Lexis: need we speak? And then how?
Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.
~Marie Curie, scientist, Nobel laureate (1867-1934)
from Carbon, by Lothar Baumgarten
The seventies were all about articulation, particularly for right-brained artists who often principally necessitate other means for expressing ideas… means other than the written or spoken word. Imaging is definitely a function of the right brain, while the act creative writing requires that both hemispheres of the brain collaborate in order to transform images into words.
For me, that culturally rich time period forced me to ascend from a form of adult artistic autism into that of a speaking and functioning human being. Later, as a result, it allowed me to enter into the world of semi academic discourse as well as to operate fairly competently in the realm of commerce. I often wonder if its’ pursuit contributed toward suppressing certain creative impulses in my personality in favor of more functional life preferences. We’ll never really know, however all the art gurus of the time encouraged artists to become more articulate and functional in the real world. Probably with a thought toward making us self sufficient in a society that does not support or encourage its’ creative component? Endowing us with simple survival techniques, I suppose one might say.
As a victim of those times, it was around that period --- perhaps the late 1970s – that I began to visualize words as images as an inventive thinker. Perhaps many artists did. I began conceptualizing the written word and print in terms of aesthetic values and qualities; analyzing the way that letters and words were shaped and evaluating what color or form each might assume naturally. Conceiving of words in that way made the most sense to me. Writing was certainly a form of drawing, just as image making (hieroglyphics etc.) was an ancient form of writing; all caught up in an attempt, originally as well as contemporarily, to capture and communicate ideas.
I don’t know how to tell you…
Not long ago, I came across an artist whose work speaks to me across the decades, both literally and figuratively, and seems particularly striking in its’ contemporary simplicity. Yet, also beautifully intelligent, its’ format echoes those 1970s expressive sentiments and continues the same sort of logic into present day application. He is Lothar Baumgarten (born in Rheinsberg Germany in 1944) and has become internationally known through his subtle culture critique. His work, often site specific, widely reflects a great concern for ethnographic stratum and local historic conditions. He lives and works in Dusseldorf, Paris, New York. In New York, he is represented by Minetta Brook and has done a stunning piece for them called Seven Sounds, Seven Circles.
One of the leading figures on the art scene over the last three decades, Baumgarten has participated four times at Documenta in Kassel Germany and has had numerous solo shows in museums around the world. From the very beginning his preferred field of action has involved drawing on the practices used by anthropologists for observing "other" civilizations. Over the years, in line with developments in anthropology, he has observed forms of otherness and what is submerged in the Western world. Between 1978 and 1980 Baumgarten spent 18 months in a Yanomàmi village in southern Venezuela, an experience that has deeply informed his work. Sensitive to the exhibition spaces, in his installations critical investigation acquires a poetic dimension and black and white photos coexist with written text on the walls.
In 2001, in a statement about his work at Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg Germany, Baumgarten writes:
My work is not a question of strategy or mode of opinion. Rather it is based on principles, guided by intuition. Measurement and proportion are the instruments of my thought and, a grammar which reflects the elementary spatial relationships and a rational sense of timing and emphasis are fundamental to my artistic practice. It is about the sensual qualities embedded in the body of space, its materialization and form. My work is not about installation or concept arts: it is art that does not ignore its architectural context. The work takes material form by integrating given structures into a complex whole and by creating a canon of references among individual, site-specific elements. This dynamic is a dialectic in which a critical discourse with contemporary culture unfolds within an architectural framework. The content becomes the form. My critical approach does not intend to offer autobiographical solutions to universal problems. I believe art should encourage us to question the status quo and the structures that allow it to persist.
The 1970s also taught artists something else about the way that we, and others understood, viewed and conceived of our own work. Regularly we were encouraged to question and reject everything; format, history, the industry and essentially all art world traditions that had come before us and were regarded as canon. So I recognize and enjoy it immensely when I read that Baumgarten does not like to be regarded as an installation artist. He does not care for the word “installation”, as it relates to his artwork.
The German artist is probably best known stateside for America Invention, his 1993 installation (a word he does not like) in New York's Guggenheim Museum. For his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1993, Lothar Baumgarten wrote on the exterior parapets of the Wright spiral the names of the indigenous North American tribes from Alaska to Mexico, and on the interior walls the names of the indigenous South American tribes from the Tierra del Fuego to Guatemala. He also added past participles evoking the violence suffered by these peoples (classified…, decimated…, abandoned…, baptized…). The result is a kind of non-official map of the American continent where what become evident – something also underlined by the non-neutral role exercised by the spaces of the quintessential modern art museum that provided the setting for this piece – are the relations between the construction of the identity of a place and the affirmation of power. The interior walls were inscribed with a curious assortment of words, both proper names (Lenape, Tupinamba, Woapanachke, Bororo) and an array of past participles ("abandoned," "decimated," "classified," "baptized"). The former were constructed by cultures in collision--colonialists and indigenous people trying to make sense of each other's speech and then converting the sounds into their mother tongues. The common words, of course, underscored the violence behind the linguistic event. (Approriately enough, a handful of PC individuals were outraged.) In effect, Baumgarten retrieved illicit names from a map and then, inside Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling ovoid space, created a global inversion: viewers examined the "information" from within. What's important to keep in mind are the borders the artist continuously crosses--both literal and ephemeral. The art of travel is very much an integral part of his aesthetic.
The son of an anthropologist, Lothar Baumgarten inherited his father's desire to study cultures that incarnate Europeans' idea of "the other," developing themes in his work on the difficult process of the meeting of cultures.
Baumgarten began his career with pieces that go back to the original German anthropological practice, like that initiated by Goethe, of describing a place without ever having been there, using only archival documentation and material readily available in his land of origin.
Invited to Documenta VII at Kassel Germany in 1982, Baumgarten painted in the neo-Classical spaces of the Museum Fridericianum the names of the indigenous societies of South America. Instead of the usual array of humanistic mottoes or illustrious personages typical of such buildings, he inserted the names of "others", using a blood red color obtained from a natural dye and adopted for decorative purposes, which explains the origin of the discriminative name ‘Red Indian’ (Monument for the Native Societies of South America).
For the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1984, Baumgarten produced a floor of marble slabs inscribed with the names of the big rivers in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. Devoting such attention to these names in the context of the Venice lagoon suggests a possible reversal of the traditional oppositions between the so-called Old and New Continent and emphasizes the process of naming that has governed the relations between the two continents right from the earliest contacts – the conquistadors attributed to new lands names that were familiar to them without taking account of the pre-existent culture ("América" Señores naturales).
Rheinsberg's Room was first exhibited in Düsseldorf in 1969. The title refers to Baumgarten's place of birth, Rheinsberg, a city in the Brandenburg region in West Germany. Reconfigured in relation to its new space at the Castello di Rivoli, the work was presented in its current version for its second showing. It alludes to the phenomenon of time in two senses, the notion of historical time (through the dialogue established with the architectonic context in which it is situated) and its transitory qualities (through the choice of material). The unfixed cobalt pigment used to color the walls expresses an intrinsic quality of the tropics: their ephemeral, temporary nature. Scattered on the walls are the names of plants and animals found in the southern hemisphere of the New World. The words evoke a composite scenario of tropical America; moreover, they refer to the Europeans' verbal appropriation of these lands and their inclusion in Western encyclopedic knowledge. They refer back to another era's longing to classify, in which the desires to conquer and to gain new experiences were combined and exercised by naming a hitherto unknown world. The names chosen for this space, their juxtapositions and interrelations, attach different gradations of meaning to an entire continent: how it can be perceived by the five senses and how it can be imagined by way of descriptions in books read in a room in Rheinsberg.
A beautiful book by Lothar Baumgarten, entitled Carbon is also an acme of his impressive portfolio.
The extensive body of Carbon consists of more than one hundred gelatin silver prints. There subject matter is defined through railway track structures, railroad bridges, semaphore systems and the remote endlessness of the North American continents landscape. They document the pioneering spirit of settling a landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the photographic work a series of wall drawings will be realized in situ. There geometrical configurations are built from the polyphonic names of those railroad lines and will be drawn directly on the walls. The given architectural context of the exhibition space determines the placement of images by shape, color and size. As part of the exhibition structure itself, there will be the presentation of the famous book Carbon, which represents in its results so far the peak of the over years developed collaboration between Walter Nikkels and Lothar Baumgarten.
Carbon came about during Baumgarten’s first survey on territorial expansion and setling of the West in 1975. An invitation by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1989 made him reconsider his frequent research. Then in four and a half month the photographic documentation was completed and the initial presentation of the project was held there in 1990. The exhibition did not show a single photograph, it only consisted of one, the whole space structuring wall piece. Initially the photographs were meant as guidance for the project and only to be used in the book. So was a large number of short stories written and were ten of them published in the insert of Carbon.
For Lothar Baumgarten the polyphonic names of the railroad lines embed their drama and tell about the history of meeting and clash by different languages and concepts of thought. They call to mind, on the one hand, the Native societies by their tribal and place names, on the other, they mark the advances of the unstoppable European settling of the continent. This advance can be discerned on the basis of the railway lines that extend across the country like a giant web. Many of the railroad tracks and embankments have been built by Chinese laborers. As such, these also constitute the forgotten story of a third population group.
I wasn't really looking for an idol or an art hero...
or at least I don't think so. Perhaps I was simply searching, randomly.
Constantly, I find myself contemplating a move back to the city, quite simply to revive regular dialogues with contemporary art makers. Manically, I crave the discourse. Yet, there is something extremely necessary and personally spiritual about my continued return to a very remote part of norhtern California where we keep a house. I like to work and to think in that culturally devoid place. Yet, as a result, I am constantly inundated with the "country cute" of so called art-making and it is frustrating. And for this reason, Lothar Baumgarten is such an inspiration to me, in his regard for nature, in his need to understand suppressed histories and for his ability to shape these views into nontraditional, intelligent commentary about the condition of the world in the 21st century. His work creates contemporary (post modern?) language for a genre screaming to be discussed, examined and portrayed in the present. Where others might shrink into the nauseatingly inadequate comfort zone of painting watercolors and glorifying Medieval forms of art making as rural expressions of spirituality and connection to nature, Baumgarten gives us new perspective and format for hearing and living in non urban environments without rescinding to primitive, inadequate and ineffective means of expression.
Yes, to put it simply and concisely (as folks might do in the country), I like the way Baumgarten thinks. I love the images. I honor the non medium. The fresh, mature, avant-garde perspective inspires me. It is heartening to see his artistic, modern and meaningful approach to a subject matter that I also find compelling, in a time when such systems usually only exist in sophisticated urban language.
Thank you Lothar for your profound intelligence and insight… for your vastly expanded and oh so appropriate vocabulary. Because of work such as yours, I am actively thinking and making art again, with a 21st century idiom now available to me for discussing and examining the open, undeveloped and screaming Northwestern American countryside.
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