‘Ceci est une pipe.’
In his reflections from the nineteen-nineties regarding the ontology of the ugly object, the architecture theorist Mark Cousins made use of a two-tier model to comprehend an object: »If we grant that an object exists twice—firstly as a representation of itself and secondly as its existence, then the outside of a thing (representation) must enclose the inside of a thing (existence).« This splitting of an object into its essence on the one hand and its appearance on the other is a model that we also encounter in the philosophy of cognition and in perception theory. When such a differentiation is disregarded, this is then often due to the belief that one is anyhow only able to ascertain the existence of an object by means of its appearance, and thus, from the perspective of the person perceiving, both levels merge.
The essence and appearance of an object are generally congruous. Thus, the latter implies the former and gives us information about what we are dealing with. When this is not the case, the appearance of an object seduces us into divining an essence that does not truly correspond with it. Such a divergence is the basis of the counterfeit, the imitation and the fake. A fake is therefore not particularly concerned with having its essence recognized in its appearance. It is instead distinguished by the fact that it makes us believe that it is not what it claims to be. But this circumstance is not the only prerequisite for the functioning of a fake. Since, in addition to this, it may not be possible to perceive the incongruence between existence and representation. The appearance has to give the impression of being a supposedly ›true‹ expression of an object of another kind.
If we take a look at the development of Occidental painting and sculpture, a work of art may thus be understood as a fake qua definition. Artists were firmly dedicated to representation and were driven by the desire to optimize their representative abilities for several centuries. What has changed is not so much this fundamental understanding regarding the question of what art has to represent. No matter whether a con-temporary or bygone world, a world accessible to us or religiously or mythologically at a distance, the focus of visual art was on representing a world of things of whatever kind, and its goal was rendering the appearance of this world of things. Consequently, art might be described as representation of the second order. It aspired to the greatest possible congruence—and thus visual indistinguishableness—of the one level of representation with the other, and therefore the convergence of art with the appearance of the world of things.
As is generally known, around 400 BC, the main representatives of the Ionian school of painting, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, competed with each other to assess their powers of illusion. When a bird attempted to pick at the grapes painted by Zeuxis, assured of success, he turned to the work of his rival so as to pull away the cur-tain concealing it. This curtain was, however, painted. Thus, while Zeuxis managed to deceive animals, Parrhasius succeeded in confusing the human mind. This highpoint of consummate illusion is both the pinnacle as well as the down-fall of illusionistic painting. Since the successful fulfilment of the desire for the greatest possible illusion that inveigled Zeuxis to commit his blunder simultaneously also resulted in its un masking. However, as is known, this incident in no way marked the end of painting. In spite of it, artists nevertheless continued their strivings for a world of illusion, yet with a decisive difference: the illusion in art changed from a de facto to a fictional one. The matter was put in a nutshell with the concept of the trompe l’œil: the aim is deceiving the eye not the intellect. Although we know that what is concerned is a two-dimensional reproduction of a three-dimensional object using pigment and oil, we nonetheless allow ourselves be mislead into assuming something else and lose ourselves in the illusion.
In light of what has already been said, in the art of the twentieth century, a pivotal change took place. Since the reproduction of the appearance of things was replaced by appearance itself. By various means, art moved away from its task, among others, of representing through not depicting objects anymore, but instead beginning to use them directly and thus no longer imitating the appearance of an object. What appears to be wood is wood. What looks like paper is paper, and what looks like garbage is garbage. In his Theory of the Avant-Garde of 1974, Peter Bürger described this turning point in art in an impressive way: »A theory of the avant-garde must begin with the concept of montage that is suggested by the early Cubist collages. What distinguishes them from the techniques of composition developed since the Renaissance is the insertion of reality fragments into the painting, i.e., the insertion of material that has been left un changed by the artist. But this means the destruction of the unity of the painting as a whole, all of whose parts have been fashioned by the subjectivity of its creator. The selection of a piece of woven basket that Picasso glues on a canvas may very well serve some compositional intent. But as a piece of woven basket, it remains a reality fragment that is inserted into the painting tel quel, without substantive modification. A system of representation based on the portrayal of reality, i. e., on the principle that the artistic subject (the artist) must transpose reality, has thus been invalidated. Unlike Duchamp somewhat later, the Cubists do not content themselves with merely showing a reality fragment. But they stop short of a total shaping of the pictorial space as a continuum.« In this connection, Bürger turns to Theodor W. Adorno and cites him: »The semblance (Schein) of art being reconciled with a heterogeneous reality because it portrays it is to disintegrate as the work admits actual fragments (Scheinlose Trümmer) of empirical reality, thus acknowledging the break, and transforming it into aesthetic effect.« Thus, in the statements of both Bürger and Adorno, the closed, homogeneous surface of the image plane appears as an expression of intactness and guarantee for that transposition of reality that is relinquished as a result of the integration of fragments of reality. Through the direct use of the ›Trümmern der Empirie‹ (fragments of empiricism), which Adorno aptly describes as ›scheinlos‹ (actual), artists no longer transpose the concrete world into a system of representation. With the techniques of collage, montage, objet trouvé, and readymade, it is embedded in the centre of art.
Against this backdrop, some of Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s paintings embody a contradiction. Since they now do the one without allowing the other. Here, the renunciation of a unified, un broken composition of pictorial space that Bürger establishes for the early twentieth century becomes, in a new aboutface, a semblance, since Ellenrieder’s paintings simulate such a discontinuity. They are the painterly fiction of a montage. If we think back to the beginning of this text, this approach is thus neither new nor unusual. If paintings at that time were supposed reproduce the appearance of a landscape or physiognomy, a work such as Oberlicht (Skylight, see p. 61) now reproduces that of montages. The step of transposing that the painting accomplishes remains the same. Here, both of the distinctive features that characterize the appearance of montage are imitated with painterly means: the discontinuous image field on the one hand and medial diversity on the other. Oberlicht does not present us with a homogeneous pictorial space. The windowlike openings reveal a view onto two disparate views of nature: through the one, we look, as it seems, at luxuriant vegetation, through the other at a choppy ocean surface. These different views are, however, situated spatially close to one another in such a way that the gap between the two painted windows is not conclusively filled in in our imagination by a homogeneous portrayal of a landscape. Perhaps, what we are dealing with in any case is not win-dow apertures but instead canvases, projections or monitors. The rounded corners reinforce this association. Consequently, we might then attempt to mistakenly read what is depicted as a representation of a continuum that is both spatial as well as temporal. Dissonant in a way that is similar to the individual views from the windows are, incidentally, also the ratios of the pictorial motifs. A plant with a fruit spike full of white berries, which dominates the centre of the image, is disproportionately large and bursts open the space, which calls to mind a hammered- together shed. The eponymous opening through which we look into a slightly cloudy sky is situated in the ceiling of the shed.
Nevertheless, the change that Peter Bürger saw coming to pass in art with the principle of montage does not lie as much in the disappearance of closed, homogeneous representation as in the loss of a method of representation that is expressed not in a new creation but instead in combining things that exist. Ellenrieder retains this step visually in his paintings, but makes it retrogressive with respect to material through imitating a discontinuous method of representation and thus creating images that imitate the appearance of a montage. One characteristic of them is the non-uniform image field; the other is the medial diversity. Since the discontinuity of the image surface is accompanied by medial fractures. Here, there are cut edges and print margins, points at which different image carriers overlap and various reproduction techniques come into contact with one another. We also see all of this in Ellenrieder’s paintings—but only in the form of fakes. Obviously painted and spray-painted sections of an image go hand in hand with ones that are apparently printed and photo-graphed, cut out and pasted on. A painting such as Oberlicht can thus be seen as a self-assertion of an artistic tradition that does not ignore the attack that was perpetrated against it in the early twentieth century, but instead, makes it into the essence of the image and now, in turn, cites the renunciation of the homogeneous work of art precisely by means of such.
Painting is, however, only one part of Ellenrieder’s artistic practice. In Hybrid, his most recent double exhibition, which was presented simultaneously in Wolfsburg and Braunschweig, the painterly work was juxtaposed with the installative-sculptural in the background, whereby the boundaries remain porous. »The three-dimensional works developed from my painting. What interests me is how it is possible to transfer the nesting of contents, pictorial spaces and levels of perception from painting to space. I wanted to find out whether and how something similar is also possible there.« If we take a look, for example, at the two three-dimensional works Bidonville and Haufen (Shanty Town and Heap, both 2013), this transferring of one genre to the other is thus already revealed as being fluid as a result of the fact that paintings here become an integral part of the sculptural works. They are one of many materials integrated within them. Therefore, if montage became the image content and its appearance imitated in Ellenrieder’s paintings, paintings now in turn become an integral part of montage. This return to the unbroken use of a genre that is indebted to the avant-garde is fictitious. Appearances deceive once again. This is because Ellenrieder’s installations are created in a collage-like manner with their relief-like surfaces, which seem to be constructed to the greatest extent possible from thrown away and found materials, wickerwork is not necessarily wickerwork, wood is not necessarily wood, and cardboard is not necessarily cardboard. What appears to be pressboard is actually a print of a scan of just such a wood surface that is reproduced with industrial methods on synthetic material as substrate. In the case of the wooden slat with a clearly recognizable grain in a some-what confusing shade of grey, what is also concerned is perhaps not the weathered patina but instead the print of a photograph of such a patina. And what appears to be beautifully polished, solid wood is the high-quality, enlarged scan of a piece of a fruit crate. Even in places where some-thing that looks like cardboard is indeed card-board, although our gaze might fall on the image of a piece of cardboard, it does not fall on what is concealed behind this appearance.
It is thus a tour de force of illusions with which these sculptures lure us into their trap with our experienced handling of ›real‹ versus ›fake‹ and ›thing‹ versus ›image‹. Since when faced with a work such as Bidonville, as a result of the confusion that is deliberately staged, such categorizations are anything but self-evident. At times the perfection of the reproduction techniques that are used in the installations even leads to the fact that we, despite all our scepticism, are catapulted back to that state of not knowing that once befell Zeuxis. Since the slats, boards and cardboard again and again leave us in doubt as to whether they are indeed those things or actually reproductions of them. We therefore presumably lose ourselves for a while in a detective-like differentiation of ›essence‹ versus ›appearance‹, ›verisimilitude‹ versus ›illusion‹, and ›thing‹ versus ›reproduction‹. One does, however, quite quickly become aware of the idleness of this undertaking and thus arrives not only at the quintessence of the sculptures but also at the central concern of this book. Since in the paintings and sculptures as well as in this book, the focus is on neither the rehabilitation of pre-avant-garde intactness nor the affirmation of avant-garde dichotomies. What is much more important is the question of the extent to which the categorizations that emerged from the artistic turnabout at the beginning of the twentieth century are pertinent to the artistic production of today.
Such a pair of opposites that the artistic and medial broadenings of the avant-garde specifically did not push to the outside but instead into the centre is that of original and reproduction. »Even with the most perfect reproduction«, Walter Benjamin thus wrote in his most famous essay from the nineteen-thirties, »one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment.« With this separation of artistic production and the rendering of it as a reproduction, he in no way rejected the use of technical means of reproduction as part of artistic practice. Benjamin instead refers to what the readers have before their eyes when they leaf through this book, and what dominates our reception of works of art: reproductions of them in publications. »The whole province of genuineness is beyond technological—and of course not only techno-logical—reproducibility,« he explains further and therefore underpins the contrast between the unique existence of a work of art and the mass replication of it as a reproduction. As is known, for Benjamin, the loss of the unique existence and connection of a work of art to one specific location is accompanied by the disappearance of its aura. But that is by far not the only loss. On a much more concrete level, reproduction—and thus also translation into another medium—leads to a reduction of information, for example, with regard to the texture of the brushstrokes, the porosity of a surface, the movement of the chisel, the mattness or glossiness of a surface, the unevenness of cut edges and so forth.
Each reproduction technique accomplishes the best possible simulation of the appearance of a work of art according to its medial characteristics. Thus, it is not only a matter of reducing something three-dimensional—be it only the raised texture of oil paint—to a plane. It is also a matter, for example, of simulating the variety of colours in a palette. In the case of the vast majority of reproductions that we deal with today, this takes place not by means of a virtual but instead an optical mixing of colours, and indeed of only four colours: black, cyan, magenta and yellow. It is in this order that the printing machine respectively overlays a monochrome printing raster of each colour at a slightly displaced angle so that the print dots are situated in part next to and in part over one another. As a result of the fineness of the raster and the narrowness of our optical perception, neither the dots nor the colours are perceived as separate elements. The contours of objects and their colouring arise in our eyes and as a result of the distance from which they are viewed. In the limiting to four colours, what is concerned is not a system for re producing great richness but rather the great-est possible efficiency. Since it is the combining of those four colours that allows for the mixing of a maximum range of colours. The modification of these four hues reduces the spectrum. Although the addition of further print colours (in particular of orange and green) would enlarge this spectrum, the costs and efforts involved in the printing process would, however, increase disproportionately. Consequently, the CMYK colour model offers the most efficient colour mixture for the best possible simulation of that spectrum that we are familiar with from our visual perception.
Ellenrieder also uses the CMYK model in this book, although not throughout. While paintings and installation views are reproduced in this four-colour mode, there are other reproductions that distinctly differ from it. In them, only the black is retained and supplemented by two special colours, namely gold and a light, warm greyish brown. This leads, not only as a result of the reduction from four to three colours but also due to the combining of much less suitable shades of colour, to an extreme limitation of the colour spectrum. Consequently, what is reduced is the ability to simulate an appearance in a way that is as accurate as possible in terms of colour. The reproduction inevitably departs from its original, whose appearance—for example, a painting, a sculpture or a space—we reconstruct in an interplay between what the reproduction shows us and what we know from our experience. We are thus accustomed to bypassing at times striking divergences of reproductions from their objects by means of our experience and to not letting ourselves be confused by discrepancies between image and depicted reality, for instance, a black-and-white photograph of a colourful scene.
This practiced process of reconstructing the appearance of an object based on a reproduction of it becomes considerably more difficult in the case of the triplex prints in this book. As far as we are able to gather from the reproductions, the works are put together from a variety of media. Hence, for example the sheet goldene Kammer (Golden Chamber, see p. 121) appears to be a reproduction of a somewhat overexposed photograph that inexplicably becomes coloured at one edge of the image. This reproduction seems to be drawn on with gold pen and imprinted with a likewise gold, roughly rastered surface that turns into a three-dimensional structure. However, our attempt to grasp from this reproduction the material character of the work that is reproduced should also be shaped by scepticism as a result of our knowledge of Ellenrieder’s paintings and sculptural works. Perhaps what we are also dealing with here—as in the case of the painting Oberlicht—is not something medially and materially inhomogeneous but instead a visual imitation of it. Making this distinction is, however, more difficult when faced with the reproduction than when confronted with the original. A dissonance between the appearance and the essence of an object, as is inherent in the sculptures Bidonville and Haufen, can hardly be apprehended any longer based on the reproductions of them. Here, one would indeed require that warning ›Ceci n’est pas une pipe,« which Magritte wrote under the pipe in his painting The Treachery of Images, in order to prevent any confusion between thing and likeness in advance. »This is not cardboard, not wood, not press board,« Ellenrieder might correspondingly add to his installations, and the sentence »This is not a montage« to a painting such as Oberlicht.
In the case of goldene Kammer, such a warning would be particularly helpful. However, it would also be worded differently: »This is not a reproduction.« It is here that the pivotal difference to Oberlicht, Bidonville, Haufen and all the other works that are reproduced in this book lies. Since what we are dealing with here is not with the image of a work of art but rather with this fact itself. This observation is of profound significance, since, as a result of it, every relationship between production and reproduction that was fundamental to Walter Benjamin’s distinction between a unique artistic creation and the mass reproduction of it is thrown to the winds. This distinction becomes void when we are dealing with works of art that are first created at all in the act of printing and are thus manifold. It is therefore not possible to differentiate in a useful way between original and reproduction, between the work and an image of it, nor does the art exist outside of the reproduction medium. As a result of the use of reproduction techniques for artistic production, categories that not only come from another time and a different artistic climate but are also still inscribed in our reception of art in a way that is just as immutable as possibly obstructive are put to the test.
- Dorothée Brill
- in ›Wolfgang Ellenrieder—Hybrid‹, Lubok Verlag Leipzig, 2015