in Opinion | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Mechanical Thinking


in Opinion | 01 JAN 98

The construction of non-functional, 'philosophical' machines might appear to be an artistically anachronistic occupation. If the gadgets are rendered in paint on canvas, as is the case with Iranian-born artist Nader, it makes the whole endeavour even more reminiscent of early modernist mechanical dreams - Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer's studies for his Triadic Ballet (1921), say, or Francis Picabia's erotic machines. In the latter's Parade Amoureuse (1917), the title deliberately misleads the viewer as to the content of the painting. Nader creates a similar tension between image and title, but here it is not a question of eroticism, but of metaphysics.

Titles such as Painting Plato watched by Aristotle, French Neo-structuralism and Fountain (from the left: Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche) make one wonder if the whole thing is a joke. The question is: Why attempt to paint philosophy? Or, considering Nader's background as a student of Joseph Kosuth: why paint at all? The canvases offer no straightforward answer to these questions, but a close study of them will disclose a surprising logic. Some components recur in a large number of works, suggesting a mechanical alphabet that is perhaps possible to interpret allegorically. The scenes depicted are enigmatic: human beings, or certain parts of their bodies, are linked to mechanical devices - wires, wheels, pedals, scaffolds. In the 1996 'Artificial Animal' series, for instance, the same half-human figure returns many times: the upper part of a body poised on a thin crutch, the head hidden behind a steel helmet and the hands pedalling a little wheel to which wires are attached in a seemingly ingenious, but ultimately incomprehensible fashion. The machine appears to be involved in a demanding but pointless task, furnishing the energy needed for its own functioning, but of no use to anyone else: a perpetual motion machine without any relation to the outer world, a mechanical device caught in a vicious circle.

The figure appears in another painting, pedalling along in the same pathetic way, but now situated within a large industrial structure. The title of this painting, Schwarzwald Philosophy (Black Forest Philosophy, 1996) gives us a hint to its meaning. In his novel Holzfällen (Woodcutters, 1989), Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who enjoyed ridiculing earnest German thinkers, portrayed Martin Heidegger as a complete fool, strolling around in the Black Forest dressed in lederhosen, developing his ultra-conservative Schwarzwaldphilosophie. No doubt, the title of Nader's painting refers to Bernhard's portrait of Heidegger. But how does this help us in the deciphering of the image? Is the little pedalling fellow a representation of Heidegger, and the painting as a whole a kind of parody of his philosophical ambitions? Or is the image seriously inspired by the Heideggerian critique of technology?

Nader is, I believe, quite earnest in his attempt to imbue painting with a metaphysical atmosphere, and he is by no means satisfied with poking fun at certain metaphysical thinkers. His paintings attempt to revitalise a philosophical tradition which has run dry, and in that sense his endeavour is not unlike Heidegger's retrieval of Western metaphysics. The drying out of the tradition is depicted literally in Fountain (from the left: Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche), showing a monumental stone fountain with five imposing columns from which the water has almost ceased to flow. Of course, bombastic images like this verge on kitsch, and the artist, I think, appreciates this.

Philosophical machines are perhaps more common in modern literature than in art, and Nader's paintings have more in common with certain bizarre contraptions in texts by Kafka and Raymond Roussel than with visual artworks depicting modern technology. But mechanical fantasies don't signify the same thing today as they did in early Modernism. 'The machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age,' to quote the title of an exhibition by Pontus Hultén, is no longer a threatening figure. On the contrary, we now see these machines as weak and stupid.

Is Nader on Heidegger's side or on Bernhard's? He is obsessed with Western philosophy, but his images, although 'metaphysical' in content, convey a sense of irony and mockery. Philosophy may be dead, as Nader recently suggested in discussion, but his images do not appear to mourn the loss. They lack the melancholia of, say, de Chirico. Despite the serious themes suggested by the titles, they often remind me of Rube Goldberg's cartoons from the 30s, depicting the fantastical apparatuses of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. Even if the titles claim that what is in question are quite complex themes from Leibnitz or Kant, they have the same direct brutality as Goldberg's drawing Sure Cure for Nagging Wife (or Husband) who Continually Criticises Your Driving.

Often, Nader's allegories remain incomprehensible, but some images work in a immediate fashion. One of my favourites is Encounter between French Structuralism and German Existentialism (1996), a unique attempt to render two incompatible movements visible. Structuralism, of course, lacks body, and moves around on stilts. Existentialism, on the other hand, is an enormous grey octopus, all 'legs' searching for the ground.