PRINT January 1988


To see everything correctly means to think in images––to see how images are hermetically separated from the world of language, and how they are mute to the same degree that they show us the destruction of nothingness, making visible to us the knowledge that is contained within them. In order for us to see what the images know, we must investigate the time whose eyes are images––the eyes that see nothing but death in the shadows of the cadaver. Yet now, on the border we also see not-death; this can be thought about according to the new formula of the image world.
—Rainald Goetz

MANY ARTISTS WONDER today how can they avoid the formalistic approach so visually pervasive in our society in the form of the corporate logo. The answer is not naked, crude, direct expression, nor is it didactic tendentiousness, for the great ideologies are dead. Yet we can still observe traces of ideologies, and some of these, like many other aspects of life, have a relationship to fashion such that they can signify one thing during one season and the opposite during another. Because of this, the structure of meaning seems to be disintegrating; ideologies become ersatz art signs, and join in the eternal cycle of the new in the art market. Today no artist can ignore this universal interchangeability of signs. And it renders the individualism that many engage in a delusion. But individuality is a survival technique, and, in certain manifestations, to work with this interchangeability of signs can mean to assert individuality. Thus the reach for individuality still permeates artistic expression.

Art is paradoxical: for example, it can simultaneously be a deceitful luxury, and the appearance of “truth and beauty.” Good art—the only kind of art that is in fact art—must contain a paradox like this in order to succeed. When the tension of the paradox is resolved, nothing is left but either affirmation or rejection; and good art is neither a total affirmation nor a complete rejection of reality. It is both affirmation and rejection at the same time. Otherwise, it is either frivolous or propagandistic.

Georg Herold has situated his work within paradox. Herold was born in East Germany in 1947, and studied art there in Halle, beginning in 1969. In 1973 he attempted to flee the country, but was caught and imprisoned; after eight months, however, he was released to the West, where he continued his studies, first in Munich and then, from 1977 to 1981, with Sigmar Polke in Hamburg. Here he showed Latte (Lath, 1977), his first work made from roofing lath, a material he has since used again and again, for he has found it especially suitable to his ideas. “In a short and simple form, it demonstrates the corroboration of an intention. Its appearance can be adapted to every idea that the artist wishes to express. Lath can be rationally, emotionally, psychically, and physically experienced. One cannot add to or subtract from its form.” Herold's selection of materials does not result from a belief in their innate or predetermined suitability to a specific esthetic ideology, a belief that has often in the past bestowed privilege on paint, marble, or steel. Rather, he selects his materials as though they were neutral, considering only their adaptability to the purpose of rendering in material form his different artistic concepts. Since 1977, he has also worked with such materials as cardboard, brick, paper, canvas, cloth, thread, cactus, adhesive tape, paint, photography, and pumice.

Through his image language, Herold tries to unite conceptual ideas and constructed forms. He puts together constellations of coded parts that, when placed in the system of relationships within a work of art, acquire significance as spatial art. From this idea of constructing a relationship between coded material and the immaterial space of communication, Herold came to the “uncertainty principle” formulated by the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, which brings into question absolute certainties in physics and requires that the laws of physics be looked at as relative probabilities. Herold wants to empower the uncertainty principle in art by forcing into being a coexistence of linguistic levels in his sculptures, between an irreal reality (the external esthetic form) and a real irreality (the content that form holds), and between object and viewer. For, as Herold has said, “The uncertainty is transferred from the object to the viewer.”

Herold focuses his attention on failure because in failure he can observe humanity. His work has incorporated the natural sciences, philosophy, economics, communication, and art-historical references such as Dürer's rabbit and Malevich's magic square. But one fundamental attitude that Herold brings to all his works is a form of Sterbehilfe—“mercy killing,” the term given a particular currency by contemporary medical debate about the rights of terminally ill patients. As Herold applies it to art, Sterbehilfe implies a euthanasia of simulated emotion and expression, of pretenses to truth, of artificial ways of keeping art alive until it is no longer living with dignity. He also wants to illuminate the artificiality of the current esthetics of fashionable design and emotional affect. And the image of death resides and is registered in all Herold's art as its inexhaustible stimulus. He writes,

Many circumstances and conditions, and in the end all things, show themselves to be a form of Sterbehilfe : sausages, socks, apple tarts, pastoral duties, Bunsen burners, fretsaws and meditation, the Knigge [a book of etiquette] and radio, potency and impotence. Wish, disappointment, accident, conscious assistance, and toying with emotion can be seen as the causes for the irreversible transformation from the living death of illusion to the real death of the object.

Herold makes Heiddegger's term Sorge, or “care,” into a contemporary concept, not in an ontological sense, but by stripping away artificiality from art through the concept of Sterbehilfe. This is how he takes us to the border of not-death.

In his work Dieser Mann ist gut zu seiner Frau (This man is good to his wife, 1984), from the series “Dachlattenchips” (Roof lath chips)—the chips refer to microchips—we see a model of noncommunication between man and woman. The work consists of key expressions written on pieces of cardboard attached at the junctions within a lath frame resembling a circuit board, an architecture that creates its own equilibrium. From any point on the circuit our eyes can search out various possibilities of meaning. Ultimately, however, the whole image of incoherence is embodied by the totality of the form, and this is the one to which the viewer returns. The language of the form itself becomes the nonlanguage.

By getting rid of the free-floating signifiers of individuality, whether of the self or of the commercial product, Herold brings out, through all the “typical shit” of daily art and life, the true enigmatic character of an artwork. As Theodor Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “The most external form in which the notion of an enigmatic quality of art can be conceived is in terms of whether or not there is meaning.” Herold's art has an existential humor; it is concerned with nothing more nor less than the possibility of creating an image-language of difference in the midst of universal indifference, and thus with the form and hence the meaning of the future. According to Adorno, “The enigma in art is the ambiguity as to whether that promise [of meaning] is real or deceptive.” As long as this ambiguity remains, Herold's art of Sterbehilfe, which he has sublimated into a grand form, cannot promise an answer. But it can point us somewhere.

Wilfried Diekboff is a writer and curator who lives in Cologne. His most recent publications include books on Rosemarie Trockel, Walter Dahn, and Gerhard Richter.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.

All quotations of Georg Herold are taken from the catalogue Unschärfe Relation, Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, 1985.