BY Dan Fox in Features | 11 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Conditioning Empathy Through Love Songs

How Friedrich Kunath enforces ‘togetherness’ through our shared pop culture vernacular

BY Dan Fox in Features | 11 NOV 03

This article was written to the accompaniment of the following records:

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me. This statement of autobiographical fact also happens to be the title of The Smiths' last single, released during their acrimonious split in 1987 - a maudlin cry for an end to loneliness. Like the mournful one-eyed giant gazing longingly at the sleeping nymph in Odilon Redon's painting The Cyclops (1898–1900), the song speaks of unrequited desire. Redon's dreamy vision is scrumbled and hazy, as if unable to focus or put a finger on just what the poor beast feels. The song's generalisms and sense of resignation - 'the story is old, I know, but it goes on' - are just as vague. Both hint at the desire for an ideal rather than a specific individual. It's about knowing that you need something, but not knowing exactly what form that something might take. A soundtrack of love, hope, isolation and despair.

Ninety-nine percent of all pop songs are about love and, perhaps, so too is most art - in as much as it deals with our individual relationships to each other and to the world. No matter how deep the terms of discussion are couched in abstruse philosophies or socio-political histories, a lot boils down to economies of exchange: the fundamentals of how we see each other, how our bodies co-exist with one another and the objects around us. Whether it's a lover you're seeking or God, what's engaging you is essentially the impulse to define the ineffable. In recognizing the need for something to fill the gaps left by an absence of religion or of adequate scientific explanation, we cry out for a phenomenological alleviation of loneliness. As Glen Campbell sang in 'Wichita Lineman' (1968): 'I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.'

Odilon Redon, The Cyclops, c. 1914, oil on cardboard mounted on panel. Courtesy: The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo 

Culture is a lonely hearts club band of poetry and song. Through a kind of conditioned empathy I can relate my specific experiences to a film or piece of music just as easily as you can relate to precisely the same film or piece of music with your own emotional knowledge. The artist Friedrich Kunath might call this 'togetherness'. It's a word that crops up from time to time in the drawings, prints and videos he makes. It could be referring to the melancholic thread that binds his works. Perhaps it's a balanced state of mind - about being a 'together' kind of person. Most likely, it refers to an ideal - a eudemonic, balanced relationship and sense of belonging.

Kunath creates an architecture of pathos that is traced, defined and deployed through reference to the shared vernacular shorthand of popular culture. Often taking the form of a song or book title juxtaposed with apposite found images referring to languages of love and failure, the mechanisms in his work are forged from chains of association and the common experience implied therein. Like discovering a shared passion for something with a new acquaintance, the recognition of an appropriated drawing or song title immediately creates a binding effect between you and the object. Just as my dream last night seems best described by way of an 1980s pop song, so Kunath suggests a form of communication that could be formed entirely from names or titles.

Friedrich Kunath, I don't worry anymore, 2016, acrylic and ink on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Wikimedia Commons

His images ache with the sweet pain of melancholy. Lines about longing and failed relationships are flung out in such a barrage of heart-breaking pathos as almost to strip emotion from its own linguistic vehicle. As James Surowieki wrote in an article on the band Pavement: 'When someone sings "I love you" the language is public - who hasn't said "I love you"? - but the emotions are utterly private. (Actually, love songs raise the worrisome possibility that even our deepest emotions are painfully common.)' This raises curious questions about art and sentimentality, and the extent to which we imbue objects with our own subjective qualities. In as much as art is communication through lifeless materials arranged into a form we tacitly agree is something called language, essentially you're just talking to yourself. Is there not a certain degree of anthropomorphism is the extent to which we ascribe so much value to our favourite books, films or pieces of music?

In a sense Kunath touches on that hope we invest in materiality. In one untitled work he subtly alters William Blake's cartoon I Want! I Want! (1793) - an allegory of optimistic (or futile) ambition in which a figure attempts to hook the moon from the sky - adding an extra crescent to the moon and thereby transforming the lunar object of desire into the Chanel logo. Clothes, we hope, will transform us, just as we also hope books, records, houses, cars, hi-fi systems, designer furniture, TVs, videos, mobile phones, watches, jewellery, computers, kitchen appliances, smart restaurants, digital cameras, package holidays and organic bread will all make us better people. We're just chasing phantasmagorias of happiness.

The Legend Of Johnny Cash, 2005, album cover. Courtesy: Island Records

Kunath recognizes the pathetic heroism of the failed gesture. The flyer for his statement at Art Basel earlier this year sports a collage of a crystal chandelier hung from an unseen point in the sky, as if in competition with the explosive sunset on the horizon behind it. In another sepia-toned photographic piece the smooth contours of an empty beach are interrupted with the word 'Motherfucker' traced into the damp sand. Both images are tragicomic in as much as they speak of the inability of humans to articulate their innermost sense of beauty or angry frustration, just as the words you're reading now will never sufficiently convey every nuance of every reason why I, or any of the other writers in the magazine you're holding, do or do not find their subject interesting. A thin permafrost of solipsism will always prevent that. But failure can only be understood in terms of ambition, and therein lies its value.

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me, and this morning, as I sat down to write, Johnny Cash died. Not that there's any concrete causal connection between the two events, of course. Rather, both crackled and sparked as they bounced, like Kunath's work, across the cultural matrix that connects you and me through song and sentiment - a feeling as light as the pop song that your radio alarm clock woke you up to this morning, and as heavy as the loneliness that descended immediately after.

Main image: Friedrich Kunath, What Difference It Makes When It Doesn't Make Any Difference Anymore, 2014, installation view. Courtesy: Carl Court / Getty Images

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).