PRINT May 1991


ARE WE SO CERTAIN THAT what the world, what “reality,” consists of is defined by its representations?

And are we then so sure that those representations—linked to each other in systems that form in their turn a global supersystem into which all the smaller systems are integrated, and to which they all refer—are we sure that those representations are so determining that to omit them from one’s account of the world is to step outside “reality” into a void without substance or direction?

Every organization of culture seems to have leaned toward an absolute system within which the world is inscribed, indeed must be inscribed so as to be understood and measured. The system of Renaissance Europe—a system born in Italy in the 15th century, later diffused over the continent and, through its own internal energy and through the related energy of imperialism, to the entire planet, and remaining dominant today—is the system based on perspectival representation. The subject, closed within the airtight room of its own identity (a room furnished in such a way as to sustain continual refinements over the centuries), looks at the “reality” of the external world through the window of perspective. Nature is opposed to culture, and the world is the other to the self. It is a zone extra muros, designated by the hic sunt leones of an otherness that is unknown and threatening. Across the window is a transparent membrane, hard, crystalline, that admits of vision but of no other sense. So sensation is reduced to seeing alone. The window’s structure is geometric, based on axes that have since been named Cartesian: two straight lines intersect each other at right angles, generating two orientations, vertical and horizontal, and four directions within them—up and down, right and left, as well as all the gradations between. This structure encourages a partition of the membrane’s surface, so that the image, whatever is perceived through the window, is inscribed in measurable subdivisions.

The image is a construct, then, its construction beginning with the network of straight lines that divide the transparent but impenetrable plane of the window. That network converges on a point, the so-called vanishing point, which mirrors and collapses into the infinitely distant position occupied by the observer—a disembodied, desexualized, one-eyed, immobile observer from whose single point of view the straight lines of the network fan out to the picture plane and indeed to infinity again. This is the origin of the idea of dominion that lies at the root of every perspectival projection. For the analytic structure of such projections allows a subject impoverished in its own substance a sense of control, of being able to determine the succession of the image’s parts, their articulation, and their order. In doing so, the subject transforms its own libido into a will to power.

To do so, however, the subject must remain inside the closed room, inside the perspectival apparatus. The gaze must be preferred over all other sensual experience, and anything imperceptible to sight must be annulled. Perhaps this is why art exists: to confer, through sight, a completeness of meaning to things, though only by reducing them, through the mechanism of dominion, to flat one-sided apparitions or signs that can help us address ideas and knowledge but that have no physical substance.

Our century has seen an intensification of efforts to get outside that room. Art has approached the world of life and the life of the world, has approached objects and materials, with a generous but also a necessary desire to renounce its privileged shelter. The motivation is love, a loving desire for the world, for fresh air, the air that passes through things, the air that the world breathes and in which it is steeped; the air that Western culture has deliberately ignored for too long now, To bring about dominion, the West has had to refuse the world’s attractions, closing itself off not only to the world’s harshness but also to its softness. But today, as the vises of technology and economy accelerate the closing of their jaws, art accelerates its own progress toward the vanishing point, toward a shattering of the window’s hard and transparent surface, a passing through the looking glass.

Thomas Schütte stands outside, in what Rilke called “the storms of springtime.” Like other German artists of his generation, he has begun to move beyond the protective codes of the apparatus that structures our seeing. His steps are paced according to the appearances of the world, but they are no longer framed within the perspectival grid. Instead, they are scattered in the real space through which he passes. Schütte’s is a movement not of dominion or of knowledge—knowledge as a function of dominion—but of reception, a gathering of the emanations of the world. It is the product of a plan of autonomous innocence.

Schütte does not place himself outside the art system, nor does he question that system from an eccentric position within it, as did many in the avant-garde movements of the first half of the century, and also of the 1960s. Actually, Schütte has carefully observed Pop art, and respects its attention to the intrusiveness of everyday objects in the contemporary view. His response, though, is less alarmed; he avoids the vandalism by which Pop reacted to a sense of lost control. The Pop artists subjected objects and images to great leaps in scale—an exercise of power to compensate for their inability to determine the forms and modalities of appearances on the world stage. And they ended up abusing those objects and images with a deliberate irreverence. They disrespected them. Schütte too will play with an object’s usual scale, but out of a confident sympathy, a supportiveness. He has looked closely at Claes Oldenburg’s redesigns of the world’s objects, but feels no such appropriative desire himself. The tone of his work is not ostentatious or virtuosic irony but subtle and impassioned humor.

Schütte has also looked at Minimalism, at the absoluteness of its definition of forms. Yet where the Minimalists’ puritan pragmatism created a void around their art, Schütte populates the void with traces of the gifts of existence. The tension in his work is not a desire to change the world, despite his complicity with the kind of moral revolt found in arte povera and with the shamanistic power of a Joseph Beuys. He aims instead for the hic et nunc affirmation of an experience of living. His art does not prefigure a world that is yet to be, a world that is hoped for; his world is here, and begins in the moment of the art’s happening. He gathers the force of the ephemeral instant, the force that gives the moment its unrepeatable singularity, that frees it from the succession of moments. He absorbs Rilke’s “hot, fugitive wave of the heart”—our existence—to express, finally, the irrevocable present.

Schütte’s space is his works, each and all of them together. It is the space of the fields he has scattered with the equal or analogous elements of the Ringe (Rings, 1977–90) and of the Schwarze Zitronen (Black lemons, 1990). It is the space of his vast theaters and piazzas, designed on paper or built in maquette. (There is a reference here to the metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico, but the mnemonic experience of Schütte’s structures is much broader, including also, for example, the architecture and mass parades of Europe between the wars.) Schütte’s space is the characters made of soft stuff (clay, dung, plaster) that sink into the mud in basins of the same material (“Männer im Matsch” [Men in mud, 1982–85]), or that are wrapped in the artist’s castoff clothes and arranged in model environments: in Teppichmann (Carpetman, 1988), an Oriental rug slants up obliquely like a steeply raked stage, and Mohr’s Life, 1989, is an artist’s studio, complete with miniature paintings on easels, designed for some odd corner of a museum. These setlike minicontexts have the quality of the theater, of dramatic event, structure, and action. They assert no claim to tomblike permanence in the sacred space of the gallery, the collection, or the museum, an alien space that encompasses them yet in which they are not lost. Instead they seem to exist temporarily, as nomadic settlements in the desert of the established. The same holds for the maquettes of houses and other architecture, which are made out of the same wood and plaster as the plinths, bases, and tables on which they rest. Again, these works make no pretense at hovering in the ideal heaven of abstraction or of utopia, but remain ballasted by their own construction and materiality, their own immanence.

Schütte’s space also consists in and is the models he has realized as buildings constructed to human scale: Schutzraum (Shelter), for example, made for the “Sonsbeek 86” exhibition in Arnhem in 1986, and Eis (Ice cream), at Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987. Right down to their materials, these works maintain the piercing desire to be the models that inspired them. There are the outscale fruit in painted wood (Melonely, 1987), and also in painted metal—Kirschensäule (Cherry column, 1987), made for a square in Münster, a translation of a drawing, a two-dimensional vision, into three-dimensional space. There are the Galeeren (Galleys, 1990), large armatures of light, unfinished wood beneath which one moves without sensing their presence above. There are the large banners painted with symbols and figures, improbable standards of sensibility (DEKA-Fahnen [DEKA-flags, 1989–90]). There are the monuments to solitary navigators who never made it back (the various works dedicated to Alain Colas, begun in 1989). And then there are the innumerable images from an ongoing diary of drawings, a record of the motions of sensibility in one individual’s voyage in space and in time, in memory of the past and in plans for the future, in pleasure and in the play of pleasure: a light, persistent registration of every experience apprehended by the sentient and desiring subjectivity, a lucid expression of the irrevocable present.

Schütte the artist is almost preverbal, speaking words that neither explain nor resolve. He doesn’t assert, doesn’t request, doesn’t interrogate. Within the span of his glance, he lifts up what is there and he saves it from the continuum of time, from loss, from collapse, through an act of presentation and simply of naming: house, field, piazza, lemons, fruit and vegetables, shelter, Entree Leben Studio Atelier (E.L.S.A., 1989), headquarters (HQ, 1989). The artistic act does not possess the thing but represents its happening, denotes and is the consistency of its representation. Schütte the artist declines the guilt deposited in and on objects under the different esthetic formulas (kitsch, the surreal, irony, camp, pop, the post-Modern) through which our culture has recognized and recognizes its own deformations and deformities (guilt as deformation of an alleged lost innocence). It is through such “guilty objects,” seen as in a distorting mirror, that contemporary culture yields to a supposedly irresistible flow toward irreparable collapse—the din of which both deafens and seduces. Schütte simply does justice to the appearance of objects, giving them no weight but their own presence. He usually seems “happy” with this position of in-potency, of being-in-the-midst, of being-the-cause, of being-the-end. His call is a simple music, like the ringing of bells.

Schütte the artist inhabits the garden of life. The things he eidetically elevates and nominates are no longer imprisoned in the discursive grid of perspective,but are collected in a place where they can shine, in an intimacy that makes it possible to call the perception of their appearance authentic. Schütte takes them from where they are in the streets of the Leidstadt, of the city-as-torment, into the space of art, where the appearance of the thing is the thing itself as it appears in this form, in that construction, in this model or maquette and in that drawing or design. This immediate presence of things, in this defined space, allows the artist to move them beyond their appearance and to re-present them in their truth. This is the source of Schütte’s song, a song to the ephemera of the moment, its very temporariness shutting out messianic expectations or myths. Yet there is no defeat, no loss, just as there is no victory. The transience illuminated in this art resists passing; it is a transience that is never transcended or sublimated, but that endures, breaking open the stage previously dominated by a sense of the unstoppable, irresistible flow, by the cult of having been, of the irredeemable “so it was.” The characters immersed in the mud, or crowding the piazzas, or isolated on the architectonic stages, are stronger than any fall. Their presence breaks the infinite repetitive cycle of catastrophe.

Schütte opens up inhospitable architecture to a playful, fantastically practicable viability. The self-affirmation of the artist yields to the affirmation of the observer/user: the maquettes and the deck chairs, the sealed bunker in Schutzraum and the open ice cream kiosk in Eis, the overturned Galeeren that gather you into their depths, the Schwarze Zitronen scattered along your path, the decorated rooms in which you insert yourself to observe, and where you find yourself to be. The initial tension is converted into a welcoming giving of oneself.

. . . Thomas is stretched out on a deck chair, on the beach at Ostend, looking out at the horizon of the sea. The result is Belgian Blues, 1990, a series of rooms with views, furnished with vaguely zoomorphic deck chairs and paintings, limpid watercolors, each divided into two broad bands of color that touch in the same way that the sky touched the sea on the Ostend horizon during those days. . . .

Pier Luigi Tazzi contributes frequently to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.