BY Mark Pimlott in Reviews | 06 MAR 94
Featured in
Issue 15

Human World

BY Mark Pimlott in Reviews | 06 MAR 94

The streets of Norwich are those of a beautiful, ordinary town. There is a built-up historic centre that one can find one's way around, suburban areas outside with buildings of varying comfort, some industrial areas, railway yards and recreation grounds. Still further out of the centre, there are trees and parks that surround larger houses, leisure facilities and a university. The topography is neither flat nor mountainous, but it is memorable. A street in the centre will suddenly crease into a broad hill covered with stone paving stones. A canal will appear, flowing alongside an old industrial building which, due to change, finds itself near the middle of the town, which was once its edge.

Although this is a description of Norwich, it might well be used for many other towns. They need not be English, but any one of thousands in the contemporary industrialised West. The more specific the description, the more adequately Norwich will be represented, true. But what is difficult to ignore is the resemblance shared between one place and another: the generic that resists the specific. The world of cities and things is like the world of language. Words that are used and the configurations they find themselves in inadequately convey the realities that they attempt to describe. When one person communicates to another, a further simplification occurs. To cover for the futility of ever-diminishing meaning, the listener interprets what he hears, making the language used by the other stand for his idea of the world. Communication is a form of agreement: language is the currency with which the communicants can make an exchange. The things in this world are standing in for an idea or a function. Things have public forms, and an infinitude of private forms, which have expression (signs, terms or appearances), and contain an idea of reality.

Stepping into a room - an art gallery - directly off one of those narrow Norwich streets, one finds a group of works, which at first glance look like ordinary things: there are some clay pots for plants, a piece of furniture with a glass top covering some pictures; paintings of cities and rooms; photographs of men in the air on the walls, and a few other things that are also familiar but a bit more startling. They have been collected under the title 'Menschenwelt' (or 'human world') by Martin Hentschel to demonstrate the world of such things. He speaks of this as a variation of Edmund Husserl's concept 'Lebenswelt' ('living world'), described as 'the world of immediate experiences that is a given for every individual - relatively and subjectively - through his modes of perception [and] memory.'

It is at the centre of the gallery that the premise of this exhibition opens up for the viewer. A little boy sits near a wooden kitchen table which is covered by a waxed, patterned tablecloth, bent at the corners and tucked around the boy's knees. This is a life-sized sculpture in wood and paint (Martin Honert, Foto (1993)) which has been made to resemble a real table, tablecloth and boy. What removes it from this actuality is that the manner in which it has been painted imbues it with its own light, which seems to come intensely from one side, casting a shadow over half the boy's turned head and over the folds of the cloth. As you approach from the front, the scene seems two-dimensional, as if cut out of a photograph. It is at this moment that associations flood into the work - through a convention of representation which is not that of a three-dimensional object. It is that of the family snapshot, a picture-type which is intensely suggestive of the private world and its experiences, yet familiar to everyone.

The character of the snapshot itself is nostalgic. Its own moment slips away from us as we look at it, rushing into the past as we remain in the present. It is a token which signifies lack more than resemblance. For a work to reside in this gulf would be desperate, tragic. However, it is the characteristic of our relation to the snapshot (which is perhaps a model for the way we use language to make the world of things intelligible) that to gather its receding image close to us, we must fill it, interpret it, make it stand for our reality. The relationship between the snapshot and its viewer initiates a process of construction. This characteristic of building the world through a kind of representation is common to almost all the work in 'Menschenwelt'.

Wolfgang Schlegel's Gate (1991) is a three-dimensional representation of a banal orange entrance gate. It is somehow built in perspective, both of the room and of some other place, vanishing either into the fictional surface of the gallery wall or the imaginary 'space' of the viewer. This is not merely some trompe-l'oeil; the image is lodged in the viewer's mind through thousands of encounters, rendering it as invisible as our words. When looking at Gate, the viewer recognises himself building the features of his interior world, which is also the world of others. Luc Tuymans' paintings are distant and fragmentary, of empty places containing little detail: Here the viewer undertakes to fill their alien normality. Michael Bach's paintings of buildings and the 'backs' of cities imitate their subject matter: they are constructions of paint. The viewer at once looks, recognises and builds. In the black and white photographs of Gisela Bullacher, men in hang-gliders, a biplane, and a parachute are suspended in space: the viewer must try to leave the ground and join them, to be weightless.

The representations in this show suggest that the here and now is continuous with the past, and the past is changed and constructed by each moment of the here and now. One cannot be spoken of or made without the other. The work in 'Menschenwelt', through its representations, builds the public/private world, the 'world of humans'. This exhibition seems particular to mainland Europe: it is somewhat out of the ordinary in England, where in both art and politics, the past is detached from the present for convenience, the present is provisional and merely a matter of sociological interest, and the future is a distant variation of Utopia.