Forms on World Tour

Ludwig Seyfarth, Critic and Curator, Berlin

“For us it’s about developing a universal pictorial language, about delving into the ambiguity of things. That is to say, extracting forms, symbols and meanings, categorizing them and pointing out the similarities and differences in their repetitions and variations.” (Thomas & Renée Rapedius)

Observing similarities and differences depends on a “sense of universal equality,” in Walter Benjamin’s lovely phrase, a sense that is honed by photography. Juxtaposing photographs, even those produced in widely separated locations, brings to light an otherwise overlooked similarity of forms and structures. This was the fundamental premise of “Mnemosyne”, the famous picture atlas left unfinished by Hamburg cultural theorist Aby Warburg upon his death in 1929. Warburg composed numerous thematic tableaux in an attempt to trace specific representational motifs, gestures and details—such as the energetic line work in drawings of clothing—as a sort of social memory transcending epochs and cultures. When the same motif shows up in thoroughly different places, unexpected affinities between correspondences emerge. At the same time, motifs change; over time the same gesture can change its meaning to the point of complete inversion.

Pictures have gone on “world tour.” 1 In the age of the internet, their mobility surpasses the physical travels of humans many times over. In the old days it was not only travel, transport and reproduction, but also the creation of pictures that was timeconsuming. Before travelers gained the ability to record their impressions with the camera, artists and amateurs alike took up pen and paintbrush. Technical aids such as the camera lucida enabled those with no professional training in drawing to simply trace the outlines of landmarks projected onto paper. When William Henry Fox Talbot, an English gentleman from a family of upperclass landowners, visited Lake Como in 1833, he couldn’t even manage that. So he began to think about how nature might depict itself in a lasting way without the aid of human hands. Talbot possessed some knowledge of the natural sciences and so, through chemical experimentation, he succeeded in developing the photographic negative process. These photographic black and white images (which of course were all there were at first), showed similarities to drawings and prints in their emphasis on dark/light contrasts, on value and contour. Photography can thus be understood as a form of drawing. But it is also an art of silhouettes. The contours of things stand out from the background, and bodies lose their gravity. In the art of the silhouette, developed to a virtuoso level in the shadow plays of East Asia and introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century, con- toured outlines were cut from black paper and pasted onto white pasteboard. The most common type of silhouette in 1800 was the silhouette portrait, invariably shown in profile, but it proved to be no match for the competition from photography.

The historical travel sketch as interplay of drawing, photography and silhouette constitutes the map, as it were, of the terrain on which the artists present their subtle play with forms and formal analogies, with similarities and differences. Thus there is a series of photographs showing hands whose fingers perform gestures as in ritual ceremony or dance. But they also recall the figures created for shadow plays.

This notion of drawings in space is another way of reading Thomas & Renée Rapedius’ sculptures. They consist of simple and lightweight materials, frequently paper or cardboard—the materials, not coincidentally, most often used for drawing. Seen two dimensionally, the silhouettes of the often tall, towering objects almost form lines in space. They are hieroglyphs written in three dimensions, so to speak, that can change at any moment and give rise to a whole range of images in the mind of the viewer: plants growing out of the floor, chimneys abstracted to symbols of themselves, phallic shapes like those of primeval fertility icons.

The quiet, hallucinatory metamorphosis of shapes forms a universe of lines, planes and volumes which, along with the restrained palette, recalls the graphic look of much conceptual and postconceptual art. But for Thomas & Renée Rapedius the starting point is always visual observation rather than linguistically formulated concepts or plans that systematically guide the process. Nor are there any explicit references to other artists, to literature, history or politics. While to some extent the research they conduct in their travels concerns written information on culture and tradition, on symbols and religious rituals, above all it concerns the connections between visible forms, be they products of nature or of a particular culture. Their comparative and contrastive observations form a foundation for the subtle artistic play of forms that causes the various original motifs to react to each other as in an echo chamber.

Through every of their exhibitions runs a kind of visual rhythm, which they carefully plan. At the same time, there are always multiple threads to guide one’s journey through the exhibitions. In one of their exhibitions the titular egg, as a symbol of origin, femininity, universe, wholeness and perfection, provided such a thread, with the artists drawing a connection to the famous story of Columbus’s egg—though they handle the egg with more care than Columbus does in the tale’s best-known version.

In this telling, Columbus strikes the tip of a boiled egg on the table, slightly denting it so that it stands upright. In South America, however, there is a widespread version of the tale in which, rather than breaking the egg, Columbus stands it in a small pile of salt. This version comes much closer to the art of Thomas & Renée Rapedius, in which the entire oval outline of the egg remains phy- sically intact and is merely visually interrupted. Columbus displayed the egg in salt but preserved its potential for further presentations in other contexts. Thomas & Renée Rapedius’ artistic appropriations proceed along similar lines. Whatever enters into their universe of forms always remains intact in its substance. They deliberately refrain from subjecting the material used to a critical, discursive evaluation and classification. Perhaps in this careful approach lies the possibility of transcending the Western ways of seeing that have imposed their own preconceived criteria on other cultures, thereby turning the echo chamber of forms into a one way street.

  1. Wolfgang Ullrich, Bilder auf Weltreise. Eine Globalisierungskritik [Pictures on world tour: A critique of globalization] (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2006).

Translation: Patrick Hubenthal