Bernhard Rüdiger, locus desertus - entretien

catalogue | Yves Robert
published on juillet 2006 in “Bernhard Rüdiger, locus desertus” Ed. La Drôme, les châteaux, Grignan, 2006.

Conversation, Yves Robert - Bernhard Rüdiger

Is it possible to consider the exhibition as analogous to a stage? As an attempt to invite the viewer to undergo a physical and metaphysical experience in the space?

In evoking the stage, we are speaking of something that, like in the theatrical ritual of Greek tragedy, attaches a society to a virtual space of representation. In the Greek polis the whole society gathers together in a space to experience a collective ritual in the form of images for a few festival weeks. That is to say there is a fourth wall behind which something else is happening, which moves the public deeply, but which is definitely situated in another space. On the contrary, and this is the case in general in my exhibitions, I think in the exhibition and in the choice of works for the Adhémar Castle, there is no distinction between the space of the viewer’s experience and the space of the work. The work is nothing but a machine and does not exist without the activity of the viewer. The machine is there solely because it is experienced by the viewer. What I reject in the notion of the stage is the idea of a viewer affected, yet passive, who does not act. What is fundamental for me at the Castle and in the construction of an exhibition in general, is the viewer’s movement, the passage from one room to the next, as something, not a narrative or a series of episodes, but as the activator of multiple tensions. Within a given space, the viewer’s movements begin to operate like a contrapuntal composition of different harmonies. Each piece alone will produce a harmonic song in itself and each experience of a work is in tension with all the others.

So this is a specific space, in which you summon the visitor as an “active viewer”? Because certain of your works, for example the cymbals, imply an active viewer.

The cymbals without the active viewer wouldn’t exist. Or at least they would not be the same objects. They would be nothing more than strictly sculptural objects. What is central to my work is precisely the fact that the mental, physical and psychological experience of the visitor is in the same space as an object, a physical presence that doesn’t open up another space. Rather, it interacts. I don’t think the question is that of the theater but rather that of experience; an exhibition space is a space that submits the viewer tovaried and strong sensations.

How do you organize an exhibition space? How did you proceed for the exhibition at the Castle?

I think the space cannot be considered a natural given in an exhibition, even if some spaces are intended to contain exhibitions by definition. Each exhibition space is truly a constructed space. I have very little faith in the usual functions of spaces. The Adhémar Castle is a medieval castle, reworked during the Renaissance, and at the same time, a space for contemporary art. Yet one cannot simply place an object in this space and expect it to work. In my work, this is even more the case, because I believe I must construct the space in which I am exhibiting for each exhibition. That is to say the horizons that are the extreme limits of a space, are what defines what is to be found inside it. In this case, there are two horizons, one of which is the landscape one sees from the windows of the Castle, a natural space, a historical “being in the world”, the world such as it is today. The other is the perception of an artist who observes the world and in doing so defines a view at once a political and documentary.

You speak of the horizons of the exhibition?

I’m speaking of two horizons, two distinct spaces; the first is a physical, historical place - the town of Montélimar, the Rhone Valley in France in June 2006, a precise historical place that one cannot ignore. The other space is a constructed space, a political perspective, a taking of positions, a document on the world – to be specific, I am referring to Manhattan Walk, the only wall piece in the exhibition, which is an account in the form of a very long photograph of a landscape, elaborated from sound recordings made in New York in April 2001. The first is therefore a physical place we cannot escape from because we are there, and the other is the result of recording, reproduction and montage, and in this it is the construction of an observed space. I think these two horizons are not theatrical in nature, but concrete places. The viewer is between these two spaces: a politicized space and an inevitable, physical space of belonging. We simply belong there and the exhibition is constructed as this other space, a “locus desertus” as the title of the wind turbine indicates, that can only be an experience.  

How are the other works situated between what you call these two horizons, these two poles you present in opposition: physical experience and mental experience? How are the works, for example the cymbals, or Trumpet N° 7, the organ pipes, situated - in a complementary or autonomous relation to these two entities?
In what way does the articulation of the works constitute a stage in spite of everything, which allows one to pass from the role of passive viewer to that of the viewer made conscious through the vision of Manhattan Walk?

We are in a space that exists between two extreme horizons. In the center there is a space with what are essentially machines, objects with functions such as producing sound or receiving sound, being retained or maintained in a precarious balance. All these objects have something of the order of the mechanical; that is to say, they have a function that is specific to them. On seeing them, the viewer understands immediately that an organ pipe produces sound, that bronze vibrates when it produces sound and thereby apprehends the choice of material as essential to the work. She sees these works as being obvious in their construction. Their form has been defined in relation to a function. In this sense, we are dealing with objects that are of the family of machines. These objects are not there to represent another space but indeed to operate in a given space.

If the autonomous operation of each work is a given, what is produced by the juxtaposition of the different works? How does the stilted movement of the rats opposed or complemented by the continuous movement of the wind turbine, or complemented by the viewer’s action on a cymbal… how do these movements add up or multiply? Or do they escape your control? 

If we take the works as a group, they produce very different figures. Pinocchio, for example, which uses the archetypal form of the marionette, is truly a figure, whereas the organ pipes, Trumpet N° 7, were designed from zero, according to their function. When I begin to think of organ pipes, everything, from the base to the wind engine, is conceived in view of the result. The form produced is a consequence of its function. Each of the other pieces, Pinocchio, Rats’ Dance, Twentieth End, work differently. No figure resembles another. This aspect is very important because fundamentally it underlines the necessity of drawing, not as something rooted in the world, but as an original and unexpected object that can only operate on its own terms. When we enter the exhibition and go from one room to the next, the different works project us into a space in tension.

How did you decide to install this or that other work in relation to the new monumental sculpture Petrolio (locus desertus) that was created and produced for the exhibition at the Adhémar Castle?

In the exhibition, the characteristics of each work, their facture, the forms they call up, the image archetypes they suggest, are related, but even while being related, they are in tension with one another, irreconcilable, even in the visual and sonic function of the objects: the organ pipes are disrupted by the cymbals, the bell disrupts the cymbals upstairs, while downstairs the rats, in the way they are supported, in the way they are standing stiff, are opposed to the function of the Pinnochio, and the wind turbine is opposed to the function of the bell. All these functions are in tension, irreconcilable, in fact. This is a central aspect of my work.

Regarding Petrolio (locus desertus)?

Here we are dealing with the wind, a brute force, and with turbine blades that were designed from the image of a fractal, which is a form human beings can understand, but which is elusive and incalculable. One cannot calculate the construction of a fractal, one can only recognize it in nature - in snow, in the clouds, in water. A gong is mounted on a large base that was constructed to resist the wind. The wind makes the fractal-shaped blades turn, which activates this gong violently, producing a sound. It is a machine for making sound, similar to those which, in earlier times, warned the townspeople in case of fire or war and called them to regain the interior of the walled city. The bell that rings relentlessly is an alarm signal. It is a sort of convocation. And the Castle is in the middle of the city: a closed-off, military space, a point from which the city is under surveillance. The wind turbine becomes a sort of visual and sonic signal. From the space inside the Castle, one cannot help being aware of this disproportionate, large, visible sign. If the wind is blowing during one’s visit to the Castle, one is subjected to this sonic presence coming from outside. We enter a sort of space under alert, activated by the constant force of the wind, a natural force that becomes a sign and signal. This is essential to the very design of the wind turbine. 

Why all these irreconcilables and tensions? In the service of what idea?

One of the important things in the conception of an exhibition is to measure how the experience of perception is constantly forced into self-questioning. We look at an object; it destabilizes us and it provokes images in us. Yet the next instant, this same object changes, because it starts ringing, or because we approach it from a different angle. It then reveals itself as being very different from what we originally thought on first seeing it. The interference of each piece with the other provokes irreconcilable tensions and places the viewer in doubt as to what he is actually seeing. In fact, this interaction questions our relationship to the work by making us take responsibility as viewers. I think the image in the widest sense – what we produce when we experience the object, is not something for which I am prepared to take responsibility. I think the relationship of the viewer to the object and therefore the image he constructs when confronted with this object, is a relationship that must take into account the complexity of the individual, that is to say the complexity of our existence in the world, and therefore in subjective, real space, historical space…

My work has been developed around this question: how does the subjective image created by the viewer come into being? How does this image work? What is this image? I have always worked with questions of icons, archetypal images, stimulating images set off in the viewer’s mind, as opposed to the idea of the ghostlike image, the presence of an absence - something the purpose of which is to remind us that what we see is not there. There is no need for the image to exist as a representation. In an exhibition images are generated by the viewer’s experience.

Regarding icons, how do you avoid the risk of citation?

Citation is not even present as a risk. When Aristotle developed the very notion of the icon, he developed it to speak about the fact that the image, although ghostlike in relation to the immanence of existence, contained something true in relation to reality. What interests me in the question is that archetypes of images are something we have within us through culture, through something deeply embedded in us. That is to say that as a viewer, I am a fundamental agent in the exhibition who brings to it a knowledge, a reactivity that already contains certain notions of a cultural order. My works are machines that activate a subjective gaze.

There was a very important turning point in the development of my work. At the beginning of the first Gulf War while I was working on the installation of my first museum exhibition at the Luigi Pecci Museum in Prato, I had the back wall of the museum opened up and a large pane of glass built into it that looked out onto empty space, onto the suburbs of Prato. There were architecture-like structures grouped together at the entrance of the room into which the viewer could enter. While I left the center of the room empty, I constructed a gaping hole, the only opening in the museum, on the other side.  There is a fundamental difference between the exhibition in December 1990 and the exhibitions, like this one, I am able to do now. At that time, I was probably incapable of occupying this median space between the subjective experience of the viewer (the space of being in the world) and my own ethical perspective on the world, a documentary and political perspective. The space I had then left tellingly empty can now be occupied by forms whose function it is to maintain this tension.

Isn’t it illusory to imagine that you control the relations between the different works and the viewer?

I don’t want to control them!

I don’t think in terms of controlling the viewer, of leading him from point A to point B. On the contrary, I attempt to provoke a state of doubt, so that he discovers and associates all the certitudes and schemas that are his own in the understanding of an object or objects. So that he may be forced to question them, not necessarily relying on reassuring images but instead remaining doubtful when confronted with images. I think my work establishes a multiple construction of emotional energy and this provokes a reaction. In this sense, certain notions developed at the beginning of German Romanticism interest me. In a movement of reaction to the French Revolution, in a very conscious historical and political way, they permitted the creation of a space where emotions are the result of an uncertain contemplation of the world that can only lead us to new awareness.

In this sense, I feel my work is much closer to the notion of the pathetic, of something that affects the viewer violently, leaving her in a state of total incertitude and self-doubt, and obliging her to find a possible interpretation of the objects herself.

In this exhibition, I am constructing bachelor machines in the fullest sense of the term – machines that produce nothing more than their own operation and incite us to go back to the real world to try and understand how they act.

When associated one with the other, these bachelor machines must produce something more than their own story.

They operate only in interaction with the outside world. In the case of these machines precisely, they were all created as machines that are acted on by forces we don’t control. Whether it be the wind, the sound of the bell with its completely inhuman rhythmic time, whether it be the vibrating activity of the cymbals, the frequency of the organ pipes, the rats’ dance…, the precarious balancing of the Pinocchio,… we are dealing with completely indeterminate forces.

Is the rats’ dance articulated as an image because it is an immobile piece, in contrast to the others…?

Yes and no. Because it is different from the others in the same way all the pieces in the exhibition are different from one another. I don’t think it belongs to a fundamentally different category. I think stability and therefore, the absence of dance, the absence of movement, constitutes the nature of the work. They are Saint Sebastians, pierced through with spears and completely frozen in their dance. So it’s true they operate like a shadow, like an image in that sense. They are silhouettes contrary to the other images that are not.

The others are living images that can be reactivated, through the space and function you attribute to the viewer.

Yes, but the rats can also be reactivated, in the sense that their stability is disturbing and sets off the production of an idea of movement in the viewer. Their stability, the idea of frozen movement, is opposed to the experience of gravity. All these works have in common the fact of using forces I would call telluric or geophysical, forces that keep us close to the earth, in the physical world, but yet escape us in that they have a completely different temporality, whether it be the wind or other natural, uncontrollable forces. These works came into existence after Manhattan Walk, which is the product of a historical perspective on the world. I feel this piece is situated at the limit of a period where culture is still clearly inscribed in a historical space. Art, from the Renaissance to the present day, came into being and existed in a historical space, as a reflection of the self in a given world, in a world controlled by Man in opposition to Nature. This historical notion remains very much present in our world. It was present in teaching when I was a schoolboy. It was present before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The poet Carl Friedrich Jünger wrote an important book in the forties on technique and the world of technique, in which he used an image that seems very striking to me.  The image is that of an archeologist who, until the beginning of the last century, used historical documents to find a city when he dug. To find the city of Troy, one takes historical documents and in the end one finds a plausible site. In effect, in digging, you eventually find an object. Today anywhere in the world you dig, you will eventually find an object that says something about human history. The world has changed so much that it is no longer possible to define history in opposition to Nature. We are in a world where Nature has been fundamentally changed by human activity. But this question seems central to a reflection on art to me because, if the artwork is no longer in history, its fundamental role as a collective social ritual is changed. That is to say that we are no longer dealing with an object that speaks to us of who we were, who we are and who we will become, we are dealing with an object that expresses a more uncertain relation to a space that is difficult to define. I think my works use forces and elements that belong to this brute violence that is simply that of a non-verifiable, uncontrollable, immeasurable nature.

Is Pinocchio different from the other works because of the question of balance, and therefore the possible loss of balance, contrary to the other works that are very much “anchored”? Isn’t “Pinocchio” the only piece where fragility is present and accepted as an element?

In the piece itself, there is perpetual risk, a fragility, whereas the other pieces don’t risk or play with this fragility.

Contrary to the other pieces where bases ensure the junction with physical space - tripods support the organ pipes and hold up the bell, straps maintain the cymbals in suspension - the figure of Pinocchiois a disjointed figure held up by a balloon. Unconsciously, we measure our own relation to gravity and approach any piece in its relation to weightlessness. All the pieces in the exhibition we’ve been discussing are situated in a very different relation to gravity, which is always in tension.

Doesn’t the tension in Pinocchio have its origin in its own fragility?

Yes, in the case of Pinocchio, it’s the central element of the piece. Through its potential loss of balance, it calls into play its very existence.

In the other cases – apart from Petrolio – the works seem to be objects reflecting certitude. Is what perhaps renders them less “certain”, the role of the gaze and thus that of the viewer?

For example with Trumpet N°7, the solid wooden tripod that serves as a foundation for the piece, is the same size or slightly larger than a human being, which right away gives us a sort of immediate figure of resistance, power and security, but the longer one walks around the organ pipes, the less one understands how the legs are held together and how the pipes are attached onto the legs. And if we happen to say something, the basic function of the piece, which is producing sound, is activated, and this image of resistance is destroyed. This “uncertain” relation is not the same thing as fragility though. We are as if shaken in our own perception of the object by this sonic phenomenon and our perception of the object is thus deeply transformed. A similar thing occurs regarding the bell Twentieth End. One sees a large particular shape, made from specific materials, centered on a very narrow tripod, and when it rings, our perception of the bell is completely modified. The image is disrupted by the sound it produces, by the tone, the regularity, the rhythm, and the intensity of the sound. This calls our perception into question.