Christoph und Markus Getzner

Von der Kürze der Dauer

The Brevity of Duration

Friedemann Malsch

Christoph and Markus Getzner have worked together for over ten years. In this time the brothers have developed an œuvre of great independence, which largely eludes clear positioning in the discourses of contemporary art. It is marked by the cross-fertilization of contrasting lives: if the one, a member of the cathedral masonry team of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, is firmly placed in the “vita activa”, the other, a monk in a Buddhist monastery at Lake Constance, is wholly dedicated to the “vita contemplativa”. Several times a year they come together to collaborate and create drawings, sculptures, objects and installations of great originality and precision craftsmanship, which invariably are informed by these two poles of human life.

The title of the exhibition already confronts visitors with a paradox: “The Brevity of Duration”. Brevity and duration are opposites; must it therefore not be “The Longevity of Duration”? Duration in common understanding is long and has a tendency to “eternity”. Brevity, on the other hand, has a limited duration! But both terms are also relative, for they depend on the chosen perspective. On closer inspection therefore the seemingly paradoxical statement of the exhibition title loses more and more of its contradictoriness. Thus life is long, and from the point of view of young people it lasts “forever”. But the older you become, the shorter life seems to you, and we naturally regret this brevity. Compared with the lifespan of a dog, a cat, much more an ant or a mayfly, however, our life is of long duration. By contrast, it is very brief compared with that of certain species of tortoise or even date trees, which lasts for centuries.

A similar paradox may be noted with respect to our ideas about basic conditions of life: marriage is for life, but after a more or less short duration many people find it difficult to endure, only often to again enter a “lifelong” relationship shortly thereafter. And in still larger contexts the same applies to numerous systems. They are created in order to produce permanent structures, but after a short time before the course of events soon sets them before the first major test, so that they must be modified or are even made obsolete. We know many examples of this, whether economic, political, cultural or even religious.

The length of brevity and duration is a bit tricky, and so the exhibition title tempts us to seek answers to these ambiguities in the exhibition itself. In the exhibition hall, a beautiful example of nineteenth century early industrial architecture, Christoph and Markus Getzner have set up a show consisting of completely new works especially created for this occasion. The large hall exudes duration. Its patina, which has developed over many decades, bespeaks its solid construction, and the protected status conferred upon it by the heritage authority is intended to prolong this duration into the distant future. Compared with this, the duration of the exhibition is an example of brevity.

But the two artists are not playing a game with concepts; they are not pursuing a strategy of self-reference. The focus of their thinking and making is rather life. All their sculptures, drawings and constructions, those created for the exhibition included, speak of this fundamental interest. The adherence to this fundament of artistic reflection also comes to expression in the fact that all the exhibits stand on the floor of the hall; alone the chandeliers and the lamps hang from ceiling. The artists have deliberately dispensed with pedestals and barriers, so that the works can exert their effect very directly on the Viewer.

The large-format drawings in double-sided wooden constructions divide the room in the manner of a kind of diagonal and so trace both a formal and a thematic arc. They act as room dividers and at the same time as brackets between and with the surrounding sculptures. And finally they mediate between two loose thematic strands, which follow the arrangement. This horizontal axis is supplemented by a vertical one consisting of chandeliers, lamps and the table at the back of the hall, around which everything seems to revolve. Here we find the central message of the exhibition: the monumental chandelier crowns the ensemble of table and transparent wooden box in which a human figure sits on an elevated platform, who is grotesquely small in relation to the surrounding construction. The leap in scale is surprising and disquieting; it reverses the proportions and catapults perception into a space of its own order.

The human and the animal figures in the other objects and constructions are very small, down to the dwarfish. Only in the large-format drawings is something like the life-sized approached. Yet should we take these scales at face value? The drawings in their wooden frames seem like screens, and we know that on a screen everything can be arbitrarily maximized or minimized. The drawing in the northeast corner of the hall, which obtrudes from the diagonal and which we first discover by walking through the exhibition [It would be helpful to have an illustration of this drawing and its placement to judge the accuracy of the translation.], is striking: a huge head shows the Last Alpine Farmer. Is this farmer still there, or has he already disappeared? Or is this figure a projection of the future? The questions pile up. By contrast, the sculptures seem “real”, even though they are small, because they can be perceived as bodies in space; that is, can be placed in relation to our own physical reality. Yet they are so much shrunk that they too seem to steal away – into a future, into a past, into even a fiction?

Let us now turn to the materiality and the construction of the works: here too there is no feeling of security, for material “justice” is systematically eschewed. For example, the chandelier consists of wood, glue and papier mâché. What at first glance seems splendid and glamorous turns out on closer inspection to be shabby and useless. The candleholders of the chandelier are also made of papier mâché, a highly flammable material and so impractical. And even where everything seems to be right, as in the fish sculpture, nothing is right. The fish body, which seems to consist of natural stone or to have been cast in concrete, quotes the formal language of fountain or architectural sculpture. It seems massive and heavy. In fact it is neither, for it likewise consists of papier mâché. And the spinning wheel in another construction is only partly of real wood. The flywheel, which controls the transmission of force and therefore must be of heavy material, is also made of papier mâché.

Nothing is as it seems, and this is a central message of the art of Christoph and Markus Getzner. They refrain, however, from providing us with a recipe for how we should deal with this knowledge. Often the construction of their sculptures has a precarious balance, which emphasizes the instant, the fleetingness of a constellation. This should lead us to feel uncertain, unsettled. Paradoxically, however, the artists contrive that this does not happen. Instead their approach arouses our curiosity, and we look closer. And then we discover the actual messages, which always speak of life itself.

This brings us to the thematic strands of the exhibition. On the south side of the hall runs one strand in a loose narrative of man’s involvement in the mechanics of systems, the technological and the social, ranging from the domination by machines to progressive self-liberation from these constraints. To begin with, we see three figures fixed on a vehicle placed on a rail which, like a model railway, constantly completes the same circuit in an oval figure. The spinning wheel too indicates these repetitive cycles, while at the same time alluding to the motif of spun threads of life, an allegory already known to the ancient Greeks. But then a figure begins to free itself from the frame of a wayside shrine [Dann aber beginnt eine Figur, sich aus dem Rahmen eines Bildstocks … Is this what is meant? Again, an illustration would be very helpful.], and only a little farther on another figure jumps out of a box that had held it prisoner, and finally the horse stands freely on the fence [Again, a picture would be very helpful.] that was intended to fence it in. The sculptures on the north side of the hall, on the other hand, in dialogue with the drawings, stress the reciprocal relationship of nature, trees, animals and the elements with the forces that threaten them. Again and again in the drawings loom motifs of civilizational catastrophes, plane crashes, destroyed buildings and finally the executioner. Accordingly, the sculptures tend to shut themselves up again in zones defined by barriers or fences. The fish, we realize, is lying on an uncomfortable ornate rack, on which it seems at once exposed, helpless and defenceless.

Christoph and Markus Getzner work within an exciting framework of formal language and world views. Allusions to art history serve their substantive concerns. Drawing, painting, architecture and sculpture merge in their works into a highly symbolic amalgam that spans the material world on the one hand and the intellectual and spiritual world on the other. With their adroit interplay between stability and instability, pictorial tradition and image voidance [Bildentleerung. Not sure what exactly is meant here. Could it be something like “iconoclasm”?], cultural tradition and philosophical reflection, the artists succeed in creating works that initially pose a riddle. But if we give ourselves to these works, if we activate alike our sense perception and our thought, then they open a vast space which we, as viewers, can fill with our own insights. They enable us to live a concrete life, which brings action, thought and feeling together. And this shortens or dilates time. If time seems to us short, then it has been good. If we experience it as prolonged, then we have done something wrong.

 

Vaduz, September 2015/FM

Christoph and Markus Getzner

Interviewed by Herta Pümpel and Thomas Häusle

 

Thomas:

You’ve very deliberately chosen the profession of artist, but at the same time pursue other professions or vocations. How did you get into art?

Christoph:

There was a strong influence in this direction in our family, especially from our father who was a powerful influence on us and opened the door to the study of art. So in a certain sense the path was already marked out and I showed a big interest in it. One of my interests has always been to combine craftsmanship with the artistic. I didn’t enter on an artistic career right away, since I first worked in crafts and was actually very happy there. But my brother was always a role model for me, and in him I saw that there could also be another track. Through his influence I then found my second mainstay in art and now work at the cathedral on the one hand and in art together with my brother on the other. By myself I wouldn’t have done anything artistic; I was too uncertain for that.

Markus:

I’ve always been open to different disciplines, particularly literature, contemporary art and philosophy. My interest in art and philosophy is that one doesn’t exclude the other, they go hand in hand, but I would emphasize that my foundation lies more in philosophy. Philosophy is the breeding ground, so to speak, the mother of all the sciences, starting from which I try to make certain things visible.

The creation of art I see as a service and not as something elitist or aloof. To enable people access to art, to convey certain contents or to provide a little food for thought – this has its importance and here I want to serve or be a contributing factor.

Thomas:

For a long time you worked separately as artists. How did it come about that since 2004 you’ve been working as an artist collective?

Christoph:

External circumstances. On the one hand Markus wanted to stop or to work much less and I at the same time wanted to try getting into art, and there Markus gave me a hand.

Markus:

My ideal was to act totally from the underground or the background, to withdraw entirely by committing a concept or sketches to a suitable person so that he, without my help, could work further on it. My vision was to disappear completely from the scene and no longer exercise any influence on the concepts, sketches and models that I passed on. This would open for me the opportunity for a retreat so as to concentrate exclusively on spiritual workshops. I asked my brother if he could imagine working in such an arrangement, and Christoph said he would work only together with me. I asked my venerable master; he encouraged me in these reflections and gave me the advice to work together with my brother. It was in 2004 that we then began to work together officially.

In general, also in other work situations, as for example in the monastery, I’ve always preferred the part that takes place in the background, such as peeling potatoes.

Christoph:

Peeling potatoes is also important.

Markus:

But it’s also necessary that someone coordinates and delegates the work. I’d like to have more time for reflection, investigation and research, particularly in subjects in the visual arts.

Thomas:

Is there such a thing as a division of roles or responsibilities in your artistic partnership?

Christoph:

When he’s with me in Vienna the division of roles is that I do the cooking.

Markus:

You make the moulds; I have no idea of how to do this and can think myself into the process only with great difficulty. I already find it difficult to think myself into a negative form: where is the overlapping, how do you produce the impression or the cast positive form from the mould – all these things and this way of thinking are foreign to me because I have only a weak spatial imagination. Reading maps, orienting myself in cities, having a sense of time are all things that I find difficult. Therefore Christoph is responsible for the artisanal and the spatial aspects of our work.

Christoph:

And the philosophical background comes from Markus.

Markus:

You’re the one who takes responsibility for the third dimension. I on the other hand am more responsible for the second dimension.

Christoph:

We try to combine these activities by coordinating them.

Herta:

The name of your homepage, “Zwischenzustand”, “Intermediate State”, I take to be a kind of reference to our being, but also as a metaphor for your artistic work.

Markus:

Yes, it’s our immediate situation in life, that in which we constantly find ourselves. Every instant is a kind of intermediate state, the immediate instant before and that which follows and the one in-between is precisely the immediate state. The temporary, the not-final, are parameters of our being.

Herta:

In view of Markus’s being a Buddhist monk, does the philosophy of Buddhism play a leading role in the conception of your artistic work?

Christoph:

Philosophy is the substantive support of our work; these aspects come from Markus. For me the cathedral, the building, that is, the craftsmanship, is the essential support.

Markus:

If someone works every day in a cathedral and is constantly in this space, the architecture naturally exerts an influence on him. It’s the first-rate craftsmanship, the immediate communication of these craft techniques and the passing on of the artisan tradition that here play a major role.

The nature and workings of a spirit of which in turn our mechanisms of perception and our actions are determined and whose possibilities of both degeneration and cultivation are aspects that flow into our work.

Herta:

First Burst Your Own Chains, Then Liberate Your Fellow Sufferers is the title of one of your objects. Are the titles substantial parts of the works? Is the word an important part of your artistic vocabulary within your work?

Markus:

Language plays a major role and I feel a very great appreciation for language. Language is an important instrument and a tremendous cultural achievement. If we imagine that language for the communication of certain things were lost, the description of the simplest things would be extremely difficult.

You have the possibility in philosophy, for example, to describe things very precisely; on the other hand there are instants that can be better communicated through a picture than in words. Each medium of expression such as literature or music has its special strengths. Language appears in our work in a very reduced form, but it has the central function of broaching the leitmotif.

Herta:

In your artistic explorations the concept of time is a recurrent theme. Transience, incessantly advancing time, manifests itself in objects and pictures; the title The Brevity of Duration directs the viewer’s attention to these concepts. Is the preoccupation with one’s limited personal time and own transience the driving force of artistic creation?

Markus:

The preoccupation with limited personal time is the driving force not only of artistic creation, but also of all human activity. In the confrontation with your own mortality, you gradually learn to recognize what things are essential to our being. Looking into the face of death shifts values and value systems.

Herta:

A central concern of your artistic work is to address the current global situation and the problems, effects and consequences of industrialization such as migration, rural exodus and anonymity. These problems appear in your works. Can art as such make a difference, turn things around, in these matters?

Markus:

Here I have no illusions; I don’t suppose that art can act to change society; for this other forces and large movements and developments have to be brought to bear through action or through the conduct of a collective. But in spite of everything, I have no doubt that art and culture fulfil important functions. If the ceiling of art and culture were to fall in, if we were to say we don’t need either art or culture because they don’t pay – a common argument of anti-cultural positions – then we’d very soon find ourselves in a state of barbarism.

Art can convey values and, for the viewer who is open and willing, it can provide an impulse that stimulates and enhances awareness and sets other things such as education and the education of the heart in motion. And this is important, for as Heinrich Heine put it in an aphorism: “Money is round and rolls away; education is forever”.

Christoph:

There were several responses of visitors to the exhibition, particularly to the picture Der letzte Bergbauer [i.e. The Last Alpine Farmer], the farmer juggling with trees. Looking at it, the viewer realizes “we have to do something”, something has to happen – especially the younger viewers, who are more critical.

Markus:

Great things and upheavals in society cannot be initiated by art alone. But in spite of everything, you have to begin small. Your own self-reliant action contributes to constructive change. Things that take place in the cultural sector are like a springboard that can lead to further, deeper reflections, which give you the opportunity of recognizing connections. In the process of knowledge the effect can be very subtle and almost imperceptible. Many gross, obvious effects are nothing more than the result of countless antecedent small effects, which in turn are the result of an interplay of cause and effect.

Christoph:

That’s why an art book accompanying the exhibition is so important. It’s like an extension of the exhibition and beyond this contributes considerably to a better understanding of our work. It serves the viewer as a support. The mediating medium of the art book was worked up very comprehensibly by Martin Oswald, kept simple, and the response has been very positive.

Herta:

The execution and conception of your works is based on circuits and cycles. This is done with a view to both biological processes in the process of nature and sociological and social-political structures, as when you speak of the “cycle of poverty” or the “cycle of violence and the resultant fear”. How can I pursue this idea in your works?

Markus:

This is a very important aspect in the conception of our work. The turning in circles, the oval track, found in figures in the exhibition, indicates repetition, the constant repetition of our history. Violence is usually followed not by reconciliation but by more violence. If you observe how people respond to difficulties, you get the impression that the ultimate ornament of society will be weapons – weapons will speak and not words. This is suggested by means of circles, the repeating of, the not breaking through a certain behaviour.

Christoph:

We build fences and learn nothing. There’s no real development. But a cycle can also mean something positive; I think of my work at the cathedral, that you have a certain routine in work, and the repetition radiates a calming influence. I also see “cycles” in this way.

Herta:

The current exhibition at Kunstraum Dornbirn is redolent of some aspects of sacral interiors. The central table awakens associations with the mensa of Christian churches. Is it right that Christian iconography and Buddhist philosophy coexist as equals in your world view?

Christoph:

The sacral atmosphere of the assembly hall appealed to us of course from the beginning. The mensa with the chandelier above it reinforced this impression. Christian iconography is incorporated in our work in a very concealed manner. The chandelier stands for a ceremonious occasion, and here, in this historical industrial assembly hall, acts as a surrogate relict.

Markus:

It should never be a problem when different cultures, religions and beliefs meet, provided you are open-minded. I therefore have always felt this is an enrichment and have never seen in it any shortcomings. But if you’re afraid of the new and unknown, it can of course be a problem.

Herta:

The chandelier that isn’t illuminated, the lamps along the longitudinal walls that remain dark. The era of the Baroque is past, Christoph told me yesterday; are we now in a dark age? Is your world view negative?

Markus:

Our world view isn’t negative; it’s shaped by neither pessimism nor optimism, but rather makes every effort to attain a realistic point of view. The fact is that we find ourselves in a degenerate time, characterized by several features such as ethical decay, widespread erroneous views, the frequent appearance of gross, detrimental states of mind such as hate, greed and ignorance. If the room is dark, you can’t perceive the things in it correctly. If you walk through a dark forest, you see many things that aren’t really there. A classic example is when, at dusk, you see a piece of rope lying in a meadow and think it’s a snake. In the instant of apprehension the emotions are so real and specific that all the fears arise which you would feel if the rope were a real snake. Darkness stands for this mental derangement, confusion and ignorance. The lamps that no longer illuminate should be a warning, a warning light (though it doesn’t shine) that reminds us to be mindful lest we fall into a mental derangement in which we lose the control and the overview over our actions. This has to do with obscurity, having no distance, no clarity and no light. There are undoubtedly times in a society which are so degenerated that they herald a dark age.

Thomas:

Your visual language is shot through with recurring figures such as the drinker, the watchman, the last Alpine farmer, the dwarf, the maiden. What is the significance of these figures and what do they stand for?

Markus:

We frequently work with the principle of repetition. The same figures return again and again, but in different contexts. The figure of the drinker stands for intoxication, the intoxication of youth and youth culture in our society, where externals such as the body cult are so much in the foreground that we lose sight of the essential. An example: a teenager who simply can’t imagine what it’s like to grow old and frail. When I was young I too didn’t have any idea of age. But other circumstances can also completely absorb and monopolize you – for instance, an exaggerated concern for your possessions, wealth, position or the reputation you enjoy. In this way there remains neither space nor time to think seriously about others. You’re completely blocked, as if in an intoxication that you can’t come out of; the figure of the drinker is a symbol of this.

Christoph:

The outer form of the drinker appealed to us, the roughness, the rustic aspect.

Markus:

The other figure is that of the watchman. He appears frequently in the drawings. The significance of the watchman is bound up with light. He is a representative of the idea that everyone should be a light, the appeal to the personal responsibility of each individual. In Buddhism it is said that “long is the night to the sleepless …”. Whatever you’re circumstances may be, you have the obligation of acting clearly and responsibly. In extreme situations – for example, during the Second World War, in which masses of people were uniformly controlled – there were still people who possessed the courage to hide Jews at the cost of their own lives.

This is what the figure of the watchman symbolizes with his lantern shining in the darkness, an individual who, even in difficult situations, assumes his personal responsibility and doesn’t bend to the conformity of the masses. If conformity contradicts important principles, such as ethical or moral criteria, you have to refuse to swim with the stream. This is the meaning of the figure of the watchman.

To mention briefly the remaining figures and their significance: the last Alpine farmer stands for the disappearance of important organic traditions. The dwarf is a creature from fairy tales who is active in secret, and so the dwarf stands for the spirit, which is very active and the starting-point of all action. Moreover the spirit is hidden in the sense that it can’t be perceived by the senses.

The figure of the maiden alludes to the theme in the visual arts of “Death and the Maiden”. It’s ultimately about the both confrontation with death and other difficult situations – here in the exhibition the confrontation with the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The independence and scope of technology and the lack of control over it has led to a feeling of helplessness.

On the other hand, the maiden is also an indication of the current bracketing out of the entire dimension of death. I think of Matthias Claudius‘s “Vorüber! Ach Vorüber! Geh wilder Knochenmann! Ich bin noch jung, geh Lieber! Und rühr mich nicht an“ [i.e. Pass me by! Oh pass me by! Go Grim Reaper! I am still too young – better go! And touch me not“).

We know rationally that we must die, but emotionally we cling firmly to the treacherous illusion that this final instant is not today but in the distant future.

Herta:

In addition to his lantern the watchman has a hammer – does he use it to smash totalitarian, sedimented, exploitative social structures?

Christoph:

The hammer can be a means; depending upon how you see it, you can use it to smash or even kill something, or as a craftsman’s tool to produce something. The hammer in and of itself isn’t bad; it all depends on what it’s used for, for what purpose these things are used.

Herta:

The objects are mainly made of papier mâché; they give the visual impression of being heavy, as if cast in concrete or cut from stone. In fact they’re very light. Is this illusion part of your artistic concept?

Christoph:

Absolutely. What visually seems heavy is often very light (in its actual weight). But what appears to be lighter to the eyes in many cases is in fact made of concrete. Playing with the surface, the colour similarity – the viewer shouldn’t rely on his first impression.

Another aspect is our studio situation (in the first floor of an apartment house), where it’s an advantage to make works of large volumes out of a light material; smaller pieces, on the other hand, can be cast in concrete.

Markus:

The concepts of mode of appearance and mode of existence are important. Often the mode of appearance and the way in which we grasp these things mentally have nothing to do with their actual mode of existence. Our inability to recognize accurately the actual nature of a phenomenon is a great deficiency.

Thomas:

In the exhibition we encounter again and again the categories of mindfulness and appreciation. Why are these concepts so central to your work?

Christoph:

Mindfulness, I’d say, especially in dealing with other people, for example, that you make time for those weaker than you. With us at the cathedral this is a central concern. We always celebrate Christmas Eve with the homeless in the Kurhaus. It’s important to be there for them; it’s always a very moving experience. For me it’s important to bring in this aspect.

Markus:

Mindfulness for me is a kind of memory. There are various kinds of memory; for example, a memory of the past. There is also a memory of the future, a visualizing of what I have to do next week. There’s also a memory of the present, in which I make present to myself what I’m now doing. Being fully aware of what is happening at the moment. This also means to be fully present and present in mind to the person to whom I’m talking or listening. This is mindfulness and appreciation, which we should cultivate systematically. Training yourself in this attitude takes place in the form of a process of knowledge and culminates in an attitude of respect as a sign of the appreciation of others – the realization that in the end you live and survive only thanks to others.

Herta:

Are the absurdity and limitations of human existence experienceable for an artist – or is the pursuit of art, and now I include the viewer, a means of better understanding our existence?

Markus:

The pursuit of art and the knowledge that goes with it depends on the viewer. During my university studies with Bruno Gironcoli, the philosopher Burghart Schmidt described the art work “as the sum of our intuitive possibilities”, a definition that at the time I didn’t understand. But if you open yourself, take the time and let yourself enter into something, you can better understand many things. What art brings about isn’t dependent on the art work alone, but above all on the viewer. An example in the context of Christian sculptures would be the following. They say: “This object is very rich in blessings” – for instance, a statue of Mary. What is this blessing? It’s the assumption that a certain salutary attitude such as brotherly love is reinforced by an intense encounter with the object. But the object alone doesn’t have the power to evoke this effect; the effect is above all dependent on the viewer. But there may also be people who see in the statue something disturbing and contemptible, so that in them it triggers aggression and they want to destroy it.

Depending on the mind of the viewer, the encounter with art can be fruitful and rich in blessings or detrimental.

Christoph:

You can see this very well at my workplace at the cathedral. Every day believers and non-believers come there who are open and are all very impressed by the building and the aura it possesses.

Markus:

To conclude, whether something is an object of desire depends solely on the viewer. Not on the object. We often forget that it’s only through the viewer the object becomes and object of desire or aversion.

Herta:

In the preparatory talks for our exhibition, you repeatedly directed my attention to the message of your work and set yourselves as creators in the background. On the invitation to the opening, the title of the exhibition is set before your names. Is the appeal of the much acclaimed “artist myth” foreign to you?

Markus:

We are on this stage for such a short time. Those who produce these objects are here very briefly, and those who are confronted with the sculptures too. What may have a somewhat longer existence, when the artists are no longer here, are the works. It seems that many artists see themselves as too important; we prefer to be in the background.

Herta:

Thank you for the conversation.

Video

Education

Art Booklet
Christoph und Markus Getzner
Von der Kürze der Dauer

Catalogue

Von der Kürze der Dauer
Christoph und Markus Getzner
Von der Kürze der Dauer

Katalogdokumentation zur Ausstellung mit Fotos und Texten von Friedemann Malsch und einem Interview von Herta Pümpel und Thomas Häusle mit den Künstlern.
Herausgeber Kunstraum Dornbirn
62 Seiten, Softcover
Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Wien

ISNB: 978-3-903004-73-3
10 Euro