Mapping the Real Thing

Tim Plamper

AvD: It seems to me, there is a tendency towards incorporating the arts, not only the visual arts, into the cultural system, to some point where art might loose a certain privilege it had maintained since the Renaissance, a privilege which of course had a flip-side: for example, the artist being the maverick rather than the duke. Today the artist has to participate, even according to the means and measures, the terms and aims of society, as of any contemporary. The artist, as a professional, has to give good reason for what he's doing, and this reason is not recognized in terms of any ideal, but has to be understood in common sense. Strangely enough, that development seems to have started just when the official art world was established around 1970.
TP: Obviously I don't have any authentic experience with that background. But, what I understand – from what you described as a development starting around '70 – in terms of a professionalization, an incorporation as well as a conceptualization, would you say that this changed the forms of being successful?
AvD: I'd rather refer to the term »professional«, which is used so often, though within the art world it has become common, if at all, only since two generations. So, I wonder how you or your fellows would use this word.
TP: I have been thinking about that a lot, recently: how I should relate to the system, and according to this relation, how to define my aims and ambitions – which I find difficult, particularly because the whole matter of profession combines a very personal side with the quite profane demand of making money. How do I want to present myself? This is a question which came up again since a couple of months; before I just had been too busy. The premise is clear: I want to be there, so I have to think about …
AvD: There?
TP: First of all, I really like to produce art, pieces of work. But then I sense, I have to figure out what to say and how to say it.
AvD: So, »there« means – and that would be only natural – that you have the idea of something like a place, or a stage, some scenery, where you'd have to act, to perform?
TP: It's not about acting or performing for an audience, but that I see myself in communication with others.
AvD: When I'm insisting a bit, then it is because for me – belonging perhaps to the last generation shaped by this terminology, if not mythology – thinking about something like profession, métier, even guild, almost immediately brings upon notions of a field, even a housing, at least something spacial; and for people like me, those notions are part of the general idea of history – with history being not mainly defined by past, but by time turning into space, in which we can understand ourselves, also quite concretely taking position.
TP: It's hard to compare the period you're referring to with our times, or maybe it's just that I don't see that much of a gap, between the two of us, for example. I do feel similar kinds of connections, correspondences – within that time-space context. There are artists of the past who come to my mind, while I'm working on something, getting to know some of their problems …
AvD: And they speak to you?
TP: This can happen, actually. I don't know if it has the same quality of what you were describing, but I do see myself as part of a story, at least. And I like to consider myself taking a particular position, according to a process, of course; but I feel that it is not that easy to communicate with artists who lived five hundred years ago. It may be a privilege of the visual arts, that it sometimes happens almost right away …
AvD: It may be more immediate – instead of reading a novel of some five hundred pages.
TP: Yes, but also because an image today is still an image.
AvD: You mean, language itself has a historical moment, or more historically relevant implications?
TP: Perhaps in my case, it is more obvious, as I deal with the human figure a lot; and the body didn't change that much – let's say, since the Renaissance – compared to certain ideas expressed through language.
AvD: It may have become almost a cliché; at least, I am quite fond of the idea of the visual artist being somehow indifferent towards periods, within his own profession – as if, on the level of mere imagery, there is a tendency towards equalization. We enter a room, and on one side there is some drawing by Van Dyke, on the other wall there is a painting by de Kooning. We definitely see the differences, but it doesn't make a difference in terms of our way of perceiving it, relating to it: the distance, so to speak, is the same, not because the walls are on the same level …
TP: The way of accessing is the same.
AvD: Exactly. One is not more complicated – or does not take longer – to translate than the other one. That kind of constructive indifference – or this specific tolerance – may make it easier for you to understand yourself as an artist within that big community of fellows, to take your part in this story. But in terms of a career I think it does make a difference whether you incorporate yourself into that concept of time-space – at least suggesting some direction – or whether you see yourself being put into the middle of nowhere. So, it's in this sense, that I'm asking about your notion of what I vaguely sketched as some venue or site.
TP: In the sense of something to go for …? I would rather describe it as something you'd have to build up by yourself; I wouldn't like to see it as something already given and which I'd have to occupy.
AvD: So, it is not about conquering something.
TP: Right. I don't even see myself accepting a particular construction – as a premise, so to speak.
It has more of a landscape – not necessarily the middle of nowhere –, where I just had to start, and only after a while, having developed something worthwhile reflecting on, I could describe what apparently had been the starting point.
AvD: One being the academy, I suppose.
TP: Of course. And the academy is already a system, though definitely different from the art world.
AvD: One of the contradictions I experienced a lot with younger artists, is that the academy since at least twenty years pretended a certain ambition of linking those systems – the academy and the profession – in order to prepare the students for the real métier, though not necessarily the business. The effect I observed was rather a growing insecurity.
TP: What I remember was on the one hand a wide range of possibilities, on the other hand not much of a real training in what I'd call hard skills – which don't have to be traditional disciplines, like nude drawing; still it is significant that very few people did that. And concerning the business, there were hardly any basics, like how to find a dealer …
AvD: But finding a dealer doesn't belong to the basics. It is something deriving from what we should consider basic but what you should have learned during the first twenty years of your life, that is, before you enter the academy. Unfortunately, less and less people do learn those basics, so that what the academy may try out in order to make you fit, turns out to be fruitless. In other words, what's the use of telling you how to write an e-mail to a curator, if you are not capable of picking up the phone? And by the way, teaching is not training. With the latter you can restrict yourself to one discipline, even to one particular action, whereas teaching should concern several disciplines or areas; the whole approach should have a different scale. So, one is more special, the other one more general; at least, this is my understanding. Which is connected with a difficult topic; it should be a cliché, but what I see is that most people don't really think about it: the difference between the one part – of art, the whole profession – you can actually mediate and explain, where you can tell rules and give advices, and the other part, defined by experiences anyone has to make on his own.
TP: Perhaps, being aware of that difference is difficult at the academy in particular, and maybe because the students are kind of kept to try out a lot, while the whole frame is meant to give them a qualification. What was especially important for me at the beginning, was the feeling of being surrounded by people doing such things like drawings, like me: I didn't have to explain, to defend myself anymore, also not to waste so much energy on just maintaining myself in this sense – that you are not the only crazy guy, doing such a thing like making art.
AvD: This can be very encouraging, of course. I'm not so sure if it's really helpful. It can also produce certain delusions – to be comfortably embraced and confirmed. Of course, stepping into a field where you find fellows, getting used to compare, to discuss the one mutual practice, though not necessarily in a competitive way – it helps at least developing some primary professionalism. My point would be: Why should anyone think that it is crazy? It should not take the academy to give you the feeling that it's not. But I'd like to come back to the matter of teaching and training for a minute, referring to that one discipline you mentioned, which was nude drawing. One thing is telling you about origins and developments of techniques and styles, from one century to the next. Then there could be something more demanding, which would be elaborating an awareness of the difference between knowing and managing, or the relation between true knowledge and capability. And it would be important to do that by digging into one particular discipline. Imagining some twenty-two year old student who may find nude drawing rather boring, the professor could say: You are not allowed to find that boring. But you are allowed to develop an idea of nude drawing you would find exciting, and to describe it, so that, without my telling you, you would like to do fifty or five-hundred nude drawings; and then I want you to show me how you would do that. For the time being, we see that you cannot do that. So, there is a gap, and in order to get you closer to your own goal – what you envisioned as an interesting way of nude drawing, worthwhile spending some time on it, on a level which you imagine yourself having achieved already – I recommend that you train yourself in whatever technique you'd find appropriate, so that you make it there.
TP: That sounds convincing. In the field of literature, it makes sense. It could be instructive, anyway.
Myself, I liked nude drawing, as I did have the ambition to become capable of drawing the human figure. After a while, though, it turned out that I skipped the figure and focussed on the face. But, there was something I found interesting in this discipline; only that I think it could have been any other one.
AvD: Of course, this was just one example, which I took because you mentioned it.
TP: You have to start somewhere.
AvD: Right. And when I elaborated that situation quite extensively, then because I believe that it shows a certain bridge between the academy and not only the world of art, but the art world. What this teacher kind of executed on that student, might have led the twenty-year old guy to a higher level of professionalism: knowing what you're doing, relating yourself to your aim as well as to your actual practice. Speaking of the relation between true knowledge and capability and now referring to our student: that method would have helped closing the gap and getting a more profound notion of technique. That lesson, or the experience, would have pushed the guy more efficiently into the art world – and even the mere business – than telling him how to write an application for some residency.
TP: I'm thinking of the personal side of the profession again – whether you could make art like just doing your job; or whether the personal aspect means something like fate.
AvD: There are, of course, many other jobs showing a certain combination of general ideas of that particular profession and special motives; also a certain combination of motives: one may be rather banal, another one noble; and after a while you may drop one motive, when it doesn't fuel you anymore, whereas there might come up some new ambition you haven't thought of at the beginning. But indeed, within an artist's life you definitely find some merging of the professional and the personal, both being intertwined more intensely – which is probably the simple effect of both being related through the very transformation which is part of the creative process anyway, and of the mere fact that you publish something which is partly yourself.
TP: And these relations – especially the balance between protection and openness, or strength and sensitivity, which we were talking about earlier – are not only a set-up, but something you have to learn; I'd almost say, you have to produce it.
AvD: That's true. You can produce it, like any quality. So, thinking of the next level, the art world, where you already have to show that certain consciousness of what you're doing, but also, where you have to step into a common field, that is, communication with the other – here, consciousness is even more depending on language.
TP: Certainly. And I see that you want to take up the relation between image and language …
AvD: And not only because nowadays the artist has to explain more and more often, but because I assume that the relation between image and language has changed, along with certain developments within each field, or concerning both.
TP: As far as I'm concerned, that kind of question doesn't come up too often anymore – I mean: What is this piece supposed to tell us? Almost like: What do you mean? It may be part of that great insecurity – that people want to know as exactly as possible; or, it's not really about exactness, only about some good reason: it's about justification. This, for sure, has become necessary: to make clear enough why something you're showing is important; or, not important in terms of prestige …
AvD: But, that it's relevant.
TP: Even to some basic consideration like, that it's okay to pay the rent for this place here, and to show these pieces of work; that it is not presented as something hermetic.
AvD: As today people are used to have access.
TP: In one of your texts you speak of a certain obscenity of the blank image.
AvD: Of the mere phenomenal, yes.
TP: Not embedded within context, not immediately clarified.
AvD: If you cross the street and go to the Gemäldegalerie, you will find about fifty other visitors, and forty will wear headphones. It seems they are afraid of something, and so they need some weapon.
TP: On the one hand, I think it's perfectly alright that there is someone who has hardly any idea of art and goes to the museum just takes the opportunity and puts on the headphone, in order to get in touch, even informed to a certain degree.
AvD: Fine. But there is a difference between offering a possibility – to find some access – and turning that object – supposed to be made accessible – into something strange, as if it were not allowed to be there without that mediator, the headphone.
TP: It strikes me especially when I see that fellow artists are behaving that way, focussing more and more on the crucial point of immediate significance. Of course, also with art there is a natural and legitimate need for relevance, and you are allowed to ask for it; otherwise, it's just bullshit. Yet, I don't have a good feeling whenever art is connected all too obviously, in terms of what we earlier called functionalizing, or even exploitation.
AvD: We can always say, that something like that existed long before: three-hundred years ago some collector would have asked the artist in a similar way, to explain or to elaborate, suggesting context and meaning. What might have been different, was some other kind of respect, which is also patience. And this patience gives the particular piece of work enough time to develop more possibilities – more than those one would like to take advantage of immediately; it gives art the time needed for producing that quality.
TP: And some more reasons, a different kind of relevance. Instead, what has become more important is that access, which means a certain compatibility – that it is easy to translate into any other context, which may be social structure, for example. So, text has become the main medium, as it puts you in relation to the piece of work – any object or: subject matter – most directly and efficiently. It's the general tool for understanding and maintaining. And it has become a kind of code implanted within the work itself.
AvD: It doesn't even have to be translated anymore. One may say, finally art speaks for itself.
TP: It's obvious that the human brain can't avoid setting categories; there's a need for putting everything in the right place. The question is, how to deal with it then: Which particular form do you choose to link a work of art to language?
AvD: This form may have changed – as with the whole relation towards art: As long as there had been at least the vague idea of something lasting and powerful – though not necessarily in terms of religion –, there was also a certain confidence, but also humbleness, towards something you could not explain like anything common and profane; there was the notion of some higher ground being more important than good reason. So, it is only natural – or, historically plausible – that the relation between art and discourse has changed.
TP: And, quite simple, the public has changed.
AvD: You mean, not only that instead of some three-thousand people being interested in the arts – but also capable in relating to it, reflecting on it, dealing with it –, we now have a few millions of people being put in a similar position – at least, with a little help from the media, kept in some delusion … but, that with the mere number increasing so much, there has been a shift in the modes of perception and the ways of processing?
TP: Maybe, yes – that there is a new frequency, even something like a new wavelength, just because art has become so accessible; it has become part of popular culture.
AvD: And we are not talking about what has been turned into Pop art more or less glamorously;
we're talking about Pop as a system, which literally does not leave much room for anything
TP: Unless it is an outrageous advertisement.
AvD: Indeed, there has come up a certain indecency, but not only by going Pop; also conceptual art had some influence in this sense – of making explicit what had been a rather discreet part of the work.
TP: That's what I meant earlier, speaking of inscribing the text, or implanting a code, into the work which, in effect, turns itself into a subject matter of art.
AvD: At least, this is one way – and one way to describe it – conceptual art influenced not only the understanding of art, but to some extent perception in general. It's part of one development – and one of three or four developments, merging in the most efficient way since fifty years, reinforcing their impact in a way that has no precedence in the history of mankind. It's like the development of the computer itself, which needed some fifty years to reach a certain point, and then within ten years it multiplied its capacity a thousand times. So, the model seems to be a system's incorporating its own reflection in an explicit way, performing its own explanation, in order to produce more examples ...
TP: I'm not sure if it really works that way.
AvD: And I don't want to blame anyone; as I said, it's part of a development, though a significant one. So, taking up the term »professionalism« one more time or, if you don't like this one too much, let's say, integrity: Do you see any form of integrity an artist of your generation could show, but in a certain independence from language?
TP: I'm looking for that, at this point. It may sound pretentious, but I do see a danger in presenting and promoting myself the way I have been getting used to. Perhaps it doesn't have to be a conflict, yet I feel that it's hard to keep the original aim. I'd say, it seems that I found a way of dealing with it; I can still talk about art, about my own work, without trying to demystifying it, but also without exposing too much of the core, so to speak. Maybe there's a natural boundary – which would work as some protection as well –, just because there are limits in expressing myself through language; as simple as that, this is why I make drawings. On the other hand – that is, for the public – there still seems to be a lot which is interesting to know, what they would like to hear and to talk about.
AvD: Perhaps unconsciously, you may have elaborated an attitude that suggests to the people – those seventy visitors of an opening – that you know what you're doing and that you don't want to prove it by giving explanations.
TP: At the beginning I really had problems with openings – feeling obliged to talk; that's why I started thinking about the relation between words and images, and what exactly it is I'm interested in, when it comes to images. And that was definitely the non-verbal layer. I don't think I have to translate anything into the visual.
AvD: So, you are not afraid of misunderstandings?
TP: I don't think so. I try to trust to what I'm doing on each piece of paper.
AvD: I wonder if it could be more than some hypothesis, that we were able to go back to the very principle conception of image, which to me seems to be an excerpt – something taken from something bigger, by my own pointing at this something; in this sense, any image is something like a close-up: what we call an image is the result of an editing process.
TP: We frame.
AvD: We frame, exactly. The moment I focus on this bottle of Coke – next to the bottle of water, but that bottle of water is already blurring –, this object becomes an image to me. And this focussing emphasizes the non-verbal – at the first state, before we start interpreting, reading, figuring out some meaning. But so far, this emphasizing the non-verbal makes that object strange. It's an irritation, although that framing is a first step in order to get to know it. But, for a few seconds we give this excerpt from reality a certain autonomy.
TP: A certain presence.
AvD: A presence, very important. I can't ignore it anymore, it has entered my space, and so I have to deal with it.
TP: Though the Coke may not be the best example, as here we already have a combination of image and text, not to mention the fact that the whole imagery is introduced to a great extent.
AvD: Right. But in one sense it is a good example, that is, for the most current and efficient combination of image and text, which is advertisement – the purpose of selling something by using an image, without relying on it.
TP: So, here's where the text comes in – which in general has to be more than the logo, or the brand.
AvD: But it would be fun if some company, based in Bavaria or Norway and specialized on, let's say, apples …
TP: Let's say apples.
AvD: … would put an ad in The New York Times, just showing one apple.
TP: Would be great.
AvD: It would suggest that there is only one real apple, and it's one company providing it; and this one company is known for that, anyway. Okay. Coming back to that situation of an opening, but taking the perspective of the collector, confronted with one piece of work; and he would have the ambition to get back to the origin, kind of reprocessing the image.
TP: It's a nice idea. I just try to imagine …
AvD: Let's imagine a couple, in front of one of your pieces, two yards distance from the wall; let's take an example – using this catalogue of yours, I'd say: Dissociation 003. The husband would start the conversation by pointing at the staircase, as one part of that drawing – one motif, to be exact –, just to have something to start with. Only, instead of asking you why you did introduce that staircase, or what kind of scenery you want to insinuate, he would just go on. He might not dare pointing at the half-naked girl, in front of his wife; his wife would take over, like: Look at this! Do you see those legs? I mean, they would just stay on that level of obvious details – in the mode of close-ups. Look at the hands, look at that knee! Here, the tree, the wall-paper … look at the way she looks! For twenty minutes that couple would stick to equalized observation. Your dealer would get crazy, because he depends on generalization, abstraction, translation – in order to mediate, to sell.
TP: It would be most disturbing, indeed.
AvD: It would be the beginning of recreating the piece of work.
TP: By pointing out? What would be the next step?
AvD: They would start to interpret – the totally embracing interpretation, covering the whole thing. They would produce a copy.
TP: Of the process of drawing?
AvD. Of course, at some point they would have to translate, finally, to step onto a different level. He did that because … This reminds me of … or: It's funny that lots of young artists recently seem to be so interested in … But, for half an hour, they would stubbornly stay on the level of pointing at, closing up …
TP: This is autism.
AvD: In a way.
TP: But you don't get anywhere.
AvD: I wanted to give an example for the extreme, the other end of the scale, so to speak: instead of translating, putting into context and, by that, stepping back from the real image too early; and this extreme would be just a different kind of misunderstanding – maintaining the obvious. In the end, they would have touched the slightest part; there wouldn't be any area left.
TP: That would be even more extreme – following each line the artist has drawn, leaving aside that there are layers and other difficulties, to put it nicely. I can imagine a drawing which is completely complicated and which would take ages to follow or, let's say, to transfer. The question is, what you would learn about that particular drawing.
AvD: Also, what would we learn about understanding in general? I'd say, it's a pity that most people end up so quickly with the other extreme, the transfer, as you put it. So, what would you consider an appropriate way of understanding a particular piece of work? Let's stay with the same example.
TP: Quite frankly, I have no idea.
AvD: At least, if someone would give a very bad example of an interpretation, then you'd think this is too easy, simple or superficial ... please! Godard said, the best critique of any film is the next film.
TP: Yes, certainly.
AvD: Any author would say that. But, could you imagine a drawing that would be a totally appropriate answer?
TP: To this one?
AvD: To this one. Obviously, the premise would be that there is some logic outside language.
TP: I'd hope the particular piece of work could give that answer.
AvD: But the drawing itself cannot give an interpretation of itself, as it cannot take any distance from itself.
TP: That's true. Do you ask for the interpretation I would prefer?
AvD: Yes, the perfectly proper response.
TP: I can imagine two scenarios: One is that, after I exhibited this piece, I see a piece of work by a fellow artist, noticing that he saw my piece and understood a certain part.
AvD: I see.
TP: And this kind of correspondence is what I appreciate, and what I like about art. The other way would be, that someone tells me, he can remember a situation in his life that he thinks is visible here; that he knows the state of mind suggested here, for example.
AvD: This would give you the feeling that there's something going on in life, something which can kind of participate in your work. So, your work would have a certain significance or relevance.
TP: Significance, yes. And perhaps I'm not too much interested in the idea of interpretation, because most of the time it is not necessary. It should be possible as well, or to some degree, to see a piece of work as a natural phenomenon.
AvD: There is some part of reality we have to accept anyway, that is, without touching it or any intention to change it. But this requires a certain serenity of the human being in confrontation with something different and autonomous – to tolerate, to stand it for a while. For example, the two of us sitting in this room …
TP: That's what I would appreciate even more. It's like Zen.
AvD: It's like meeting someone in the middle of nowhere who's just sitting there; you stop and say Hello; the guy does not say Hello, and you just move on.