PRINT March 1992


If I think of art, . . . I don’t even think about making something. Sooner or later, I think about being. So, art stays in touch with its origin, being, for me. In that sense, it’s fragile. It’s also the most radical manifestation of the unsaid you can produce, if not actually be—and the most opposite to us. Perhaps you make what you cannot be. It’s emotionally disturbing that people are capable of making art. Criticizing this possibility is the same as criticizing oneself.
—Jochen Gerz, 19861

The Street

Jochen Gerz started in the street, the site of both revolution and repression, where life takes place.

Gerz’s first outdoor action—Attenzione L’Arte Corrompe (Caution—art corrupts, 1968)—was an unsigned warning posted on a white sticker on three public monuments in Florence, that cradle of humanist culture. A condensation of the spirit of ’68, a movement in which Gerz, a resident of Paris, took an active part, this minimal anarchist gesture did no damage to the monuments, but urged people to see them as instruments of alienation. For the ’68 generation distrusted the reality that society imposed and protected in the name of humanist order. It rebelled against social mediation of any kind—including the art system. Indeed, as “street art” became a recognized genre, the subversiveness of unmediated street actions, whether by art-school-educated artists or by autodidacts like Gerz, was almost immediately co-opted by the system.

Gerz has been opposing this process of co-option for more than a quarter century, questioning not only the system but his own position within it: “I think that the challenge to what we are doing will not come from the difficulty of doing it or from the lack of understanding that it provokes. The challenge, almost the threat to what we are doing, comes from the fact that it may be very successful. In our context of contemporary art, the main difficulty is art’s success.”2

Like the Situationists of the ’60s, Gerz does not acknowledge art as a separate, specialized activity. His work has two poles: not art and life, but life and culture, which he keeps in constant opposition. Art itself is for him an artifice, an invention based on the “fixation on creativity, La Grande Difference.”3 Skeptical about the idea of the artist as shaman or even messiah, since both roles posit the artist as a leader, he rejects any way of thinking, whether of the left or of the right. that assumes power over people.4 His outdoor actions, books, “photo/text” works (from 1969 on), video, performance (1968–88), installations, public works (billboards and outdoor sculpture), and his numerous texts and public lectures are all based not on the concept of creating but on the concept of doing: for him, the polarization between those who create and those who do (one division among many such—mind/body, private/public) exists from the moment of birth of the Western subject who owns and imposes the instruments of order, knowledge, power, and truth, building both galleries and guillotines, museums and concentration camps, in the name of the culture. In Gerz’s life and work he opposes this omnipresent humanist subject. To do so, he restrains himself from imposing any kind of conviction, message, solution, ready-made meaning, or “truth.” His works are “dispositions” in which the viewer finds only the solutions that people can work out for themselves—prominent among these, of course, being the practice of doubt.

The recent project Erase. The Past, 1990, demonstrates how Gerz works with the “model” of culture, a model he has used since the ’60s. The work was done for Berlin, where Gerz was born and lived as a child through World War II.5 He divided the piece in two: Erase, installed in the Galerie Anselm Dreher in the western part of the city, featured a small photograph of a hunting tower in the countryside near Berlin that the Prussian kaisers, the Nazi minister Martin Goebbels, and the East German leader Erich Honecker all visited for the pleasures of the chase. Next to it was a black monochrome, like a screen partially erasing the image of the tower. The second part, The Past, shown in the Galerie vier in eastern Berlin, was another photograph, a view of the landscape from the tower. To see both parts—to “unify” them—the viewer had to take the time to travel across the old division of Berlin. Only in memory did the piece became one. For Gerz, the unification of Germany doesn’t mean that the past (two pasts) can be immediately resolved; there are no instant solutions, and time and memory must play their part.

The confrontation with German history, which Gerz never tries to repress, was also the subject of Mahnmal gegen Faschismus, Krieg, Gewalt—für Frieden und Menschenrechte (Monument against fascism, war, violence—for peace and human rights, 1986–), an outdoor work in Hamburg-Harburg that touches on another black hole in the country’s collective memory. In this collaboration with the Israeli sculptor Esther Shalev-Gerz (the artist’s wife), Gerz consciously avoided using a public place to suggest a positive or negative attitude toward past and present. Instead, the two artists made a disappearing monument: a hollow aluminum column covered with a thin layer of lead, designed to be lowered into the ground very slowly—in fact over a period of years. Passersby are invited to inscribe their signatures in the soft lead; people have left many other kinds of signs and messages as well, including the swastika. Section by section, this monument-as–tabula rasa is covered up. Eventually there will be no more surface to mark; it will completely disappear into the ground, where it will remain—castrated.

The Absent

No contemporary artist has worked more consistently with the notion of absence than Jochen Gerz.6 The spiritus movens of his attitude is doubt, by which I don’t mean the operational doubt used by the modern subject, formed in the Cartesian age, to implement knowledge and understanding and generally to deal with life. Gerz refers to that kind of process in a billboard from 1982, an upside-down photograph of a cityscape with the text “There is no mystery, your knowledge will kill you.” I mean rather an essential doubt, an ongoing process of introspection, self-questioning, and self-distancing, combined with an almost subliminal sense of humor. The attitude of absence can be recognized in Gerz’s need to distance himself from “home”—from having a single living place, a single nationality, a single language. It is also perceptible in his insistence that he cannot be fixed by a set role in the cultural system. He believes, as he stated in a billboard for the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art in 1989, that “pour l’art aussi l’immobilité est une tentation cruelle” (for art, too, immobility is a cruel temptation). The image carrying this message was a photograph of a flying bird, and the billboard was installed at the Montreal airport.

The decision to be absent is manifest in every aspect of Gerz’s work. He often composes hermetic texts, writing with his left hand and reversing the script as if in a mirror. And the texts themselves deal with subjects relatable to absence: memory, disappearance, invisibility, loss, sleep, border, passage, limit, as well as the distance and separation between people or between men and women. Der Transsib. Prospekt (The trans-Siberian prospect), done for the Documenta 6 exhibition in Kassel in 1977, was based on journey—a temporary absence, in this case doubled by the artist’s absence from the outside world: an installation of 16 chairs set in a square and with a wall text, the piece proposed a 16-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Express in which the artist never left the train compartment and kept the windows covered. As a coup de grace, Gerz provided no evidence that he had actually taken this trip, possible but never proven.

If a photograph involves a relation between presence (the picture) and absence (what it shows), to take one is to work with something that isn’t there any more. To make a picture, then, is to betray life—or so Gerz suggests in In the Art. Nite, 1989. Here two groups of photographs form two squares. One composes a picture—a negative image of a site in Jerusalem superimposed over a photograph taken in Delphi, Greece, showing a man and a woman walking toward each other. The other consists of a kind of list of captions (“Thought,” “Nature,” “Liberty,” “Love,” “Science,” “Theory,” and so on) scrolling down a white grid, across which is written: “Call Me Traitor.”

“Between the real and its reproduction, there is a no man’s land. My work is situated in this zone,” Gerz remarked in the ’70s, when he returned some of his photographs, boxed in small coffins, to the sites in which they were taken, in order not to “steal” from the real.7 The ’70s photographic work was full of shadows, mist, fog, reflected light, and barely recognizable objects, though it was never abstract—there always seemed to be something real in front of the camera.

The Trace

In the nine-hour performance Leben (Living, 1974), Gerz wrote the word “leben” in chalk, thousands of times, all over a gallery floor. These transient marks were quickly erased under the shoes of visitors to the show. The trace, pointing to or indicating what has been there but is no longer, is clearly an agent of absence.

A photograph seems to suggest the actual presence of the object it shows with such exacting mimesis. Yet given that object’s actual absence from the image, the photograph also functions not as an imitation but as an index.8 The idea of the index has produced a switch in thinking about photography: a view of the image as mimesis is replaced by a theory of the trace. “Leaving a trace,” Gerz bypasses the humanistic and the journalistic tradition of photography as a medium for “catching the moment,” for showing the “truth” about reality. “Nothing happens” in his photographs. Even when he uses not single but multiple or sequential images, he avoids any suggestion of conventional narrative; rather, the images flow, look continuous and “natural,” as though the famous decisive moment of pressing the button had never occurred. In Von der Kunst (On art, 1982–83), photographs of the sky and of peaceful landscapes divided by the horizon line—all taken in the Yukon or on an island in the Georgia Strait, Canada, where Gerz lives part of the year—are installed on the wall to mirror the horizontality of landscape. But each sequence is interrupted by a text, written as a dialogue, or perhaps a self-questioning soliloquy, about the position of art and of the artist in culture. Each of these texts is a poetic tractatus on the image and its disconnection with life, with the real. As one sentence reads, “The picture is the bridge, but the bank has gone.”

Writing, of course, is itself an indexical trace, and as Gerz indicates in several pieces, for example the video piece Ti Amo (I love you, 1985), he “comes from” writing, “from the book” —writing for him is something like a natural state. A sentence in a book from 1976 (written continuously over 51 days) reads “To see if it is possible to write as you walk or breathe.”9 There is no Gerz work without a printed, handwritten, or recorded text. Exit. Das Dachau Projekt (Exit. The Dachau project, 1972–74) was a photographic address of the museum at the infamous concentration camp, but instead of looking at the objects, buildings, and locations there, Gerz focused on the numerous texts the signs governing or announcing the museum’s operation (opening hours, regulations, and so on). These photographs he placed in 20 identical black files on 20 tables, installed, with chairs, in a poorly lit space. In Gerz’s work, the museum as institution is considered a place for the neutralization of history and of art. By writing, he opposes the “metaphysics of presence” on which Western (humanist) philosophy is based, a tradition dominated by the “speaking subject”—the man using speech as the direct presentation of his thought.

As a representation of speech, writing is undoubtedly a manifestation of absence. The condemnation of writing began with Plato, who, in the Phaedrus, attacked the written word because it “cannot defend itself”; it is only the “shadow” of the spoken. For Rousseau, too, the written word was just a “supplement.” It is only recently that the dominance of presence has been treated critically, by Jacques Derrida among others. Derrida, considering the Western humanistic tradition “logocentric,” establishes the idea that “to be is to-be-in-the-book,” introducing the “tradition of absence” rooted in the act of “leaving the speech,” “leaving the trace.”10

A tension, or an indecision, between photography and writing is a constant in Gerz’s work. He likes the modesty of both media: neither of them makes him invent anything not already “there” —the real in front of the camera, the words already used for generations. Since 1974, Gerz has been publishing a series of books entitled Die Zeit der Beschreibung (The time of description/inscription), a kind of diary, each volume consisting of a number of works that each contain at least two texts and at least two photos. His photo/texts also appear as unique wall pieces, but he prefers the book, which at least potentially enjoys the ubiquity, the wide distribution, made possible by mass reproduction. From the book, or more precisely from typography, come the only colors Gerz uses in his photographs—black, white, and the reddish-brownish “negative opaque.” In the book or on the wall, the photo/texts retain the duality of their nature. The viewer cannot consume them at first sight, but must vacillate between seeing and reading.

The Builders

In the ’70s, Gerz’s sharp critique of contemporary culture was largely carried in enigmatic metaphors. The ten “Griechische Stücke” (Greek pieces, 1975–78), for example, explored Greek antiquity, the beginnings of Western culture, as a kind of “supermarket” where we go to satisfy our “humanistic need and pick our Orpheus, Odysseus, Eurydice or Marsyas off the shelves”; the fifth of these pieces was Die Schwierigkeit des Zentaurs beim vom Pferd Steigen (The centaur’s difficulty when dismounting the horse), an installation in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1976. (Gerz has also published a book under this title.) Here Gerz used the metaphor of the centaur to indicate the split between nature and culture, beast and human, instinct and intellect. The hollow wooden body representing the centaur, large enough that the artist could live in it briefly during the exhibition, ran across two rooms of the pavilion and was covered with negative opaque. The object was impossible to grasp as a single image—in part because of its division between two rooms, in part because of its size. “Centaurs,” writes Gerz, “are men who don’t dare to look at the lower part of themself.”11 The sculpture also recalled the Trojan horse, which carried Odysseus (“the cunning one,” the artist) into the enemy city. The work implied an understanding of the centaur—half man, half horse—as a “guardian of limits,” a creature forming an “asymmetrical, overly masculine, violently bestial alternative to the norm of what was seen by the Greeks as human culture.”12

Against Greek myths, with their wars, ironies, heroes, and great events, Gerz set in the ’80s an exploration of other such narratives, particularly those of Native Americans, which posit a different kind of relationship between nature and culture. A number of Gerz’s texts from this period are like tales woven through with ideas about our contemporary relationship with nature. L’Invention du monde (The invention of the world, 1986) is a work made up of six pieces, each consisting of a number of photographs and two texts placed on a socle. The photographs show only sky and the tops of wooded hills; the texts tell a story, a creation myth, of how the world was brought into being by a sleeping personne (the French word means both “person” and “nobody”).13

In primitive mythologies, after “creation time” comes “tale time,”14 which takes place in the world of everyday life. Gerz too comes to speak of the “ordinary life” of a society. Blau oder das wirkliche Leben (Blue or real life, 1986–87) is a group of enlarged negative photographs of the different surfaces of woods, all installed on the wall in shapes that suggest the outlines of a tree, or of its cultural equivalent, the totem pole. Each “tree” also includes a square of text. Oscillating between the documentary and the abstract, this photographic work questions the nonmimetic pictorial tradition that culminates in the monochrome; accordingly, Gerz places a rectangle of photo-lab-produced color—blue, red, yellow, or green—at the “root” of each tree. In the ordinary tales that accompany these pictures, culture rests on nonevents. Every story starts the same way: “Blue [or red, yellow, or green] or real life” is “the story of a year in which nothing happens.” There are no names, no days of celebration, no justice, no jobs, “nothing to do, less to believe.” As in the ritual of potlatch, “boats are loaded and sent out to sea unmanned,” sent away with “the fear, the theory of color, and power.” “In the end, simply everything longs to be useless (the art of painting is discovered).” Yet “whatever occurs, it does not change the fact that nothing happens.” Gerz adopts the role of the mythmaker as a strategy to cover up what is actually a utopian projection of society.

In an untitled group of works from 1990, the metaphors of myth are replaced by direct, openly critical, but abbreviated texts on contemporary culture. As one title reads, these works deal with “life after humanism,” and have at their core the idea of modernity as it was originally proposed by the avant-garde: the project of critically and constructively building up culture and society.15 The need for building is implicit in both the fragmented photographs and the interrupted or unfinished sentences. Each work includes a human face—people “recycling” their lives by making their houses with their own hands. Yet these images of faces have a decomposed, dematerialized, x-ray-like look, a sense of palimpsestlike layering. Formally, the pictorial approach in these works is collage, an inherently modern form that since the early century has questioned the concept of the picture as intact and whole. In addition, the collage for Gerz “comes from the tradition of Marsyas, the one of so called ugliness. Collage cannot be identified with power. No ruler would identify himself with it.” Gerz’s photographic collages spring from today’s electronic and digital age. Both pictures and texts have a virtual quality: they seem about to disappear and reappear on some computer screen, or to be instantly reorganized with a few strokes of the keyboard. The image-screen has indeed replaced the tableau.

The sentences are written in capital letters on horizontal or vertical black stripes. They look like momentarily frozen LED signs. In Destruct. Exploit, A Cult. A Nite, and Sleep. My Soul, a computer-scroll-like text is followed by short captions adjoining the photographs, or added like footnotes. Though the images may deal with real constructive building, these captions refer ironically and critically to the state of culture in the fin de siècle: “WAR=PEACE. TV=PEACE. PEACE=WAR ON TV.” Yet Gerz also juxtaposes the phrases “A Call for Modernity” and “For the 2nd Time,” proposing a reconsideration of the way we have been “using” the modern era. For Gerz, modernity is only a metaphor, “the acknowledgment that we didn’t make it yet.”

Refusing to suggest or impose a solution, Gerz leaves several sections of these works “undone,” as separately framed blanks. Perhaps these voids, these images-that-have-not-appeared-yet, are spaces left open for what he envisions as “life after humanism, a second modernity: non-material art and art without authors.”

He/She (It)

Gerz’s doubts about his relationship to the image, on the one hand, and his position in the cultural network, on the other, are combined in Das alte Mädchen (The old girl, 1983). In this installation the tripod and camera his father used as a newspaper reporter in World War II are aimed at a slanted mirror on the wall. The mirror reflects a pile of Gerz’s own photographs, placed on the floor under one leg of the tripod. This is a critical, poetic self-portrait of the artist in a closed circuit of his past and his own work.

A variation on this self-referential theme appears in Sie (Es) (She [It], 1987–88). Three green walls form a triangular room with a revolving glass door at one corner. Besides walking or looking through the door, the only way to view the interior of this green box is through a window on the wall—but the glass is darkened except for the shape of a woman’s arched body. This outline is derived from a photograph of an athlete doing the high jump. “She” has been caught by the camera in the split second in which she triumphs over gravity, but the image, the frozen moment, reduces her to an icon, an “It.” The image is an ambivalent one, oscillating between woman as active energy and woman “as bearer, not maker, of meaning.”

The view through this emptied body shows a man’s world. Images reflect each other, deceiving and distancing. In one corner is a life-size mannequin of Marcel Duchamp, made from the photograph of the artist by Irving Penn from 1960. On one wall is a life-sized cutout of Gerz urinating; his position mimics Duchamp’s posture in his 1924 tableau vivant of Adam and Eve, modeled on a painting by Lucas Cranach. Besides raising the idea of the artist tied to his work (suggested by a spider behind the photo of Gerz), the work touches discreetly on the idea of androgyny.

Gerz’s most recent group of works is “Your. Art.,” 1990. As in the accompanying project for Artforum, sandwiched positive and negative photographs of trees and busy Vancouver streets are placed in squares that abut like a chessboard, or like the array of window options on a computer screen. The texts, different in every work, always start with the same phrase: “My. Art. Is. A. Woman.” Love and deception, attraction and fear, dependence and refusal interact. And the texts, or poems, deal once again with the unfinished and unfinishable struggle between time and eternity, life and cult, weakness and victory—where there is no winner.

Bojana Pejic is a writer who lives in Berlin. She is the editor of Moment magazine, Belgrade.



1. Jochen Gerz, quoted in Patrick Le Nouene, “Interview with Jochen Gerz,” in Jochen Gerz—Oeuvres sur papier photographique 1983–86, exhibition catalogue, Calais: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Calais, 1986, and Chartres: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres, 1987, p. 12.

2. Gerz, in an interview with the author in Paris in February 1991 and continued in Berlin in April 1991. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Gerz are from these interviews.

3. Gerz, “On Art #1,” Von der Kunst/De l’art, Bielefeld: AQ Verlag Dudweiler, Texte Verlag Karl Kreber, 1985, n.p.

4. “Everyone is on the lookout for magicians . . . . When he was downed in Russia, Beuys didn’t meet the Red Army, but the Tartars. Exit politics and history. Make room for myth.” Gerz, quoted in Jean-Francois Chevrier, “Jochen Gerz—Trafic d’origines et images de paix,” Galeries Magazine no. 31, Paris, June/July 1989, p. 69.

5. “I was born in Germany in 1940. What happened in ’68 was superimposed on what I had experienced—or rather what I had not experienced—during World War II. . . . Although I didn’t participate in the war, I had to feel guilty about my country’s crimes. 1968 was somehow a relief for me, because I was really there. Sometimes the fact that ’68 has given rise to no guilt makes me wonder if it happened at all. That is a doubt I could never have about the war, even though I was a child at the time. Perhaps this explains why the notion of absence is so important in my life and work.” Ibid., pp. 68–69.

6. See Bojana Pejic, “Art ex Absentia,” Artforum XXVIII no. 8, April 1990, pp. 144–50.

7. Gerz, quoted in Suzanne Page and Bernard Ceysson, “Interview de Jochen Gerz,” in Jochen Gerz—Les Pièces, exhibition catalogue, Saint-Etienne: Musée d’Art et d’Industrie de Saint-Etienne, and Paris: Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris/ARC 2, 1975, p. 6.

8. “Contemporary theory of the photographic sign . . . relies heavily on C. S. Peirce’s tripartite categorization of signs as icon, symbol, and index. . . . these modes of signification correspond respectively to the mirror of the real, the transformation of the real, and the trace of the real. The photograph partakes of all three modalities of signification and though it is usually praised for its extreme iconic (mimetic) possibilities, the iconic aspect is not essential to the photographic sign. Rather, its indexical nature (due to the chemical action of light on the film) is its essential characteristic.” Allen S. Weiss, “Lucid Intervals: Postmodernism and Photography,” in Hugh J. Silverman, ed., Postmodernism—Philosophy and the Arts, New York and London: Routledge, 1990. p. 164. See also Rosalind E. Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part I and Part 2,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1985, pp. 196–219, and Philippe Dubois, L’Acte photographique, Brussels: Edition Labor, 1983.

9. Gerz, Die Schwierigkeit des Zentaurs beim vom Pferd Steigen (The centaur’s difficulty when dismounting the horse), Munich: Kunstraum München, 1976. The original form of the book was as a manuscript in mirror-writing inscribed with the left hand and with “negative opaque” ink.

10. “For to write is to draw back. Not to retire into one’s tent, in order to write, but to draw back from one’s writing itself. To be grounded far from one’s language, to emancipate it or lose one’s hold on it, to let it make its way alone and unarmed. To leave the speech. To be a poet is to know how to leave the speech. To let it speak alone, which it can do only in its written form. To leave writing is to be there only to provide its passageway.” Jacques Derrida, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” Writing and Difference, Chicago: at the University Press, 1978, p. 70.

11. Gerz, Die Schwierigkeit des Zentaurs beim vom Pferd Steigen, p. 159.

12. Page duBois, Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1982, p. 31.

13. “Nobody” is also a character in Gerz’s Die Schwierigkeit des Zentaurs book, where it appears as “Outis”—“nobody” in Greek. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus calls himself Outis when imprisoned by the cyclops Polyphemus, who, when blinded by Odysseus, can only say that he was blinded by “Nobody.” In Gerz’s book, Outis, or “s.o.b.,” is the “illegitimate son of academic,” the “cunning one,” the “left-handed one,” “Outis inside the horse-man”—clearly the artist himself. In L’invention du monde one can also recognize Apollinaire’s statement about the artist who is “working while sleeping.”

14. See Lawrence Krader, “Primary Reification and Primitive Mythology,” Diogenes no. 56, Montreal, Winter 1966, p. 62.

15. “Modernity caricatures and trades upon the ideal of total Revolution, which has not come about. For better or for worse, badly and clumsily, inside the topsy-turvy world that has not yet been righted, Modernity achieves the job of the Revolution: critique of bourgeois life, critique of alienation, the withering of art, of morality and generally of ideologies, etc.” Henri Lefebvre, “Theses on Modernity,” in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut. and David Solkins, eds., Modernism and Modernity, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983, p. 6.

16. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen XVI no. 3, London, Autumn 1975, p. 7.