New York


Sandra Gering Gallery

Smoke emerges, accumulates, and dissolves. It usually exists only if something is being destroyed, which is why it also stands for the transformation of matter into the immaterial. Though smoke is always intangible, it permeates everything. Indeed, it is these traces that Vulto pursues.

He smokes fish, whole fish or just their heads, loose fish, and also fish that are gingerly wrapped in cloth, which makes them look injured and bandaged. These fish are then lined up in boxes and vitrines, hung up close together on strings stretched on a wooden frame, or suspended very casually on threads attached to the ceiling. Here Vulto presented rows of glass cases containing smoked, dried, and salted fish. Brown-stained bandages could be seen in the vitrines, and everything reeked of smoke. Even the catalogue accompanying the exhibition exuded that pungent odor—it too was smoked.

However, it is not just fish that Vulto exposes to the effects of smoke. He also smokes houses. In Amsterdam (1987) and Antwerp (1988), he subjected entire buildings to this process. When draft-proofing the doors and windows, he used cloth that was discolored by the smoke produced inside those structures. This bed linen became the witness to the process of smoking.

One of the crucial factors in artistic activity is the striving to delay or even conquer one’s own death. Such activities, or rather their results, are supposed to make the artist immortal. They are meant to outlive him/her and, if properly protected, be handed down to future generations. The countless museums, which are actually a modern invention, fulfill the function of maintaining and preserving artworks.

The conquering of death and the preserving of matter make up the themes of Vulto’s work. However, his process of smoking changes the material substance of his objects. In this kind of preservation, the fish, the cloth, the skin, and the house undergo death, decay, destruction. Only then are they given permanence. And this permanence, purchased with death, decay, and destruction, lends the objects a certain spirituality. As if their materiality were transcended by the smoke permeating them.

It is no coincidence that the smoked fish displayed under glass resemble relics. Indeed, they create a similar atmosphere, one imbued with the odor of suffering, dying, and degeneration. Normally, relics are not viewed as artworks, and yet they are at the origins of Christian art. After all, Veronica’s sudarium was the first artwork in the Christian civilization of the West. It introduced an artistic notion that survived for centuries, to be reexpressed in our era: namely, that creativity is possible only through destruction and death. In other words, salvation lies in the self-annihilation that can lead to death, or at least ritualized death.

The examples of this artistic conception are legion: take Otto Mühl on the one hand and Joseph Beuys on the other. And that is why the art of our century has remained deeply Christian, albeit often unconsciously so, despite the many efforts to break out of this Christian tradition. In his smoking actions, Vulto investigates the relationship between destruction and creation, between death and salvation as obsessively as a saint; in so doing, he interrogates art about its most essential elements. Thus, he turns his fish and sheets into artworks, the appearance of which throws up questions of existential significance.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.