Present times

by Dr. Günther Gercken


New York City - with its architecture, traffic, neon signs and city life - provided the inspiration for Piet Mondrian's last pictures (1942/43), which exhibited the final development in his style, with its transformation of the dynamics, the rhythm and the lights of the city into a grid of lines, coloured rectangles and squares. The pictures fix this pulsating life, with its innumerable flows and counter-flows, in a harmonic structure of abstract forms. "A truly modern artist views the city as formed, abstracted life: it is more familiar to him than nature and corresponds more closely to his idea of beauty. For in the city, nature has already been arranged, ordered by the human mind. (Piet Mondrian ).


It is interesting to note that York der Knoefel's first impressions of New York, in 1995, led to large drawings which in their common reference to this metropolis have a clear relation to Piet Mondrian's New York pictures. They take up Mondrian's abstract composition in the form of domino-like coloured rectangles. Even more striking is that each of these drawings only make up half of a diptychon, whose other half counters with organic forms, as both a contrast and complement. On one hand, the reduced structure of the rectangles is distributed over the white surface in cluster-like groups with breaks and changes of direction; on the other, the natural fragments, like protomers of organisms, do not merge to form a complete entity. The prolific natural state serves as a contrast and prerequisite for the "abstract, formed life" that Mondrian wrote of, and is simultaneously an expression of vital energy. The city fossilised in stone, the fixed pattern of the streets and monumental skyscrapers are all products of an all-pervasive human vitality. In "Thoughts" the artist is attempting to capture this motor of the city-machine: a daring enterprise that seeks to conduct artistic research (in the form of field work) in order to encapsulate the spirit of the city and of the moment within the disparate stories of individual people. The tableau as a whole, with its 49 television screens, simulates the thought world of the many speakers in the 'white noise' of a Babylonian linguistic chaos. The aleatory continuum of the background noise, formed of language and speech fragments, is produced by millions of voices. Emerging from the amorphous mass of New York, individual faces appear on the screens to talk about themselves, God, and the world. In these stories all forms of rhetoric are represented: self-reflection, self-presentation, accusation and justification, political opinion, ideological allegiance, and much more besides. Together, they form one long, fragmented novel, in which people of all ages, racial origins, social levels and careers get to speak. Understood as an authentic story narrated by many voices, the work displays an intriguing correspondence to William Gaddis' novel J.R., which consists almost exclusively of the direct speech of many people, whereby the constant changes of scene make it difficult to identify who is speaking at the time. Modern life is presented as a dense communication network.


In "Thoughts", the video camera and microphone have taken the place of the camera with which August Sander, in the 1910' and 1920's, tried to carry out a similar task, namely that of characterising the era through its people, by making portraits of people who seemed to him typical of a certain career, situation or class. These impressive portraits are so successfully typical that they give the impression that each of these different individuals stands for an entire collective. Whoever leafs through the photo collection "Antlitz der Zeit" ('The Face of Time') today finds that the strongest impression is that of how deeply those photographed are influenced by their era, and thus how well they represent it. As early as 1929, Alfred Döblin spoke in his preface of the "collective energy of human society, of class, of the level of culture [...] Beyond a certain distance, the variations disappear, beyond a certain distance, the individual aspects cease, and only the universal ones endure" (Alfred Döblin ). It is disconcerting to realise how much people are affected by the era they live in, which manifests itself in all aspects of life and which they cannot break out of, no matter how freely chosen they consider their lifestyles to be. Although it was not long ago, their era seems very distant from ours. The appearance, clothing, posture and facial gestures of those photographed point to the past, and prove beyond any doubt that these people are not contemporaries of ours, that their world is not our world.


Like August Sanders "Antlitz der Zeit", "Thoughts" is simultaneously a work of art and documentation. It is a work of art by virtue of its artistic staging and realisation of all phases of the idea, the motivation of those interviewed, the camera position and the editing of the tapes. The greatest goal of artistic work is to achieve the transfer of life into the medium of art. It would be cynical to say that these video recordings raise the banality of everyday life to the level of art. No matter how trivial and superficial some of these stories can be, they nevertheless reveal the essence of humanity. By relating what they have experienced and what moves them, they articulate themselves in the language of the human spirit, and the language of the sum of these stories constitutes history. By bringing his subjects onto the surface of the screen and letting them speak freely about what occurs to them and concerns them, York der Knoefel makes something visible that we do not normally see, and cannot see, as we are swimming in the same stream. "As contemporaries, we are to a certain extent blind to the signs of the times we live in, even though they dominate us (Hans Blumenberg ). The distance imposed by the medium makes it possible to see oneself in the person opposite. The presentation thus communicates distance, while at the same time exhibiting proximity to the present. It is not curiosity or voyeurism that ties us to the television screens, but emotion and amazement both at the wide variety of faces, made aesthetic by the format of the frame, and at the statements themselves; even if they seem superficially banal or speculatively simple, they are - to put it poignantly - in the spirit of our spirit. The selection of people from New York City's population shows the tremendous variety of individuals, and achieves a collective levelling on the monitors: as different as they all are, they are united by the fact that they are all people. The simultaneous and equal-handed presentation of all the thoughts and views encourages understanding and tolerance, in a way not possible in indoctrinated societies. In the different statements, a thought world emerges that all people share. We recognize that our individual world view, no matter how original it may seem to us, is just a part of the general structure of thoughts built by everyone and in which all people live. Determined by local and temporal coincidences, the individual has simply chosen elements from it. In this inexhaustible warehouse of ideas, everything stands on one level, and it has not been decided which ideas will survive. As with biological evolution, new forms may emerge and become dominant.


The work is documentation, as it freezes a moment, in the doulbe meaning of the instant and perception. As in August Sanders' work, what is surprising is the extent to which each individual statement and revelation also encapsulates the present. By experiencing the unique situation of the moment when each person tells a story, our awareness of the transitory nature of the moment is also sensitised. This feeling is expressed by George Musa: "Everything seems like fleeting to me right now, so I'm trying to live in the moment ..."; a feeling and an attitude in which life is concentrated in the instant, while at the same time knowing this instant to be transitory. In contemporary advertising, this attitude to life is reflected in such slogans as "The taste of now" or "The power of now".


If the instantaneity of now is understood as a level, then as we listen, a further dimension of different times also opens up. In their thoughts and imagination, the speakers alternate between the remembered and the hoped for, between the past and the future. In this sense, the different people can live in different times simultaneously. What is true of time and timelessness is also true of place and placelessness. The work could only come out of New York: it describes the place, as only here can such a mixture of people and cultures be found packed together in this way. A new cultural identity is developing from these cultural differences. However, the very concentration at this melting point of civilisations also shatters the limits of place, to widen the view towards the universal, to what affects the entire generation of people now living on the planet.


When in the future the video recordings are seen with the same temporal distance as we now have for August Sanders' photographs, the people will seem odd, their voices will sound like relicts from history, and their descendants will be surprised to se what kinds of people came before them. Just as the extremity of the work's choice of the present and New York City lead to the overcoming of time and place, so too do the protagonists, in embodying the present, appear ultimately transitory. They appear on the monitor only to disappear again; they emerge from the mass of people only to be submerged once more. This impression calls forth associations that have moved people throughout history: "You let them flow like a river; they are like a moment of sleep, a blade of grass that soon withers" (Psalm 90).