Felix Gmelin

Milliken Gallery

Felix Gmelin’s installation Tools and Grammar, 2007, is an atlas charting the way through a tangled thicket of emotion, from raw anarchy to nuanced compassion; it is a work of apocalyptic lyricism. To make this journey, Gmelin relies on a cast of characters and their art, literature, and politics: filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and V. I. Pudovkin, enlightenment writer Denis Diderot, Nazi art theorist Paul Schultze-Naumburg, and, the soul of the installation, the children in a German silent movie from 1926 titled Bei den Blinden (With the Blind Ones). Tools and Grammar is a walk-through montage of painting, photography, film, and sound design. If these independent branches of meaning defy a summing-up, they awaken the tacit knowledge that tragedy, once afoot, places great value on the demands of the heart.

Bei den Blinden is a documentary film about progressive education; blind schoolchildren visit a graveyard, where they explore headstones, and presumably death itself, using their sense of touch, afterward recording their impressions as clay sculptures. W. J. T. Mitchell once speculated, “Visual culture entails a meditation on blindness, the invisible, the unseen, the unseeable, and the overlooked”; that’s the region into which Tools and Grammar ventures. Gmelin’s paintings and photographs (printed on canvas) of the children’s cemetery sculptures are grouped on three walls encircling a floating screen where Bei den Blinden flickers. Stand in front of the movie and you are immersed in the hushed sound-shower of Pudovkin’s meditation on the inadequacy of sensory perception: “The world is a whole rhythm, while man receives only partial impressions of this world through his eyes and ears and to a lesser extent through his very skin.” On the reverse of the Bei den Blinden projection, we see filmed images from Gmelin’s paintings of the children’s sculptures cropped into abstractions, while passages from Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) are whispered from above: “The man born blind refers everything to his fingers’ ends. . . . He does not go through a mental process analogous to ours; he does not create an image.”

Tragedy lurks in paintings of selected illustrations from Schultze-Naumburg’s book Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race, 1928), meant to show how modern art’s distortions were irreconcilable with the artistic ideals and racial purity of National Socialism. This he did with chilling briskness, comparing medical photographs documenting human deformity with modern painting—spina bifida with a Picasso, for example. Kunst und Rasse appeared only two years after Bei den Blinden; by 1939 “Aktion T4”—the euthanasia program that would have, to quote the Führer, “accorded a mercy death” to the likes of the children in the film—had been signed into authority.

Gmelin’s coda for Schultze-Naumburg’s jarring dissonance, sawing against the tenderness of Bei den Blinden, is the deeply existential soliloquy from Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), in which Pierrot takes account of his own fractious sensations: “I’ve got a machine for seeing, called eyes / To hear, I’ve got ears / To talk, a mouth / But they feel like separate machines, there’s no unity.” Tools and Grammar lacks a center too; it is less accessible than Gmelin’s earlier work, but that is a virtue. It is possible to say, without overreaching, that Tools and Grammar is close in spirit to Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1825 Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) for string quartet. Composed when Beethoven was completely deaf, it begins as emotional conflagration. Its structure is comprised of stark, sometimes toothed contrasts where sections break off precipitously; cool tension caves in to warmth. The Grosse Fuge is an acoustic experience to which Beethoven had no direct access—as Gmelin has none to blindness—and shares with Tools and Grammar a creator who has the strength of mind to map creative experience beyond the senses.

Ronald Jones