Monday, June 12, 2006

Objectivity, Gerhard Merz, and the Return of “Image, Truth, Art”

As my many readers will have noticed, it has been quite some time since my last installment. During this period, I have immersed myself entirely in reflection on the nature, scope, and meaning of Aesthetics. Fortune has shined on me and I have come away with a share of what was once called “wisdom”. In our time, of course, this quaint notion has been subsumed under the more important category of “expertise”. Terminology aside, it is now possible for me to resume my work here, in the hope that, together, we may resuscitate meaningful dialogue concerning the value and future of Art.

After such a lengthy meditation on Aesthetics, you can imagine my surprise when I ran across a blurb for a 1997 exhibit written by Professor Gudrun Inboden, curator of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, in which he refers to Kasimir Malewitsch’ description of aesthetics as that “deceitful sentimental concept”. In fact, we learn that at this exhibit, German “archi-painter” Gerhard Merz had made it his very objective to “surmount” aesthetics. Here is Professor Inboden’s explanation:

“The art of Gerhard Merz represents a quest for the premises of art which can be objectified. The artist places them under the concept of "ARCHI-PAINTING", with which he performs a critique of the tradition of his trade and especially of modern art. Merz criticizes the aesthetics of modern art which places the subject at the centre of attention; after a meticulous reflection on modern art, he formulates the ‘objectified’ law of "measure, form and light", which is always immanent to art in that it is its presupposition. In Venedig, the modern ‘topos’ of the sublime – which is given as a "filled void" – meets with the corrective of the "real void". The German pavilion contains a concentration of this century’s political and aesthetic spirit, which must be temporarily evacuated every two years. The space of Gerhard Merz is not at all disconcerting; rather, it is delineated in a precise geometrical manner, suggesting in this context a Becketian "vacuum". In its luminosity, this space leaves no possibility for the observer to interpret, showing instead only that which is objectively visible in his work. Through a formal reference to the "Architektona" works by Kasimir Malewitsch which were shown at the 1924 edition of the Venice Biennale, Venedig underscores the artistic ethos of Gerhard Merz: that is, how he succeeds in surmounting aesthetics, that "deceitful sentimental concept" as Malewitsch called it.”

We must salute Merz’ bold attempt to show “only that which is objectively visible in his work”, turning art back in on itself and revealing to us the “real void”. After all, it has often been noted that the subject has too long been regarded as central to aesthetic theory. I assume this is precisely why Malewitsch rejects the very notion of aesthetics as deceitful and sentimental. At long last, Merz presents us with a luminosity that excludes all interpretation, that does away with everything subjective. I am tempted to suggest that no contemporary artist could afford to employ any other luminosity, provided it is the truth that one seeks.

But Professor Inboden does not tell the whole story of Gerhard Merz. Fortunately, art writer and independent curator James D. Campbell, in an essay written for Philadelphia's Lawrence Olivier Gallery, opens our eyes to another facet of Merz' work that illuminates our understanding of his unique objectivism. We are told that Merz "operates under the aegis of Mnemosyne, the muse of memory and recollective appropriation”. This should come as no surprise, given his devotion to the objectified. But let’s look more closely at Campbell’s helpful explanation:

“[Merz] reopens the text of memory for us- one very different from what we might anticipate. His species of 'memory' is fundamentally different from the voluntary, quotidian memory we all know. It is the memory which reveals, in its very dislocation, the true vision of something past as it vaults temporal strata and inverts its own significations…

…In terms of the actual subjective experience of the work, it is clear that an installation institutes a zone of indetermination that is unthematized and perhaps unthematizable. Where the remembering of his viewers begins and ends is impossible to judge or predict with any certainty. It is precisely because it is unthematized that this zone has such singular efficacy. A context is created so laden with remembering- with the measured aura and immeasurable atmosphere of memory -that the viewer finds himself in the buried archive of Mnemosyne that Merz is excavating. That archive becomes our archive, just as much as it is Merz's, his memories become our memories, Mnemosyne our Muse as much as his. This is, to use an overworked but apt superlative, his specific genius.”

When we first encountered the idea, we were surely suspicious of the possibility of an experience in which interpretation is made impossible, regardless of the luminosity involved. But Mr. Campbell has provided the clue to understanding this unexpected reality. Overwhelmed by remembering, we are unable to make any concrete determination regarding the unthematized zone in which our subjectivity is compelled to capitulate to the uninterpreted Object. Art becomes its own subject (in more than one sense of the term). Furthermore, our subjectivity dissolves into that of Gerhard Merz as his memories become ours. If ever one could be excused for applying the term “genius”, the work of Merz surely demands its employment.

Merz the Memorious. Merz the Archi-painter. Merz, the surmounter of Aesthetics. Gerhard Merz, the midwife of the Objective. Right when I had come to believe I had found an impervious aesthetic theory, my encounter with his work (as described by Professor Inboden and Mr. Campbell) literally shook me to the core. Could it be that art can only reveal the truth precisely when it makes interpretation impossible?

[If you'd like to take a look at another work by Merz, you could visit this site. His apparent debt to fascist architecture raises more questions than it answers, so I hope it gives each of you pause for thought.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


What is it with girls fighting?


11:11 AM  

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