BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

What Goes Around

Imagination as a form of resistance in the work of Klaus Weber

BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 01 OCT 10

At the tail end of winter in early 2009, Klaus Weber delivered a quantity of small- and medium-format primed and varnished white canvases to a bee-keeper’s grounds in Berlin. He spread them around the yard, propping some up against bushes or beehives, standing others on wooden easels, and waited for the painting process to begin. After some time the bees, which had stayed in the hives throughout the cold winter months, emerged to begin their annual ‘cleansing flight’ during which they expel the contents of their digestive systems. Weber’s plan was to exploit the fact that bees tend to choose clean white surfaces as the repositories of their seasonal expulsions – usually fresh laundry, cars or white-painted buildings. Offered the ready-prepared white canvases, the bees complied, spattering them with golden-brown residual matter in a satisfyingly ‘all-over’ manner. The resulting series of ‘Bee Paintings’ (2009), however, have little to do with the practiced drips and tortured self-consciousness of an artist like Jackson Pollock. They are perhaps closer to the visual experiments of John Cage – his ‘Wild Edible Drawings’ (1989–90), for instance, for which he collected edible plants from fields and forests and used them to make paper in a suite of drawings which could (at least in theory) be recycled as food.

The connection between the art work and the natural world in Cage’s drawings is even more explicit in Weber’s ‘Bee Paintings’, where the bees become active, if oblivious, collaborators. But while Weber’s paintings certainly embrace the Cageian idea of chance operations as a determining factor in their final composition, more significant is the transformational process that occurs as something extraneous and without value – the bee’s excrement – is harnessed to become the productive matter in a creative act. How and with what criteria can we evaluate paintings made by bees? And, once exhibited (first at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow and later at Herald St in London), how are they perceived within the mainstream system of art production and its commercial distribution or public exhibition?

St Seb Cactus, 2010. Cactus, mirror, string and laserprint on paper, 56 x 20 x 20 cm. All images courtesy: Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Herald St. London, and the artist.

A certain unruliness is characteristic of Weber’s work, though this is not to say that it is visually aggressive or sets out to shock. Its unruliness is to be found rather in its stubborn resistance to fit neatly into the usual forms of contemporary art production and reception. The Big Giving (2006–7), a sculpture commissioned by the Hayward Gallery and temporarily installed on London’s South Bank, was another case in point. A group of figures with sculpted heads and limbs protruding from huge misshapen lumps of lava-like rock, spew cascades of water variously from their mouths, armpits and nether regions, in an unusual take on the public fountain. As with the ‘Bee Paintings’, the transformation of worthless by-products is evident: here the rock is blast furnace slag, a waste product from the steel industry, while the spitting, sweating, pissing and spewing actions the figures perform are more usually seen as efficient means of eliminating bodily waste. Appropriated here for the purpose of the public diversion, they are reclaimed and remodulated into affirmative activities. The work’s title, meanwhile, refers to the potlatch gift-giving traditions of the indigenous Northwest Americans, a practice which can itself be seen as an extraneous system given that, in terms of the free-market economy, the gift has no value. Taken to the extreme, it could even be seen as a form of resistance. As Michel de Certeau put it in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), a book whose central thesis of the potential of ‘diversionary practices’ to establish resistance from within the mainstream status quo is uncannily pertinent to Weber’s work: ‘the loss that was voluntary in a gift economy is transformed into a transgression in a profit economy: it appears as an excess (a waste), a challenge (a rejection of profit), or a crime (an attack on property).’1 In the guise of a public fountain, Weber’s sculpture coyly demonstrates this three-fold transgression: excess, challenge and crime.

After graduating from the Berlin University of the Arts in 1996, as a member of the ‘Freie Klasse’ (a collaborative class run by the students themselves, critical of the traditional master-teacher model), Weber’s first activities were more activism than art work. He was involved in several collaborations, working with other artists in project spaces, on music, and as founder of the film collective A-Clip, which described itself as ‘a micro-intervention in the cinema space’, with short films made by artists, architects and urban theorists screened illicitly in cinemas between the commercials preceding the feature presentation. In early works Weber engaged the trappings of social authority to hypothesize on what might happen if, for once, they followed a different script. For the performance Demo Inverse (2001), an officially announced public demonstration without a public, a civilian car (the demonstration’s only participant) engaged a police van in an unwitting choreography; in Fountain Loma Dr. / W 6th St, (2002) a car crashed into a fire hydrant in Los Angeles in an orchestrated collision attended by two uniformed police officers. The performances were extraordinary stagings of quotidian spectacle, organized rupture and containment of the urban fabric.

Some years later in 2008, Weber’s comprehensive exhibition in Vienna’s Secession in many ways adhered to the usual format of an artist’s first major solo museum show, bringing together significant works and preparatory material from the previous five or six years. But as well as the various sculptural works displayed on white plinths and pedestals of differing heights were three elements that reached beyond the architectural boundaries of the institution, each of which necessitated the removal of several of the translucent tiles of the gallery’s suspended ceiling. Hanging intermittently in the space were trails of Tillandsia usneoides, or Spanish moss, which, side by side, formed slightly sashaying curtains. Throughout the course of the exhibition, these trailing plants, which survive by absorbing nutrients and water from the air, became progressively longer – sustained, literally, by the cultured air of this hallowed institution. Another hole in the ceiling tiles, opening an aperture in the museum’s architectural space, channelled a ray of sunlight, directed by a heliostat installed on the roof, into the space towards a pyramidal object on the floor of the museum (Sonnenorgel, Sun Organ, 2008). Constructed from sections of mirror positioned at angles, this divided and deflected the sunlight towards each of the works on display, providing a spotlight for each one from nature’s ultimate source of light. A similar but opposite effect was afforded by an enormous black wind chime, twice as tall as a man, which hung down through another punctured aperture in the tiled ceiling, and generated a deeply reverberating sound (Large Dark Wind Chime [Arab Tritone], 2008). Tuned to the Tritone, or diminished fifth – a musical interval used as the main interval of dissonance in western harmony, and historically known as ‘Diabolus in Musica’ for its unholy associations – as well as the Arabic scale, which has several more intervals than the diatonic scale of western music, it produced a sound doubly dissonant to the ear accustomed to western harmonics. The great size of these organ-like chimes, meanwhile, created a guttural hum that could be experienced as much physically as aurally, and extended beyond the museum into the surrounding urban environment.

Imagine the effects of this insidious, deep, alien-sounding hum, penetrating the soundscape of this landlocked Austrian city, loaded with the weight of its cultural and intellectual heritage, and currently poised on a political precipice, given the reactionary opportunists hovering on the political sidelines. What kind of discontent could this sound awaken? What kind of outburst could it prompt? Unlike Christoph Büchel’s more obviously provocative gestures – recently he imported a swingers club into Secession’s gallery space (Element6, 2010) to considerable media uproar – Weber’s challenges are of a more subtle nature. A call to arms to those already prepared for revolt, but a revolt of the order of the potlatch: the offensive introduction of sound, light and plant-life; an aggressive form of giving.

Unfolding cul-de-sac, (detail), 2002/8. Asphalt, compost, mushroom spawn, garden hut. 6.5 x 7 x 2.5m. Installation view, Secession, Vienna, 2008. 

Sowing seeds of discontent in the urban fabric and finding subtle ways of altering the mindset of the general public are amongst Weber’s specialities. In 2002, he scattered the spores of a particularly aggressive form of mushroom under a fresh swath of tarmac in Berlin (Brutstube, Breeding Parlour, 2002) and in a short time their white bulbous forms could be seen pushing up from below, rupturing the tarmac’s smooth black surface. The piece, when repeated inside the gallery space in Weber’s Viennese show (Unfolding cul-de-sac, 2002/8), included a small wooden shed in which samples of the spores were offered free to take away (and advertised in a Viennese newspaper): an invitation to the mass spread of a fungal virus to destroy the city’s streets. Similarly, in one of Weber’s best-known pieces, he filled a glittering three-tiered crystal fountain with 800 litres of LSD diluted to homeopathic standards, (Public Fountain LSD Hall, 2003). In the original proposal made for the city of Dresden, Weber had designed the fountain as part of a public ‘hall’: a steel box with one-way glass, to look out but not in, to be situated in an existing public space, containing all its usual features – benches, street signs, traffic lights – the only addition being the fountain itself, centrally placed, from which to enjoy a drink. ‘One can sit inside the Hall and watch the city without being watched. This can be compared with the experiences of a traveller. By viewing the local practices with the clarity of an outsider’s perspective, one is able to notice the weirdness of daily life, which through repetition has lost its meaning to the local inhabitants.’2 In this narcotic reworking of Guy Debord’s Situationist appraisal of tourism as ‘the chance to go and see what has been made trite’,3 Weber gives us the tools to look anew at the everyday events around us, or the imaginary tools at least.

For Weber, the imaginary itself is a productive realm of resistance, perhaps the most productive realm given the saturated state of contemporary culture and society. Again, De Certeau describes this state most precisely: ‘The system in which [consumers] move about is too vast to be able to fix them in one place, but too constraining for them ever to be able to escape from it and go into exile elsewhere. There is no longer an elsewhere.’4 Given that escape is thus impossible, a shift in perspective is required to elude society’s restrictive systems of decorum, behaviour, operation or thought. In Weber’s work this may come about through the suggestion of narcotic powers (rather than their actual imbibing); through a shift in tonal register or soundscape (whether gothic wind-chimes, or cheerful baskets of crickets chirping sequestered in a gallery space [Sick Fox, 2004], or through the quiet spectacle of authority dancing unwittingly with its subordinates [Demo Inverse, 2001]). The means it adopts are just as invisible and clandestine as those of its opponent, consumption itself, ‘characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation,’ as De Certeau put it, ‘its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products […] but in an art of using those imposed on it.’5 By firing up the possibilities of the imaginative realm and placing the interpretative potential firmly in the hands – or rather minds – of the spectator, Weber allows his manoeuvres to take place openly, right under the enemy’s nose.

As part of a series for the Hayward Gallery, titled ‘Hey, We’re Closed!’, during a period of closure for renovation this year, Weber designed a poster for an imaginary exhibition called ‘Source of Abnegation’ during which the doors and windows of the Hayward were to be reinforced and sealed, and the gallery flooded with water. A monitor on the wall outside the gallery, meanwhile, would show ‘a dreamlike “flight” along the stairways, through the gallery space, the toilets, the staff areas etc.’, all filmed by a scuba diver. ‘The inside of the gallery will be closed for the public through the exhibition. The only permanent visitors will be a couple of carps and common eels,’6 a vision revisited in the recent collage Fisherman’s Delight (2010) in which carps and eels navigate a fountain of glassy water jetting from an inverted tap. As the title suggests, the show provides the opposite of what one might expect. It is a spectacular vision of nothingness, of a place we thought we knew now blurred, distorted, incapacitated by replacing its air with water. ‘As spectacular as the exhibition is, the show embraces the anti-spectacle by closing the gallery so that it might unfold in the imagination of the public,’ Weber says in his proposal. As he knows, that which remains in the realms of the imaginable may be infinitely more potent than that which can be realized, presented and consumed by the (by nature passive) consumer.

'Bee Paintings' in progress, 2009. Photograph: the artist.

In another recent public proposal, The Invisible Monument (2009), Weber returns to bees as his collaborators of choice. He proposed an event to take place in Edinburgh at the site of the commemorative statue of 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith. Smith’s book The Wealth of the Nations (1776) was one of the first studies of the effects of industrial and commercial development in Europe and advocated competition as a means of self-regulation, providing one of the most prevalent intellectual justifications for free trade and capitalism. He coined the phrase ‘the invisible hand’ to allude to the self-regulating nature of the market place. The monument to him in Edinburgh city centre shows Smith on a tall pedestal, resting one hand (itself invisible, shrouded by the long sleeve of his academic gown) on a beehive, the symbol of industry. In Weber’s proposal, the event would see 200,000 bees swarming and congregating on the statue in what his proposal calls a ‘political demonstration for a new mode of human brains and economy’.

Whereas with the ‘Bee Paintings’ Weber had capitalized on the bees unwanted productive capacities to paint his paintings, here he recruits them for the purposes of a hypothetical demonstration. Weber’s detailed proposal derides the development of the economist’s philosophy away from pre-existent needs to private property and the use of the beehive to imply that the capitalist system is something natural and healthy. In Weber’s imaginary protest, the bees reclaim the symbol of the hive for themselves. The statue is shrouded in a new skin of swarming bees; Smith’s features are obscured and he becomes the ‘Bee King’ disguised by this unindividuated mass. The proposal shifts in tenor to become a call to arms: ‘this sudden alternative monument is aiming at a collective hallucination […] we greet the mutant brut!’ That the event never took place is beside the point, or perhaps is the point, given its vivid place in the imagination of whoever reads the proposal.

In an art world often stifled by its operational constraints, Weber makes do by sticking intellectual spanners in the works of its commercial and institutional directives, while generating fodder for the hungry activist imagination. ‘The imaginary landscape of an inquiry is not without value,’ says De Certeau, ‘even if it is without rigor […] it […] keeps before our eyes the structure of a social imagination in which the problem constantly takes different forms and begins anew.’7 The vital social imagination is what concerns Weber, and his energetic and anti-authoritarian, ghostly production is a necessary corrective that puts skin on bones in an hypothetical elsewhere.

1 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p.27.
2 From Public Fountain LSD Hall proposal, 2003
3 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, Brooklyn, New York 1994, p. 120
4 De Certeau, op. cit., p.40
5 Ibid. p.31
7 De Certeau, op. cit., p.41

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.