PRINT February 1989


LIKE A FILM and photography before it, television seems to come to us as pure image, magically coalescing out of the air. It is the TV set the box itself, television’s body—that gives the lie to this idealist fantasy. Whether Watchman or Diamond Vision, whether in a high-tech brushed-aluminum case or a birds-eye-maple colonial-style console, the apparatus of television itself denies the medium’s claim to transcend the bonds of materiality and history. In his video sculptures the West .German-born artist Wolfgang Staehle combines TV sets, in all their peculiar and expressive physicality, with simple industrial materials—an aluminum step ladder, a tripod, a woodworking vise. In #9, 1988, a small Watchman perches at the end of a 12-foot-long raw-pine two-by-four, mounted on red metal jacks, that protrudes from the wall into the exhibition space; in Vers La Victoire (Toward victory, 1988), a square monitor in an aluminum case rests on the utility shelf of an aluminum step-ladder, while the car battery that powers the TV sits on the floor nearby. Through quirky compositions of this sort Staehle removes the television set from its usual domestic associations, its role as talking furniture, and points up its industrial origins—the fact that a TV set is a highly complex technological object, sharing a secret kinship, in both appearance and the Modernist ethos it implies, with other industrial products. In essence Staehle treats the TV set as a particularly fraught sort of found object, a sculptural material rich in contradictory esthetic and social meanings.

Staehle further concentrates attention on the physicality of TV by attenuating its ostensible content: the pictures playing on the set. These he strips down to simple images through the use of videotape loops in which brief image sequences are repeated endlessly. At times these loops can even appear to be still shots, as if a VCR had been put on pause. The Watchman at the end of the two-by-four in #9, for example, shows a single wavering image of a bust of Karl Marx. This seemingly still picture is in fact a videotape loop of a shot from Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, Dziga Vertov’s giddy, breathless paean to the apparatus of film, in which the camera itself—capable of transcending not only social class but space and time, gravity and consequence—becomes the real star, heralding a revolution in perception that was to parallel the political and industrial revolutions gripping the newborn Soviet society. Staehle treats this now-iconic work of Modernism with more than a touch of drollery, pointing out the contradictions between its message of technology’s transcendent power and its physical glitches; as he remarks, the image of Marx in his videoloop flickers because Vertov’s original footage was shot on a hand-cranked camera.

As this example suggests, Staehle’s constructions engage in a smart game of layered references to media and the stereotypes of the image sea around us. The 37-year-old Staehle, who has lived in New York for over a decade, was trained as a painter, studying with Robert Mangold. In a series from the early 1980s he painted grids of primary-colored squares on white backgrounds, in a familiar sort of examination of the formal terms of painting. Along with these “crossword puzzle” works, as he calls them, he began producing collage videotapes of material from broadcast TV. In these, he explored the inherently surrealist nature of television, whose fabric of ideology and information (conveyed and certified as true by the camera) is folded back on itself, with the abrupt cuts between programs, commercials, and news creating cognitive dissonances of the sort emblemized by Lautréamont’s by-now-archetypal poetic assemblage of sewing machine, umbrella, and dissecting table.

In these earlier series, as well as in his more recent works, Staehle has maintained an ironic, analytic distance from both painting and video. In Caviar Costs More, Too, 1988, for example, Staehle mounted a small bulbous TV monitor at eye-level next to a blank, portrait-sized canvas; the image on the screen is a loop of the blade of a meat slicer, spewing forth slab after slab of bologna. At first glance this might seem to be a simple, if not simplistic, joke about a kind of painting in which bland decorative objects are spun out endlessly. But in fact the delicate slices of processed meat that fall hypnotically from the deli machine are nearly the same size as the screen of the TV—which itself looks a little like a salami. Here Staehle circumvents the usual sterile debates about the relative merits of video versus painting by cutting across both media with the sharp blade of his wit.

By using such simplified image loops, Staehle emphasizes that it’s not what’s on TV, but TV itself—and the massive, intricately woven technological system behind it—that is most significant, that cuts deepest into the culture. In one series Staehle takes this McLuhanesque idea even farther, paring down the TV image to a seemingly irreducible minimum by freezing a wipe—the transitional device by which one image is replaced on screen by another. Within the implicit universe of TV, this is a revolutionary act, a reversal of the techno-evolutionary path that leads from painting to photography to film to TV. Staehle violates a prime law of television—that everything must flow, must follow, one bright bit leading to the next, without pause or interruption. TV time, like the time of Western culture, is progressive, ineluctably moving forward. By arresting that movement, Staehle in effect jams TV’s clockwork mechanism, its babbling sequential stream, to isolate a single moment; again revealing TV to be a carefully orchestrated and highly conditioned construct.

In one such work, Requiem, 1988, an installation at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, Staehle presented a small TV set on a tripod in the middle of a darkened room; the screen was divided by a dark gray cross, produced by this sort of frozen wipe, while in the background the sounds of Beethoven’s Requiem could be heard. Here the cross, with its traditional religious and memorial significance, might also be taken as a token of mourning for another loss: that of the illusion of TV’s seamless hyperperfected reality. By pushing Staehle’s religious analogy farther, it’s possible to see our own TV sets as icons, enthroned on videocarts so that they become something like altars on wheels, electronic shrines before which two or three—or more—can gather night after night to perform their meditative oblations. Requiem equates religion’s claims to transcend time and ultimately death (or in Beethoven’s case, the quasi-religious, new political claims of romantic “brotherhood” to achieve similar ends) with those of TV, as it presents itself as a bodiless force beyond intention, beyond culture, beyond history, even beyond nature.

The spirit of Duchamp—wry, analytic, playful—hovers over Staehle’s work, as it does over a great deal of recent sculpture by such artists as John Armleder, Ange Leccia, and Haim Steinbach, all of whom take as their material the ideologically imbued objects of consumer culture. Nam June Paik, too, in his pioneering work over the past twenty years, has sought to break through the familiarity of the TV experience. But while both Paik and Staehle undertake a subtle analysis of media culture in their work, they do so in strikingly different ways. Paik, that wise Zen master and wily trickster, typically relies on more expansive, boisterous means to make his points, employing an explosive Fluxus humor—evidenced most strongly in his frenetically paced videotapes—to magnify the absurdity of TV. Paik points to the medium’s noisy, ingratiating inanity by making noisy, ingratiating works. Through his sensory blitz, he entices viewers to acknowledge the lush hollow center of the medium, the circle of self-involvement shared by TV and its viewers. (Perhaps Paik’s most succinct and powerful statements on this theme are the various “TV Buddhas” he has made over the years, in each of which a small statue of a meditating Buddha faces its own image on a miniature TV.) Staehle, on the other hand, works in a cooler vein, regarding TV with a quiet, somewhat distanced fascination, as if it were a peculiar and wonderful form of poisonous butterfly. Where Paik often creates massive environmental works that surround and assault viewers with a stream of audiovisual stimuli, that overwhelm them with flashing color and blaring disjointed soundtracks, Staehle relies more on the considered strategic thrust, usually focusing on small TV sets as surprising, even absurd objects—a sausage-shaped TV, for example, or a hand-held Watchman, ironically the size of a book—subjecting them to a scrutiny that tends toward whimsy rather than farce.

In a pair of recent works, for example, Staehle mounted TV sets on the wall above their cardboard shipping cartons. On one level, these works set up deadpan contrasts between the sculptural TVs and the bluntly utilitarian containers. But on another level, they take on a subtle examination of modes of communication. The labels on the shipping boxes, intended simply to identify the TVs, in fact point at the global chain of production by which the medium’s images are made available to us. In Made In Japan, 1988, a Sony Watchman in a padded gray case sits above a much larger black carton. Across the top of the carton the words “For American TV Standards Only” are printed; in smaller letters along the bottom is the now-ubiquitous phrase “Made in Japan.” Above, the set is running a loop of Japanese TV commercials, including one in which the late Joseph Beuys plugs a liquor. In his selection of this particular commercial, Staehle opens his work to another channel of communication, that of current art-world debate—in this case, about the commodification of the art object, and of the artist.

Thus video, in Staehle’s work, becomes one element in a network of image production that includes the art world. In Les Autres Chiens (The other dogs, 1988) three medium-sized TV sets, each mounted on casters, sit on the floor; all three play the same video loop—of a series of dogs chasing their tails. The physical form of this work suggests the notion of the TV as a pet, nice to have around, entertaining, but something you can push around the room or lock in the kitchen if it’s bad. Here the dogs seem to be entertaining themselves more than us; their game is self-referential, a hermetic system of endless futility. In fact, Staehle has described Les Autres Chiens as “my contribution to the discourse of the post-Modern.” These perpetually spinning dogs suggest a connection between mass media’s endless mimicking of itself, its ravenous devouring and regurgitation of its favored genre forms, and the recycling in much of today’s art of appropriation. (In TV, this tendency recently reached a high mark of absurdity when the writers’ strike led one network to remake several episodes of Mission Impossible, using new actors and locations but exactly the same scripts as were used in the original episodes a decade earlier.) Staehle’s loops recreate in a miniaturized form our culture’s bulemic cycle of engorging and disgorging images, stories, and styles.

In a group of works employing lightboxes Staehle uses the seeming transparency of photographic media—their ability to subsume anything visible into themselves—to peel back, one by one, the layers that simultaneously enable yet obscure this process. In each lightbox he presents a black and white photograph. Each photograph, however, is actually a still from Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2, and is accompanied by words or phrases that appeared as part of the film image, either as a subtitle or, in at least one instance, as part of the “factual” text—the titles and credits—that framed the “fictional,” photographed story of the film. Since the images in these lightboxes are usually unreadable, the words must provide whatever ostensible content they may have. In Suppose You’re Really Finished, You Uninspired, Untalented Fake, 1988, for example, the title phrase floats above ambiguous blobs of tone that vaguely suggest figures. In Fine, 1988, Staehle has photographed the closing shot of the movie so that the word FINE (Italian for “The End”) appears on an otherwise blank screen. When these two works were recently included in the same show they were hung next to each other, and seemed to be part of a dialogue—almost as if the words were lines from a script. Yet as the viewer attempts to decode the various layers of mediation embodied in the final piece, the search for the “true” meaning of the moment depicted is thwarted. In presenting the end result of this process, the lightbox on the wall, Staehle points to the long chain of translations that has produced it—from being a series of words on paper; to a performance by actors and actresses; to a film, which is then subtitled, and later broadcast on TV; to a still photograph of a single moment in that broadcast; to a lightbox in a gallery. At each step, both picture and text take on new meanings, which in the end reflects the art-world ambience in which they appear, underscoring again that every act of creation takes place at the center of a web of predetermined forms and meanings, and is conditioned by its social context.

Like much recent consumer-cult sculpture, Staehle’s electronic constructions and lightboxes, resembling oversized and particularly dumb science-fair projects, are fun, easy to like. They’re quick on the uptake, like good stand-up comics, but they’re smart, too. By emphasizing the body of TV rather than its mouth (you can’t really talk about TV’s mind, or its heart), Staehle strips away all its noisy, effulgent, rococo, kitschy sentimentality. These reductive works, with their dispassionate emphasis on the physical beneath the illusory, suggest the essentialist explorations of Minimalist sculpture; on another side they share the concern with language and context of such conceptualists as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Characteristically, Staehle does not spell out the implications of his works, instead leaving it to his audience to draw the conclusions he points to in his indirect way—to fill in the punchlines of his droll jokes. And as we do so, we’re left with the uneasy feeling that he’s pointing out something about ourselves we’d just as soon not admit: that TV in fact reflects the desires and fears of its audience (which these days includes nearly everyone). TV is like the amiable schmoo of the comic strip Li’l Abner—aggressively, oppressively eager to please, quick to adjust itself to precisely the form most pleasing (and least offensive) to the greatest number of viewers. When we watch TV we are watching our communal selves—however distanced we may feel from it as individuals. While TV busily molds its audience, socializing its viewers into ideal consumers and citizens of the media state, it does so in the progressivist terms of social good in which industrialized society has wanted to see itself for the past two centuries. As TV makes us, so we make it.

It is crucial to the success of this work that it is not just about television, or video, or the art world, but instead deals with questions that underlie each of these phenomena as social institutions. One hallmark of post-Modern culture is a widespread sense of image surfeit, of a kind of image sickness. We are inundated, overwhelmed, by mass-produced photographic images presenting stereotypical, highly conventional, and restrictive stories. For many, this feeling of choking on images has in turn led to a deep distrust of representation itself, which is considered debased and even complicit in this condition. An implicit struggle over the role of the image, both its production and its consumption, has been central to a great deal of contemporary art. Much recent conceptually based art foregoes the visual image altogether, while work that brings a more analytical attitude to Pop art attempts to devalue the powerful allure of mass culture’s imagery by framing it in knowing irony.

By basing his spare, humorous work on the material facts of the spectacular transaction of television, Staehle shifts the terms of this struggle away from questions of imagery to question of ethics and history. In Staehle’s work the experience of TV—and by extension of other contemporary media, whether magazines, newspapers, billboards, or art—can no longer be seen as merely a transmission of images, but a physical expression of our desires, as magnified and socialized in the reflexive loop that exists between the media and mass audiences. TV offers its viewers reassurance that the world shares their values, that the world is as they imagine it to be.

Staehle’s pointed jests attempt to break through the calculated fantasies of both “The Cosby Show” and the auction room. His work will not allow us to retreat into a timeless arcadia of balanced narrative trajectories and formal resolutions, but instead returns us to a world of change, the one in which we live our lives—where actions have consequences that are often unforeseeable, and where events may not lead to happy or even comprehensible endings, but to deeper mysteries.

Charles Hagen writes regularly for Artforum.