or, How the Look of Things Is Formed

Fritz Emslander, curator, Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen

“Seeing things as though one were seeing them for the first time is a method for discovering previously unnoticed aspects of those things. It is a powerful and productive method, but it requires strict discipline, and so it can easily fail. The discipline essentially consists in forgetting, in factoring out one’s habituation to the thing seen—that is, all of one’s experience and knowledge of the thing. This is difficult, for as we know, learning is easier than forgetting.” (Vilém Flusser) 1

Things Seen Anew

Stepping back from our habits to find new ways of seeing things is hard to do in everyday life. Things are burdened with that “invisible imperative” that prescribes how they are to be viewed and handled. The ability to disregard this imperative deserves, in the words of Vilém Flusser, “to be regarded as the human ability”: that is, the ability “to gain distance on things and see them from points of view not previously held.” 2

With the emancipation of art from the diktat of mimesis and academicism, this ability to distance oneself has become crucial for artists as well. The questioning and reinterpretation of the “values forced on us by the cultural apparatus” 3 can certainly be construed as an artistic activity: Once we, together with Flusser, see a thing—such as a bottle—as what it is, not what it is supposed to be, it can be put to a variety of uses never intended by its maker. Bottles reinterpreted as candlesticks, vases, and ashtrays become “witness[es] to our freedom” 4; when comparable things occur in the realm of art, they do so in the name of, and as evidence of, artistic license.

Seeing things in new ways and handling them differently liberates creative potential and sets a process in motion, in the course of which things are revealed to possess additional practical and aesthetic value. Thus paper cups, for example, which we customarily use only for drinking and then discard, are, in Flusser’s view, witnesses to “our passivity, the way we are swept along.” 5 But when those same disposable cups are used in a way that deviates from the prescribed mode, being consequently reinterpreted and ultimately displayed, they become witnesses to autonomous action, demanding in turn ways of seeing that are liberated from the bounds of convention.

Among the objects made by Thomas & Renée Rapedius, their paper cups, stacked into vegetal stems/posts/pillars (O.007, 2006, see pp. 98–99) or nested into organically convoluted reeds/tentacles/cascades (O.024, 2007, see pp. 50–51), provide the starting points for a whole series of possible associations. In Flusser’s terms, these objects bear witness to a history that we—both the artists and the viewers who mentally reconstruct it—do not simply submit to as consumers, but shape through our own actions. They are “monuments … to our past [Vergangenheit] in the truest sense of the word,” 6 which is to say that the artists have committed an assault [haben sich vergangen] on the paper cups; they have abused them in violation of their intended purpose, thereby reinterpreting them and providing new ways of understanding them.

The artists have transposed the paper cups to other places, first to the experimental space of the studio, then to the presentational space of the museum. In the studio, as the site of artistic production, the cups encounter the instruments of their mental and physical transformation. To put it another way: It’s rather unlikely that things leave the studio the same way they went into it. In the museum, as the site of reception, things are absolved from all use and subjected to mere sight. Here the artists are likely to encounter a willingness to discover previously overlooked aspects of things: Ever since Duchamp’s ready-mades, forgetting, too, has become increasingly easy.

In the case of the spools used by the artists in one of their most recent pieces, created for the exhibition, we are dealing with things that must first be laid bare to be visible at all. Only when the work with the yarn nears its end does a solid cardboard cone come to light. In one large-scale piece (O.039, 2012, see p. 26), the yarn has been partially rolled back up and then partially unrolled again—a movement that seems to have been halted only for the moment. Before the mind’s eye, the spools go on turning: either entwining themselves anew in multiple colors, their curved surfaces becoming adorned with an all-over linear drawing, or gradually baring the underlying geometric solid, an action that would be quite literally and tangibly accompanied by the shape’s “discovery”—that is, the removal of the layers covering it.

In the figurative sense of a phenomenological endeavor, one “discovers” new aspects of things, together with Flusser, by removing the “layers of ordinariness” 7 adhering to them. If we detach the exposed spool from its familiar contexts of textile production, needlework, and sewing supplies, we can reinterpret it in all sorts of directions. It appears here as an architectural module in skyscraper-like towers clustered into a sort of city (O.046, 2012, see pp. 94–95), here stacked into a many-jointed palm trunk (O.047, 2012). In the piece described previously (O.039, 2012), the spools, turned face to face in pairs, are assembled into elongate formations that gracefully span the exhibition space from floor to ceiling in an outreaching gesture. Flanking these objects, and extending them into an installation, are several drawings and photographs (see pp. 24–29), which emit subdued notes in their black-and-white restraint. While the objects’ form may at first resemble a plantlike structure, perhaps reed or bamboo stalks, this impression is dispelled by the sight of a dancer: Next to her, the same figures look like formalized limbs, artfully outstretched and dancing en pointe. The butterflies in another photograph, meanwhile, could be attracted to the vibrant colors of the yarn as to flowers. Like the viewer’s eye, they might flutter from one point to another, following various impulses. The superb drawing of the butterfly wing, on the other hand, contains indirect echoes of a corresponding image of caterpillars, who first enwrap themselves and then, utterly transformed, cast off the constricting cocoon—its shape not unlike that of the spools.

What Thomas & Renée Rapedius seek in their installations is not the drama and spectacle of this metamorphosis, but it is that moment of surprise, of an unexpected turn: when things slip sufficiently free of unambiguity that we gain some distance on them and see them in new contexts; when they are transformed before the viewer’s eyes as in the artist’s hands; when we are able to step back and watch how the look of things is formed.

Things and Travel

There is no need to push things away while traveling, since one is already approaching them from a considerable distance. To discover a thing somewhere else, it is not necessary for the traveler to first back away from it. On the other hand, it is also unnecessary to try to gain the native’s close familiarity with the things that surround him (which would not be a simple proposition either). On the contrary, if one wants to see things differently from the way they are customarily seen, then one’s “outside view” confers a certain advantage over the natives, accustomed as they are to their things and their surroundings.

Immediate experience of things encountered elsewhere has the power to draw travelers out of their own conventionally conditioned perceptions. Once they look just a little past the edges of their blinders, it becomes easy, even a game, for them to discover aspects of things that would most likely never have come to light from a technologically mediated distance, nor in all too familiar proximity.

One example is provided by a multipart object that owes its existence to a discovery the artists made on a trip to India (O.031, 2010, see p. 131). A honeycomb, hanging like a hemispherical pouch from a branch, is something Indians are able to see on a daily basis, even in urban areas, and soon come to disregard. But if one can see this strange arboreal appendage as more than just a beehive, it first appears to be a strikingly regular, almost geometric shape with a shimmering surface (which is covered by countless bees with their reflective wings). This remarkable structure is akin to elegant fabrics, or banners hanging from poles mounted at dizzying heights. If one can forget the bees for a while and not even try to see these shapes with the eyes of the biologist or apiarist, various associations present themselves; a whole space of associations opens up. Even if one then finds out (or recalls) that one is standing under a bee tree, to which several tribes of Asiatic giant honeybees have attached their nests, and if one recognizes that the honeycombs’ shape, unusual to European eyes, is due to their functionality, one can still quickly regain one’s distance. The unfamiliar proves to be more amenable to unusual or unconventional interpretations. Might these flat structures, distended into hemispheres and visible from afar, not only house the creatures but also symbolically represent the bee tribes to the outside world in a way analogous to ordinary flags?

Thomas & Renée Rapedius have taken up the challenge of making artistic use of such travelers’ impressions, in all their complexity, and transplanting them into works of art. In a detail of a photograph or on a sheet of drawing paper, they detach individual forms from their original environment. Similar forms, found by the pair on extended trips to diverse locations and in various contexts, are added little by little to a sizable store to which they return again and again. Forms are also isolated, and thus held at a distance, for the sculptures and three-dimensional objects. The planning and realization of these objects, however, is accompanied by what can be a relatively protracted process of experimental appropriation. To find material appropriate for conversion, they test the stability, flexibility, and mobility of the materials in question—with the characteristics and robustness of the materials certainly exerting their own influence on the form-finding process as well.

Just as a translation can address various aspects of the original phrase being translated and allow for different connotations, depending on the language in which it is written, certain qualities of materials also define the possibilities for artistic adaptation, and for the subsequent interpretation of a form by the viewer. The two artists, though, have set themselves the task of finding a concrete form for their translation while simultaneously avoiding definitivity in the sense of settling on a single reading, in order to make the associative field that opened itself up to them accessible to the viewer as well. And so, in the execution and presentation of O.031, the bees have been left out. The viewer can safely assume the naive viewpoint of the traveler, gazing in curiosity and wonder at numerous metal rods sticking out of the wall overhead, hemispheric shapes sewn from black sequined fabric dangling from them. We are not told what it’s supposed to be, but rather asked what it might be.

Things in the Subjunctive

Through the open-endedness of their work, and through the way they arrange objects, drawings, and photographs into installations in the exhibition space, Thomas & Renée Rapedius express everything that appears there in the subjunctive. And they put viewers in the position of discerning the various interpretive possibilities that emerge from the forms and motifs juxtaposed and combined in the installation context.

Conspicuous correspondences of forms from nature and culture signal to viewers that all the parts of this multimedia arrangement have the potential to be combined with one another in a variety of ways, such as the jagged, branching forms seen in an aerial view of a river, in a drawing of lightning, in a photograph of a defoliated climbing plant, in tears in a sheet of paper, in the zigzag lines of wooden objects that make up a wall piece (O.015/2, 2006–2012, see pp. 46–47). The viewer enters into a sort of aesthetic test setup, in the charged field of which formal analogies can trigger short circuit–like reactions. Such short circuits are enabled in part by the artists’ choice not to strictly isolate disparate fields such as flora, fauna, geology, architecture, and dance, thereby lowering the resistance of traditional classifications. By changing the isolation—to continue with the image of the electrical short-circuit—it is possible to create connections between the poles of an installation with a resistance verging on zero. It is the viewer who activates such connections or supplies the current to a conductive body: In such moments an intense flow of associative energies takes place, a flash of inspiration. In a multipolar network, it is entirely possible for this sort of “aha” effect to precipitate further reactions and bring about reversals of polarity. Encountering recurring motifs such as the circle and the spiral, for example, can energize the appearance of entire rooms in one’s perceptions, causing the visitor moving through the exhibition to experience a sort of vertigo.

The pleasure provided by spontaneous and unexpected connections can also heighten the viewer’s readiness to scrutinize all the things in the exhibition in terms of their potential to look like something else. So one should not be too quick to commit. There are those fanned-out, cut-up sketchpads, for instance, spreading over the floor to form a landscape of cacti or anemones. Not far away, three objects made of narrow strips of plexiglas conically rising up from round bases to the black rubber trimming their tips—volcanoes, if one is so inclined (O.029, 2009–2011, see pp. 86–87 and O.038, 2011, see pp. 58–59). Ostrich feathers are attached to wooden sticks inserted into tall inverted funnels, calling to mind exquisite feather dusters, but also palm trees—especially since the three objects are standing in a room with a skylight, with a photograph of a greenhouse placed close by (O.037, 2011, see p. 78). White-painted metal rods, whose delicate lines combine to form an abstract three-dimensional drawing of a spider, if one is willing to see them that way (in which case, there it squats in the middle of the room)—or, alternatively, the expansive shape of a volcano, the rods tracing the course taken by its lava channels (O.036/2, 2011–2012, see pp. 62–63). Whether one sees one or the other or a third thing depends on one’s personal perceptual tendencies and powers of imagination, but also to a great extent on the position of each work within the installation, and within the framework of the exhibition as a whole.

Thomas & Renée Rapedius have said that they design a choreography for viewers’ movements and sight lines, for their journey through the exhibition. Such a choreography calls on viewers to be skilled interpreters with a talent for improvisation. It does contain a number of distinctive stations, but no beginning or end—a structural open-endedness that the architectural layout of the Works on Paper Galleries at the Museum Morsbroich accommodate with a loop with two possible entrances. The museum visitor is sent by the artists on a circular tour. No doubt the pieces one sees first will be seen in a different light when one encounters them again at the end of one’s journey. If one repeats one’s path through the exhibition along the same course, new aspects will surely be revealed in the context of the whole. Should one then reverse directions on the second or third pass, the result, in an almost dancelike back-and-forth, will be a wholesale proliferation of perspectives and standpoints. Little by little, objects, drawings, and photographs coalesce into associative systems, allowing us to identify and generally create correlations and lateral connections between the works. The look of things eludes us again and again, only to form anew in the light of new interpretations and shifts in perspective. Our vision is playfully extended in our dance with things.

  1. Vilém Flusser, Dinge und Undinge. Phänomenologische Skizzen (Munich: Hanser, 1993), 53.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 7 and 17.

Translation: Patrick Hubenthal