Stefan Rinck’s concept is highly topical! How so? With his blatantly atavistic interest in gothic gargoyles, folkloric ghosts, Bomarzo monsters and early baby toys? Precisely for this reason! And this is meant to be programmatic? Meese presented his nursery mythologies to the public fifteen years ago. Bomarzo/Viterbo became a top-ranking tourist attraction thanks to the chilling thrill of entering the maw of a fantastical monster in the “Sacred Grove of Horrific Delights”. The tourist imagines himself as Orlando Furioso, the saviour of Europe, as devised by Ariosto. High up on the gothic cathedral, visitors with a thirst for knowledge ponder the link between the saintly architecture of the Divine Jerusalem and the grimacing faces on the rainspouts. Children, tourists and horror fans all mumble the mantra, “art and culture, art and culture, art and culture”, as if their spiritual wellbeing depended on the success of this incantation, imploring art and culture to become one again at last, as in the days of folkloric ghosts and fairytales. In their capacity as fairytales, the nursery, Bomarzo and gothic horror are all the rage, proving that tourism is an economic force to be reckoned with.
Something similar applies to the equally serious claims to modernity by artists of all disciplines, especially since the beginning of the 20th century when Picasso and Braque arranged a collision between their western art professionalism and the products of African cultures at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, coming to the then highly topical conclusion that a programmatic “return to culture” was the only way to save the overwrought art of the west with its aestheticist elitism. Troops of Impressionist painters swapped the glamour of the cities for the rural primitivity of remote landscapes. Gauguin and Nolde sought to access the happiness of the children of nature among the people of the South Seas. Life reformers founded spiritist circles while evoking the aura of German bog mummies. Witches dancing in the twilight inspired artists in Worpswede as in Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring! And all of this before World War I, the primal cataclysm of the 20th century with its “blood and earth”, “steel and ecstasy”, “steely romanticism” and general emphasis on naked culture that distilled a zeitgeist out of the volatile relationship between art/science on the one hand and culture/religion on the other.
Germany, Russia, the young state of Israel even, France, Italy and Spain all acted like demiurges, programming the “New Man” as the very spectre or power fantasy that brings its atavistic culture worship to bear via the achievements of technology founded on science: ethno-ecstasy and the infernal power of Krupp steel.
Once the spectres of Himmler’s ancestor cult, Ziegler’s pubic hair painting, Breker’s artistic titanism and Soviet realism appeared to have been banished, artists and scientists initially returned to following the programme of their historical development as modernist perpetrators. The Abstract Expressionists and the proponents of Informel once more forswore the authority of fathers, cardinals, bosses, pillars of culture and propagandists of the market, recognizing only one authority – authority through authorship. The apogee of this reassertion of the decree of “the autonomy of art and science” remains Article 5.3 of Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, according to which art and science are free, but not dentists, entrepreneurs, lawyers or engineers.
Since the end of the East-West Stability Pact in 1991 and the fulfilment of the “Change Through Rapprochement” program that made the former western societies resemble those of the former east, the major powers of culture, religion and ethnicity have reasserted the dictate that Modernism is only justified as their vassal, that the power games of world history are to begin again in the 8th century AD, with no constitution, no nation states, no rule of law, no international law (law of war, maritime law, etc), no autonomy of individuals as artists or scientists. The Freudian “discontents” of civilization have now been replaced by piggish contentment. And the smug culturalists are revelling once more in the role of the well-meaning collectivist, regulating a language of power that is politically correct down to the tiniest detail, and thus blankly opportunist, rewarded by the approval of the market. This applies on all sides, as “proven” by the concept of “globalization”: all over the world, the same triumph of culturalist-religious-economic certainty over the irrelevant (because powerless) critiques of universalist programmes.
Why is this intentional reculturalization that undermines all standards of civilization with deliberate rebarbarization so powerful, so attractive? The answer is that from the outset, modernism has always been a battleground between regional culturality and universal civilization, between ideologies of ethnic vitality based on conceits of chosenness and religious certainty on the one hand and, on the other, the scientific-technological-artistic productivity of criticism to the point of getting addicted to doubt, high on rebellion.
Modern means not “victory of rationality, facticity and calculation” but the inevitable struggle against the normative power of the irrational, the counterfactual and the absurd. This unfolds according to fixed patterns of thought: rational means upholding the limits of a given statement. By establishing such limits, however, what lies beyond them necessarily becomes a subject of discussion. Which is why the Enlightenment (modernism in an early guise) realized that one can only operate rationally if one reckons with the power of the irrational. No analytical philosophy can remedy this. For that would mean completely reorganizing the evolution of our “global brain”. The fact remains, then: you are only modern if, in your person and in your actions, you can withstand the irresolvable conflict with culturalist social behaviour and religious service.
And my point? Is there any need to be modern when, for thousands of years, astonishingly advanced civilizations survived without the autonomy of science and art, without universal freedoms? Who says one must be modern when millions, billions even, think that “being stupid and having a job” is happiness in the bosom of a belief in the legitimacy of the rulers and their power. Who says so? Rimbaud? So what. Wise words have now become a trademark for underwear. And even avant-gardists insist on “revoking the 20th century” or on a tribunal against the dogma of modernity. But, as I’ve said, these initiatives are designed to raise awareness that modernism is a sign of the ongoing conflict with atavistic cultures; it does not claim to have triumphed over them.
Why? Because every individual who claims autonomy of judgment only attains life by adapting to a culture as an infant. No one can avoid cultural conditioning. One can only learn how to put it to productive use instead of merely fulfilling its iron rules.
A highly idiosyncratic but all the more impressive example of this is provided by the sculptor Stefan Rinck, who has set up his studio in a shared space in Berlin. Seemingly unbiased by art history, he adopts the figurative forms of expression of culturally collective fantasies; but he does not follow conventional gestures of meaning like “Death and the Girl”, “The Puppeteer”, “The Wise Old Owl” or “Apelike Mimesis”. Instead, he reshapes such topoi via the raw force of rendering in stone. In this way, the stone can assert its independence or resistance against the attempt to artistically master it. The language of the stones remains strong and Starck, with a protestant obstinacy. If Luther had sculpted at table instead of talking, the result would have been something like Rinck’s centrepieces.
In literature, the Lutheran power of revitalization via the tongue of the people rather than from God’s mouth was put into words by Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus. In Chapter 12, Professor Kumpf delivers his theological tales in the Starck-German which, forty years later, inspired the “Berliner Hymnentafeln”, a choir conducted by Matthias Koeppel. (1)
In a similar way, Rinck’s Starck-sculpture achieves numerous abductions, hollow forms and extremist asymmetry, as if he has secured a contractual assurance from the stone that it will keep still for an experiment. One can feel that the stones like to chastely boast with upstretched arms holding the accusatory activist banner “And my atrophy is all your fault!” What a charge all stones hurl at sculptors! Even Michelangelo could only partially do justice to the potential that lies dormant in natural stone. In any case, Rinck’s achievement is that the stone is visibly proud to oppose its status as inanimate matter with a properly erected member. “Eros and Thanatos”, a chef d’oeuvre of Rinck’s concept of gestalt. Formal energy animates the dead stone.
Head Banger, a highly sophisticated relief, processes several meanings. The sausage, the severed head, the firework and the logo of a Starck-rock band are driven by the storm of time as in traditional portrayals of Fortuna, the good fortune that must be grasped at in order to find out what it might actually entail. Master Stefan manages to blend wavy hair and barbecue grille, stubble and teeth, sideburns and sudoku grid into one another so that form is a convincing synthesis of meanings.
Since La Fontaine’s fables and Lavater’s theory of physiognomy, we are familiar with extreme caricatures where we see meaning in distortion, order in chaos, and form in the informal. The all-purpose gestalt figures of apes are especially popular for this procedure as the effect of gestures, mimesis and other forms of expression is always based on empathy, the parallel action of imitation. The monkey has been the heraldic beast of all painters since it was assumed that painters imitate nature the way apes imitate humans. In 1990s, the recently deceased Immendorff made an ape society in bronze in which the human viewers experience themselves as animal empathizers. It has always been known that dog owners come to resemble their pets. With Immendorff’s panorama of the cultural gestures of chimpanzees/bonobos (showing as pointing, reading as teaching, gifts as threats, small-talk as saying nothing, etc.) we fulfil the “know thyself” of ancient temple wisdom: we recognize ourselves better in animals than in other members of our own species. Rinck extends this shaping of what comes after by what came before, the self-characterization of humans in terms of their animal origins, adding the necessary sarcasm and the radical thinking of those who got stuck in evolution, the humans. This can certainly be understood as a vision of death: death as the end of any claim to higher development. “Death Vision”, skulls with pyramid-shaped sight rays protruding from the eye sockets, demonstrates this self-revocation by which man seeks to survive beyond death in abstraction. In one of his Starck-German poems, Koeppel once put it like this:
|Arr, di Arr; di Arrckitucktn –
||Arr, thee arr, thee arrckitukts
|jarr, di sünd tautul pfarrucktn.
||thayz towtl nutter krack-putts.
|Pauhn onz euburoll Quaduren,
||Bildin uz boksy bloxx wurr
|vo se gurrnücht henngehuren.
||everr thay durrnt burrolong.
|Vn demm Hurz büsz ze denn Ullpn
||Frum thee Harrz tu thee Alps
|snd di Häusur steitz di sullpn.
the owziz arr eye-denti-krule.
|Duch di Arrckitucktn tschumpfn:
||Butt thum arrckitukts swairz:
|Onzre Pauhörrn snd di Tumpfn!
||Arr klyunts iz thee deemwitts!
|Olle zullte mon kastruren,
||Thay shod orrll bee krastated,
|düßße auff ze pauhin huren;
||strop em frumm bildin att orrll,
|odur stott ünn rachtn Winkuln
||orr preplace thurr rektumgles
|se dönn pauhin, wi se pinkuln.
||wurth lyns lyk wot thay peez.
Today, few artists, even those ennobled by the art market, are ashamed to call the splendour of cultural-religious certainties down onto their works. Richter, Rauch, Lüpertz, Knoebel and many of lesser calibre have summoned the benedictions of cathedrals to their oeuvre. Is the benediction of the art market no longer enough for them? In their claim to autonomy, do they no longer have confidence in themselves as rivals to God? Are bishops and padres more credible than critics and curators after all? Only those self-assured enough to caricature themselves even in this need for cultural-religious certainty are credible. I give no credence to a single stroke of Polke’s glass painting as a church window in Zurich. Richter’s window in Cologne cathedral would only be acceptable as a mockery of its own presumptuousness. The lofty tone of theological benediction disgraces the hype-hungry church and the cocksure stupidity of the world’s most expensive contemporary artist. If only it were no more than stupidity! But it is quite obviously the capitulation of artistic autonomy before the believers’ emphasis on the divine. Hopefully God wants nothing more to do with such artists. But here they come again, filling his ears with their whining, as heroes of lost sonship, as Titans of suffering who demand salvation at long last. And God will be merciful. A mockery of all those who really need him.
In view of this, I approve all the more of Master Stefan Rinck who bravely counters the anonymous and collective forces of cultural-religious certainty with his powerless critique and mordant wit. Instead of harnessing age-old cultural and religious modes of expression to his own greater glory, he returns to an anthropological level. This is a proven strategy of self-testing. One asks oneself, for example, how far one could go, as a present-day individual, in matching the inventiveness of earlier humans. Would one be capable of achieving the leap from inclined plane to rolling wheel? Today, would we still be able to invent the calendar, weather forecasting or astronomy, could we exorcise evil spirits or construct steam engines? (Quite apart from the fact that as non-specialist individuals, we are unable to understand even today's inventions.) In a similar vein, Rinck asks himself whether a modern individual is capable of activating historical modes of spiritual and intellectual expression. He does this at his own risk, without seeking the shelter of religious or institutional acceptance like the artists mentioned above. His sculptures are quite clearly not awaiting the approval of either priests or critics. They come across as a confident rejection of the showiness of today's rituals for awarding praise and prizes. This is based on the frequently taboo insight that even in today's humans, the entire history of our species' evolution is actively preserved. It is not only in violent acts and market competition that atavistic behaviour surfaces. Even in the rapture of love and the intoxication of artistic creativity (as shown by the German Expressionists on their journeys into humanity's past to the so-called primitives) the primal forms of expressive behaviour shine through. Every phylogenesis is an abbreviated ontogenesis, as the connoisseurs of evolution have noted – and Rinck says: everything created by an artist today contains the same spiritual and intellectual developments that manifested themselves in the caves at Lascaux or on Easter Island. This means that every making of a work passes through the history of the quest for expression of a thousand generations. Master Stefan's works show that there is a specific atavism of modernism, both a barbarism of progress and a primitivity of scientific idiom. Precisely those aspects of our behaviour that we believe we have left behind or need to relinquish in the name of progress reveal themselves as being implicated with modernism.
The art brut theory of Jean Dubuffet, who from the 1950s collected examples of unmediated expression by children, the mentally ill, criminals and experts, forces us to respect our own desire for immediacy – and when we "let ourselves go", uncontrolled by claims to modernity, the dictates of reason or saleability, then we observe a high degree of conformity between all people, something that shocks us because it ruins our aspirations to individuality. Master Stefan demonstrates this fundamental unity of human spiritual and intellectual expression, as his figures reflect this anthropological collectivism.
I have just one objection: the scales held by the rabbit of eternal fertility for weighing souls should not be attached to its paws by a wire! Please correct this, as craft enables stone in particular to gauge the fortitude of the souls of artists and viewers.
(1) Translator's note: this invented form of German draws on the powerful idiom of Luther, including many antiquated or invented spellings of words whose meaning is apparent when read aloud, though sometimes hard to decipher on paper. It recalls, for example, Joyce's use of English in Finnegan's Wake, for example the tour of a museum of the Napoleonic wars: "This is the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in! Now yiz are in the Willingdone [Wellington] Museyroom... This is Prooshious [Prussian] Bunn. This is a ffrinch [French]. Tip. ... This is the triplewon hat of Lipoleum [Napoleon]. Tip. Lipoleumhat." James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake (London: Faber, 1975), 8. My English version of Koeppel's poem is thus meant only to give a rough idea of its character.