Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zeitraum & the progressive present perfect.

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Vorwarts! (Go Forward!), 1897. 57.5 x 31 x 9.5 cm.

Rather than pulling the shutters and closing shop as August approaches, I thought I’d revisit several of our more popular posts from these past three years. Last summer I devoted considerable time to airing the three leitmotifs posited by Documenta 12, most notably the first: Is modernity our antiquity? This summer I’ve been similarly perusing the themes Daniel Birnbaum has hinted at for his upcoming Torino Triennale, 50 Moons of Saturn.

The following is an extended version of a post that appeared on March 29, 2007 in the run-up to Documenta; the questions it raises are no less pertinent to Husserl’s phenomenology, which I anticipate will feature strongly in Birnbaum’s 50 Moons of Saturn:

On March 11, 1992 Anselm Kiefer gave a lecture in Adelaide that is still widely discussed in Australian intellectual circles. In it, he expressed intrigue that Aboriginals should possess such a deep-seated relationship with their art. He envied Aboriginal artists for what he saw as their ability to inhabit their work as deeply as they inhabited their land. He mourned Western art as a curtain descending into its own cultural morass, a no man’s land, a terra nullius of the soul. (He further asserted that the current state of decline in Western art commenced with the fall of Byzantium.)

Despite its quirky tales, its idiosyncratic logic and its apparently non-empirical structures, he argued the Aboriginal Dreaming offers us a far more valid user’s guide to the universe than any Western paradigm.

In bringing up the Dreaming in relation to antiquity and modernity alike, I may sound like a wayward musician wandering off-key mid-song -- stumbling with the present tense when it would seem more appropriate to speak of the Dreaming in the past, as Aboriginal antiquity -- but I have just cause for abiding in the hear-and-now. For one thing, these beliefs still dominate Aboriginal life, so to refer to them otherwise would be untowardly dismissive. But the more telling reason is that elders themselves are very specific in the syntax they use to describe their Dreamings -- always speaking in either the present or something close to the progressive present perfect tense when telling these stories. This progressive present perfect tense is the tense used for action that began in the past and continues into the present (e.g. I have been working on the railroad, all the live-long day; which is to say I was earlier and I continue to be working on the railroad).

It was as Aboriginal groups developed their own versions of Creole English in the 19th century that these thought processes became most apparent. Aboriginals stuck to the verb tenses that made sense to them, including the present, the past in referring to the recent past, the progressive present perfect in referring to the distant past, and similar progressive future tenses in referring to events linking the past and present to the future.

The use of this verb tense retains a core value in the Aboriginal world-view, which itself reaches back to Dreaming events, or to be more precise, their world-view reaches through to Dreaming events. Reaching back implies a reverse movement in time and history; reaching through expresses movement in space. And it is this very space -- the space of the Dreaming -- that they are cleverly describing in the present perfect.

But who’s been listening? Only a smattering of Westerners, such as Kiefer, have picked up on the possibility that a whole new wealth of philosophical puzzles and paradigms might rest in this linguistic clue -- a possibility the ancient Greeks had toyed with, and Western physicists inched toward from a different tack for the better part of the twentieth century.

The clue that lay unnoticed for so long in the present perfect is that the conceptual notions of time and history, past and present, have simply never entered into Aboriginal culture; that is, they never entered into Aboriginal culture until the arrival of Europeans. The anthropologist William Stanner remarked, “I have never been able to discover an Aboriginal word for time as an abstract comment... And the sense of history is wholly alien here.”

All clans naturally have a sense of the immediate past, or the past within one’s lifetime -- the known past -- but once a death occurs the soul is seen as returning to the land, not to be forgotten, but to rejoin the ancestors in an ongoing cycle of renewal. Talk of human lineage beyond living generations and the most recent to have passed away is rare, and even when referring to the recently departed there are elaborate taboos on how they can be discussed, if at all.

In the West, our belief in a linear sequence -- creation/past/present/future -- has, since the original sin, shaped and supported our notions of time, history, antiquity, modernity, progress and by inference, space. But among the Aboriginal people of Australia, the creation and the present aren’t linked in any linear sense by history; quite the contrary, they are defined in a purely spatial sense by the simple, direct and irrefutable existence of place.

And because the Dreaming defines place rather than history, the ancestors are just as much alive today as they were yesterday or they will be tomorrow, living as they do, in the realm of something close to what we in the West see as eternity. So by returning to one’s place in death, spatiality also imparts salvation, along with a measure of immortality, to the Aboriginal believer.

Among non-Aboriginals, the Dreaming has come to represent many things to many people. One who took a keen interest and whose influence was far-reaching was Mircea Eliade. Eliade was well respected for his views on a wide array of theological issues, but his conceit that ‘primitive’ creation stories, Dreamings included, were an effort to escape the parameters of time -- by means of retaining a continuous link to the mythical era of the ancestors -- shows the mark of his bias. As Eliade saw it, “spirituality introduced freedom into the cosmos. It allows the possibility of transcending the boundaries.”

Where Eliade ran afoul was in believing that the preponderance of place ascribed to by these cultures represented some sort of subconscious substitution, or ongoing rebellion, against the historical notion of time. How could they have? These people knew nothing about the historical notion of time. That was the West’s later doing (and our current undoing). So if time and history had never entered into their realm, where and how could they have come to replace or reject them? These boundaries requiring transcendence Eliade spoke of are constructs of Western culture, not universal boundaries and certainly not the Aboriginal’s.

In the first issue of the documenta 12 Magazine, the question "Is modernity our antiquity?" was broadened to ask, “Which modernity and whose antiquity?” but even this repositioning is problematic, for in the Aboriginal case it still suggests the Dreaming as an antiquity, imposing as it does linearity where there was none previously. If we take modernity as the late arrival the European, are we offering the Aboriginal anything more than an invitation to join our wretched terror of history?

By extension, we must ask ourselves if modernity has been anything more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing for the rest of us as well? Are not antiquity and modernity both simply the tormented march of History on its ill-begotten pursuit of Armageddon, and by implication salvation, as we await the Day of Judgment? God forbid.

To his credit, Eliade was one who saw it coming. He had once defined modern man by his ability to “consciously and voluntarily create history,” having as he did, “faith in an infinite progress.” Eliade went on to point out that modern man’s most adept means of creating history (and his own anxiety), from the seventeenth century onwards, was through the technology of war. This precocious new science took advantage of realignments in labor markets, and improvements in agricultural technologies, to create power alliances that made the Crusades look like a holiday in the Holy Land.

The sustenance for his faith in an infinite progress modern man drew from his belief in the constancy of a rapidly unfolding future -- a future-as-resource serving to fuel the military and economic dreams of the present. And only a conviction that the future was infinite could keep the prophesy self-fulfilling. Although, having said that, the prophesy was never wholly fulfilled, for as Kafka said, “To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already taken place. That would be no belief.”

By the twentieth century, progress had become modern man’s beloved opiate, his one true religion. The faith that nourished his restless soul lay not in the memory of yesterday, or in the relief of today, but in the ill-begotten promise of a new tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

Johann Dieter Wassmann, The Case of the City of London, 1894. 39.5 x 29.5 x 26 cm.

"The Eternal Return is a necessity that must be willed: only he who I am now can will the necessity of my return and all the events that have led to what I am..."

Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, 1997

“It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial, 1925

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wassmann Foundation denies involvement in U.S. Senate subcommittee findings


Washington, D.C., July 18, 2008 — Officials at the Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C. today have strongly denied reports that recent financial shortfalls at the foundation (ARTINFO background link) are in any way associated with the illegal transfer of funds to accounts in either Liechtenstein or Switzerland, which are the subject of this week’s hearings by the investigations subcommittee of the U. S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

In particular, lawyers for the foundation deny any financial ties to the Swiss bank UBS. While acknowledging that several officials of the foundation did attend functions sponsored by UBS at Art Basel Miami Beach on December 5, 2007 and December 7, 2007, at no point was any transfer of funds to either Liechtenstein or Switzerland discussed as has been suggested, nor was any transfer of funds subsequently made. Officials also deny having been involved in any third-party discussions implicating transfer of funds offshore.

No foundation officials have been called before the Senate subcommittee in this week’s hearings and nowhere in the Senate report Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance is the Wassmann Foundation implicated. As reported in today’s Miami Herald, UBS is now cooperating fully with U.S. authorities; UBS has not named the Wassmann Foundation as a client.

The Wassmann Foundation is currently working toward returning to a solid financial footing and remains fully committed to meeting its obligations for the establishment of MuseumZeitraum Leipzig in September 2009.

In November 2007, MuseumZeitraum and the Wassmann Foundation signed a watershed accord under which the foundation would repatriate over 100 of Johann Dieter Wassmann’s early modernist assemblage works to Leipzig, while providing financial assistance toward establishment of the museum. ARTINFO background link

The long-awaited institution will house the works of the pioneering German modernist Johann Dieter Wassmann (1841-1898), a native Leipziger. Two years in construction, the critically-acclaimed MuseumZeitraum facility has been carved out of the shell of a turn-of-the-century Jugendstil building in central Leipzig.

The Wassmann Foundation’s Kaufman Director, Jeffrey D. Wassmann, is unavailable for comment as he remains in Australia recovering from open-heart surgery in June. He is not expected to return to the United States for some months.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Let mirth prevail.

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Chaste, Grace, Avarice, Mirth & Lust, 1897. 44 x 35 x 15 cm.

The respected curator Daniel Birnbaum trumpets his upcoming Torino Triennale with the afflactus that, “The 50 Moons of Saturn…will present works that transform melancholy into a state of mind inspired by generosity, rebellion and joy.”

To aid him on his journey, we have, in recent weeks, delved into this labyrinth of melancholy through the art of Johann Dieter Wassmann. Today, we pair one of Johann’s final works before his untimely death, CHASTE, GRACE, AVARICE, MIRTH & LUST, 1897, with a selection from Robert Burton’s THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, 1621, to posit the surest cure for melancholy: mirth.

“‘Mirth,’ (saith Vives) ‘purgeth the blood, confirms health, causeth a fresh, pleasing, and fine colour,’ prorogues life, whets the wit, makes the body young, lively and fit for any manner of employment. The merrier the heart the longer the life; ‘A merry heart is the life of the flesh,’ Prov. xiv. 30. ‘Gladness prolongs his days,’ Ecclus. xxx. 22; and this is one of the three Salernitan doctors, Dr. Merryman, Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, which cure all diseases -- Mens hilaris, requies, moderata dieta. Gomesius, præfat. lib. 3. de sal. gen. is a great magnifier of honest mirth, by which (saith he) ‘we cure many passions of the mind in ourselves, and in our friends;’ which Galateus assigns for a cause why we love merry companions: and well they deserve it, being that as Magninus holds, a merry companion is better than any music, and as the saying is, comes jucundus in via pro vehiculo, as a wagon to him that is wearied on the way. Jucunda confabulatio, sales, joci, pleasant discourse, jests, conceits, merry tales, melliti verborum globuli, as Petronius, Pliny, Spondanus, Caelius, and many good authors plead, are that sole Nepenthes of Homer, Helena's bowl, Venus's girdle, so renowned of old to expel grief and care, to cause mirth and gladness of heart, if they be rightly understood, or seasonably applied…

“For these causes our physicians generally prescribe this as a principal engine to batter the walls of melancholy, a chief antidote, and a sufficient cure of itself. ‘By all means’ (saith Mesue) ‘procure mirth to these men in such things as are heard, seen, tasted, or smelled, or any way perceived, and let them have all enticements and fair promises, the sight of excellent beauties, attires, ornaments, delightsome passages to distract their minds from fear and sorrow, and such things on which they are so fixed and intent.’ ‘Let them use hunting, sports, plays, jests, merry company,’ as Rhasis prescribes, ‘which will not let the mind be molested, a cup of good drink now and then, hear music, and have such companions with whom they are especially delighted;’ ‘merry tales or toys, drinking, singing, dancing, and whatsoever else may procure mirth:’ and by no means, saith Guianerius, suffer them to be alone. Benedictus Victorius Faventinus, in his empirics, accounts it an especial remedy against melancholy, ‘to hear and see singing, dancing, maskers, mummers, to converse with such merry fellows and fair maids.’ ‘For the beauty of a woman cheereth the countenance,’ Ecclus. xxxvi. 22. Beauty alone is a sovereign remedy against fear, grief, and all melancholy fits; a charm, as Peter de la Seine and many other writers affirm, a banquet itself…”

Let the banquet begin...

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

50 moons of Saturn & a song of despair.

The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!

Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.

In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.

You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!

It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.

Pilot’s dread, fury of a blind diver,
turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!

In the childhood of mist my soul, winged and wounded.
Lost discoverer, in you everything sank!

You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!

I made the wall of shadow draw back,
beyond desire and act, I walked on.

Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,
I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.

Like a jar you housed the infinite tenderness,
and the infinite oblivion shattered you like a jar.

There was the black solitude of the islands,
and there, woman of love, your arms took me in.

There were thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle.

Ah woman, I do not know how you could contain me
in the earth of your soul, in the cross of your arms!

How terrible and brief was my desire of you!
How difficult and drunken, how tensed and avid.

Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs,
still the fruited boughs burn, pecked at by birds.

Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs,
oh the hungering teeth, oh the entwined bodies.

Oh the mad coupling of hope and force
in which we merged and despaired.

And the tenderness, light as water and as flour.
And the word scarcely begun on the lips.

This was my destiny and in it was the voyage of my longing,
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!

Oh pit of debris, everything fell into you,
what sorrow did you not express, in what sorrow are you not drowned!

From billow to billow you still called and sang.
Standing like a sailor in the prow of a vessel.

You still flowered in songs, you still broke in currents.
Oh pit of debris, open and bitter well.

Pale blind diver, luckless slinger,
lost discoverer, in you everything sank!

It is the hour of departure, the hard cold hour
which the night fastens to all the timetables.

The rustling belt of the sea girdles the shore.
Cold stars heave up, black birds migrate.

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands.

Oh farther than everything. Oh farther than everything.

It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one.

Pablo Neruda, A SONG OF DESPAIR, 1924
Translated by W. S. Merwin

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort.

Pictured: Johann Dieter Wassmann, MLLE. LIBERTÉ, 1896, from the 33-piece suite “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

My apologies to our French readers whose national holiday I completely neglected yesterday. In honour and respect, may I present Johann Dieter Wassmann’s take on Mlle. Liberté.

Monday, July 14, 2008

L’Hôtel des Spheres

Johann Dieter Wassmann, L’HÔTEL DES SPHERES, 1896.

At this point in the proceedings, I thought it apropos to make a slight digression from our current discussion of Daniel Birnbaum’s 50 Moons of Saturn (for reasons that will become apparent post-haste), looking for a moment at one of Johann Dieter Wassmann’s most charming and enigmatic works, L’Hôtel des Spheres.

Completed in 1896, the work’s origins can be traced to a place and time some 20 years earlier – 1876 – the year Johann commenced his teaching post at the University of Leipzig. Among his students was a Moravian named Edmund Husserl, who from the start impressed this young lecturer with his grasp of the notion of the subjectivity of experience. Husserl was studying astronomy in Leipzig, while also attending classes in mathematics, physics and philosophy, thus sharing many of Johann’s interests. Two years later, Husserl moved on to the University of Berlin, studying with Karl Weierstrass. Johann would not hear of him again until 1891, with the publication of Husserl’s THE PHILOSOPHY OF ARITHMETIC, the first step on his meteoric rise as the father of 20th century phenomenology. Here Husserl provided an account of number as a categorial or formal feature of the objective world, with arithmetic as a symbolic technique for mastering the infinite field of numbers for knowledge. Or more specifically, it provided explanation of how formalized systems of symbols work in providing access to our world. Husserl put forward that “number is a multiplicity of unities,” with multiplicity defined as the “collective connection” of, for example, “something and something and something etc.”

L’Hôtel des Spheres was Johann’s playful homage to his former student’s early achievement. Here the “collective connection” becomes the containment of individual units – individual spheres – within a single unity, which Johann coyly describes in French as “l’hôtel”. What were once non-descript toy balls transform with age to return in a state of suspended “otherness” when housed with like, but different kind.

Some hundred years later – 1998 – we witness the publication of Daniel Birnbaum’s widely-read doctoral dissertation, THE HOSPITALITY OF PRESENCE, a study of the concept of otherness in Husserl’s writing. Several years on still, at a symposium in Amsterdam, Prof. Dr. Birnbaum gave a lecture he called Time and Trauma, in which he explained, “When I worked on Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, I was particularly interested in the concepts of alterity and otherness.”

What goes around, comes around and around and around and around.

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009

Sunday, July 13, 2008

50 moons of Saturn & the orbit of melancholia

We continue from our previous post…

“Some men have peculiar symptoms, according to their temperament and crisis, which they had from the stars and those celestial influences, variety of wits and dispositions, as Anthony Zara contends… plurimum irritant influentiæ cœlestes, unde cientur animi ægritudines et morbi corporum. One saith, diverse diseases of the body and mind proceed from their influences, as I have already proved out of Ptolemy, Puntanus, Lemnius, Cardan, and others, as they are principal significators of manners, diseases, mutually irradiated, or lords of the geniture, &c. Ptolomeus in his centiloquy, Hermes, or whosoever else the author of that tract, attributes all these symptoms, which are in melancholy men, to celestial influences; which opinion, Mercurialis… rejects; but, as I say, Jovianus Pontanus and others stiffly defend.

“That some are solitary, dull, heavy, churlish; some again blithe, buxom, light, and merry, they ascribe wholly to the stars. As if Saturn be predominant in his nativity, and cause melancholy in his temperature, then he shall be very austere, sullen, churlish, black of colour, profound in his cogitations, full of cares, miseries, and discontents, sad and fearful, always silent, solitary, still delighting in husbandry, in woods, orchards, gardens, rivers, ponds, pools, dark walks and close: Cogitationes sunt velle ædificare, velle arbores plantare, agros colere, &c. To catch birds, fishes, &c., still contriving and musing of such matters.”


50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

50 Moons of Saturn as observed this night by the distinguished Robert Burton and drawn from The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

“Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality. . . . This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed…

“NATURAL causes are either primary and universal, or secondary and more particular. Primary causes are the heavens, planets, stars, &c., by their influence (as our astrologers hold) producing this and such like effects. I will not here stand to discuss obiter, whether stars be causes, or signs; or to apologise for judicial astrology. If either Sextus Empiricus, Picus Mirandula, Sextus ab Heminga, Pererius, Erastus, Chambers, &c., have so far prevailed with any man, that he will attribute no virtue at all to the heavens, or to sun, or moon, more than he doth to their signs at an innkeeper's post, or tradesman's shop, or generally condemn all such astrological aphorisms approved by experience: I refer him to Bellantius, Pirovanus, Marascallerus, Goclenius, Sir Christopher Heidon, &c. If thou shalt ask me what I think, I must answer, nam et doctis hisce erroribus versatus sum (for I am conversant with these learned errors), they do incline, but not compel; no necessity at all: agunt non cogunt: and so gently incline, that a wise man may resist them; sapiens dominabitur astris: they rule us, but God rules them. All this (methinks) Joh. de Indagine hath comprised in brief, Quæris a me quantum in nobis operantur astra? &c. ‘Wilt thou know how far the stars work upon us? I say they do but incline, and that so gently, that if we will be ruled by reason, they have no power over us; but if we follow our own nature, and be led by sense, they do as much in us as in brute beasts, and we are no better.’ So that, I hope, I may justly conclude with Cajetan, Cœlum est vehiculum divinæ virtutis, &c., that the heaven is God's instrument, by mediation of which he governs and disposeth these elementary bodies; or a great book, whose letters are the stars (as one calls it), wherein are written many strange things for such as can read, ‘or an excellent harp, made by an eminent workman, on which, he that can but play, will make most admirable music.’ But to the purpose.

“Paracelsus is of opinion, ‘that a physician without the knowledge of stars can neither understand the cause or cure of any disease, either of this or gout, not so much as toothache; except he see the peculiar geniture and scheme of the party affected.’ And for this proper malady, he will have the principal and primary cause of it proceed from the heaven, ascribing more to stars than humours, ‘and that the constellation alone many times produceth melancholy, all other causes set apart.’ He gives instance in lunatic persons, that are deprived of their wits by the moon's motion; and in another place refers all to the ascendant, and will have the true and chief cause of it to be sought from the stars. Neither is it his opinion only, but of many Galenists and philosophers, though they do not so peremptorily maintain as much. ‘This variety of melancholy symptoms proceeds from the stars,’ saith Melancthon: the most generous melancholy, as that of Augustus, comes from the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Libra: the bad, as that of Catiline's, from the meeting of Saturn and the moon in Scorpio. Jovianus Pontanus, in his tenth book, and thirteenth chapter de rebus cœlestibus, discourseth to this purpose at large, Ex atrabile varii generantur morbi, &c., ‘many diseases proceed from black choler, as it shall be hot or cold; and though it be cold in its own nature, yet it is apt to be heated, as water may be made to boil, and burn as bad as fire; or made cold as ice: and thence proceed such variety of symptoms, some mad, some solitary, some laugh, some rage,’ &c. The cause of all which intemperance he will have chiefly and primarily proceed from the heavens, ‘from the position of Mars, Saturn, and Mercury.’ His aphorisms be these, ‘Mercury in any geniture, if he shall be found in Virgo, or Pisces his opposite sign, and that in the horoscope, irradiated by those quartile aspects of Saturn or Mars, the child shall be mad or melancholy.’ Again, ‘He that shall have Saturn and Mars, the one culminating, the other in the fourth house, when he shall be born, shall be melancholy, of which he shall be cured in time: if Mercury behold them.’ ‘If the moon be in conjunction or opposition at the birth time with the sun, Saturn or Mars, or in a quartile aspect with them (e malo cœli loco, Leovitius adds), many diseases are signified, especially the head and brain is like to be misaffected with pernicious humours, to be melancholy, lunatic, or mad…

“The time of this melancholy is, when the significators of any geniture are directed according to art, as the horned moon, hylech, &c. to the hostile beams or terms of Saturn and Mars especially, or any fixed star of their nature, or if Saturn by his revolution, or transitus, shall offend any of those radical promissors in the geniture.”


50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 18 January 2009

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

50 moons of Saturn & the Third Law of Planetary Motion

Johann Dieter Wassmann, HARMONISCH, 1895.

“The heavenly motions are nothing but a continuous song for several voices, to be perceived by the intellect, not by the ear; a music which, through discordant tensions, through syncopations and cadences as it were, progresses towards certain predesigned six-voiced cadences, and thereby set landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time.”


In her renowned essay "A Carpenter's Tale," the art historian Maime Stombock makes the point that it was Johann Dieter Wassmann’s friendship with the physicist Max Planck, and their mutual interest in the epistemology of music, that directed their initial thoughts on a unified theory of space and time:

"The late night dialogues Johann records between himself and Planck more often than not centered around music. But then, he was a Leipziger: Wagner, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Mahler, they all spent crucial years in the city (as well as in Weimar) during the course of Johann’s life, allowing him to come in contact with each, as well as to see all but Wagner and Schumann either conduct or perform. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of music in his work, despite there being only a handful of direct musical references in his boxes.

"For Johann, music and only music could create such an idealization of space as to transcend time, while still existing within it as an undivided whole. Music is at once truth and form, knowledge and sensation. Music defies absolute space and time by not only transcending the boundaries, but by suggesting the very boundlessness of the universe itself.

"Another to have passed through Leipzig—in this case on his way to Vienna—was Sigmund Freud. In Freud, Johann found his journey had come full circle. Where Johann had begun by challenging his students to question the veracity of truth through his enigmatic displays on human physiology, he ended by proffering that truth is neither supreme nor absolute; our universe may be governed by laws, he suggests, but truth resides just outside our reach, amidst the deepest dark corners of a world we have only just begun to unravel: that of the human mind."

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 18 January 2009

Monday, July 07, 2008

50 moons of Saturn. Four moons of Galileo. Eppure si muove.

Pictured: Johann Dieter Wassmann, THE MOONS OF GALILEO, 1896, from the 33-piece suite “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

"I should disclose and publish to the world the occasion of discovering and observing four Planets, never seen from the beginning of the world up to our own times, their positions, and the observations made during the last two months about their movements and their changes of magnitude; and I summon all astronomers to apply themselves to examine and determine their periodic times, which it has not been permitted me to achieve up to this day . . . On the 7th day of January in the present year, 1610, in the first hour of the following night, when I was viewing the constellations of the heavens through a telescope, the planet Jupiter presented itself to my view, and as I had prepared for myself a very excellent instrument, I noticed a circumstance which I had never been able to notice before, namely that three little stars, small but very bright, were near the planet; and although I believed them to belong to a number of the fixed stars, yet they made me somewhat wonder, because they seemed to be arranged exactly in a straight line, parallel to the ecliptic, and to be brighter than the rest of the stars, equal to them in magnitude . . .When on January 8th, led by some fatality, I turned again to look at the same part of the heavens, I found a very different state of things, for there were three little stars all west of Jupiter, and nearer together than on the previous night.

"I therefore concluded, and decided unhesitatingly, that there are three stars in the heavens moving about Jupiter, as Venus and Mercury around the Sun; which was at length established as clear as daylight by numerous other subsequent observations. These observations also established that there are not only three, but four, erratic sidereal bodies performing their revolutions around Jupiter."

Galileo Galilei, SIDEREUS NUNCIUS, March 1610.

This week I’ve been looking at Johann Dieter Wassmann’s little-known 33-piece suite “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” 1896, as it relates to Daniel Birnbaum’s upcoming Torino Triennale exhibition, 50 Moons of Saturn. Each work in this remarkable ensemble takes the form of a pine box, shaped as an isosceles trapezoid, with the glass front constituting the smaller of the two parallel planes. When assembled in three groups, 11 boxes are positioned to form a circle, with the fronts facing inward, toward one another, rather than outward toward the viewer.

The last of these three groups shows Johann’s strong fascination with an increasingly reductive notion of pure space, space nearing the void of deep space itself. In each of these boxes the sole structural element is one or more planetary forms, but rather than being highly descriptive, these elements are depicted as nothing more than aged brown balls, leaving the focus of our attention on the void itself. The inner surface of these boxes is lined with heavily stained text, in the case of the work above text from a 19th century French-German dictionary. THE MOONS OF GALILEO is sufficiently descriptive to allow us to identify the individual moons – from top to bottom, Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io – but grouped alone, without Jupiter, they are purposely lost at sea.

This metaphor of complete and possibly abject isolation – the isolation not of the void, but of the individual within the void – came to dominate much of Johann’s output in the remaining 18 months of his life.

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 18 January 2009

Sunday, July 06, 2008

50 moons of Saturn... and we only got one

Pictured: Johann Dieter Wassmann, THE ETERNAL MOON, 1896, from the 33-piece suite “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

“This slow spider dragging itself towards the light of the moon and that same moonlight, and you and I whispering at the gateway, whispering of eternal things, haven’t we already coincided in the past? And won’t we happen again on the long road, on this long tremulous road, won’t we recur eternally?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 18 January 2009

Saturday, July 05, 2008

50 Moons of Saturn

Pictured: Johann Dieter Wassmann, THE RINGS OF SATURN, 1896, from the 33-piece suite “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

In the coming weeks and months I thought I’d grant readers a slight reprieve from what I realise has been a string of dreary posts chronicling the recent woes of MuseumZeitraum and instead cheer you up with a series of discussions exploring the melancholic world set forth in Daniel Birnbaum’s upcoming exhibition 50 Moons of Saturn for the Torino Triennale, 6 November 2008 – 18 January 2009. This second edition of the Torino Triennale, heretofore known as T2, is inspired by the slow turning world of the planet sublime.

In choosing the sixth planet from the sun, we are told Mr. Birnbaum is “…creating a new geography in the contemporary art world… a constellation of artists who work under the sign of ambivalence.”

The exhibition actually features two headlining planets, along with its 50 lesser moons; the heavyweights being the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, presented at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chinese-American artist Paul Chan at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo centre for contemporary art in Turin.

The first ten of the 50 moons were announced last month, including Ulla von Brandenburg, Matthew Brannon, Gerard Byrne, Simon Dybbroe Möller, Annika Von Hausswolff, Lara Favaretto, Haegue Yang, Koo Jeong-a, Wilhelm Sasnal and Donald Urquhart. We await news of who gets to be Enceladus, Mimas, Rhea, Iapetus, Phoebe and of course the big daddy of them all, Titan.

More to come as the summer progresses…