Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Origin and situation of the Germans

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1887. 20 x 16 x 12 cm.

As autumn approaches, with the world around us seemingly in free-fall, I thought it might be useful to reflect for a moment on the very birth of our tempestuous modern era. In recent weeks I’ve been looking at the rise of modernist sensibilities in the work of the pioneering German artist Johann Dieter Wassmann. Johann’s later works would come to wholly encapsulate the energy and hopefulness of the modern era, but his early works express an anxiety and apprehension not unlike that which grips us in our current deleveraged age.

In posts over the past several months, I’ve been looking at this contemporary anxiety through the melancholy of Daniel Birnbaum’s upcoming 50 moons of Saturn for the Turin Triennale. By the 1880s, Johann Dieter Wassmann similarly found himself troubled by a deep melancholy, one which he responded to initially by retreating into the romantic past of his forefathers, a response having clear relevance today. From here, I’ll hand it over to Maime Stombock, quoting from her seminal essay, A Carpenter’s Tale:

“It is this very relevance, a relevance permeating his entire oeuvre, that imbues these works with the ability to not only leap through time, entering into our 21st century lives, but more importantly to side-step the rat race of time, a trait unique to the arts in general and great art in particular. I can imagine no sweeter compliment befalling a man whose life’s ambition was to re-unite the wonder of space with the splendor of time, all the more so given how thoroughly disenfranchised the two have since become. The works from these early years would become known as the “Dresden Boxes” after their extended display in a Dresden clinic. (Their brief popularity played a small part in the eventual establishment of Dresden’s Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in the 1920s, an institution that thrives even today.)

“Despite his considerable achievements, Johann felt increasingly troubled as the century hastened toward its close... His suspicion that the deliberate progress of modernity was fast bearing down overwhelmed him with regular fits of fear and uncertainty. When he first caught sight of this brooding monolith his response was to back-pedal his way out of the 19th century and into his romanticized view of an earlier, less pressured era. As he came to feel more at ease with the medium of the wooden box he staged his retreat by venturing into works that he hoped might help him to combat this anguish. Here his creative impulse was most Germanic: a return to the ancient wood, with Goethe looming large, although his influences were equally eclectic. His great love of the American Transcendentalist authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau is apparent in several works. He had grown fond of their writings while living in Washington, D.C., where he consulted on a long overdue sewerage system for the nation’s capitol during Restoration—the first in the world to be built of concrete, a pioneering design solution born of necessity amid the poorly-drained swamplands of the Potomac.

"Whether conscious or not, his impulse to celebrate the ancient wood twenty years later can be read as an unsurprising response to the soulless concrete, brick and mortar that dominated his professional life. Johann had long found solace in the wood, a passion so deeply imbedded in the German psyche it was the subject of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ classic Germania; or, On the Origin and situation of the Germans, recorded in the year 98. For Roman readers, Germania served to explain why these primitive arcadians were such barbarians. For the Germans themselves, Tacitus’ portrayal of them as little more than arboreal hunters, gatherers and warriors was taken as a compliment. Germania eventually became a raw staple in their literary diet, all the more so after the first native translation was published in Leipzig in 1496.

“For Johann, delving into the ancient wood was an essential catharsis, just as it would be a hundred years later for his compatriot Anselm Kiefer. In a letter to his brother Wolfgang, dated November 10, 1885, Johann writes that from the moment his saw broke the grain of his rough planks of birch, oak, pine, beech, ash, walnut, elm or whatever else might be at hand, he was magically propelled through the looking glass, moving into the wood, first physically—as he cut, planed, joined and finished the timbers—and then mentally—as he deliberated what world might inhabit the inner space of these exquisite boxes.

“His experience of the wood spared none of the senses, however. The sweet freshness of pine, the acrid harshness of elm that burned the eyes and throat, the gentle pleasantries of oak: he genuinely believed as his father had that the souls of men inhabited these timbers and only by cutting into them and experiencing them fully could these souls find release. He reminded Wolfgang of the stories their father would tell them as children, the stories they would insist on hearing again and again of the family workshop in the years that followed the Battle of Leipzig, a time when their father himself was just a child. The terrible destruction of the city and surrounding villages had left such an abundance of floorboards, panelling and structural timbers that Leipzig’s woodcutters found no cause to fell a single tree for three years, instead harvesting their bounty from the rubble. But unlike fresh cut timbers, which house only old souls, August commanded to his sons that recycled timbers uniquely house the souls of those more recently departed.

“The oak parquetry of Madame Troufold’s salon, gracefully planed and mitered by their grandfather to make a small corner cupboard, had overwhelmed the workshop for a week with the perfumed elegance of a life cultured beyond their dreams. The softly worn pine floorboards of Herr Zächer’s bäckerie, despite being scrubbed with bucket and brush each morning, had brought such hunger to the journeymen when they cut into them to frame the carcass of a veneered chest of drawers that they finished their daily bread before noon, venturing out to find more before returning to their work. The walnut panelling recovered from Kapitän Brunheld’s library, the walnut that their grandfather fashioned into several fine wardrobes, had surrendered thick smoky tobacco, aged whiskey and a thousand tales of Saxon glory before the wardrobes left the shop. And the narrow ash planks from the stairway of Fräulein Nau’s bordell, the planks their grandfather had hoped to shape into dough bins, brought work to such a halt and lowered the integrity of the conversation to such a degree that he gave up in disgust, burning them as firewood, although the smoke from the fire provoked one of the men to partake in a debaucherous drinking binge lasting three days, ending with his arrest for committing unnatural acts in the public square.

“Wolfgang’s reply to his letter was that old men tell tall tales, so leave it at that, but Johann was undeterred, at least for the moment. While this period was both cathartic and crucial in defining the roots of Johann’s dissatisfaction, and while his output might seem to us today to be quite charming, within the decade he too would come to question the romantic overtones in his response.”

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In memorium

The Dresden Boxes (1881-85)

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Schutzen Euere Klempnerarbeit (Protect Your Plumbing), 1883. 70 x 49.5 x 7 cm.

“[Johann Dieter] Wassmann created his first box works in 1881. As an engineering lecturer at the University of Leipzig, he was anxious that creative thinking was being discouraged from education. Relying on the Enlightenment understanding that ‘knowledge is… a kind of visual field and that vision, like science, illuminates reason,’ [Robert Schubert, Brief notes on radical evil, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 1997] he attempted to attract his young male students’ attention by juxtaposing peculiar diagrams of the human body from medical journals, bottles, medical instruments and other paraphernalia in odd ways. Works like Protect your Plumbing 1883 and Amputare 1881 were to encourage interest in dealing with issues like syphilis and the treatment of infectious disease (respectively), but also to encourage questions towards modern medical practice and the way it viewed and treated the human body. Foucault’s Pendulum 1884, demonstrating the earth’s rotation, indicates broader concerns which transpired in his later works. After hanging in a Dresden clinic for some time, these became known as the Dresden Boxes (1881-85).

“Wassmann recognised the power of objects through his fascination and, as times changed, a humanist concern for the loss of imagination. In order to subvert the logic and rationality of industrialisation, he juxtaposed everyday, discarded objects in often unexpected relations to allow them to act as conduits to individual consciousness. Sitting in their boxes, the now fetishised objects elicited personal narratives from the viewer, sometimes with unsuspected and/or revelatory connections.

“It is also interesting to note his use of a grid-like device to compartmentalise his objects and images. A practicing sewerage engineer, Wassmann thought nothing of using a grid as an ordering principle for keeping waste and disease away from the populace. But in his art-work it was a visual device used to delineate space and simplify viewing, as well as instigating questions of the Enlightenment association between perception and knowledge in a clever, sometimes amusing, way. This was to become an important symbol of Modernism, particularly with artists like Malevich (Suprematism) and Mondrian (De Stihl), who saw it as a spiritually liberating organising principle, and the American abstractionist (Josef Albers, Sol Le Witt), who used it as a structural format emphasising form, colour (light) and space.”

Kirsten Rann, curator
Bleeding Napoleon: The Art of Johann Dieter Wassmann (1841-1898) exhibition brochure, 2003
Melbourne International Arts Festival 2003

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Foucault’s Pendulum, 1884. 40 x 45 x 33.5 cm.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The birth of the modern

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Untitled, Mexico City, 1897. Albumen silver print, 18 x 23 cm.

As a pioneer in the field of sewerage management, Johann Dieter Wassmann travelled extensively through the 1880s and 1890s, designing and overseeing the construction of waste disposal systems in Europe, the Americas and the Asia/Pacific region. He took passage on his final voyage in 1897, travelling to Cuba and Mexico, where he consulted with Mexico City officials on the ponderous task of devising a gravity sewerage system for an ancient city built in a lake at the bottom of a valley.

Most of Wassmann’s overseas travels took place prior to his gaining an interest in photography, leaving previous adventures largely undocumented. By 1897, however, his photographic skills were well-honed, as was his dexterity with the new hand-held roll film cameras widely available at the time, allowing him a degree of mobility and spontaneity unimagined until the late 1890s. Nowhere is this more evident than in his breathtakingly modernist vision of Mexico City.

This portfolio is often compared to the early work of Manual Álvarez Bravo, but any similarity may be more attributable to content than either style or intent. Wassmann’s motivation and sensitivity sits more comfortably with that of his fellow Europeans, sharing more closely the strong geometric, volumetric and spatial concerns of Aleksandr Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovic and Eugéne Atget, whose work would, of course, only come a decade or more later. All the same, the birth of the modernist vision, arising at any number of places and over a number of years, expressed itself universally with an energy, originality and clarity unencumbered by all that came before.

The untitled photograph I’ve pictured above is often cited as one of Wassmann’s most pioneering works, an image of absolute purity, reduced to minimal geometry and form. Die Mut zur Lücke, as Kurt Schwitters would later confide: the courage to leave things out. The charm of this image, however, also rests subtly in its content. Johann was, after all, a sewerage engineer; he has chosen here to record curbing and channelling and the passage of storm water on its journey to a drain somewhere beyond the picture’s edge. Like Rodchenko, he has placed his photograph beyond personal ego, elevating it rather to the service of a larger societal good, that of technological advancement. This subtext of the utopian dream so evident in the early modernist movement is without precedent in the history of art.

Over these past three years, I have done my best to place this blog in the service of a larger good as well, that of raising our understanding of the foundations of modernism itself. To this end, I have often merged Wassmann’s work into the contemporary dialogue, as in my discussions of Roger Buergel’s leitmotif “Is modernity our antiquity?” during last year’s Documenta and currently with Daniel Birnbaum’s “50 moons of Saturn” for the upcoming Turin Triennale. It is my conviction that without a thorough understanding of the great hopes of the modernist dream, it is impossible to assess the failings of the modern movement today. Toward this end, I hope our efforts to better understand the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann have brought readers a measure closer to understanding what expectations we should hold for the contemporary artist.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

50 moons of Saturn and the force of Imagination

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Todesstrecke (Deathtrap), 1897. 16 x 16 x 7.5 cm.

“WHAT imagination is, I have sufficiently declared in my digression of the anatomy of the soul. I will only now point at the wonderful effects and power of it; which, as it is eminent in all, so most especially it rageth in melancholy persons, in keeping the species of objects so long, mistaking, amplifying them by continual and strong meditation, until at length it produceth in some parties real effects, causeth this and many other maladies. And although this fantasy of ours be a subordinate faculty to reason, and should be ruled by it, yet in many men, through inward or outward distemperatures, defect of organs, which are unapt, or otherwise contaminated, it is likewise unapt, or hindered, and hurt. This we see verified in sleepers, which by reason of humours and concourse of vapours troubling the fantasy, imagine many times absurd and prodigious things, and in such as are troubled with incubus, or witch-ridden (as we call it), if they lie on their backs, they suppose an old woman rides, and sits so hard upon them, that they are almost stifled for want of breath; when there is nothing offends, but a concourse of bad humours, which trouble the fantasy. This is likewise evident in such as walk in the night in their sleep, and do strange feats: these vapours move the fantasy, the fantasy the appetite, which moving the animal spirits causeth the body to walk up and down as if they were awake. Fracast. l. 3. de intellect., refers all ecstasies to this force of imagination such as lie whole days together in a trance: as that priest whom Celsus speaks of; that could separate himself from his senses when he list, and lie like a dead man, void of life and sense. Cardan brags of himself, that he could do as much, and that when he list. Many times such men when they come to themselves, tell strange things of heaven and hell, what visions they have seen; as that St. Owen, in Matthew Paris, that went into St. Patrick's purgatory, and the monk of Evesham in the same author. Those common apparitions in Bede and Gregory, Saint Bridget's revelations, Wier. l. 3. de lamiis, c. 11. Cæsar Vanninus, in his Dialogues, &c. reduceth (as I have formerly said), with all those tales of witches' progresses, dancing, riding, transformations, operations, &c. to the force of imagination, and the devil's illusions. The like effects almost are to be seen in such as are awake: how many chimeras, antics, golden mountains and castles in the air do they build unto themselves?

"I appeal to painters, mechanicians, mathematicians. Some ascribe all vices to a false and corrupt imagination, anger, revenge, lust, ambition, covetousness, which prefers falsehood before that which is right and good, deluding the soul with false shows and suppositions. Bernardus Penottus will have heresy and superstition to proceed from this fountain; as he falsely imagineth, so he believeth; and as he conceiveth of it, so it must be, and it shall be, contra gentes, he will have it so. But most especially in passions and affections, it shows strange and evident effects: what will not a fearful man conceive in the dark? What strange forms of bugbears, devils, witches, goblins? Livater imputes the greatest cause of spectrums, and the like apparitions, to fear, which above all other passions begets the strongest imagination (saith Wierus), and so likewise, love, sorrow, joy, &c. Some die suddenly, as she that saw her son come from the battle at Cannæ, &c. Jacob the patriarch, by force of imagination, made speckled lambs, laying speckled rods before his sheep. Persina that Æthiopian queen in Heliodorus, by seeing the picture of Perseus and Andromeda, instead of a blackamoor, was brought to bed of a fair white child. In imitation of whom belike, a hard-favoured fellow in Greece, because he and his wife were both deformed, to get a good brood of children, Elegantissimas imagines in thalamo collocavit, &c., hung the fairest pictures he could buy for money in his chamber, ‘That his wife by frequent sight of them, might conceive and bear such children.’ And if we may believe Bale, one of Pope Nicholas the Third's concubines by seeing of a bear was brought to bed of a monster. ‘If a woman (saith Lemnius), at the time of her conception think of another man present or absent, the child will be like him.’ Great bellied women, when they long, yield us prodigious examples in this kind, as moles, warts, scars, harelips, monsters, especially caused in their children by force of a depraved fantasy in them: Ipsam speciam quam animo effigiat, fœtui inducit: She imprints that stamp upon her child which she conceives unto herself. And therefore Lodovicus Vives, lib. 2. de Christ. fœm. gives a special caution to great-bellied women, ‘That they do not admit such absurd conceits and cogitations, but by all means avoid those horrible objects, heard or seen, or filthy spectacles.’ Some will laugh, weep, sigh, groan; blush, tremble, sweat, at such things as are suggested unto them by their imagination. Avicenna speaks of one that could cast himself into a palsy when he list; and some can imitate the tunes of birds and beasts that they can hardly be discerned: Dagebertus' and Saint Francis' scars and wounds, like those of Christ's (if at the least any such were), Agrippa supposeth to have happened by force of imagination: that some are turned to wolves, from men to women, and women again to men (which is constantly believed) to the same imagination; or from men to asses, dogs, or any other shapes. Wierus ascribes all those famous transformations to imagination; that in hydrophobia they seem to see the picture of a dog, still in their water, that melancholy men and sick men conceive so many fantastical visions, apparitions to themselves, and have such absurd apparitions, as that they are kings, lords, cocks, bears, apes, owls; that they are heavy, light, transparent, great and little, senseless and dead (as shall be showed more at large, in our sections of symptoms), can be imputed to nought else, but to a corrupt, false, and violent imagination. It works not in sick and melancholy men only, but even most forcibly sometimes in such as are sound: it makes them suddenly sick, and alters their temperature in an instant. And sometimes a strong conceit or apprehension, as Valesius proves, will take away diseases: in both kinds it will produce real effects. Men, if they see but another man tremble, giddy or sick of some fearful disease, their apprehension and fear is so strong in this kind, that they will have the same disease. Or if by some soothsayer, wiseman, fortune-teller, or physician, they be told they shall have such a disease, they will so seriously apprehend it, that they will instantly labour of it. A thing familiar in China (saith Riccius the Jesuit), ‘If it be told them they shall be sick on such a day, when that day comes they will surely be sick, and will be so terribly afflicted, that sometimes they die upon it.’ Dr. Cotta in his discovery of ignorant practitioners of physic, cap 8. hath two strange stories to this purpose, what fancy is able to do. The one of a parson's wife in Northamptonshire, An. 1607, that coming to a physician, and told by him that she was troubled with the sciatica, as he conjectured (a disease she was free from), the same night after her return, upon his words, fell into a grievous fit of a sciatica: and such another example he hath of another good wife, that was so troubled with the cramp, after the same manner she came by it, because her physician did but name it. Sometimes death itself is caused by force of fantasy. I have heard of one that coming by chance in company of him that was thought to be sick of the plague (which was not so) fell down suddenly dead. Another was sick of the plague with conceit. One seeing his fellow let blood falls down in a swoon. Another (saith Cardan out of Aristotle), fell down dead (which is familiar to women at any ghastly sight), seeing but a man hanged. A Jew in France (saith Lodovicus Vives), came by chance over a dangerous passage or plank, that lay over a brook in the dark, without harm, the next day perceiving what danger he was in, fell down dead. Many will not believe such stories to be true, but laugh commonly; and deride when they hear of them; but let these men consider with themselves, as Peter Byarus illustrates it, If they were set to walk upon a plank on high, they would be giddy, upon which they dare securely walk upon the ground. Many (saith Agrippa), ‘strong-hearted men otherwise, tremble at such sights, dazzle, and are sick, if they look but down from a high place, and what moves them but conceit?’ As some are so molested by fantasy; so some again, by fancy alone, and a good conceit, are as easily recovered. We see commonly the tooth-ache, gout, falling-sickness, biting of a mad dog, and many such maladies, cured by spells, words, characters, and charms, and many green wounds by that now so much used Unguentum Armarium, magnetically cured, which Crollius and Goclenius in a book of late hath defended, Libavius in a just tract as stiffly contradicts, and most men controvert. All the world knows there is no virtue in such charms or cures, but a strong conceit and opinion alone, as Pomponatius holds, ‘which forceth a motion of the humours, spirits, and blood, which takes away the cause of the malady from the parts affected.’ The like we may say of our magical effects, superstitious cures, and such as are done by mountebanks and wizards. ‘As by wicked incredulity many men are hurt (so saith Wierus of charms, spells, &c.), we find in our experience, by the same means many are relieved.’ An empiric oftentimes, and a silly chirurgeon, doth more strange cures than a rational physician. Nymannus gives a reason, because the patient puts his confidence in him, which Avicenna ‘prefers before art, precepts, and all remedies whatsoever.’ 'Tis opinion alone (saith Cardan), that makes or mars physicians, and he doth the best cures, according to Hippocrates, in whom most trust. So diversely doth this fantasy of ours affect, turn, and wind, so imperiously command our bodies, which as another Proteus, or a chameleon, can take all shapes; and is of such force (as Ficinus adds), that it can work upon others, as well as ourselves. How can otherwise blear eyes in one man cause the like affection in another? Why doth one man's yawning make another yawn? One man's pissing provoke a second many times to do the like? Why doth scraping of trenchers offend a third, or hacking of flies? Why doth a carcass bleed when the murderer is brought before it, some weeks after the murder hath been done? Why do witches and old women fascinate and bewitch children: but as Wierus, Paracelsus, Cardan, Mizaldus, Valleriola, Cæsar Vanninus, Campanella, and many philosophers think, the forcible imagination of the one party moves and alters the spirits of the other. Nay more, they can cause and cure not only diseases, maladies and several infirmities, by this means, as Avicenna de anim. l. 4. sect. 4. supposeth in parties remote, but move bodies from their places, cause thunder, lightning, tempests, which opinion Alkindus, Paracelsus, and some others, approve of: So that I may certainly conclude this strong conceit or imagination is astrum hominis, and the rudder of this our ship, which reason should steer, but overborne by fantasy cannot manage, and so suffers itself and this whole vessel of ours to be overruled, and often overturned… I have thus far digressed, because this imagination is the medium deferens of passions, by whose means they work and produce many times prodigious effects: and as the fantasy is more or less intended or remitted, and their humours disposed, so do perturbations move, more or less, and take deeper impression.”

Robert Burton
The Anatomy of Melancholy

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