Caught in rooms for interpretation

 

Andreas Baur

Director, Villa Merkel, Galerien der Stadt Esslingen

 

 

Light on, light off, on, off … The objects could barely be grasped. Visitors of JAK’s exhibition Soul Blindness speak of sophisticated lighting design, of oddly clear reflections, of double, after, and dream images, of farreaching content loops and feedback running through the exhibition hall. And also of sculptural bodies being capable—in accordance with an ambivalent, insecure perception—of showing both their outer and inner form simultaneously. For the viewers, it was at times impossible to clearly determine the relationships. Also in question: how exactly to adjust one’s focus …

 

To begin, reflections of the surroundings and a gleaming white sculpture collide in a bright, high-tech green. The sculpture extends meters high out of the backdrop of a slanted green surface, connecting the two floors of Villa Merkel’s atrium. Is this thing a tree? With two trunks? A tree that would appear in your dreams—old, gnarled, but without natural colors—which you would hardly remember upon waking? Objectively, it is a hybrid with a mechanically-treated sculptural surface that makes no effort to conceal the digital origins of its construction. This tree, designated a sculpture, accompanies the visitors throughout the exhibition—through the entire house—demanding to be viewed from below and from above, presenting itself from multiple perspectives and in various forms, sometimes providing orientation or stability, sometimes stirring up latent confusion. But the sharp angle created by the green background will be encountered in the exhibition often enough …

 

These are precarious situations in which conceptions of the world and the soul’s well-being are not protected. Attesting to this is a form of soul blindness. Rather than precise recognition, a prerequisite for successful exchange among individuals, it is states of limbo that reign, along with open spaces of interpretation, and precarious, barely or non-existent connections between what is perceived and, for example, the world of terms and definitions. The disorder affects the cognitive apparatus. “However, the brain has a weakness. The brain is simply a brain … nothing more,” says an off-camera voice during the first three-minute sequence of JAK’s film Soul Blindness. “This invisible rivalry between the brain and the soul appeared not long after man came into existence and still persists. The outcome is known as agnostic disorder. Even though I have this disorder,” confesses the film’s protagonist—is this JAK? “I have slowly discovered a way to overcome it. The TMS machine. I have this.” [1]  The TMS Machine? And: Who the fuck is JAK?

 

In retrospect, JAK can be recognized as an artist, literary character, psychotherapist, religious studies researcher, and indeed also as a director and screenwriter. And yet: JAK remains anonymous. Admittedly, it is not a new concept for anonymity to stand in diametric opposition to the cult that pays homage to artistic genius. In fact, it emerges in various forms in recent art history, for example, in the Warholian idea of the factory that harnesses and orders individuals and their talents in an extreme sense, or in Ad Reinhardt’s process of double negation in his Ultimate Paintings, which allows the artist to abandon any subjectively charged connotations. Or in “the force of non-identity,” as Sturtevant named the conceptual basis of her artistic position. Her works confront the concept of authorship and the question of the original, meticulously copying the supposedly unique markers of identity and voiding them through imitations that “function like mirrors without the reversal of the image.” [2]

 

And today? It is indisputable that JAK’s anonymity is a bit fragile, almost fractured, and constantly put to the test, in the face of the art market for one, which continues to rely on prominent, highly exposed artists onto whom we project our aspirations for a unique identity. Anonymity in art, on the other hand, is a critical, reflexive response to populist tendencies in politics, a world that seems inconceivable without an excessive cult of personality. JAK, neither a person nor a factory, but rather a formation that has operated in stability for years as atelierJAK, insists through this form of authorship on a production context that, depending on the starting point, is able to incorporate and creatively bundle a wide range of expertise. Therefore, JAK appears—ideally and in a literal sense—solely through work and projects, remaining impersonal and free of subjective connotations.

 

The hero of Soul Blindness suffers from the disorder of agnosia. Since 2013, JAK has worked on the film, which has emerged through an unusual process. For every exhibition—and at Villa Merkel in Esslingen as well—JAK expands the story of the film, using the transformative power of various media such as drawing, text, video, sound, sculpture, painting, and installation in the process. Everything revolves around ambiguity, systems of unrecognizability, cognitive loops. In the exhibition, double-page spreads of a pertinent medical publication have been cut apart in such a way that the text is turned upside-down and set against the normal direction in which it would be read. Its meaning is dissolved and transferred into the form of a playful texture, a play of light and shadow, a fragile material flicker. Agnosia therefore also infects the realm of the illusory, which incidentally corresponds perfectly with its status as a medical condition.

 

The subtitle Fall into indescribable scenes carries a double meaning. It is an invitation to enter and let go, but at the same time refers to a virtually unceasing plunge. The exhibition features scenes and sets which can be entered and enable visitors to immerse themselves in visual manifestations of JAK’s world of thoughts and ideas. All of the sudden, they find themselves in a selectively and dimly lit shimmering green cabinet made of glass and metal that is simultaneously transparent and reflective. The construction closes in sharply on one side—a room in the exhibition space, into which it casts a shadow. These two different moments of experience stand side by side, maintaining equal status. Perception is demanded and met mostly with ambiguity. Isn’t this the exact same angle from the atrium?—but of course, the hero of the film has a home—a room—in the form of a precariously tapered chamber. In diverse ways, it appears in JAK’s installations, in one case, for example, as a modellike hologram that, defying spatial logic, hovers immaterially above a pedestal, as if a highly-talented illusionist were at work. A perfectly aligned spotlight goes on, goes off, goes on …

 

And again and again, so-called chill-out rooms. Illuminated in green. Flash. The eye becomes stressed and tries to adjust, confronted with a pink glow when it looks to the neighboring rooms. Back in the center! Concrete and physical. Almost all visitors report the powerful experience of being compelled towards complicity with the film’s hero—also in terms of disturbances in sensory processing?

 

Objects encounter each other at Villa Merkel in the form of complex sensory entanglements, if you will, in the form of a collage-like cosmos with reflections here and there, the imaginary refracted onto virtual edges, voids as projection surfaces … as well as the reduction of scale onto glass slides for microscopic examination. This creates the basis for the font JAK has developed as well as determining the modular dimensions and size of the miniature set designs cast in epoxy resin. Their production is often the beginning of JAK’s work in the studio, a daily exercise for the fingers that is much like a diary entry.

 

There is a storyboard for the film. Its scenes are depicted in paintings with grid-like structure where JAK’s writing is concentrated until it becomes mere texture, abstract and barely legible—with the exception of directives such as “long shot” or “cut to” in the presentation of Scene 6. The structurally similar three-channel video takes this uncertainty of perception even further: After gradually condensing the pictorial space, barely perceptible changes take place, which are only recognized with a delay, in hindsight, but never explained. The effect is a subtle visual blow—wasn’t that drifting pink section orange before?

 

The hero of the film occasionally visits the Blue Star, a bar where he meets people and seeks entertainment. In a kinetic work, the lettering turns rapidly around a vertical axis, forming a sculptural vessel. It flashes in a slow rotation: Outside, inside, outside, inside, light on, light off, on, off … a rhythm?—somewhat like a neon sign that could hang on the side of a building. Exhibition-goers report that other visitors decided to go to the Blue Star later on. As if they had made a plan to meet JAK there …

 

[1]     See p. 132 of this publication.

[2]     Mario Kramer, “Introduction,” in Sturtevant Drawing Double Reversal, exh. cat. MMK Frankfurt / Main among other locations, Zürich 2014, p. 12; also see Michael Lobel, “Drawing and the Roots of Sturtevant’s Art,” in ibid., pp. 20–27.S