Ludger Gerdes

“You can unmask and reveal things with images; you can anticipate them and examine them. Images are trial runs for unborn reality,” says Ludger Gerdes. This Düsseldorf sculptor made his first public appearance in the early ’80s with installation works that were constructed “image-sites,” models that cautiously explored architecture and landscape as the most important arenas of human life. “The first and foremost function of art,” wrote Gerdes in 1984, “is to create and give shape to the spaces we live in.” Art, he says, should be in the public domain and act as a vehicle for social communication. His first exploratory, experimental images looked like architectural stage sets, intended not as critical counterproposals to architectural trends but as spaces in which a new kind of image could unfold.

Within these architectural image-arenas Gerdes worked on a new theme concerned with human existence at an equally fundamental level: the theme of the vehicle. For the outdoor sculpture exhibition in Münster this past summer, Gerdes created a small garden landscape in the form of a ship on a grassy area next to an apartment complex. He used the metaphor of life as a journey at sea, a metaphor that has come down to us through centuries of art, philosophy, and literature without losing its vigor. The Münster philosopher Hans Blumenberg has studied this existential metaphor in depth in his work, Schiffsbruch mit Zuschauer (Shipwreck with spectators, 1979), which is one of Gerdes’ favorite philosophical texts.

The themes of architecture and vehicle meet in his most recent work. This exhibition consisted of an environmental installation, 1987, dominated by a sculpture in the form of a steamroller (Walze), which Gerdes also refers to as a tractor (Trecker). It is constructed of several long planks of wood screwed together in an H-configuration, bisected by a pair of planks supported by the cross piece of the H and by a large, upright wooden hoop that stands on the floor a few yards away, the whole thing painted bright red and blue. The profile of a head, cut out of plywood and painted red, rests on the bisecting planks at the end closest to the H. An image of a snail, painted in red on the wall behind it, is an essential component of the work; it appears to glide toward the geometric forms of the steamroller, its elegantly curved shell repeating the round form of the vehicle’s roller/wheel. Gerdes here combines images of an ancient triumphal chariot and an industrial vehicle and sets them against the cautious, crawling movement of the snail, which always carries its own house with it.

The steamroller represents the triumphal march of technology on the brink of destruction, an image of an urban landscape in which the architecture that grew out of the doctrine of unending technological progress has lost its meaning. It unmasks the everyday reality that passes by unnoticed. This is what makes Gerdes’ work so convincing. His image-ideas, which are philosophically well thought out, are directly realizable as concrete forms, and the images themselves have a grand, simple beauty. Gerdes is true to his own requirement that art today take its orientation from the art of the past and seek values and forms that in their beauty are like a declaration of love to the world.

Reviewed by Doris von Drateln.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.