BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Carlfriedrich Claus

Akademie der Kunste

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 SEP 11

Carlfriedrich Claus, Fernwirkungen des Russischen Oktober, Geschichtsphilosophisches Kombinat, Blatt 14 (Long-Distance Effects of the Russian October, Historico-Philosophical Combine, sheet 14), 1963, ink on paper, 21 x 30cm.

I’d been waiting for a Carlfriedrich Claus retrospective ever since I came across his work while researching the ‘unofficial’ art world of East Germany several years ago. Claus, who died in 1998, has been referred to as an artist, philosopher, essayist, concrete poet and sound artist. Although his entire career was shaped by his position in the German Democratic Republic, as this long-overdue exhibition revealed, his work is too nuanced, polymathic and idiosyncratic for him to be easily categorized as an East German artist, ‘unofficial’ or otherwise.

The majority of works on display in ‘Geschrieben in Nachtmeer’ (roughly, ‘Written in the Nightsea’) were Claus’s ‘Sprachblätter’ or ‘language sheets’ – one of his main art forms between the 1950s and ’70s. These works bring together his interests in the mutable relationships and tensions between the visual and the textual, as well as his explorations into Marxism via mysticism and Far Eastern philosophy, and his myriad investigations into subjects such as cybernetics, alchemy and botany. The ‘Sprachblätter’ were often made on transparent paper, so they can be approached from two sides – in the exhibition they were mounted accordingly – enabling an exploration, in Claus’s words, of ‘the dialectic specifically immanent to the page’. The surface of each sheet is covered in his tiny spidery texts that produce intricate, even hallucinogenic patterns. Sometimes letters emerge in Hebrew (which Claus had taught himself) or Chinese, but more often German. Eyes and hands frequently appear from the spiralling textual chaos, which is also occasionally punctuated by bright pink, blue or red ink. Titles that translate as Function of a Revolutionary Struggle (1962), Long-distance Effect of the Russian October (1963) or Psychic Engine: Homage to Ho Chí Minh (1970–1), provided clues to their often political or philosophical subjects, but any desire to fix meaning is consistently thwarted by the dialectical flip between reading and looking. This kind of dialectic was central to Claus’s work and philosophy: according to him, the works aimed to impregnate ‘ways of seeing with lingual thinking’. Whilst the look of the sheets suggests a kind of surrealist automatic writing, there was never anything unconscious about his process, which always involved sustained concentration on a specific problem. However, some of the Surrealists’ decentreing of subjectivity certainly entered Claus’s practice, as he often wrote and drew with both hands and experimented with writing in reverse. Throughout the exhibition, Claus’s experiments were nicely contextualized amongst notebooks, collages, documentary films, letters and manuscripts, as well as his photography. The latter was completely new to me, comprising a fascinating selection of small silver gelatin prints from the 1950s, frequently presented upside down. These played a simple but effective game with representation and illusion that clearly related to Claus’s philosophical experiments with words and sounds.

Although he has long been respected as an ‘artist’s artist’, and despite having developed an international profile from the 1980s onwards, Claus’s relative neglect is surprising. Whereas Joseph Beuys has been endlessly, almost hysterically, eulogized, Claus – a figure arguably just as important in postwar East German art and particularly influential in the GDR’s subcultural scene – is far from a household name. This is partly the result of circumstance: Claus spent the majority of his artistic career in relative seclusion in an oppressive cultural climate, outside the mainstream and the marketplace. He came of age in the 1950s under socialism and died only nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Viewed as politically suspect by the state, Claus passed up the chance to leave for the West on more than one occasion. A radical committed to art’s Utopian and Marxist possibilities, his work and paradoxical position in relation to the dogmatic nature of the everyday socialism of the GDR find many parallels with Ernst Bloch, one of his many long-standing correspondents. The latter decided not to stay to see out the socialist experiment, yet he continued to inspire Claus’s commitment to tracing sites of emancipatory potential for individuals and society.

No doubt directed by his friend Bloch, Claus also studied the Lurianic Kabbalah, in which he found some surplus of Utopian potential. Many have theorized that Jacques Derrida also shared a fascination for this esoteric Jewish tradition, due to the similarities between its teachings and his deconstructive philosophy of différance. Derrida’s critique of logocentrism, Of Grammatology, was published in 1967; Claus in some ways pre-empted it with his own critical examination of the slippage between speech and writing beginning in 1959, when he first began recording his ‘Klangtexte’ or tonal poems. Often titled ‘Lautprozesse’ (Sound Processes) these experimental performances emerged orally and were not documented in writing. In the final room of the exhibition, Claus’s experiments in sound were given form in a reconstruction of the Lautprozess-Raum (Sound Process Room), which Claus first installed in the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in 1995. The work involved a chaotic, looped overlay of 32 recordings of speech fragments and utterances. A perfect ending to the show, it made clear that all of Claus’s work, whether on paper or not, aimed at exploring the material and semantic nature of language as well as the perceptual, cognitive, psychological and symbolic processes – what we might call the technologies of the self – which enable us to begin to unfurl the intricate connections between our experience of ourselves and our social and political environments.

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.