me to choose the following examples.

Here we see a medieval city gate, the Osthofentor in Soest in Westphalia, erected in 1524. Many such gates can be found throughout Europe – structures with an art historical value that protects them from destruction, despite the fact that they are often in the way. On the one hand, the gate still looks fairly imposing and monumental; on the other, it seems a little lost, as everything that once gave it a purpose and context has long since been torn down – mainly to aid the flow of traffic. Gone are not only are the high city walls, but also the ramparts that once served to separate the town from the surrounding countryside. Now located at the very heart of Soest, no one would consider using it as an entranceway today. Still, it is a work of art, with qualities unsurpassed by the majority of the city’s other structures. Only after studying the history of art did I realise that the town’s various orientation systems and means of access had actually been laid on top of one another, still competing for primacy.

In order to keep goods and people moving, modern cities need wide streets; things have to be accessible and clearly marked out, and there must be plenty of parking. So much is obvious. In the medieval city, on the other hand, access was controlled, and priority was given to those who were either of high rank or members of a guild. The town centre was an important place, accommodating an imperial palace, two churches and the town hall. From here, the streets radiated outward like the spokes of a wheel, leading to the various gates set into the city walls. This resulted in a network of roads and lanes, which formed acute and obtuse angles, as well as segments.

Each guild had its own district, named after the same saints as the nearby churches and chapels. This corporative structure meant people did not move around much; everyone remained in ‘their’ quarter. Here we see the tanners’ lane; these craftsmen needed water for their work and so were allowed to settle along the stream.

Soest has no major axes, making it practically impossible for an outsider to find his or her way around. The layout of many of the city’s streets was determined by the given circumstances: that is, where there was stone or wood available, the course of the stream or hills that were easy to climb. For motorists, such streets are a nightmare, and much of the original substance has thus fallen victim to their requirements. Will pedestrians and the natural world once again become a consideration in the city of the future? 

When this tower was built, construction was still determined by lines that follow natural or physical laws alone. I particularly like the sense of craft, of the artisan’s hand, which we feel in the use of materials here. Such crooked lines have been banished from today’s city, where technical perfection is valued above all else. In a medieval town like Soest, on the other hand, craft and building were entirely determined by the conditions of nature.

The fact that it was necessary to construct the tower against the main direction of the wind was not thought to detract from either its beauty or spirituality.

Christian Rohlfs, Otto Modersohn and other German Expressionists took these churches and half-timbered houses as subjects for their paintings. In these dynamic lines, they discovered the expressive principles of their art. There is thus a profound connection between this archaic architecture and the most advanced visual art of the early 20th century.

Contemporary artists and architects often find it difficult to express the spiritual or religious in their work, mainly because the church’s dogmas and rituals seem rather meaningless to us today. We are far more interested in rationality. We are no longer willing to subordinate our creative decisions to an overarching idea, to rules and laws made by anyone other than ourselves.

In this detail of the Romanesque relief above the portal of St Maria zur Höhe in Soest, we can easily see how the artist has imbued his figures and forms – the manger, Joseph’s throne, the window for the ox and ass – with a spiritual dynamic. (Remember the leaning tower.)

Such ‘crookedness’ is not a sign of inability, but rather a natural result of the medieval craftsman’s way of working. Which mason, architect or painter today could calculate the angles we see here without resorting to the computer? A re-evaluation of this craft aspect might help make us more flexible and open to the achievements of other cultures that have retained this intimate relationship with their materials.

Now we move on to another place I know fairly well in order to continue our exploration of the emotions evoked by urban spaces and the life of the city. Here, on the right under the trees, you see a number of small houses in the centre of Amsterdam. This area is neither particularly interesting in terms of its architecture, nor does it attract a lot of tourists. What makes it pleasant, though, is that even here, in the heart of the town, a human scale has been preserved.

This lively street, which connects Amsterdam’s famous canal belt with the motorway, features a number of houses I feel I could actually have built myself. Naturally, I do not want to see every big city transformed back into a little village. But in its totality, this street offers an animated and colourful collage of architectural forms such as we rarely find elsewhere. And the people who live here are far from provincial. In fact, from these dwarf-like houses you can reach the airport faster than from most urban centers.


Here is an example of what a German handmade house looks like. You can easily see that the wooden beams have been allowed to keep their natural shape. 

This is an example of how colourful a row of houses can be when they follow the lay of the land.

Here, city planners and architects have obviously accepted the need for variety and plurality, and have sought to incorporate this desire for individualism – a long-standing tradition in Amsterdam – into their plans.

One does not necessarily have to deny idiosyncratic forms and the need for variety in order to be ‘modern.’ It seems to me that confronting the contradictory is one of our major chances for development. This is an example of how the inhabitants of a building can lay claim to the architect’s work.

Here, an old-fashioned cast-iron lamp has been used to transform the balcony into a more personal space. Undoubtedly, similarly kitschy lamps and furniture can be found in modern apartment blocks all over the world. ‘Living,’ after all, has everything to do with one’s own life, in all its complexities and contradictions. This can be a field of endless interest for artists and architects.

KOLLHOFF 1, 2 and 3
This is one of my favourite buildings in Amsterdam. The Piräus building – nicknamed ‘The Crab’ – was built by the firm Hans Kollhoff/Rapp and Helga Timmermann, and was completed in 1994. It is located on the terrain of a former warehouse by the harbour. It accommodates 304 state-subsidised apartments, 20 commercial spaces and a number of interior courtyards, which can be seen either as a kind of play on Amsterdam’s traditional almshouses or as a reference to Berlin, where the architects live and work.

Seen from the front, the building does nothing to deny its thoroughly urban massiveness, while the roof on the side facing the water – shown here – slopes downward, making for a panoramic view. The facades are constructed in dark brick, which helps lessen the extraordinary brilliancy created by the sun, air and surrounding water on a clear day.

For me, the Piräus building answers the question of how we should be making buildings today. No grand axes are necessary and nothing majestic is needed to create an effect: the mass has its own natural weight, and this is enough. And yet the structure also has its intimate corners, namely the internal courtyards. The architects have succeeded in transforming a barely accessible island in the old harbour into a popular space for living.

I would now like to return to my initial question, namely: ‘Where am I?’ In my opinion, what is important for architects and artists today is that they develop a more conscious and professional way of working, one that is independent of unconscious expectations. I have already said quite a bit about how difficult this process can be for each of us as individuals, but it is also one we must keep in mind in our teaching.

In my talk so far I have both stated my criticisms and sought to demonstrate how various, temporally bound notions can come into conflict with one another; how the creations of one era can compete with those of the another and even destroy them; and how all this seems to have resulted in a feeling of ‘anything goes.’ Having reached the end, I would like now to conclude with a more positive formulation, and to suggest which tools artists and architects might use in order to make their more subtle concerns manifest. The future will bring still more technical developments and improvements; this is the law of economy. What technology cannot provide, however, are our tasks. What we as an academy need to work on is: the revival of craft; the strengthening of the individual; and further specialisation.

1. By the ‘revival of craft’ I mean teaching students to make competent decisions about what can and should be done by hand. Increased experience with materials and complex praxes will, I believe, lead to technical solutions that have much more to do with ‘human scale’ than what we are accustomed to from industrial production. How important and intellectually challenging such craftsmanship can be should be obvious from the visual arts.

2. What is needed are individuals capable of setting themselves in relation to the information provided by society, and who are open to the possibilities offered by interdisciplinary and multicultural ways of working. Young artists need to be encouraged to be consequent and committed to what they are doing. Thanks to the new technologies of reproduction, the responsibility for what we create today is actually greater than ever, and such commitment may soon be in demand again.

3. What I mean by ‘specialisation’ is the ability to formulate artistic and visual problems in an active way. ‘One per cent for art’ programmes and statements like ‘What this wall needs is a painting’ are, in reality, restrictions. We need more competence in decision making that affects our visual world and, of course, more communication.

All of these things can be achieved here and in other academies around Europe; the potential is there. One of the most important questions for the future, however, is whether or not we will be able to find the organisational forms necessary to use it effectively. And: will the economic and political ‘powers that be’ continue to leave us the scope we need, or will they instead force us into new a dependency and powerlessness?