Eiko Grimberg, Jana Engel, Arne Schmitt
with an essay by Sabrina Mandanici
Opening reception | 3 May | 20:00
The past both is and isn’t a foreign country
The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences. –John Berger
What we need is to use what we have. –Susan Sontag
I was never terribly good at “making art”. Or rather, what school told me “making art” was supposed to be. I don’t know whether it was skill or focus I lacked most. Perhaps even both. But I do know that my drawings and pictures had very little to do with what they were modelled after. Instead, they were free interpretations. For most of my school years, I felt pursued by a feeling of incompetence. The sense that there was no connection whatsoever between my hands and eyes. And that my head (and its contents), when left to its down devices, was missing something fundamental: the ability to imitate. And thus the ability to comprehend.
In the eleventh grade, Mr Rübel, a student teacher, took over our art lessons and the introduction to art history. For one lesson, once a week, it was no longer about “having to do” but rather “wanting to see”. It was about eras and genres, painters and sculptors, about traditions that continued and those that were countered. All the while, though, history was less the focus than looking. Looking now, in the present. For Mr Rübel, looking was no simple task – it was a serious approach. An instrument of comprehension. And even more important: of questioning – questioning ourselves and our surroundings. Looking with attention demanded dedication. Curiosity. Care. While ignoring taste and judgement. It led to discoveries.
I don’t recall specific details of his lessons: neither artworks discussed, nor texts read. But this I remember clearly: sitting in the dark room. The searing light of the overhead projector. And the feeling that comes over us when we are faced with an object that we know was made by someone for something or someone else. The moment in which one comes to understand that you can never know anything completely. Because these objects speak in a way that people cannot and will never be able to.
* * *
The promise of art lies its principle of reciprocity. Its consequences are never predictable. One image can lead to another. To a sculpture. A rock. A city. Truly anything. Sometimes art also leads to people. For me, it usually led to those who write.
Through art and literature, ideas become tangible objects. David Levi Strauss writes in his book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual: “I always worked with my hands, and when I began to write, that seemed like handwork to me, as well. And I always thought of artists and writers as workers, at base, ultimately involved in the transformation of matter by hand.”¹
Writers might not strictly be considered artists. But their activities have the same goal: holding onto the fleeting present, converting it into something enduring. It is exactly in this activity that we find a particular form of knowledge transmission.
Artworks are facts. Because they put that which is represented in relation with how it is represented. They portray society. And this portrayal changes over time. This also means that each object, if we look at it with enough attention, carries an encoded message, which is dedicated not to the past but to the present. In decoding this message, the historian gives herself a vital task: the responsibility to change consciousness. Walter Benjamin described it as “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one.”
* * *
“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”² This danger has many faces. It always has its origin in a lack of attention. Its end result is that we forget.
Historians are masters of conjecture (although one shouldn’t call them out as such). Their process is based on sources and plausible events, on causes and effects. They test and hesitate; rethink and search for certainty, until they finally understand “how it really was”. Secretly they are all driven by the same desire: to counter the loss of world. Historians are melancholic tracker dogs. And sometimes they end up chasing their own tails.
I studied art history, because it was my passion. But my love for the discipline was never monogamous – I loved the artworks as much as their stories. The lived and known, but also the secret and invented. This presents a problem for history as a discipline. Because creating knowledge means imparting history. And that’s not quite the same as telling stories.
If one goes digging in the history of Germanic words, we find an overlap between “knowing” and “seeing”. And so, “ich weiß” (I know) essentially means “I have seen”. Just as “I see” in English means “I have understood”. Seeing is an experience that one cannot convey any other way. It must be done. And it must be done in the first person singular.
¹ Strauss, David L. (2010): From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ix.
² Benjamin, Walter (1968): Theses on the Philosophy of History. In: Arendt, H. (ed.): Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.