Katalogdokumentation mit Fotos zur Ausstellung und Texten von Thomas Häusle und Lucas Gehrmann.
Herausgeber Kunstraum Dornbirn
zweisprachig Deutsch/ Englisch,
erschienen im Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2014
Stefan Waibel works with various artistic materials and techniques. The series “Ideal Nature Machine”, which is to be continued in Kunstraum Dornbirn, marks the pinnacle of alienation through becoming artificial in Waibel’s work. Materials such as metal wire, epoxy colour, UV light and wind machines are transformed into lawns and flower fields, whose artificiality is hard to surpass. Nonetheless, the installation, swaying gently in the wind of the fans, is perceived immediately and undoubtly as a depiction of natural phenomenon.
‘And now they were preparing the funeral pyre, the quivering torches and the bier: but there was no body. They came instead upon a flower, with snowy petals surrounding a saffron-yellow heart.’1 Thus the Roman poet Ovid describes the physical end of a Greek youth, whose mortal remains have just been transformed into a flower, which is henceforth to bear his name: Narcissus poeticus, commonly called ‘white narcissus’. It all happened less lyrically, however, in the life of this Narcissus, who was so proud of his beauty that he humiliatingly rejected all his admirers, including the mountain nymph Echo. Goddesses heeded the laments of the rejected nymph and punished Narcissus by blasting him with an insatiable self-love, with which he henceforward beheld his forever unapproachable mirror image. Even the realisation that ‘I am he. I sense it and I am no longer deceived by my own image. I am burning with love for myself. […] My riches make me poor’ cannot save him. He therefore further laments: ‘O I wish I could leave my own body!’, which indeed then happens in the manner previously described, and whereby the vain youth finds his afterlife not only in Ovid’s famous Metamorphoses and as the white narcissus, but also in our own days in the increasingly common personality disorder of narcissism.² And in a further metamorphosis he again reappears in Stefan Waibel’s contemporary work Ideal Nature Machines, which for several years has been shooting up in various dimensions from the soil of diverse art institutions, galleries, museums and private collections between Vienna, Basel and Brussels; mainly temporarily and ‘indoors’, but sometimes also for an indefinite period and outdoors, most recently over the summer months of 2014 in the factory-like halls of the Dornbirn Kunstraum. Here, quite in the spirit of its name giver, Narcissus poeticus moves for the first time into the centre of attention, within, as Ariane Grabher writes, ‘a shimmering neon biotope in which the viewer can stroll beneath fairy-tale-like, oversized coloured flowers and grasses swaying gently in the wind’;³ an over six-metres high art-growth, towering over the other vegetal members of this meadow-like ensemble and roughly corresponding to the actual natural plant in proportion and form, though strikingly deviating from Ovid’s description in colour: the artist has made the central crown of his narcissus mutant not ‘saffron yellow’ but luminous green, and its sextet of stamens deep blue instead of ‘snowy’ white. Which may in turn be tantamount to an optimization of its nature or goddess-given appearance in the mythological tale: cool and sublime at once, the Narcissus poeticus now looks down on its red-hot and greenish-yellow fellow flowers of smaller stature.
Stefan Waibel’s Ideal Nature Machine is not only suited to ‘optimizing’ the aesthetic and narrative-functional effect of individual plants, but, depending on how its name is interpreted, is also, as a (nature) machine, a (potential) producer of an ideal, that is, an optimized natural nature, or even manufactures nature in general as an ‘ideal machine’. Remote from a poetic-psychological way of thinking à la Ovid, however, this arouses in us a certain scepticism: what nature is supposed to be ‘more ideal’ than natural nature? And how is an ‘ideal machine’ supposed to work in reality when we know that in it ‘all processes are reversible and no energy is lost through friction, turbulence and the like’4, whereas ‘actual natural processes are always reversible’? 5 As a matter of fact the wind machine that effects the swaying of the plants and the UV lamps that produce the shining of the wire objects treated with fluorescent epoxy paint need plenty of (electrical) energy, which is ‘lost’ in the previously mentioned sense by their serving to generate the effects of movement and gleaming.6 Our scepticism is therefore warranted, the title is a bluff and the artist is at most a trickster.7 And yet this conclusion is too hasty. An equally striking fact is that, in entering Waibel’s ‘shimmering neon biotope’, we open ourselves emotionally more to the illusionist side of the scenario than to the technical-mechanical backstage, though the latter is not even concealed from us. ‘The interesting thing for me in the installation is the responses of the viewer’ says Waibel after repeated observation of his public: ‘Often they tip over into it; the movements and forms have a soothing and familiar effect; there emerges a state of mind similar to that of someone looking at a meadow with tall grass swayed by the wind, at water or fire. There arises the sense of an idyll, although that is exactly not what it is’.8
No less interesting is the question that arises as to our perception of natural nature in relation to a concept of nature shaped by civilisation. What are we talking about when, for example, we talk about “untouched nature”? Have we ever been in it, can we still find it at all? A lover of mountains and nature, Waibel has described the entire Alpine region, valley stations, avalanche protection structures and summit crosses, not as a natural landscape but as an ‘overgrown recreational area’. We all know that elsewhere in the world, in the Sahara, the Himalayas and the Amazon, it is no different. So that talk of ‘untouched nature’ is talk about an unknown, about a fiction, perhaps about an object of our longing; yet were we actually in this nature and delivered over to its forces, wouldn’t we long instead to be in our warm room near a supermarket promising that it has ‘everything here, here, here’? Friedrich Nietzsche, who had taken up the cudgels for the subjective experience of nature and man’s interconnectedness with nature, already polemicized 130 years ago against those philosophers who pretended to live ‘in accordance with nature’: ‘You would live “in accordance with nature”? Oh, you noble stoics, what a fraudulence of words! Conceive of a being such as nature – profligate without measure, indifferent without measure, without intention or consideration, without mercy or justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at once; conceive of its indifference itself as a power: how could you live in accordance with this indifference? Life – does not ‘life’ mean the desire to be different from this nature? Is life not evaluating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, desiring to be different?’9
The history of the drifting apart of (‘civilised’) man and nature, however, is at least as old as the story of Narcissus and his hubris. If we follow Walter Benjamin, we will already mark the end of the harmony between man and nature with the story of man’s expulsion from Paradise as the result of eating from the (forbidden) Tree of Knowledge, written around the 8th century BC, for ‘the Fall is the birth of the human word’,10 and so of man’s power of independent thought. From this point on, an order of things in which man lives but which he does not himself create no longer suffices him. But by ‘becoming himself a creator, he abandons the ground of his being. […] Eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge destroys not only the immediacy of man’s relation to God, but also his harmony with nature, which is now known and named only from outside. Nature has fallen silent. The lacking recognition of the nature of things brings with it a misguided intercourse with them, so that the original interplay becomes more and more confused. The order of things has become profoundly disturbed’.11
Let us now jump briefly from the Judeo (-Christian) Paradise to the Hellenic Grove of Akademos, which Plato acquired in 390 BC and which was to serve for over eight centuries as the seat of philosophy. It was in this garden that the ‘first cosmology of the occident’ intellectually restored the order of things, and at the same time ‘gave birth to a metaphor that has shaped thought up to the present: in the dialogue Timaeus, Plato describes the cosmos as an organism, as a great living creature’. Accordingly, only nature, which generates the diversity of living forms, is truly creative; technical designs, on the contrary, use natural processes as models and imitate them.12
We have now arrived in the vicinity of the technical and imitative-illusionist sides of Waibel’s nature-machine, but some time was still to pass before the idea of cosmos as a machine was to be added to the idea of the cosmos as an organism: ‘When in the fourteenth century Nicolas Oresme discussed the movement of the celestial bodies in his Treatise on the Heavens, the comparison to a clock serves him as an argument for the harmony of the universe. “For”, as Oresme says, “if someone was planning to construct a mechanical clock, would he not have all the wheels move as harmoniously as possible?” The implication that the universe is a clockwork is then drawn only a little later.13 In the seventeenth century, as a result of the mechanistic philosophy of René Descartes and Keplerian-Newtonian astronomy, the idea of the world as a machine at last attained the status of a scientific model. In the famous correspondence from 1715 between G. W. Leibniz and Newton’s student Samuel Clarke, the two thinkers speak of the world as a machine (sometimes in need of repair, sometimes perfect) as a matter of course.14 And in 1720 the German mathematician and philosopher Christian Wolff writes: ‘A machine is a composite work whose movements are founded in the manner of a composite. The world is like a composite thing whose changes are founded in the manner of a composite. And therefore the world is a machine’ 15.
Now at the latest, since the movement of the stars is controlled ‘mechanically’, the world works quite without divine intervention, no longer needs any angels ‘to propel the crystalline spheres of heaven, no earth spirits and demons to make the movements of the celestial bodies comprehensible’.16 So that poetry and all the other arts, which had so decisively contributed to the invention and symbolizing of all those angels and demons over the centuries, could be dismissed and sent into retirement. There were tendencies in modern times, however, in which the metaphors of the organism and the garden for cosmos/world and nature lived on and so, though they could dispense with angels and demons, conceded the language of art a role in the depiction of nature. ‘Subliminally, and at times along side the established natural sciences, they form a tradition that never wearies of correcting the one-sided mechanistic interpretation of the world. Bruno and Leibniz, Whitehead and von Weizsäcker develop a view of the world that assigns to the human mind its rightful place. They take into account not only the objectifiable side of nature and man, but also the subjective side of experience. Only from this interplay can a picture of the world as a whole again emerge, only then can new metaphors be formed.’17
Equipped with this re-legitimation of the ‘subjective side of experience’, we may at last open ourselves to the (environmentally incorrect) swaying of the (environmentally incorrect) glowing flowers in Waibel’s artistic statement about the clashing relationship between man and nature, and thereby leave the environmental incorrectness for the time being in its brackets. After a spell of contemplative beholding and strolling in this wondrous garden, the wind blows so loudly in our ears that we can sense how little an ‘ideal’ creation such a techno-nature ultimately is. That we could henceforth increasingly encounter this also outside the exhibition rooms would be a proof of the ultimate efficiency of the Ideal Nature Machine – as a knowledge-generating work of art.
1 Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, Book 3 (‘Narcissus and Echo’), 351‒510, line 510 here cited (with modifications) according to http://poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph3.htm#_Toc64106194.
2 See, eg., Peter Gray, ‘Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?’ psychology today, January 16, 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201401/why-is-narcissism-increasing-among-young-americans; and: Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Chicago: Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc., www.narcissismepidemic.com/
3 Ariane Grabher, ‘Hinein ins schillernde Wunderland’. VN, 26. June 2014, www.vorarlbergernachrichten.at/kultur/2014/06/25/hinein-ins-schillernde-wunderland.vn.
4 H. D. Baehr, Thermodynamik. Berlin: Springer, 1981, p. 142; www.physikdidaktik.uni-karlsruhe.de/altlast/33.pdf.
5 Cf. Hans J. Paus, Physik in Experimenten und Beispielen. München: Hanser, 2007.
6 In ‘real’ nature, the energy coming from outside or the entropy within a feedback system would be used by parts of the same system as input and could be ‘recycled’.
7 ‘Tricksters’ are figures in mythology who, by means of tricks, throw the order of the (divine) universe into confusion. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster.
8 Stefan Waibel in an e-mail to the author from 4. 10. 2011. The first series of flowers and grasses consisting of iron wire treated with fluorescent paint were already created in 2007 under the title Fleur du coleur. See also Karlheinz Pichler, ‘Stefan Waibel im Kunstraum Pettneu’. kultur-online, 27. 8. 2007, http://kultur-online.net/?q=node/1254.
9 Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft. Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1886, Erstes Hauptstück, 9. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by Jonathan Uhlaner.
10 Walter Benjamin, ‘Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen’ (1916). Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II. 1, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1991, pp. 140-157.
11 Regine Kather, ‘Gottesgarten, Weltenrad und Uhrwerk. Bilder vom Kosmos’. Hochschule für bildende Künste Saarbrücken (ed.), TightRope – the digital journal. Art, Science, Philosophy 4/ 1995, p. 7. www.forum-grenzfragen.de/downloads/kather_gottesgarten.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-43,534.
12 Cf. Regine Kather, ‘Die erste Kosmologie des Abendlandes. Platons Timaios’, Der Mensch – Kind der Natur oder des Geistes? Wege zu einer ganzheitlichen Sicht der Natur, Würzburg: Ergon, 1994, pp. 37–54.
13 Regine Kather 1995, op. cit. footnote 11, p. 13.
14 See Volkmar Schüller (ed.), Der Leibniz-Clarke Briefwechsel. Berlin: Akademie, 1991.
15 Christian Wolff, Anmerkungen über die Vernünfftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt, Frankfurt a. M.: Andräische Buchhandlung, 1724, p. 337.
16 Regine Kather 1995, op. cit. footnote 11.
17 ibid., p. 17.
Stefan, you studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in the master classes of Arik Brauer and Sue Williams. Your present work, however, is strikingly marked by an interdisciplinary treatment of artistic techniques. You’re painter, photographer, draughtsman and installation artist rolled into one. Where does this urge to pack artistic statements and ideas so diversely come from?
It has to do with the fact that I become bored rather quickly with artistic techniques. As soon as I have the feeling I’ve achieved a certain degree of competence in one, I’m drawn to something new. In this way a different technique opens up a different way of thinking.
Does that mean that artistic statement is independent of technique and can express itself in various techniques, perhaps also be complemented by various techniques?
Actually I work without a concept, have no precise idea and like to approach my work intuitively. Everything arises in the work process, where accidents too play a certain role. The series Alpen Warriors [ie. Alpine Warriors] arose from a spontaneous situation. It’s really about gadgetry, which naturally had a liberating effect. I come from the Arik Brauer tradition of pure painting, and in this tradition there’s the principle of the ‘self-imposed restraint’ at the beginning of the career of a young artist; that is, you set yourself limits, move within a spectrum. By dealing with photography and the processing of photos in the series Alpen Warriors, this self-confrontation developed into an act of liberation. I was working non-representationally; then photography came along as something representational, as a sterile medium in comparison with painting; this opened a whole new dimension for me.
The thematic framework of the exhibitions at Kunstraum Dornbirn in 2014 is ‘conditions of perception’. What influence are you trying to exert on the perception of the viewer in your work?
I’m trying to find an emotional access to the viewer. To grab his perception emotionally and make the access as easy as possible.
Are you creating only an access, or are you pursuing an intention? Do you want deliberately to influence the viewer?
Of course I want to influence him, but without announcing my intention in big letters. My works don’t have titles; there are only work series. Though admittedly with ‘Ideal Nature Machine’ plenty has already been said or assumed. I don’t think much of titles, because the viewer is then always inclined to think about what the artist means to say with them. But that’s uninteresting in principle. If a work of art leads me to the question of what the artist meant, then it’s worked. And if it doesn’t work, that’s all right too; then the response just remains on the surface.
Your access is intuitive, emotional, and leads to a possible change in perception, which, however, is acted out in and around the viewer.
I offer only nicely packaged surfaces for association so as to facilitate access.
You could also say the atmospheric, the aesthetic, as in the situation in which we find ourselves. The engagement with nature and art, or in other words with the natural and the artificial, is the true constant in your work. From Alpenglühen [ie. Alpine glow] to Alpen Warriors to Ideal Nature Machine, you’ve treated this tension repeatedly and consistently. What led you personally to this intense confrontation?
For me, it’s ultimately the central question of existence. This field of tension has of course always been around, but the social, economic, ecological and scientific developments of the last 150 years have brought the global situation to a head and will massively demand our attention in future. This is the question by which future generations, should there be any, will judge us.
In this confrontation, if we stick to the concept of the tension between the artificial and the natural, the natural is represented artificially and the artificial appears to us in natural motifs, which is virtually a revolution and magical illusion. Illusions show us nature where there is none, and show us artificiality in the form of nature. What can and should this illusion bring about?
When we look at this moving wire structure, what interests me first of all is the emotional state and that which develops out of it. It’s similar to looking at fire, a body of water or a field of wheat in the wind; it has something soothing about it, which has something to do with the forms, forms which everyone can recognise, such as the form or outline of a flower. The flower consisting of wire in the installation moves like a flower, and our perception recognises it as a flower; that is to say, we ultimately allow our feelings to be deceived.
It remains of course an illusion; the viewer recognises that what he sees doesn’t correspond to what the thing actually is. You create the perception of naturalness, of a flower meadow, but at the same time point to the conflict between art and nature, or the natural and the artificial. Or does this facet of illusion play only a subordinate role in your work?
For me, in the end, it comes down to the question: What is nature? I’m interested in the concepts we use to conceive of nature.
We call things nature that haven’t really been nature for a long time?
We say: ‘We were in nature’, but actually we were in a cultural landscape. We use the concept ‘nature’ but have no concept of nature itself. I’ve never been in real nature in its purest form, in situations that have never been touched by human hand, which could be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
We perceive a flower meadow about which there is nothing purely natural. Not the materials, not the light, not the colour, not the movement, not even the dimension. Do we have to abandon natural perception in order to refocus, to reflect on and re-think nature?
I think so.
In the sense that we supposedly have experiences of nature that have long had nothing more to do with nature but take place in cultural landscapes: we move through culture and think we’re enjoying nature. Is it this change of perception, or does it go deeper?
I wonder how it can be that humanity, with such a limited resource as the earth, for which there’s no alternative, can accept so great a risk. With respect to something as elemental as the earth, this is actually absurd. I wonder if this could be the reason that we no longer have any feeling for nature, that this lack brings us to take such a high risk.
We talk of nature, but everybody means something different by the word. A resident of Alaska has a different image of nature from ours; he knows the exertions and dangers bound up with nature. We, on the other hand, have an idealised idea of nature.
Does this stance lead to the markedly ironic side of your work? It goes so far that even the artificial, the mechanical, as such fails to function. The Ideal Nature Machine is likewise a flop, namely in the sense that it’s utterly inefficient. Does nothing at all really work in Waibel’s wonderland?
I think it works. As perversion. Just as we’re looking at it, it destroys the resources it displays. Here cynicism is taken to the extreme. It works only as a thought, association and illusion machine.
But the illusion machine is very soon and radically dis-illusioned in this cynicism. Is it for you ultimately about this disillusioning as the result of reflection, or is there still hope?
There’s always hope, for hope, as we know, dies last. My feelings aren’t as negative as they seem; I also see a great opportunity for humanity. From an evolutionary point of view, we’re living at a unique time; apocalyptic thought is becoming reality.
In earlier times, man could neither explain nor influence meteorites and feared them. Then there was for the first time a reality created by man: the atom bomb. Man needed only deliberately press a button and had for the first time his apocalypse in his own hands. Now we no longer need to refrain from pressing a button so that the apocalypse doesn’t happen; now we need to change ourselves. This is the central challenge. Man sets himself above the animal and can engage in future-oriented action. Can he really? Or is man behaving in accord with his nature when he depletes his resources? Like any animal. Ultimately, the question arises whether this definition of man in relation to himself and to animals is really the right one.
In the hope that there’s still hope, I thank you for this conversation.