|FROM A CONVERSATION WITH WOLFGANG STAEHLE|
Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
-- Susan Sontag
The vignettes that follow are out—takes from which can
be reconstructed a conversation with Wolfgang Staehle
at his New York studio in September 1990. As sardonic,
if not more so, as the work he makes, the artist possesses a culture at once inherently aristocratic yet broadly popular at the same time. Some artists never survive their first success, lost in the folds of the mantel of Old Master assumed too soon. Not Staehle. How could recognition and critical acclaim distract the course of an artist whose sense of direction, and sense of self, have from the very beginning maintained a high and healthy altitude? A German in New York and New Yorker in Germany, Staehle has a keen sense of time, and of place. A certain Gaullist Air of disinvolvement seemed to surround his years of self-imposed internal exile, andnunderground perfecting of his craft, as if to say that the world deserved a better art world, and vice—versa. Der Kluge: a beguilingly operatic and by no means derogatory word in German, denoting clever, intelligent, prudent, gifted, alert, quick-witted, knowing, sly. Like the fox in La Fontaine's poem, and in the film of Marcel Broodthaers, Wolfgang Staehle perpetrates his subversive art with the lesson of laughter.
IMAGE TRIUMPHS OVER STORY
There was no television in my family's household. As a
child, I had to watch it at the neighbor's. It was only when I was thirteen that television entered my life. At the time it was considered a bad influence on children's minds, and I was supposed to practice at the piano. If I didn't, my punishment was not being permitted to watch "Hidden Camera," a show hosted by a crazy American named Chris Howland, who with his heavy American accent had found a niche on early Oeffentlich Rechtliche Anstalt, state—run German TV.
Later American sit—coms and shows like "The Man
From Uncle" were dubbed into German—often totally
changing the tone in the process, when the translators
put in their own ironic jokes. There were two channels in Stuttgart, and one regional channel. When I arrived in New York the phenomenon of switching channels was a revelation. It became immediately a whole technique of instant collage. The funny thing about television is the prevalence of standard story lines. The Russian formalists studied fairy tales and myths with their standard plots with interchangeable characters very closely. We have become sophisticated enough today to no longer care about story, but for stylistic treatment alone. People look for images when they watch TV.
Sometimes I feel I ought to watch the morning shows, and the cartoons. But I can't watch television on an empty stomach. All the same, I watch everything, in every genre, and I really love to watch commercials. When watch I am always taping. Whenever I am watchinq TV, I'm working. It's like fishing: I watch and wait. If nothing happens, I tape over. The hardest thing to nail down is how a certain image captures my eye. Some images have an immediate, ineffable resonance, a
quality that changes when placed in another context. The Situationists called it "détournement" -a re-routing of an image.
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Gregorio Magnani: “... the car turns periodically on
its axis...a pair of female legs in white stockings incessantly pedaling on a bicycle… Joseph Beuys...Tele-
vision’s unique capacity to give the exact same
amount of attention to each item that passes on the
screen...displaces content...renounces commentary...
multitude or references...detached mode of viewing...
both the laugh and the discomfort...”
ADVENTURES IN BROADCASTING
For a while I made collage tapes. I taped all the
footage Of the Korean Airline shooting and then added
the fictional element of James Bond. Here was Alexan—
der Haig speaking on the occasion which commemorated
twenty years of James Bond movies, praising James
Bond’s service to free enterprise- Cut to President
Reagan speaking on the Korean Airline incident. Cut to
James Bond in his Aston-Martin submarine car,shooting
down a helicopter. I wanted to relativize the whole
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Ulrike Lehmann: “the medium dominating the
Americans’ everyday life...the news broadcasts and the
commercials...the principle Ot chance...The Dadaist
recycling process enables the artist to make found
material his own and to interpret it anew with his own
meaning...modern art, says Lyotard...On a Watchman
held in place by a screw-clamp the viewer sees Buster
Keaton treading a wheel like a hamster in
The School Of Frankfurt...”
THE CROW AND THE FOX
For me, the introduction into my work of the hardware
itself was a sort of Trojan Horse. An electronic image by itself commands no art status. It will be relegated to a video festival somewhere. Or a cable show on Channel Z at four in the morning. or maybe some basement exhibition. It lacks a body. And. I found that I enjoyed putting the hardware together and seeing it accepted as a work of art. There is a work by Broodthears which I like a lot. It is a film called “Le Corbeau et te Renard,” after the poem by La Fontaine which everyone studies in school. Broodthears managed to create something which is neither a film, nor a sculpture, nor a poem-but all of these, It mixes all of these categories, with a certain harmony between the elements. In doing so, the notion of sculpture, film, poetry, is enlarged. Most people, however, still harbor a resistance to such hybrid forms. For example, people are mistaken in calling my work “video sculpture.” Why need a definition?
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Veit Loers: “...in the atmosphere of everyday domes-
ticity the effect of the old black-and-white feature,
sandwiched between colour commercials, is at once
magic and intimate… the situation that results is rather odd...An indoor victory...For decades, modern art was too preoccupied with revolutionary pictorial form and its content to be concerned, or want to be, with the question of a social space...fatefully tragic connection between paintings; objects, television pictures and sound...Staehle the artist...Staehle the connolsseur...”
In 1988, I did a piece at the New Museum in New York
that was called “Requiem.” There were many
implications-the Malevich painting shown on a miniature
television, which was mounted on a tripod; the Die-Hard
battery beside it; the “German Requiem” by Brahms
playing in the darkened room. Suprematism emphasized the spiritual in art. Where is that today?
I don't know if I am the only one who sees it, but my
images deal with ontological implications, questions
about the meaning of existence. Some people grasp this
immediately. But too often those in the art world read it only in terms of semantic systems, a so-called criticism of television.
I'm interested in the nature of the loop. It is not narrative, with a beginning and an end; it is not a still yet not a real moving image, either. It's circular, it goes nowhere. But ultimately it is closer to a still. There is a sense of futility to it. An image like Buster Keaton on his treadmill is a great Image of futility.
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Charles Hagen: *Aluminum step ladder, a tripod, a
woodworking vise...found object...physicality of TV...
now-iconlc...touch of drollery...TV time, like the time
of Western culture...the size of a book...dogs chasing
their tails...emphasizing the body of TV rather than its mouth...”
LESSONS OF THE METROPOLIS
New York was a party. The Mudd Club was going
strong, and I met people, artists. Herr Lugus and I
started making dumb cable TV shows, It was a scene,
and I felt at home. In Germany, to call yourself an artist before you've become established is met with laughter. The issue was treated more casually in New York. There was also something in the condition of being a foreigner that I liked. When you are integrated into a social system, only by stepping outside of it to view it can you have a perspective. My eyes were wide open in New York. I even found myself enjoying school.
In Germany I had been kicked out of each school I
attended, usually for causing trouble. For one thing my
political engagement, was not welcome. Then we
opened a club called Alpha 60, which stayed open until
early in the morning. We showed films and had art shows
with people like Klaus Staeck, The bar stayed open after all the pubs had closed. Some of my teachers would come there, and the next day my test scores were
observed in a highly critical light.
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
David Marc: “...vaudeville show of history...cable
converter has already made the traditional tuner ob-
solete...viewer assumes control of montage...parody
is the special revenge of the viewer...born of a bastard art of mass-marketing theory and recognizable forms of popular culture...”
I was kind of a Greenbergian when I began to paint, but
I had a materialist approach to the picture plane. In the long run it was not satisfying. You can play all the formalist games, but something is always lacking. It arrives at an end point. My favorite artists in the beginning were the Zürich group-Max Bill, Richard Lohse, Camille Gräser, along with the Russians and Poles-Rodchenko Strzeminski, Kobro. I was attracted to their revolutionary tabula rasa. Already in the twenties the Poles had a somewhat Greenbergian theory. At the same time I was an admirer of the constructivist filmmaker Dziega Vertov, whose classic modernist film *Man with a Movie Camera' I have plundered a lot.
In talking about a materialist approach on the one hand
and a spiritual one on the other, the thing is that you can't take either one alone. It's very hard to write something on your banner and go out and fight for it. The spiritualist will be dismissed as a misguided dreamer, and the materialist as a Marxist charlatan. Only fine tuning between the two positions is possible. It is very hard in today's world to establish clear demarcations. If I could articulate it, I would probably not need to make the work: there would be no reason to.
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Jan Avgikos: “...was the struggle one of video
aspiring to the same kind of validity as painting or
merely subterfuge...the trick is to get rid of linear time...you can watch it as long as you want, like a painting...the image just happens to move...the rehashedreductivist strategies of minimalist painting are boring to the point of pain...Staehle learned to collapse everything into itself...snippets of Beckett-liké dialogue...'suppose you're really finished. you uninspired, untalented fake...television turns us all into...suggestion of reconciliation...”
DER KLUGE AMATEUR
I underwent a protracted period of non-involvement in
the art world. In the early eighties I was still clinging to the idea of resisting standard procedures such as galleries. The cable TV shows were one outcome. But the quest for other venues for art was ultimately bound to fail. For a long time I worked as a photographer for galleries. It reached a certain point where I could no longer stand to take pictures of work I didn't like. It was absurd: participating on this secondary level, I was not being raped by the system. But I grew tired of my own Bohemian virgin stance: don't rape me, but all the time I'm getting raped worse. But this long waiting period had great advantages. I had relations with many people, great conversation, no threats. An apprenticeship. I learned the machinations of the whole process. And looking at art through a lens is great training for the eye.
My parallel research in painting and video contained
built-in tensions and contradictions. There may have
been some connection with Fluxus. I’m tempted to think.
in a piece like “The Entertainer.” So many things
hanging on walls merely serve as props: something to
justify the opening, the sales transaction, the power
games. You need chips. In “The Entertainer” you have
the reduced state of the artist. It's a commentary as
much as a protest or an accusation. I'm making no
attempt to induce moral values here. but at the same
time I'm saying how it is.
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Patrick McGrath: “...Lacan says somewhere...where
in a dimly lit room...it was King Kong...behind the
smooth, slick wash of information discharged day and
night...in what Foucault has called…”
FUN WITH HARDWARE
One thing to recognize about these electronic devices:
they make great toys. I love to play with them. Most
people in the United States and in Europe are still
intimidated by technology. I've always loved playing with the imagery conveyed through electronic gadgets. An artist may derive pleasure by applying wet paint over a canvas, but it is also a pleasure to edit video, to expand systems, to make a computer interactive with video, and so forth. But a lot of people are afraid to plug a few cables into corresponding connectors. This will soon change with the next generation. A lot of the whole process of technological advances is driven by playfulness. The viewer is no longer condemned to passivity. For years the viewer had only a receiver, but now everyone has a VCR. My early collages in video were a revolt of the viewer, a revenge of the viewer who can now become the editor of the images to which he was once supposed to simply submit. Technology, the apparatus itself, equates progress in the popular mind. In my work this idea of progress in the material realm is played off against the imagery, which is made up of nonprogressive pictures of futility. The two cancel each other out. It's like the Chinese delegate who told a reporter who had asked for a first impression of
television in the West: “It's very nice. but I couldn’t tell where the program began and the commercial stopped.”
THE CRITIC SPEAKS
Catherine Liu: “...our notions of framing in painting
...the adequacy of the image...if the screen was a 19th
century dream come true, what happened to painting
and the picture plane?...Staehle might very well be the
first artist who is trying to give the body of painting a proper burial.”
--Alan Jones, October 1990