PRINT October 1985


WHEN THE IDEA OF ART and of its relationship to the larger world is discussed, it most often finds form in universal concepts. In such discussions geography is sometimes seen in relation to a single historical lineage, for example the metaphysic that associates light with truth in the history of Northern European Romanticism, as posited by Robert Rosenblum in his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975); the January 1985 issue of Artforum took a different approach, expounding a trinitary grouping of diversified ensembles of work within a political geography of North, South, and the meeting of East and West. In both cases, however, we are not far from a conception of geography and history bequeathed to us by the ruined edifice of Hegelian philosophies.

Lothar Baumgarten’s work demands a different understanding of the phenomenon of art and of the situation in which it takes place. Simultaneously seeing the world in its universality and blowing apart the notion of the world as one place, the work borrows particulars of the different traditions of art and technics offered by the various cultures that it relates to or invokes. Baumgarten does not proceed in the classic way from genres defined by their essences, such as painting and sculpture, to type—the historical characteristics that have unified themselves around ethnic principles (German, for example, or Nordic). That discourse signifies people’s united beliefs in the superiority or inferiority of given cultures. Instead, Baumgarten takes a discontinuist approach to culture and history, believing that ethnographic practices can work artistic phenomena into a much richer and more differentiated cultural dimension than that offered unilaterally by the single ontological principle of the artistic register in an occidental tradition. Baumgarten’s artistic register, despite its diversity—indeed, its apparent disparities—closes in on issues far more radical than those raised in a historicist approach, and much more adequate to the crisis in the role of art and the status of the artist in our “modern” society.

Going beyond an avant-garde ideology Baumgarten’s work by no means excludes the possibility of a genre. Rather, he directly taps the rigor and discipline by which the different genres realize themselves. His plurality of means permits the coexistence, on an equal basis, of painting or of mosaic, of coloration of figures or of arrangements of feathers, of the art of making books or movies, and of arranging fragments of textual or ironic narration inside the body of a book or of a film. Unlike Joseph Beuys, his teacher, and Marcel Broodthaers, whose work he admires, Baumgarten has refused to amalgamate his disparate practices into a special artistic identity. (Beuys became artist-shaman, Broodthaers artist-museum curator) He raises the question of a certain case vide, or void, within a constituted world that he has long designated as the world of myth, inside a body of knowledge that we in our turn might call anthropology. The double goal of such an investigation here is to explode the constraints of genre and its species and also to permit an understanding of types, in languages, contents, people, and societies,with their differences and differentiations. At the same time, it constitutes a practice of freedom, not as an abstract concept but as an application of knowledge and an exercise of the senses within Western society.

Undoubtedly, Baumgarten is an artist without a studio, to use a phrase of Daniel Buren’s. But Baumgarten’s rejection of the artist’s studio (following the example of Beuys, or the arte povera artists) does not reduce his work to the museum for survival, for if he is without a studio, it is because he is an artist inside the world. The world here is not that phenomenological one borne to us in single wholeness by our unified senses. Instead, it is discontinuous, made up of a plurality of possible worlds and impossible meanings, of diverse cultures conveyed to us by diversified senses to the point where it is no longer reliably the same throughout its different parts and over time. The artist in such a world is not the citizen artist, maybe not even the artist traveler that Jannis Kounellis speaks of; paradoxically, the artist within the world seems to become the artist without a world. For the function of such an artist is to make possible a diversity, a plurality of worlds, adapting to or integrating with the constitutive differences of the world, rather than trying to adapt the world to the demands of a single discourse or to the exigencies of the artist’s gaze.

Baumgarten was born in 1944, in Rheinsberg, Germany. In the late ’60s he studied under Beuys at the Düsseldorf Academy. (Anselm Kiefer attended the school at the same time, and Blinky Palermo, Reiner Ruthenbeck, and Imi KnObel had studied there some time earlier) Baumgarten’s first show was in 1972, at the Galerie Konrad Fischer, in Düsseldorf, where he has continued to exhibit regularly. The single work in this first exhibition, Tropenhäuser Guyana (Hothouse Guyana, 1969–72), raised the question of borders, of where an object ends and an environment begins. Two contiguous glass greenhouses contained living tropical butterflies along with plantings of a vegetable of the Rhine region, Grünkohl, a type of broccoli; harsh, glaring lighting produced a tropical heat within the greenhouses while the rest of the gallery space was left in darkness.

Urwald (Virgin forest, 1968) is a photograph belonging to the same family of work as Tropenhäuser Guyana, and it is enlightening as regards Baumgarten’s procedural method. Here the Grünkohl is photographed from above, without the least indication as to scale or environmental context. These kinds of multiple relations between a thing, the framing by which it is made, present, and the language through which it is signified remain the predominant elements in Baumgarten’s work. Now, twenty years after the work’s beginnings in the mid ’60s, it shows the same rigor, the same tenacious recoil in relation to the dominant situation of a given period; this regulating measure in Baumgarten’s production reflects not a process of rarefaction but an exemplified condensation of lived experience.

In 1973 Baumgarten showed some smaller works—a series of objects such as a triangle, a piece of wood, a stone, a blue cloth, the map of Europe rolled up on a stick, and so on. Some of these objects were presented together with an arrangement of feathers. An astronomical map was traced like a shadow on one of the walls. By introducing an aerial element with the feather and the sky map, Baumgarten was implicating the dimension of a world on several levels; the feather, for instance, exemplifies an elementary structure that he pursues in all its meanings throughout his work. Feathers are used for their capacity each time to symbolize elements of different cultures, civilizations, and contexts—without being fixed, however, to the status of symbol (in its definition as archetype, or as transcendental chain of meaning) In Hommage à MB, 1973, for example, a collaboration with the German ethnologist Michael Oppitz, a chest made of book bindings is filled with a collection of eagle feathers, each one painted with the name of a different North American Indian tribe. This is a reference to a Broodthaers exhibition at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle in 1972, Der Adler vom Oligozän bis heute (The eagle of Oligozän up to today), which was to be incorporated, as the “section of figures,” in Baumgarten’s work in progress, Musée. Département des aigles (Museum. Department of eagles). The different geographic, zoological, and geophysical givens according to the nature of the bird from which the feathers have come are signifi cant for Baumgarten’s work. For example, two books—Tè-Ne-Tè, Eine Mythologische Vorführung (Tè-Ne-Tè, a mythological presentation; Düsseldorf: Konrad Fischer, 1974), written in collaboration with Oppitz, and Land of the Spotted Eagle (Mönchengladbach: Städtisches Museum, 1983)—both deal with diverse myths, customs, functions, and notions surrounding the eagle. In Hommage à MB Baumgarten opposes cultural dispersion to a museological order; in the two books the eruption of figural elements resulting from the multiplicity of visual or oral accounts contrasts with the methodological level of a thematic organization, without ever totaling up into a melting pot.

Whether as a decorative element or as a sign of richness (through its function as a ritual or mythic object), the feather allows Baumgarten to develop an entire topography of myth, ritual, and esthetics. This topography is more than a complacent resort to narrative, more than a descriptive psychology centered on a unified symbolism, more than an affected esthetic based on a primary imposition of cultural meaning. (I think, for example, of Rebecca Horn’s use of peacock feathers, or Wolfgang Laib’s of pollen.) Again, in Baumgarten’s work the map—of the sky, of the continents—makes up a language of the world, a language whose concretization in the physical measures of cartography becomes the element of abstraction par excellence. As the canvas does for a painter, for Baumgarten the map reverberates directly as a signifying fragment inside a schematic language. The sets of measured fragments that comprise the cartographic world implicate both a strong emotive charge in their role as high abstraction, and a clear representational function in the marks that signify geographic features, roads, places. These aspects intervene directly in the work, breaking it free from the status of an object and even from the status of the site it occupies.

Thus the work in this 1973 show was set loose in the world, floating between the highest degree of abstraction and the most concrete moment of solidity, all the while questioning its own reality In maintaining the multifold realities of things, Baumgarten was confronting the presumed level of their appearances and the supposed level of their meanings. “The world” here did not rest on a single horizon line; as Michel Foucault stated in Les Mots et les Choses (The order of things, 1966), “the order inherent in the gaze, which imposes a permanent grid of distinctions, is no more than a superficial flickering above a profound depth.”

During the same period that Baumgarten was working on Tropenhäuser Guyana, and on the less unwieldy works of the second exhibition, he also created a group of photographic images and compiled a series of fragments of texts taken from travel or ethnological writings. The photographs were developed into the components of a visual work whose first form was a Carousel of 80 slides projected in a 12-minute sequence—Eine Reise oder “Mit der MS Remsheid auf dem Amazonas” (A journey, or “With the MS Remsheid on the Amazon,” 1972); this was followed by Eldorado, 1974–76, a 32-minute slide show with a soundtrack of various noises, the duration of every slide’s projection calculated and fixed but different in each case. Eventually this material was worked into a 98-minute color film, Der Ursprung der Nacht (The origin of night), which was shown at the Düsseldorf film festival in 1978.

As for the texts, Tè-Ne-Tè arranged them into citations or documents following an introduction written by Oppitz. Subsequently they were developed into the form of an account, an informally ordered narrative without a clear end—potentially with no end at all—and with no unity other than the succession of one fragment after another within the framing of a book. Land of the Spotted Eagle is one such volume; Die Namen der Bäume (The names of the trees, Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1982) is a second. What holds together the book and the narrative is the multiple relations proposed in the title, name, or theme. Titles borrow the mythic dimension inherent in naming anything: most titles are an absolute generality superimposed onto an absolute particularity In Baumgarten’s books generality and particularity, word and thing, abstract void and saturated concreteness are juxtaposed. The names of the trees, for example, become a set of narratives rather than a chain of unified meanings.

Parallel to the photographic and book works Baumgarten continued to work on objects, but in 1977 he also began a series of trips to South America. From October 1978 to March 1980 he lived in the Amazon basin in the company of Indians, sharing their way of life and customs. Here he took a set of ethnographic photographs, but the presumed scientificness of these documents disappears under the weight of the lived and the living, the weight of the intimate experience of place with which they are inscribed. This indigenous world in which Baumgarten dwelt and worked, hunted and ate, laughed and talked—not as observer, but as participant—is invested in our world with the myth of “the other,” or, geographically, “the elsewhere,” the “over there”; Baumgarten reveals the camera and the “scientificness” of the anthropological outlook as a corresponding myth, participating as much in the “over there” as in the “here.” What is left is difference as such, and it is this that Baumgarten develops in the book and film works and ultimately it is this that I would call the site of his works. While these works can be seen in terms of the environment pieces familiar elsewhere in contemporary art, they actually exist in the interstices between one world and another, one tradition and another, one genre and another, one historical time and another, and so on.

As ethnographer, Baumgarten covers the geographic and social terrain with an eye for detail, for the particulars of this landscape, of this culture. Revealed through its fauna and flora but above all lived with through the ways of life of the tribes that benefit from it, the landscape for Baumgarten is more than the frame inside which a society develops its history and its narrative; it is the place that forms the history and the narrative—it is a world. And for Baumgarten the particularity of this world encompasses more than either its empirical givens or the living experience within it. A long intermediary route takes him to its privileged places, the places where the separate realms of the real and of human experience are condensed into microcosms that contain the full register of this world’s history, its sciences, its geography These places are not fictional, but they are shifters of fictions, while at the same time they are entirely real and concretely there.

The same kind of interaction is visible in Baumgarten’s photographs from the early ’70s of open land in Düsseldorf, photographs which, after several years of elaboration, went to make up the film Der Ursprung der Nacht. The artist’s eye and the ethnographic perspective, the landscape as it is known to its inhabitants and those inhabitants’ world, the horizon seen by the traveler and the unknown terrain penetrated by the explorer, human society and the nature of the individual—all are condensed in a single stroke in these images. Like Urwald, these photographs display tiny fragments of the landscape, out of scale and out of the frame as given by a society Thus they discover the internal structure of an other world, both by the narrative they comprise (the absence of a frame is in itself a frame, producing its own fiction), and also by the reality that places them.

Another Baumgarten work shown at Documenta 7 has a similar double function—a commemorative plaque, with an engraved inscription, “Georg Foster, 1754–1794, Zeichner, Ethnograph, Aufklärer, Revolutionär; Wolgareise, 1765–1766, Südsee-Expedition II. Weltumseglung, Capt. J. Cook, 1772–1775; Reise an den Niederrhein, 1790” (Georg Foster, 1754–1794, draftsman, ethnographer, teacher, revolutionary; Volga trip, 1765–66; South Seas expedition, second journey around the world, Capt. J. Cook, 1772–75; trip to the lower Rhine, 1790). In a strong convergent movement, the choice of the text goes beyond an ideological statement, and the use of the material and typeface goes beyond a poetic effect. They both commemorate the “here” and the “over there” Also at Documenta 7 Baumgarten inscribed the names of South American Indian peoples inside the dome of the Fridericianum exhibition building in Kassel (cf. Artforum, October 1982, “Documenta”). The names were written in a red simulating urucu, the body paint that gave the name “redskins” to the Indians; the typeface was Eric Gill’s Perpetua. Between the letter and the color, between the extension of the book and that of the human body, the event takes place. It is ungraspable by either the hand or the mind alone; it acts, however, as an indicator of place. It is not that the event we witness and participate in before a Baumgarten work is outside the historical field, but that it confronts several historical fields. It becomes the place of the history, the place of the narrative. A Baumgarten site work cannot be understood directly as a narrative; rather, it is a place, and as such is both within and beyond speech and thus within and beyond consciousness—it transgresses consciousness. The event in a Baumgarten work is never confined to objecthood. Instead, it indicates a place where cultural objects can open themselves up to the world, losing neither their contact with their origins nor their purposiveness.

The work neither refuses exchange nor sabotages it from within, but it does reserve a place for an exchange to be conveyed beyond the object and beyond the frame and scale of values established by a unified social order. In the discourse of comparative anthropology that Baumgarten seems concerned with, a topic often raised is that of the opposition between human society and the state (cf. Pierre Clastres); but for Baumgarten—showing his work and intervening with it “here,” confronting the sociological problems of our society—this opposition is not effective in the same way As a matter of fact, in an occidental social organization the state can sometimes support a kind of work whose function is conceived of as cultural and historical exchange, transgressing the frame of a primary mercantile exchange. Unlike those contemporary artists involved with unmasking the ideologies of museums and public spaces—not, by the way, an unimportant task—Baumgarten stands his work up against the modern Western myths of the critical consciousness and the crisis of consciousness. Rather than advocating the withdrawal of the state from human involvement, the privatization of its resources, and the rendering of the individual into a marginalized and problematic entity Baumgarten returns with his work to a public dimension offered by museums, parks, and public buildings, as well as to such media as books and films and to any sort of open social place where encounter and exchange are possible.

Almost exclusively Baumgarten uses the public place not as the mirror of the state, of the nation, or of the culture, but as the space of the social, and thus of fluctuation and change. From Documenta 5 in 1972 through Documenta 7 three years ago, from the Venice Biennale of 1984 through the works in the Mönchengladbach museum in 1983 and in the Castello Rivoli, Turin, in 1985, he works places not as historic ruins but as monuments of the cultural opposite of a ruin. It is difficult to render an account of all the signifying details in a Baumgarten “place” They have more to do with juxtapositions and superimpositions of various grids of meaning than with now-familiar formalist notions of environment or installation work. These reading schemas do not belong to a single signifying chain or to a logical or dialectical process.

Baumgarten’s piece for the West German Pavilion at the 1984 Venice Biennale, for example, involved a figural relation between Venice and Venezuela which extended on several geographical and historical levels. It set up an abstraction between two states, betweeen two histories (themselves discontinuous through the internal differentiations created by the variety of the countries’ inhabitants, their past conquests and defeats, their cultures), between two places on two sides-of the globe. This relation, being simultaneously concept and cultural memory, took place as both a figure and a structure. In the catalogue was printed a photograph of the Orinoco River, whose meanderings seemed a direct echo of the turnings of Venice’s Grand Canal. This relatively simple level of correspondence was quickly complexified in the work itself. A series of polished marble paving stones—which incidentally took several months of work to cut—had been inlaid in the floor of the pavilion. Without conforming strictly to geography, these stones bore the names of Latin American rivers, and thus formed a kind of map. Accompanying them were abstract shapes in colored marble, representing South American animals such as the turtle and the jaguar but inspired by the flat iron symbols embedded in certain places in the Venetian pavements. This was a language both pictographic and picturesque, a language of astonishing richness; the words and forms on the floor not only brought the memory of the outdoors, both near and distant, into a closed indoor location, but developed a whole series of traditions reuniting ornament with function, traditions exemplified in the inlaid stone of the Venice streets and in the mosaic floors of the city’s palaces and churches. Like the book, the ground has long been organized and measured to carry meaning and to generate signs—not simply the leftover traces of humanity, but signs that transform a terrain into a world.

For Baumgarten this terrain can be the ground, the page of a book, the body, a film. It can be a historic building, like Turin’s Castello Rivoli, now restored and converted into an art museum. In one room of the Castello the frescoes were incomplete; the ceiling was painted but the walls were bare. Complementing the immaterial glaze of the ceiling frescoes Baumgarten added the materiality of a dense blue pigment to the empty walls. Feathers protruding from the surface of the pigment introduced a fragility and lightness that caught in three-dimensional terms the quality of the frescoes on the ceiling vault. Names written on the walls recalled the memory of their original state, and also evoked memories of different places and things, opening the work to various other narratives and fragments of the world. Names of fruit and of consumer products, names of animals and of trade goods—all marked the places of a world larger and more diversified than that evoked by the early-18th-century palace. Yet the palace was again connoted with a kind of richness that our economic world can never take into account but only reduces, or appropriates in order to ornament its moments of public representation. This kind of uncategorizable cultural exchange Baumgarten manipulated to its primary function—that of recognizing, of imagining, the other.

In each of Baumgarten’s works the transformation of the terrain is multiple and different. On the walls of the new Mönchengladbach museum, designed by Hans Hollein, Baumgarten wrote the names of North American Indian tribes; they seemed strange signs of worlds irrecuperable through the notions of style and historicity embodied in the supposedly pluralist discourse of post-Modern architecture. In the West German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale Baumgarten’s work did not consist simply of pointing out the signifying elements or ornaments inside the empty frame of a book or of an architecture. The time he spent in the marble quarries, giving them as much attention as he gave the details of life in an Amazonian tribe, was an extensive part of his artistic and cultural register. He lived and worked with the stonecutters with the same will to integrate that he showed when he hunted in the forest. The ruptures and discontinuities in his work and in his role as artist result not in marks of nostalgia for a lost world unity, nor in the kind of repression expressed in a desire to conquer other worlds, other sources of richness. Rather, his work conforms to the demands of a world that may not have an identity to offer to art and the artist, but makes of this lack a gift, the gift of difference.

Living and working among the Indians or among the stonecutters rather than just observing them, Baumgarten cannot look on culture merely as goods. In his time among the Indians Baumgarten learned that one’s relationship to one’s culture is not a fixed thing. More than just the string that binds the pages of the narrative into a book, it holds within itself the possibility of its own transformation; it inscribes margins within which possibilities of variance open up; it can develop signs that permit one to reproduce one’s history in ways other than through writing; it can lead one to signify what history prevents one from saying and, especially, what not only makes culture desirable to those who don’t possess it, but also permits those who have it to desire those who desire it.

Denys Zacharopoulos is an art critic who lives in Paris. He writes regularly for Artforum and recently published a book on Gerhard Richter.

Translated from the French by Peter James LaVerne.