Buch Hofstetter Kurt: Ich schaue in den Himmel, um mich zu erden

Mit einem Essay von Barbara Doser und einem Textbeitrag von Bazon Brock

Übersetzung ins Englische: Peter Waugh


Brock, Bazon | Doser, Barbara

Konzett, Philipp

Verlag für moderne Kunst

Wien, Österreich


300 S.

Seite S. 280-293 im Original

Absurdity per se: Finite Infinity

Hofstetterkurt as a Magician of the Irrational, i.e. of Theoretical Art

Among the practitioners of ‘theoretical art’, Hofstetterkurt (Google, Amazon and God do not have forenames either) is without doubt one of the great masters, since the implications of his work are virtually immeasurable. He has upheld the validity of art’s claim to work in an area which had previously been regarded as a domain reserved for mathematicians and philosophers. Ironically, it took a visual artist to decisively expand one of the oldest cultural crafts, namely weaving, by achieving an intellectual coup in the equality of recurrence and constant deviation from it. With the Hofstetterkurt Weave, the craft of weaving has attained a new pinnacle. The traditional link between thread and fabric, first achieved with the home loom and then, after 1800, with mechanical looms, had already been revolutionised once before, namely by the Jacquard loom, with its pattern cards, the perforated structure of which differs distinctly from the customary horizontal-vertical movement of the warp and woof. However, by virtue of that fact that the thread is guided through the holes of the pattern cards, it obviously still entails completing a task determined by the previously designed pattern.

With the Hofstetterkurt Weave, the weaving process follows neither the traditional method nor the pattern guide. The threads are aperiodically and asymmetrically woven and yet produce a strength and air permeability which exceeds the traditional performance of the material. The irrational unity of chaos and order, or the spiritual form of recurrent uniqueness, takes material form in a manner which surpasses that of all previous procedures for implementing concepts. Even the technique of Art Informel, used by the painters of the 1950s and initiated by Pollock in 1949, is superseded, since – in contrast to the approach of Art Informel – the Hofstetterkurt Weave no longer needs even the individual human impulse. By transcending pure serialism through aperiodicity, Hofstetterkurt also makes a decisive contribution to the cause of Op Art, which attracted worldwide attention in the 1960s. For Hofstetterkurt, the action of the Weltgeist is nothing other than the very spirit of mathematics itself. He makes it possible to demonstrate, in practical terms, this power in our everyday world. For that reason, one should speak of Hofstetterkurt’s developmental work as comprising a unity of invention and discovery.

Of particular interest is the question, linked to Hofstetterkurt’s way of proceeding, of whether the human wearer of textiles manufactured according to the Hofstetterkurt Weave can develop a previously neglected sense of the unidentifiable and unimaginable. I wear a Hofstetterkurt shirt wherever I go and wherever I am, like a mental fabric covering my body. I am training myself to develop something akin to a metaphysical sense that goes beyond the material object, for the master claims (with reference to studies of the phenomena of atmospheres) that his Ambient Tactile Art endows one with a special perception of the relationship between the body and the environment via the sense of touch.

In order to be able to appreciate this claim, we have to take a short walk through the blossoming gardens of theories. Warning: ‘theory’ here does not mean mental preparation for practical action, but rather has the ancient Greek sense of the result of the activity of a spectator, listener or viewer, which gathers the many individual elements of a happening presented before their eyes into a complex of meaning. The theorist was and is the recipient. What counts in theoretical art is Joseph Beuys’ translation of the temple inscription Know thyself as Whoever doesn’t want to think, is out.

The fatherly difference between the thing-in-itself, the thing-for-itself and the thing-for-us has to be kept as the way to characterise the Other, the Absurd, and the object of knowledge as a thing (as a fact in the human world and not beyond the human world). However, it means that Kant’s differentiation of Transcendentality and Transcendence, of that which is accessible to knowledge and that which is not accessible to knowledge, should be understood as a superfluous classification; the Transcendental, as that which belongs to the inner world, and is apparently accessible to us, as astrophysicists and atomic physicists were eventually forced to recognise, is just as enigmatic and questionable as the Transcendent, which is characterised as such from the outset. If the immanent and worldly is described as that which can be presented rationally, then that which is beyond rationality is therefore the irrational, which forces one to conclude that rationality can only be defined in terms of recognition of the irrational, whereby that which is claimed to be apparently irrational, namely transcendence of the rational, becomes redundant.

In the understanding of ordinary people, the apparent opposition of rationality and irrationality is characterised by the relationship of knowledge and belief. One operates rationally within the sphere of knowledge, i.e. on the basis of logical conclusions drawn from given premises. That corresponds to the experience of the finite in the countable recurrence of individual measurements or connections. In contrast, within the sphere of belief, measurements and connections can never arrive at an end; they remain infinite because they are unendable, on account of the undetermined premises of the starting point of a line of thought. The sphere of belief is usually characterised as that of transcendence, and the sphere of knowledge as that of transcendentality.

On an academic level, the alleged fundamental problem of the opposition of the rational and the irrational, of the finite and the infinite, of knowledge and belief, of transcendentalism and transcendence is solved with mathematical certainty at the very latest through Leibniz’s development of the infinitesimal calculus, however much all classes of thinkers after Leibniz felt challenged to liberate thought from its bedevilment by language. The infinite, Leibniz shows, is not the complete other of finitude, but rather a form of determining the finite. The finite and the infinite do not exclude each other, but are rather mutually united in difference.

If one seeks to merge the radical mutual opposition of the geometrical forms of triangle and circle with each other, in order to determine, e.g. the size of a curved surface, then, according to Leibniz, one has to reduce the size of the triangle again and again until it finally fits into the arc of the circle. With his calculation of this infinite approximation, Leibniz shows that the infinite actually does have a determinable size.

Yet spiritualists, apparitionists, God seekers and contrarians feel themselves threatened by this approximation to the infinite in thought and in action, which is in principle unendable only in mathematical theology. They insist on an infinity which cannot be comprehended as finite, although those who feel themselves threatened do of course live completely and utterly only in the finitude of the physical body and of the laws of nature. The enlightened, i.e. those who distinguish between speaking and thinking, experience an infinity which is claimed to exist as a poor infinity, which is how it was described by F. Schlegel and Hegel.

Why do people insist on such a ‘poor infinity’ at all? Because, in it, language and thought are identical. One affirms the ‘world beyond’ as opposed to ‘this world’, the transcendent as opposed to the transcendental, the divine as opposed to the human … in order to be able to shift the blame for the respective problematic situation onto the intrusion into the human world of the unknowable other, of fate, or the will of God.

By thinking about the mathematical representation and conception of this idea, Leibniz became the first to authoritatively sublate it mathematically, thus making ‘good infinity’ familiar as a necessary aid to thinking. He liberated thought from the hellish ghosts of what was, from a linguistic perspective, simply unthinkable, unrepresentable and unimaginable. He formulated it as the concept of the best of all possible worlds, thus justifying the hope that humanity could at last learn to think, instead of remaining caught in the trap-and-snap mechanism of linguistic algorithms/grammars. What distinguishes Leibniz’s effort from all previous attempts of this kind is that he provides, by means of the infinitesimal calculus, an incontrovertible proof of our capacity to transform poor infinity into good infinity.

Ever since Leibniz’s proof, generations of artists and theologians have attempted to prove and give form to good infinity, beyond mathematics. That simply became a mark of accomplishment in the visual arts, in poetry, in thinking, in medical science, or cookery: to gain control of unpredictable, arbitrary, malicious, menacing infinity in its incomprehensibility and indeterminability, to present the unrepresentable precisely as unrepresentable, to present the unimaginable as unimaginable and to conceive the unthinkable as unthinkable.

The whole of the Baroque age triumphed with Bernini’s purely sensual capture of a prior state of divine ecstasy, with Calderón’s dreamlike reality, or with Bach’s translation of eternity into illimitable recurrence through variation. The above-mentioned Baroque artists did not relinquish the idea of infinity, customarily comprehended through the notion of transcendence, but recognised that in the worldliness of our lives there is enough scope for immanent transcendence, for instance in the misunderstanding about what transcends that which any respective speaker believes was his intention. Moreover, as a marker of reverence for the beyond, the saint lost nothing of his aura, when one learned to assert the beautiful, the good and the true, in particular in the face of the ugly, the lie and the malicious. In general, the post-Baroque Enlightenment is also characterised by the fact that the sacred was only perceived in the secular, the holy in the profane, the first in the last, and that one could no longer allow oneself to look beyond the human world for the determination of success in human life.

After it had become clear in the French Revolution that God’s grace is only realisable in elections and the creation in labour – which was the contemporary transformation in the metabolism of all living things – the poor infinite was only still available as a legitimation of totalitarian power. Hegel’s and F. Schlegel’s coining of the term good infinity is the most far-reaching product of thought liberated from the dictates of language. The apocalyptics of poor infinity became a subject of knowledge through caricatures, because truth can only be postulated from something that is recognised to be wrong, inacceptable, inappropriate: as a necessity of thought, a theoretical construct, a catalyst. That was known to outdoor thinkers such as Nietzsche, or outdoor painters such as Monet, the Realists, Constructivists, Minimalists, or Conceptualists. Over the inexorable course of time, i.e. through transformation, a tranquillity of form, a detached, lasting form becomes only an idea which appears as theoretical object, insofar as it has to be objectivised, because there cannot be an unobjectivised spirit. In contrast, the Munich Cosmic Circle, the ‘Blue Riders to Heaven’*, or the ‘blood and soil’ spiritists with their woodland sprites, although politically and socially virulent, were simply attached to chaotic and arbitrary acts of power, and therefore pre-modern. Even many of the land artists, or the light-eaters/photophages, from photography to electronics, remained to a large extent caught up in the conspiracy of the beyond, as if it only needed to be forced into revelation. Alfred Jarry and the Dadaists wholeheartedly made fun of this: an absolute god, an absolute creation, an absolute power would be a good thing if it could at last guarantee peace and quiet. Unfortunately, it did not and does not exist. The gods of the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans and the empires which they propped up, did not die in full glory, but rather by proclamation of their own impossibility. The eternal does not stand in the way of change, but rather change is the only thing which is eternally effective.

Poet and Thinker

Please note: of course, one should not claim, with a pseudo-mathematical intention, that one could think without any objectification of language. Linguistic expression is due to the demand for communication, for social metabolism. Yet the goal of thinking is understanding, above all understanding that thinking depends on language. Linguistic communication, as is amply demonstrated by politics or commercial advertising, can get by without any understanding at all, since the invention of communication meant that nature had to ensure the rapid adaptation of mutationally produced life forms to survival niches, before the new life forms had fulfilled the condition of the possibility of survival in themselves and by themselves.

The majority of our daily orientation tasks in the world are carried out completely independently of understanding; it suffices to communicate without understanding anything. We turn on the electric power without knowing anything about the physics of the flow of electrons, or about the workings of the internal combustion engine when we start our car. For the major part of our everyday life this is enough for us to function, so that we do not have to investigate things in depth, whether it is a matter of commandments or prohibitions.

One cannot understand an energy whose effectiveness is incomprehensible; or to put it more in general terms: there is no non-objectivised spirit: even the laws of nature had to be created in the initial seconds of the Big Bang, when they proved themselves to be effective. Thinking, too, can generally only be developed from linguistic communication. Since, as is well-known, even not desiring to communicate is a way of communicating, communication very frequently proceeds contrary to the intention of the person communicating, who then tries to correct the failures through ever new linguistic attempts. This intention is signalised by phrases such as: “in other words”, “in my own words”, or “to put it another way”. Acquiring linguistic competence through practice in speaking succeeds by engaging with the question: “How can I know what I think, before I hear what I am saying?” Languages are purely embodiments of thought, yet they are indispensable, since unembodied thought does not, after all, exist.

A touching example of the relationship between poetry and thought, between the linguistic flow of poetry and reflection is provided by Heidegger. Without the supporting compulsion/chance to have to simply adapt individual operations to a systemic whole, the act of thinking ahead without the pattern of a system requires constant renewal of the flow of poetry. At an early age, hardly thirty years old, Heidegger made the decision to allow thought to arise through language. He had the idea of using the language of philosophical notions in a similar way to that of poetry. The poetry of the notions helped him to become extremely productive, since he needed only to unfold the poetic expression in thought to have at his disposal an inexhaustible power for the act of thinking. Furthermore, he dared to use poetic formulations as if they had been developed as notions by poets. For instance, above all in the last twenty years of his life, he read Hölderlin’s poetry as a way of conceptualising. To this day, no-one has succeeded in employing Heidegger’s interactive use of poetry and thought beyond the study of his work. Even Hölderlin scholars are only occasionally able to engage with Heidegger’s conceptual continuation of Hölderlin’s poetry, because it leads away from Hölderlin’s linguistic work; the desire to always know whether one is moving with Heidegger in the philosophical work or in the poetical work frequently encumbers the pleasurable march through the theoretical grounds.

As was mentioned before, in the days of ancient Greek theatre, the theorist was described as one who, sunk in reflection, follows the speaking actor onto the stage. Since then, theory has not signified the reflective flow of practice, but rather a philosophical construct which the audience/spectator develops as a reaction to a linguistic imposition, e.g. as the sense of words, gestures, mimicry and actions being compounded in front of their eyes. The result of this challenge to think by confronting the language of visual images, words, or music, is what we call a theoretical object, and the work of the receptor the production of theoretical art.

The work of the spectators/listeners should not, in its turn, be understood as the creation of a work, which might correspond to what is triggered by a work of theatre or visual art or literature. As far as it is objectivised when the spectators/listeners are themselves artists, i.e. speak the language, the result of the reception of artworks is “only” to be seen as further development of the tools of artistic creation. After all, these tools are theoretical objects and not manifestos of a simple reworking of what has been seen and heard. Although it is propagated in adult education institutes that one can “do something with art” by painting, hammering and chiselling with hand and foot, every participant comes to realise from experience that he can notice the ways of accessing the works with which he is confronted, which do not themselves have the status of works, but that of tools. His responses to the received foreign works remains theoretical. If he works with them, he produces theoretical art, which may, by all means, be called secondary, yet which usually has more significance for the process of becoming effective than the primary work did. Of Kant’s primary works there remain the indication that he systematically evolved that which every secondary reception invokes with the maxim: “Do not unto others that which you do not wish to be done unto you!” From Goethe’s Faust there remains the theoretical construct of that power which constantly seeks the good and yet nevertheless creates evil. For Kafka’s The Castle it is enough to evoke the image of the system clamp, as Immendorff, for instance, has illustrated in pictorial form. The images created by painters as their identifiable iconography are collections of those theoretical objects which artists themselves have known how to attain in confrontation with works of art as their form of productive appropriation of the theoretical work.

A Star Is Born

Through the work of Hofstetterkurt there is now a well-founded hope for a new and really efficient power of theoretical objects. He is a master of the métier of theoretical art. Even in his early works, collected under the concept of pendular movement, he combines recurrence and uniqueness, or periodicity and aperiodic structures and, like his mathematical colleagues of the same generation, subdues the bourgeois fear of chaos, by making the developmental logic of chaos manifest.

All artists are, for their part, recipients of already existing art. In this way, they become theorists. Hofstetterkurt is primarily a recipient of mathematics as the sole universally valid manifestation of continuous change in reliable eternity. He uses poetry as a tool to demolish the apparently impenetrable unity of speech and thought, as it is predominantly prescribed in mathematics. With the idea of the uniqueness of mathematical expressions, one can only work as a mathematician. How, Hofstetterkurt asks, can mathematics be employed outside of the profession of mathematician? Can one simply watch mathematicians, see how they live, i.e. outside of mathematics, how they cope with the demands of life mathematically? That would certainly not work on the model of a psychiatrist studying for his qualification in order to be able to claim that he himself does not expect to have any mental irritations or serious disorders because of course he knows all about them.

Hofstetterkurt demonstrates his agreement with the main tendencies of the development of art by “establishing a theory”, since it is obvious that the fruitfulness of mathematics for the life of mathematicians, or of theology for commerce (capitalism as a universal belief), or of genetics for process management, is only possible through the poeticisation of concepts. The experience of good infinity at first hand corresponds to the white romanticism of the young poets and philosophers living around 1800. Novalis called it “romanticising”, which for good reasons corresponds to our concept of ‘theorising’.
Novalis: By endowing the commonplace with great significance, the ordinary with mysterious character, the familiar with the dignity of the unfamiliar, and the finite with an infinite glow, I romanticise. Hofstetterkurt the theorist: By finding great significance in the commonplace (the shirt on the body), recognising the mysterious character of the ordinary (in the coming and going of commuters), endowing the unfamiliar with the dignity of the familiar (in Pi and Phi values), or the infinite with the form of the finite (eternal light beyond the earth’s rotation), I theorise, i.e. I endow the multifarious, the incompatible, and the barely identifiable with a meaningful context.

Translator’s note:
* “Blaue Himmelsreiter”. See Der Blaue Reiter, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (Piper, Munich, 1912)