Victoria Pihl Lind
Oslo Kunstforening, Oslo, Norway
What is the relation between our innermost thoughts and feelings, and the language of art? This is one of the recurrent themes in the numerous letters exchanged between the Jewish poet Paul Celan and the Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann. After falling in love in 1948, they saw each other again only a few times, but their epistolary love affair continued until 1967. Their letters are a thought-provoking interweaving of love, friendship and art. They also serve as evidence of how the relationship among them is continually under negotiation. When one reads these letters today, the difference between Celan and Bachmann’s concept of art, and our contemporary view of art as a commodity or an exercise in entrepreneurship and calculated style, soon becomes painfully clear.
During the Holocaust Celan lost his entire family and was left alone with German, his native language, as the only intimate means of speaking about his experience. The drawback, however, was that German was also the language of the Nazis and, hence, for him, coloured by violence and loss. The poet’s solution was to salvage German from the hands of the war criminals through another, tactical use of the language. Through poetry, he could refashion German for his own purposes. In Celan’s acceptance speech for the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958, he stated, ‘poems are en route: they are headed toward. Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.’ In one of Bachmann’s Frankfurt lectures, she, like Celan, insisted on the importance of reaching an ‘approachable reality’ in art.
These letters and talks are the background for Victoria Pihl Linds’ solo exhibition, ‘A Tone to Play – ABC According to Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’. In her work, the artist deals with their words, or perhaps remediates them, through three, visually sparse, video works. A Tone to Play (2012) consists of two large wall-projections: in the first, two men walk around a schoolyard. One of them quotes Celan’s poem Matière de Bretagne. The other projection shows us a close-up of one of the actors reciting Celan’s above-mentioned Bremen speech. In another work, Jerry Bachmann (2012), we are presented with a mix of Bachmann’s Frankfurt lectures and fragments from the Celan–Bachmann-correspondence. In the final video, Untitled (2013), we see a woman’s face going though a variety of subtle facial expressions. She says nothing, she just waits, like Bachmann, at times, would wait for Celan’s reply.
Lind’s show, then, is a collage of quotations converting the written realms invented by Celan and Bachmann into visual poems of the artist’s own. By re-imagining art as a medium for communicating with the other in an intimate manner – as ‘an approachable reality’ rather than something given – Lind is less concerned with the actual content of the letters than she is with the structure in which they are written. The exhibition retells the epistolary affair as a pedagogical narrative about the intimate aspects of language, uncovering the potential of inventing new, local forms of language rather than accepting the standardized structures of communication. In this sense, the show tracks a certain idiosyncratic use of language, which poetry and art share with the language of lovers and close friends – a use of words that is defined more by the alliances and forms of attention they create than the amount of information they transmit.
The point for Lind, it seems, is to highlight the conditions for the formulation of singular experiences, ideas or emotions, which make it possible for people to form intimate alliances in both art and life. The show is, in this sense, about reclaiming something that belongs to us, rather than the art world per se: our own experience of art as a resource for ourselves. While Celan re-wrote Reichsdeutsch in his own image, and the concept of love together with Bachmann, we can also invent aesthetic forms for connecting with others and ourselves.
Lind’s way of thinking is not a repudiation of the languages of contemporary art, however cynical or shrewd they may appear, but rather a question of actively putting art works to work as instruments for processing our own experiences and identity-formation. ‘ABC according to Celan and Bachmann’ reminds us of the value of time, creativity and attention in an increasingly digitalized world of social media and standardized tropes of communication.
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