‘Order is One Half of Life’– The Other Is: Art?
Translation by Kerstin Stuerzbecher
The Use of Order
The sense and purpose of order for our everyday life/existence is evident: order creates orientation/focus/direction – it is how we find things which are organized and stored according to a specific system of order, for instance the socks in the closets of organized people are organized according to criteria of colour, thickness, preference. Furthermore, order makes things and events predictable – we can count on the fact that events arranged according to a schedule will most likely occur, our airplane will transport us from A to B at a specified time. In addition the airplane - hopefully – also functions reliably, because the mechanical and electronic parts of a machine as well function together in accordance with a determined plan. However, we can neither reflect on things nor fly anywhere if the organs of our body do not cooperate in an orderly manner so that they ensure the maintenance of the vital functions of our organism. This order is, in the truest sense of the word, vital.
Many other examples could be found, common to all these systems of order – be they typological, methodological, mechanical or organic - is that they are only robust if they are supplied with energy. Without our daily effort the socks would increasingly enter a state of chaos, airplanes would no longer fly and our bodies would quickly fail. All systems of order are threatened by entropy.
Order in Art
In nature forms and structures exist that are arranged according to particular principles of composition. The symmetry of formations in animate and inanimate nature right down to the microcosm, the harmonious rhythm, the chronological order of rock formations and sedimentary deposits, for example, lead us to regard nature as an artist. We could conceive of works of art as new creations by humans, based on order- and construction principles from nature.
On the other hand, we are accustomed to view artists, particularly modern artists, as people who question the familiar systems of order inherent to their art, suspend them, possibly even destroy them, but definitely assert perspectives and concepts that are incompatible with our familiar ideas of order. Even though we assume the motives for these subversive activities to be diverse, it should also be noted that art has a certain kinship with science, as modern physics dissolves our old world view as well. Nature appears to us as a lawful orderly succession of cause and effect within a stable monitoring system. This has very little to do with the observations and hypotheses of modern physicists.
Now there are also artists whose intention appears to be to take our need for order seriously, to vividly illustrate it and to critically-humorous comment on it, that is to say to create expressly personal orders that deviate from the natural viewing conditions. In doing so, along with the various systems of order, come also methods of measure into play. Are the systems of order and their instruments of measure as objective as they appear? How can I uncover measuring processes or their failure? How do things change when I take them out of their natural context of order and put them into a different environment? Where does order end and where does chaos begin?
Combination and Composition
In the paintings and etchings of Friedrich Meckseper as well as in the paintings by Canadian artist Fiona Ackerman order is a central theme. Both combine things, though in representational painting yet in a manner that produces new, unfamiliar relations of order and therefore alienates old and familiar things. For instance, Meckseper’s instruments of measure, such as clocks or parts thereof, appear in unfamiliar surroundings and thereby symbolize measuring processes, which perhaps have taken place, have yet to take place or failed in one way or another. Ackerman utilizes elements from observed nature through artefacts and objects of everyday use in her paintings. The order of these various elements happens on the one hand in accordance with the principles of art composition, the harmonious division of the pictorial space, on the other hand these placed things become protagonists of a narrative, main and supporting actors in a thus animated pictorial space. At the same time Ackerman also includes, in addition to her own visual elements, the studios and ”inventory” of other artists. In the current exhibit she references the world of images by Friedrich Meckseper, whose workshop, after a visit there, she likens in a double sense to a cabinet of curiosities: here - just as in Fürst Metternich’s cabinet of curiosities in his castle in Königswart – found objects and collectors’ items are displayed, composed in a highly personal arrangement. By means of this order the objects also gain a life of their own, they relate to one another and tell stories which Ackerman wants to make visible in her paintings.
Meckseper’s Compositional Constructions
a) Order and its Measure
If we rely on the title then we are not going to find what we expect in the etching “Leuchtturm” (“Lighthouse”). It appears as if the artist interprets the term differently, even though not in a less literal sense of the word: that what is glowing there is a smokestack. The measure, which Meckseper critically and ironically leverages, is the order system for terms, which assigns some objects to certain terms and excludes others. ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘smokestack’ belong, with regard to their function (guide for ships and discharge of surplus energy respectively), to different conceptual orders. That it is the smokestack, of all things, with its connotation of air pollution and destruction of nature, which is competing with the rather romantic sujet of the lighthouse, is in every respect clever, irrelevant whether we assume the artist to have civilization-critical motives or to simply take delight in playing with order. The second measure turned upside down by Meckseper is the measure of length: next to the lighthouse-smokestack the artist positioned a measuring scale, which at a certain point loses its measure – above the number 122 is the number 23. Herewith, Meckseper appears to subtly indicate that a measure can quickly be lost: just as the ladder in the painting is far too short for someone to reach the top of the tower, so can other attempts at measurement fail. The smokestack (and its effects) appears to no longer be measurable.
b) Is there a measure for eternity?
Depending on how I order things, more or less rigid systems are created: there exist solid, crystalline structures just the same as volatile, fluid formations which can quickly dissolve. The more rigid the order, the more violent is its dissolution. For instance, I have to smash a stone to destroy its form. Measuring instruments as well base themselves on a firm order: the underlying scale of a measuring tape, but also timekeeping, defines distinct distance relations as fundamental to the measuring process.
To whichever deliberations the spectator of the etching “Labyrinth” and the reader of this text feel inspired, the etching inspires me to reflect on time.
I see the result of a futile measuring process, or rather a process of decline or destruction: only half of a stone slab, leaning against a wall and engraved with a labyrinth, is present. In front of it, we see components of a clock (the frame of the casing and a balance spring), as well as a sphere being positioned in the foreground. Labyrinth and clock are broken down; in this condition they can no longer give direction.
This arrangement tempts a few thoughts about time and linear measurability: there are things that escape the measuring process: the circumference of a sphere. That even time cannot measure all things is also shown by the labyrinth. It as well opposes the concept of a linear order, as underlies timekeeping, and can count simultaneously as a symbol of a different concept of time: just as the paths in a labyrinth do not run straight, neither does time. Let’s assume the routes symbolize elapsing or already elapsed time, not only in one direction, but also left or right, behind or in front, depending on where in the labyrinth I am located. Seen in this way the labyrinth symbolizes a concept of time in which the reference point must be continuously newly determined to act as positioning point – and therefore a concept of time of which a human being, who is oriented toward meaningful courses of time, becomes occasionally painfully aware: each change of position is a new beginning and a possible false path, an objective measure of time impossible.
Time is also conceivable as a cycle as in the rhythmic recurrence of particular events, for instance the change of seasons. In this conception it has, like the sphere, a circular shape and its system of order is less rigid, as it is no longer determined by numerically defined distance relations.
For whichever concept of time I decide myself, constant is neither the stone nor the clock. Only the sphere is complete.
c) Order and Play
When I consider order from the protagonist’s perspective, it results in the following deliberations: depending on the aspects according to which I order things, the quantity of things I can integrate in my system of order is larger or smaller. I can also, if I find a common overriding perspective, a principium comparationis, bring order to highly disparate things, for instance by putting them in a chronological order. The purpose I pursue in doing so may not necessarily be significant: I could be doing it simply to enjoy composition, acting from pure playfulness. Especially during the activity I could possibly find completely new perspectives and views of things and look at them from a different angle.
At first glance the four structures in the etching “Transformation” appear as viewpoints of one and the same object, a house. At second glance we recognize that the four figures may not consist out of the same material (at least the surface texture is different). They could possibly be the components of a house, viewed from several vantage points. However what organizes the sequence is neither the affiliation of the figures as part of a whole nor a kind of functional interaction. Our search for an underlying meaning or purpose for transformation remains fruitless. Meckseper bases the sequence solely on variations of form; breadth and height of the individual figures remain even as does the position of the now familiar sphere. It is the latter which undergoes a visibly directed process of transformation; it moves increasingly into the shadow. Whether the sphere ever symbolized anything, and if then what, is left to the imagination of the spectator: is this as well the passage of time? Is the increasing shadow accompanied by an alteration in the surface structure?
A Highly Personal World Order
A particularly playful and enormously creative method producing order, is found in an invention by Meckseper, which the protagonist Pong in the novel “Pong redivivus” by Sybille Lewitscharoff, Meckseper’s wife, wants to utilize: Pong, plastered and nearly immobilized in a hospital bed, badly tormented by the soulless hospital (order) procedures, wishes for an “adversity catcher”, to catch exactly those events which do not fit into his very personal idea how things should be ordered. Who would not like something like that!
Fiona Ackerman Cleans Up
In the painting “The Player, 2013” we enter a space in which all elements are side by side nice and neatly ordered whereby, as is clearly visible, this refers to the painting itself and not the workshop in which the painting was created. As if lined up on a shelf, we find in cosy proximity such disparate objects as scissors, playing cards in various sizes, a shower curtain, a chair with a towel hanging over its backrest, various parcels and books. All these objects do not show any consideration for each other. They do not respect realistic proportions, they partially overlap, pushing themselves into the foreground and even defy gravity. They assert their individuality. We also find the now familiar measuring instruments from Meckseper’s world of images, here a folded up yardstick (disabled) as well as a measuring instrument related to electricity. Turned over playing cards and the back of an easel create curiosity for what lies behind; but even this superficially well sorted order does not produce peace – it also appears to be linked with an intention to hide something – and at the same time gives a clue to Meckseper’s joy at playing with the elements of an image.
“My treatment of Meckseper’s studio is a response to his practice and to what I experienced to be his personal sense of order. If Meckseper’s order is one of isolation, and classification, my own order in these paintings is one of integration, and reference. Where Meckseper orders the object in space, I look to order the object as space.”
While Meckseper, in Ackerman’s words, liberates things from their existing context, then isolates them and shows them in a new environment, a new space, Ackerman freshly integrates the things in her paintings. By conceiving them not in the space, but as space, she gains a new freedom. Liberated from the constraints of conceptual classification, freed also from the pending decay and entropy in real space and in real time, she can “clean up”, can play, as she likes.
Therefore it is rhythm and certainly not a librarian’s sense of order, nor the strict codes of philosophical or scientific methods, that guide her. In the pictured “shelf” things appear as themes, which repeat in form and colour in harmonious sequence, but also vary, which step into the foreground, to then accentuate from the background the appearance of their successors. Just as in a symphony the main theme is repeated and varied during the different movements and by the various groups of instruments, so “functions” here, for instance, the white form on the painting’s left border in various contexts, as well as in various spatial positions in each context in which it appears.
Arranged in this way things make suggestions, they produce expectations and they pose puzzles. Rhythm connects the protagonists. The spectators assume the task of telling the stories, in which the things are involved. There are few limits set to their imagination.
“Where there is order there is rhythm. While the paintings in this exhibition respond to Meckseper’s sense of order, it is a sense of play that rings in the silences between our work.”