TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 2014

INTERIORITY COMPLEX: THE ART OF PETER WÄCHTLER

Still from Peter Wächtler’s Untitled, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes.

GERMAN ARTIST Peter Wächtler’s first solo exhibition sold out before its opening, thanks to the enthusiasm of a single buyer: the famous liquor manufacturer Sterkert, which sweetened the deal by giving the artist a lifetime supply of eggnog. At the time, Wächtler was twelve years old. He was already a printmaking prodigy several times over, having played a leading role in the comeback of drypoint and woodcut techniques in West Germany while setting new standards of excellence in lithography and silk screen. He was obliged by long-standing tradition to join the army at a tender age—Wächtler is descended from a noble military family on his father’s side—but his creative development continued. It was in the army that he began to write, and it was there that he learned how to construct complex characters and to lucidly represent spatial relationships. This early period of artistic growth resulted in his first Entwicklungsroman, which was published under the legendary aegis of Suhrkamp Verlag—in fact, it was one of the last books that revered founding publisher Siegfried Unseld oversaw personally. After spending his Wanderjahre in “the former colonies,” he took up his studies at the Bauhaus University in Weimar.

The foregoing, at any rate, is a summary of a portion of an artist’s talk Wächtler gave earlier this year at the Kunstverein Hildesheim in Germany. Though it clearly distorted the facts, the talk could not have been more on point as an exemplar of several key aspects of Wächtler’s practice. The kind of tall tales that characterized his presentation—or, to use his more precise phrasing, the “anecdotes, stories and lies that form around a subject and help to position it someplace”—do constitute Wächtler’s primary material and subject matter, routinely triggering speculations about the work’s autobiographical content. Not to mention that, if one were to follow this line of autobiographical reading, the adolescent artist’s meteoric rise might seem to parallel the steep increase in Wächtler’s own visibility during the past year or so (a period in which his work has appeared in solo shows on both sides of the Atlantic and at sundry fairs and biennials). And the talk’s mannerist rendering of handed-down identity templates—infant prodigy, Junker, Frankfurt School intellectual—and its ironic exaggeration of cultural clichés mirror characteristics of his oeuvre in general.

While Wächtler, who was born in 1979, works in a range of media, including drawing and ceramics as well as animated films and short fiction, his practice is narrative at its core. The objects he produces and his works on paper often seem like snapshots from his short stories, portraying similar personnel in analogous constellations, settings, and scenes. The humanoid animals predominant in Wächtler’s sculptures—for instance, an ensemble of three laboring mammals and one bird (Untitled, 2013), situated somewhere between The Burghers of Calais and the Town Musicians of Bremen, or oversize crabs confronting more agile creatures of the sea (Untitled, 2014)—find their complement in the stories’ animalistic humans. After the loss of his girlfriend, Peter, the protagonist of the story “At the Wiels” (2012), acquires a lobster to satisfy his “deep need of a true friend,” while his rival, Ragnar Pluto, not only shares his surname with a cartoon dog but also has “huge and shiny ivories, which were last seen during the war against the mammoth led by long extinct predators”; a “horse-like penis”; and a similarly equine mane.1 The narrator’s friend in “Come On”(2014), called “the Pig,” grunts instead of speaking and is eventually slaughtered.2 There are correspondences between narrative and object on the structural level, too. For example, the Janus-headed sculpture Untitled, 2014, juxtaposes lethargy and enthusiastic activity (or fiesta and siesta, to drive home the linguistic dimension of the sculptural pun) in a single being—a configuration found in many of the stories. Most important, the technological and aesthetic outmodedness that marks Wächtler’s drawings and sculptures resonates with his time-based work’s emphasis on the literary—at a moment when art discourse is largely defined by concerns that seem to belong to another cultural paradigm altogether: an obsession with anything remotely “post-Internet,” a fascination with the decline of subjectivity and the ever-accelerating rhythm of feedback and affect under a cybernetic regime, and an impulse to historicize the “Anthro-pocene” and the human as such.

TRACING THE INTIMATE historical connection between literature and humanism, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, at the dawn of the Internet age, used the term postliterary to designate a fundamental restructuring of culture. He was quick to point out that “of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence.”3 Following Sloterdijk’s diagnosis, we might say that the untimeliness of the literary—the medium most associated with representing, transmitting, or producing subjectivity—pervades the whole of Wächtler’s practice. It is, however, not a literary practice. Rather, it could be seen as a postliterary investigation of media, production, subjecthood, and objecthood at the current moment—an enterprise that produces alternately comical and heart-wrenching effects.

Peter Wächtler, Untitled, 2014, ceramic, watercolor, 17 3/4 × 9 1/4 × 11 3/8".

First-person narrators take center stage in Wächtler’s stories, but rarely have much diegetic function. They passively contemplate their surroundings and, most of all, their own lives, recalling decisive moments, formative experiences, traumas. Many speak from beyond the grave, and even those still alive are paralyzed—functioning or malfunctioning within their world, but unable to act. The protagonists of a trilogy of animated films—Untitled, Untitled (Heat Up the Nickel), and Untitled (Crutches), all 2013—illustrate this condition starkly: Each is trapped inside a loop. While repetition of modular visual elements has always been central to the economy of animation, this labor-reducing device is typically meant to go unnoticed. But in Wächtler’s trilogy, the characters loop ad nauseam. Exhaustion is inscribed in their postures and movements as they enact typical cartoon routines, such as trudging across the screen on crutches or dragging themselves to bed only to stumble, fall, and get hit on the head by a bowling ball conveniently positioned nearby. They toss and turn, or sleeplessly sit on a makeshift cot by a flickering campfire, as fragmented narratives unfold via voice-overs or subtitles whose repetitious structures reiterate the sense of involution. The rat starring in Untitled recounts memories ranging from the banal to the surreal, conjuring moments of beauty or humiliation or pain, commencing each anecdote with the same words: “How I decorated my apartment and invited my new friends over who made me almost immediately feel like shit in every respect . . . How I lost my virginity on a stinking ferry to England . . . How a super-aggressive big white worm pops out of your left eye, while we are eating Asian noodles after a long day at work . . .”

Wächtler deploys a similar formulaic device for the voice-over in Untitled (Heat Up the Nickel): We hear a whole catalogue of technical, moral, and financial instructions, ranging from practical to absurd, each introduced by “It works . . . ,” as in “It works in the shops and in all of the malls; it works when you cut off your microscopic balls. . . . It works if you heat up the nickel, if you save up the dime, and on a blackballer I wasted my prime. . . . It works to apply it rather thinly, and you will see the results pretty soon.” However, a single glance at the homeless protagonist and his forlorn setting suffices to clarify that none of this advice has worked all that well for him. The relentless enumeration of ways it could have worked contrasts sharply with the hobo’s inertia, highlighting his failure of self-realization. Many of his maladroitly rhymed pronouncements are opaque; what comes across most clearly is their aggressive imagery, their bitter tone, and the narrator’s hermetic enclosure in his own thoughts. One is left with the conviction that a shrink might have helped—literally, for the film ends with the hobo’s head growing and growing and finally exploding, the dead body then falling head-on, as it were, into the fire.

The silent Untitled (Crutches) features a monologue in subtitles, addressed to the narrator’s ex-lover, who has abandoned him. Though less neatly than in the other two films, this soliloquy is also structured by repetition, as the onomatopoeic “Hhnnnnnnng” sporadically appears on-screen while variations on the auto-suggestive mantra “I’ve been in deeper shit before” divide the monologue into several chapters. The halting subtitles echo the clumsy progress of a peculiar figure—a pair of crutches held together by a tangle of wires—as it limps across the screen. Except for the occasional use of all caps, Untitled (Crutches) lacks the accentuation and tonality that the spoken word affords the other films, echoing the bare-bones aesthetic of the figure and the impoverishment of his language and metaphors. “I left bad vibes behind.” “My mind is—sharp!—fast—uncorrupted—super-sharp!!!” While the rat’s and the hobo’s musings culminate in song, in a manner of speaking—the former breaks into an a cappella rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” and the latter delivers an aria of atonal howls—Untitled (Crutches) just ends at square one, without resolution.

The rat’s musical taste, as others have noted, opens up resonances with the Boss’s favorite subject: the collapse of industrialism and of the working class. “I come from down in the valley where, mister, when you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done,” sings the animal, recalling a time when industrial labor supposedly provided financial and moral stability for generations of workers. But earlier in the film, the rat has already acknowledged “how the days my father used to dress up for are no longer celebrated and everybody stays home, drunk, and alone.”4 All three films’ protagonists have wound up in history’s dustbin, unfit or unwilling to adapt to the spirit of a new age. They yearn for a bygone era of reliable values and clear-cut identities associated with manual labor, and recall moments of beauty connected with such work. The rat reminisces: “How I worked in a fish factory in Norway with a very good friend of mine, and after a week of piercing rotting fish heads we were sent out to climb up these wooden structures for drying fish, and we threw that dry and frozen fish down into the plastic tubs provided for that, and high up there I saw the snow, the sun, and the ocean’s waves splashing the gray cliffs.”

Still from Peter Wächtler’s Untitled (Crutches), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 27 seconds.

THIS THEME OF OBSOLESCENCE and nostalgia runs through Wächtler’s entire practice, and not only on the level of narrative. The interest in traditional printmaking techniques jokingly professed in his artist’s talk hints at Wächtler’s actual, intense preoccupation with craft and the handmade, evidenced in particular by his sculptural work. For example, clunky figurative reliefs adorn the sides of “Untitled,” 2012, a series of enameled ceramic boxes that the artist showed that year at Lars Friedrich in Berlin; during the show, cover versions of bluesy classics, sung by the artist, emanated from speakers hidden within the boxes, amplifying the sculptures’ folk-arty, rustic look and feel. More recent three-dimensional works, such as the crabs or the Janus-headed figure or a series of ceramic pictorial plaques, resemble the kind of knickknacks commonly found at garage sales and in thrift shops, relics of bygone tastes. These works’ antiquated, low-tech quality and the artist’s conspicuous investment of long hours of manual labor contrast sharply with more zeitgeisty aesthetics, modes of fabrication, and artistic strategies. The anachronistic technique of cel animation is very much a part of this broader focus on craft, for it requires the painstaking drawing and coloring of hundreds of cels to create a few minutes of footage. The imperfections that mark the films testify to their maker’s stubbornness, blood-sweat-and-tears stamina, and, perhaps, hubris, while reminding viewers that these images have been produced by hand.

Of course, if hand-drawing cels has for all intents and purposes become a craft, it was once an industrial process that brought an assembly-line logic to drawing and tinting, as digital animation is today. Wächtler alludes to cel animation’s history explicitly in “At the Wiels”—while also making clear that acute awareness of the downside of life on the assembly line is no safeguard against nostalgic longing for the industrial era. Ragnar Pluto, echoing the rat’s emphatic adoption of Springsteen’s working-class iconography, affirms his own proletarian identification as he forcefully proclaims: “[Walt Disney] mass-produced images that prepared us for repressed lives in factories. . . . He used images the same way Ford used car parts. The end of physical labor is a lie and Mickey keeps on spreading it. Walt Disney is a piece of shit!” Such Frankfurt School–informed rabble-rousing itself seems to strike the narrator, Peter, as interesting primarily for its conversational use-value: “Strangely, this was, minus the true conviction, the same line I aim at myself when I want to impress an apolitical, moderate and liberal audience without even knowing the birthdays or lifespans of either Disney or Ford.”5

The contrast between Pluto’s vigor and Peter’s rather detached and languid affect is typical of Wächtler’s short stories. The narrators, who are presented as losers, often have antagonists who prove superior in every conceivable capacity: sexual prowess, wine selection, Kulturkritik, or bare-knuckle street fighting. As the stories unfold, the passivity of the narrators is juxtaposed with the extreme potency and determined action of their rivals. The neat narrative division of labor generates a merciless, manic rhythm of impotence and violent outbursts: Throughout, the protagonists’ endless ruminations contrast with their counterparts’ brute, but mostly mute, force. If the latter speak at all, the results are speech acts in the most drastic sense. Pluto’s “war cry” commands “myriads of falling stars [to] finally glow and burn up in the sky and keep on falling, falling, falling to illuminate a long second of this merciless battle with the pale flashlight of history itself,”6 and the critical theory Pluto wields over dinner has an effect on Peter similar to that of the Kryptonite bicycle lock that Pluto brandishes during said “merciless battle,” a kind of metrosexual tournament to the death. In the face of such assaults, the most that the protagonists can muster is a few impolite words—and only if these are bound to go unheard. “Even my strongest political beliefs had less results in this reality than the menu card,” Peter concludes.

Yet curiously, admiration rather than enmity ultimately defines the protagonists’ relationship to their counterparts. In a number of instances, the ostensible competitors suddenly come to the rescue, or act out the main character’s desires, fantasies, or repressed aggressions. Like idealized alter egos, they reflect the narrators’ own ambitions, which are so excessive as to be paralyzing, and therefore serve only to induce longing and self-loathing. They share the narrators’ contempt for the banal and for the “anyones” surrounding them, i.e., those who are happy to live ordinary, anonymous lives: dancers moving “as if they were constantly being observed by their parents,”7 “useless figures and characters of no importance,”8 “souvenirs of [their] parents’ best middle-class days during their softy wars . . . leaving nothing behind but some ugly flyers with [their] name on them,”9 and so forth. In “Come On,” the repressed narrator, after boozing with a “second-league actor,” puts it plainly: “Would I want to punish that man for living his life the way he does? Do I really think of myself as a superior being in a world of filth? . . . The answer was: Yes.”10 Of course, he leaves any actual punishing up to his friend the Pig.

Peter Wächtler, Untitled (cover), 2014, ink and acrylic on clear celluloid, 9 1/8 × 5 7/8".

Wächtler’s protagonists, all suffering from a kind of melancholic entrapment within the self, evince the depressive symptoms whose spread since the 1960s has been linked by numerous theorists to the emergence of the proverbial new spirit of capitalism. The characters continue on in passive isolation, alternating between narcissistic visions of an ideal self (underwritten by the grandiose conviction that they are too unique to conform to predetermined social roles) and nostalgic longing for a stable past and the fixed identities that came with it. Except for the heroic, excessive violence of the narrators’ adversaries (who, one suspects, might be phantasmatic projections), there is no individual agency, much less collective agency.

Instead, Wächtler presents individuals moving aimlessly among an array of simulacral roles, which in turn are subsumed in a welter of images, aesthetics, formats, genres, and techniques that—like the various identities to which the artist alluded in his ostensibly autobiographical talk—all feel somewhat outdated and hand-me-down. Here and there, his protagonists cite particular culture-industrial templates to which they owe some portion of their self-conceptions. The rat, for example, remembers “how I learned a language in twenty-two hours, and how I met your mother,” as well as “how I had to kill the bartender in self-defense and scalp him with a broken bottle of Baileys, just like Robin Williams did in The King Fisher.” There is some nerdier name-dropping as well—for example, the hobo cites historical odes to obsolescence and Romantic melancholy, namely, the old sea shanty “Blow the Man Down” and Heinrich Heine’s poem “My Heart, My Heart Is Heavy.” But such allusions are few and obscure and do not signal sovereign mastery of the material so much as the wish to emulate its aesthetic power while stressing the distance separating Wächtler’s work from such paragons. In an interview, Wächtler called himself “a fan of English and American writers, films, conversations, expressions, poets.”11 While the notion of fandom fails to account for the complexity of his engagement with his sources, it does capture the sense of devoted identification so evident, for example, in the earnest rendition of Springsteen.

But for the most part, the figures of speech, metaphors, and character types that appear in Wächtler’s tales trigger only a vague sense of familiarity, suggesting that the artist is excavating psychic sediments left by repeated exposure to certain idioms, images, or aesthetics. The cover illustration of Wächtler’s collected short stories, for example, evokes a typical Western comic-book motif: It features a figure hunkered down behind an overturned bureau in the middle of a desert, reloading its shotgun while a long shadow signals the steady approach of a pursuer. However, the besieged gunman is not a cowboy, as one might expect, but a mummy. Glitches, of course, are typical for the operations of memory (as when the rat misremembers the title of The Fisher King). Wächtler’s most recent animation, Untitled, 2014, similarly transposes the motif of Saint Sebastian onto a Merlin-like sorcerer, who eventually shakes off the arrows with a gesture worthy of Mortal Kombat. Such use of established but hazily defined visual and literary vocabularies and narrative structures makes Wächtler’s work accessible and lends it familiarity and identificatory potential. Within these stylistic brackets, however, Wächtler takes quite a few liberties: isolating or conflating familiar figures (as in mummy and cowboy, saint and sorcerer), notching the arc of suspense (for example, endlessly and anticlimactically dragging out a final showdown), repeating and exaggerating elements (as in the case of the rat, whose endless loop exposes the horror latent in a seemingly benign motif).

Peter Wächtler, Untitled (Wizard), 2014, digital video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

AGAINST THE FOIL of current trends or problematic genre labels such as post-Internet, and in contrast to the attitude of elusive detachment so prevalent among younger artists (who endlessly repeat the studied gestures of supposed dandyism and ironic coolness familiar from the early 2000s), the pathos of Wächtler’s work, its embrace of craft, and its sense of personal investment register as idiosyncratic and even egregiously earnest, which may account for part of its attractiveness.12 Indeed, it seems that the conventionalization of once-critical modes of depletion, distantiation, and desubjectivization has produced, as its flip side, a reactionary demand for ciphers of authenticity such as the paradoxical figure of the “outsider artist.”13 How, then, does Wächtler’s own status as a consummate insider relate to this demand? In a recent interview, Wächtler plays both with the sense that the artist’s “own subjectivity is at stake somehow in the work” and with the understanding that “it’s always fake” when he adds a caveat to the latter assertion: It’s always fake

unless you had to witness four starving soldiers eating up your little sister alive, cinema traumas, or other good, real reasons. . . . You can dismantle any person’s credibility in a second, people are dropped and burned for “misbehavior,” former friends spit in your face and cut off your fingers one by one. And if you are “real,” you need them to do that very cutting and spitting. Everybody knows the true bush tigers are not around, and everybody is in fact happy about that. If you have nothing to say you are the most honest, but that does not help either.

The operations that generate this statement’s ambivalence are similar to those at work in Wächtler’s art. Wächtler does adopt an idiosyncratic repertoire of references and imagery, psychologically charged subject matter, and pseudobiographical forms, and he does suffuse craft with expressive marks, but his work’s deadpan humor, decidedly Germanic use of the English language, excessive vividness, extreme stylization, and overall exaggeration create an oscillation between dead seriousness and ironic distance. (The hesitancy with which Inka Meißner, in the journal May, recently referred to the resulting tension as “something that must be irony” speaks volumes.)14 Wächtler’s work generates an uneasy ambiguity that contrasts sharply with the reactionary impulse of outsider art and other nostalgic-escapist celebrations of the artist as existentialist rebel living beyond cultural conventions and prescribed identities—the artist as Über-subject, somehow more subjective than the rest of us, a figure embodying a kind of excessive subjectivity that outstrips the ordinary rube. But more significant, his work also differentiates itself from the position of narcissistic irony that—once all forms of artistic expression have been exposed as social conventions—can only sustain an idealized image of the artist as Über-subject by suspending every statement, gesture, and relation to the viewer in a vacuum of blasé detachment. In opposition to this stance, Wächtler’s work articulates irony not simply by depleting forms of expression, nor only by inflating those forms with “subjective” content, but by doing both. The work vehemently amps up the sense of palpable investment—then punctures that impression at the points of maximum intensity, of which there are plenty. What is thus rendered ironic is not so much the notion that any actual artistic form could adequately capture the artist’s boundless subjectivity, but the inflated, idealized image of the artist itself.

Both “outsider artist” and “dandy” can be seen as different figurations of this notion of the artist, which runs through the history of Western art since Romanticism. After its upending—its thorough generalization and institutionalization—as the new spirit of capitalism from the 1960s onward,15 this figure, it seems, has now entered a crisis. Recent transformations of art’s technological and institutional infrastructure, among other developments, have led some to the conclusion that subjectivity as such—and with it the artist as its emblematic embodiment and principal symbolization—is disappearing alongside the now-obsolete media that once produced it.16 The increasing financialization of art, and the shifting symbolic significance of the market within art discourse, suggest as much. One may wonder whether to subscribe to such apocalyptic scenarios, or what constitutes their attractiveness. Meanwhile, Wächtler’s work takes stock of the remains.

Jakob Schillinger a writer and curator and is in the Ph.D. program in art history at Princeton University.

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Peter Wächtler, Untitled (2), 2012, glazed ceramic, glass, sound, iPod, ceramic: 8 1/4 × 12 7/8 × 6 1/4“; glass plinth: 38  7/8 × 10 1/4 × 16 7/8”. From the series “Untitled,” 2012.

NOTES

1. Peter Wächtler, “At the Wiels,” in Come On, ed. John Kelsey and Jakob Schillinger (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 65.

2. Peter Wächtler, “Come On,” in Kelsey and Schillinger, Come On, 91–111.

3. Peter Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism,” trans. Mary Varney Rorty, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 14.

4. Cf. Richard Whitby, “Biennial 2014: What Peter Wächtler Has to Say About Liverpool,” in The Double Negative, thedoublenegative.co.uk/2014/07/biennial-2014-what-peter-wachtler-has-to-say-about-liverpool, accessed August 30, 2014.

5. Wächtler, “At the Wiels,” 67.

6. Ibid., 77.

7. Wächtler, “Come On,” 97.

8. Wächtler, “Big Red Rock,” in Kelsey and Schillinger, Come On, 84.

9. Wächtler, “At the Wiels,” 75–76.

10. Wächtler, “Come On,” 98.

11. Jamie Stevens and Peter Wächtler: “Englisch Literature,” Mousse, April 2013, 48. A few lines later, Wächtler states: “I am attracted to bestsellers, page-turners, tearjerkers, blockbusters. . . . I simply do not know how much emancipation is needed to see Skyfall in the right way. But I do know that I need a place where I can go to see exhausted dwarfs flying on giant eagles, and I am deeply thankful for it. I would like to get ahold of the imagery in the films, words, phrases, as I am myself very affected by the efficiency of these narrations.”

12. Cf. Kirsa Geiser, “Künstler, die uns aufgefallen sind: Peter Wächtler,” Monopol, September 2014, 36.

13. See for example the high percentage of “outsiders” and positions framed as pathological, obsessive, or otherwise “authentic” in “The Encyclopedic Palace” at last year’s Venice Biennale.

14. Egija Inzule, “Visual Insert: Peter Wächtler: studium maximum,” May, no. 11 (October 2013): 190.

15. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello describe the new spirit of capitalism as the institutionalization of what they call the “artistic critique.”

16. In his seminal essay on art and transmission, Michael Sanchez has put forth such a media-theoretical perspective on contemporary art. Tracing recent transformations of art’s technological infrastructure, he no longer ascribes works to authorial subjects but instead describes them as effects of the media themselves. See Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission,” Artforum, Summer 2013, 294–301. Sanchez cites Bernhard Siegert, who has described both literature “as a work of art, as the creation of the individual” and this subjectivity itself as effects of a specific postal system that were superseded with real-time signal processing. See Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 1–19.