In the Lagos Business Angels project (2012), the theatre group Rimini Protokoll explored Nigeria’s exceptional economy through presentations by experts who spoke on stage about their real lives and jobs in the country. Among them was business consultant Silke Jurkowitsch from Lustenau, a traditional centre for embroidery and lace-making, who described the longstanding commercial links between this small Austrian town in the Alps and bulkbuyers in Nigeria. Lustenau lace is famous in Nigeria, Jurkowitsch explained, and wealthy Nigerians buy this luxury product in huge quantities. She also described a significant regional difference among buyers: while floral patterns are popular in the country’s Christian south region, only abstract geometric patterns sell in the Muslim north because the lace flowers, however ornamental, are simply too figurative.
As this anecdote demonstrates, ornament is less about the idea of decoration than a drive towards the absence of figuration, a movement towards abstraction. With Ornament and Abstraction, curator Markus Brüderlin devoted an entire exhibition to this theme at the Fondation Beyeler in 2001; ornament – the great repressed element of modern (Western) abstraction – was restored to its rightful place in art history. In the show, Brüderlin traced a line from the early origins of ornament in the ban on representation in Islam, via the classical arabesque (essentially an abstracted floral pattern), to turn-of-the-century Vienna (for example Gustav Klimt), on into the Western European art of classical Modernism (Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian) and ending up at the abstract painting of artists like Jackson Pollock, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella and even Daniel Buren’s rigorously repeated stripes. In 20th-century Western art’s strict rejection of figuration and illusionist depth, Brüderlin discovered the themes of repetition and flatness which are so central to the principle of ornament.
The curator’s line of argument seems to go in the opposite direction to Adolf Loos’s famous lecture Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime, 1908). In keeping with Modernism’s frenzy of progress, the Austrian architect claims that this ‘evolution of culture’ was ‘synonymous with removing decoration from utilitarian objects’; almost a century later the focus was on rediscovering ornament in Modern art works. In Brüderlin’s version, what was banished from the applied arts as backward-looking bombast and ballast – as being at odds with a natural modern striving for clarity and higher things – is resurrected where one would least expect it: in the conceptual coolness of abstract art.
One could go one step further and identify a common principle uniting ornament and abstraction: the principle of destruction. By definition, both possess an anti-figurative, even iconoclastic momentum. Every revolution and every change of government, every upheaval and every changing of the guard – whether motivated religiously, politically or aesthetically – bears a more or less explicitly destructive element within it. Consider not only the ban on the likenesses of living things in Islam but also the Calvinist iconoclasm that hit Europe and its churches during the Reformation; take the dynamited Buddhas of Bamiyan, at the more radical end of the spectrum, or the simple removal of all the statues of Marx and Lenin following the end of real socialism; or even the attempt to make all other paintings superfluous by creating a monochrome painting. One could go so far as to say that even perfectly ordinary decay – the ravages of time – strips things of their figurativeness. Ruins, too, can become ornaments.
When one considers abstract ornaments as the results of destruction, then the attempt to put the pieces back together in some kind of order after an explosion ends up forming repetitive patterns which coax new meaning from the chaos of fragments. One shard is placed alongside another, again and again. But the original figurative image is never reassembled or restored. Instead, patterns and structures spread out, like ripples on a surface, around a deep, invisible, absent event. In this way, destroyed figurative images generate new ones – abstract ornaments as the traces of a violent history.
Ruins – art works ravaged by time, political regimes or even the environment – may be the only candidates for a global heritage today, for a truly common culture. A figurative sculpture – melted down, blown up or smashed into pieces – is no longer a likeness of a living or an inanimate thing, but only a misrepresentation of its former self. The ruined work is a figurative, explicit image only of its own destruction. As such, the ruin responds to both religious aniconism and the secular demand for informative images. Ruins – while evoking joy in some and sadness in others – are the only works that can accommodate a collective gaze.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell