Time . Space . Existence

By Peter Lodermeyer

 

I.

Time, space and existence are among the greatest of themes—so great that we could never be so presumptuous to think we could do them justice, and much too close to ourselves that we could ever escape them, whether with our thoughts or actions, in life or in art.

Apparently there are no longer any themes fundamentally closed to art. For centuries, post-antique art in Europe had more or less been limited to religious and political subjects (often inseparably interlocked with each other). During the Renaissance the field of the thematic possibilities was increasingly expanded—we need only think of the development of landscape and portrait painting in the 15th and 16th century, for example. In the face of this development, academic art theory had always endeavored to maintain a stringent hierarchy of themes worthy of art that was ultimately based on ontology. Modern art may be defined precisely through its claim of expanding the domain of art using everything in its power, and then bringing down this hierarchy. If you look back at the development of art over the past hundred years, you will recognize the ambition of the artists to keep ramming the boundary posts ever further outwards, and to make art capable of something it would have been excluded from earlier by its very definition. Just think of what all the Modern Movement has introduced to art: Exoticism, the unconscious, blasphemy, absurdity, the irrational, the immaterial, industrially-manufactured things, technology, elements of the trivial such as advertisements, pornography, everyday objects… etc., etc.—and last, but not least: pure forms with absolutely no claims for being interpreted objectively. Above all, however, it is about art itself. The questions concerning what art is, how it is perceived, what is particular about it, its functions, what its social contexts are, etc. were themselves to become a theme in the medium of art, especially in the 1960s and afterwards.

The desire to put art and life on a par with each other is a modern utopia that would have been utterly preposterous in earlier centuries. Due to the social upheavals during the 20th century, there is no longer any one more-or-less homogenous social class as upholders of civilization and culture, as had been the case with the upper bourgeoisie in the 19th century. It has long since been the most diverse groups, i.e.: interests, ways of thinking and aesthetics that nowadays manifest themselves through and in art. Added to this is the fact that the attention to art is increasingly freed from its Euro-/Americo-centrism, while artistic achievements from Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia with their specific cultural backgrounds and perspectives are receiving growing recognition. The diversity of the art scenes (and there is far more than just one such scene) is greeted by some critics as an expression of the progressing pluralizing of society, while others deplore a mess of confusion that all too often drifts towards randomness plaguing our post-modern (or rather, most likely our post-post-modern) situation. In this respect, we should not forget, however, that such differentiation is being counteracted at the same time by the diametric process of aesthetic norming in the wake of globalization reinforced by the mass media. Finding an orientation in this confusing situation and being able to raise the question about even the most general themes of art seems, therefore, a worthwhile endeavor. This question is central to the project Personal Structures: Time . Space . Existence. It has often been said about literature as a form of art that there are really only two great themes, those of love and death (perhaps we might mention the striving for power here as well). But what would these basic themes be concerning what we only now refer to with some hesitation as the ‘fine arts’? Are there themes any more basic than space, time, and existence? Perhaps form, color, light, and material come to mind, but we must not forget that there is no possible expression of these entities that do not exist in space and time.

 

II.

Time, space and existence initially seem to fall under the auspices of philosophy. It is necessary to briefly cast a glance in this direction in order to make it clear that these three concepts do not exist independently from one another, but rather display an inner connection. Several central views from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time from 1927 come to mind, which have lost none of their relevance even after more than 80 years (and have not become compromised by the philosopher’s later aberrations during the Nazi era). By existence, Heidegger means in particular man’s own way of being that he calls ‘Dasein’, which differs from the mere existence of things and the lives of plants and animals by the fact that ‘Dasein’ manifests itself “ in its very Being, that being is an issue for it”.1 In other words, we humans have a primal understanding of existence. At the same time, this means that we must constantly care for our existence. Being able to hope, desire, worry about, plan, and despair are all things rooted in this. We can and must organize our existence, care about it, and do this with the knowledge that we will inevitably die. ‘Being-towards-death’ (‘Sein zum Tode’) is one of the major conditions of human existence. At the beginning of Being and Time, Heidegger anticipates the results of his research: “We shall point to temporality as the meaning of the Being of that entity which we call ‘Dasein’. […] Dasein is in such a way as to be something which understands something like Being. Keeping this interconnection firmly in mind, we shall show that whenever Dasein tacitly understands and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint.”2 The human form of existence is certainly temporal, so much so that, in a lecture having to do with Being and Time, Heidegger stated: “[…] time is Dasein. […] Dasein always is in a manner of its possible temporal being. […] Dasein is its past, it is its possibility in running ahead to this past. In this running ahead, I am authentically time, I have time. In so far as time is in each case mine, there are many times. Time itself is meaningless; time is temporal.”3

This last statement is of particular importance: There is no such thing as time per se, but rather it is always ‘my’ respective time, i.e., there is a tremendous plurality of times. Just as my Dasein is ‘in each case mine’ (‘jemeinig’), and not delegable, not exchangeable, inalienable, neither is its temporal sense. The “homogenization” of “binding”, measured time is, on the other hand, an idealization, “an assimilation of time to space, to Presence pure and simple. It is the tendency to expel all time from itself into a present.”4 Measurable time is not lived temporality, the experienced existential temporality, but a simplification due to everyday requirements.

 

III.

The fact that Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein not only reveals its temporality, but that it also basically contains a theory of its original spatiality is something that has not yet received sufficient attention. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has taken note of this: “Only a few interpreters of Heidegger seem to have realized that with the sensational programmatic title of Being and Time, there is also a kernel of a revolutionary treatise of existence and space.”5 By calling attention to the fact that Heidegger perceives Dasein as ‘being-in-the-world’, whereby the ‘in’ does not simply denote being present in a ‘spatial container’, but rather designates a complex happening of spatially defined attitudes, Sloterdijk gains important reference points for his own ambitious Spheres project, an attempt to portray man’s multi-layered reference to space.6 A significant point of departure in this is sections 22 to 24 in Time and Being, in which Heidegger provides several references to an existential analysis of space: “When we let entities within-the-world be encountered in the way, which is constitutive for Being-in-the-world, we ‘give them space’. This ‘giving space’, which we also call ‘making room’ for them, consists in freeing the ready-to-hand for its spatiality. […] Space is not to be found in the subject, nor does the subject observe the world ‘as if’ that world were in a space; but that ‘subject’ (Dasein), if well understood ontologically, is spatial. And because Dasein is spatial in the way we have described, space shows itself as a priori.”7

An important difference (one of many), in which Sloterdijk goes far beyond the spatial analysis that Heidegger only sketched out, consists in his viewing Dasein not as one-sided, as a ‘being-toward-death’, but also always under the aspect of its ‘natality’, its ‘coming-into-the-world’.8 The fact that we are born, and must leave the first place we have ever lived in, the womb, without changing into an ambience that is nature-like is more than a biological fact. It is existential, driving us to orient ourselves to the world and set ourselves up there: as living, living together, creating orders, as stays in highly-complex, changing systems of spatial environments that interlock with each other. “When ‘life’ seems boundlessly diverse in forming spaces”, Sloterdijk writes, “then not only because each monad has its own environment, but what is more, because all of them are interlocked with other lives, and are composed of numerous units. Life articulates itself on stages simultaneously interlocked. It produces and consumes itself in workshop networks. But decisive for us is: It produces first of all the space it is in, and which is in it, respectively.”9

 

IV.

Perhaps there are no longer places of wilderness; but the wild, the ever new is still: time.

Peter Handke, Über die Dörfer

 

Space is not only high, it’s low, it’s a bottomless pit.

Sun Ra, Space is the Place

 

What is that, to exist—and not we or the world—but existence per se?

Fernando Pessoa, Faust-Fragmente

In as much that we exist as ‘Dasein’, we are spatially and temporally ‘in-the-world’ in a primal sense. And thus, time, space and existence are the givens, which stand closest to us—and at the same time, as soon as they force themselves upon us, they become the strangest and most enigmatic things of all. The ‘wild’ part about time, i.e. what is not to be controlled or what eludes us, the bottomless abyss of space and the infathomableness of existence at all, expressed in the quotes above by an Austrian and a Portugese author as well as an Afro-American free-jazz musician, are experiences we constantly encounter in life. One of the most ingenious places in the analyses contained in Being and Time, is when Heidegger shows us how we necessarily “proximally and for the most part” succumb to “everydayness”, warding off the strangeness of our existence with “idle talk”, with “vulgar” notions.10 An even deeper confrontation with it is—and this is what is remarkable—not restricted to any lofty philosophical thought, but can affect any of us at any time. States of fear, boredom, sleeplessness, for example, are superb opportunities for confronting our existence as a whole.

What is not mentioned in Time and Being is the encounter with art (in the broadest sense of the word), which in its own specific way may also ensure an experience of space, time and existence extending beyond our everyday preconceived notions. Even though a binding definition is impossible, we may still say that art is (also) always man’s conception of himself. “With the concept of self-conception we can explain the value of art as follows: The value of art consists in its making special aspects of the world, in which we live, and ourselves understandable for us.”11 The fundamental aspects of ‘Being-in-the-world’, however, are time, space and existence. Art has always dealt with these themes—for the most part not explicitly, and embedded in certain ideological contexts. Just to give a random example: A medieval altar painting showing the ‘Last Judgment’ emphatically portrays time (earthly time and eternity), space (the topography of the here and the hereafter, earth, heaven and hell) and existence (exaggeratedly, as eternal blessedness or damnation).

Modern art, and non-objective art in particular, has increasingly detached the themes of time, space and existence from their preconceived narratives (mythological, religious, political, etc.) and thus been able to show them with growing explicitness. Especially in the diverse artistic trends after World War II, much ‘fundamental research’ has been taking place on the theme of art. Questions concerning how space may be defined and structured, what formal solutions may be found for portraying temporal processes, and how art may be used to prove individual existence are among the typical issues of art of the 1960s and 70s. To refer to these questions today certainly seems to be important to us, especially at a time when the increasing commercialization and, along with this, the trivialization of art in connection with making it a marketable, streamlined, art business are greatly lamented. It is a major intention of Personal Structures: Time . Space . Existence to remind us of the basic questions of art, admittedly not in the sense of a return to the discussions of the past decades (that would be senseless and destined to fail from the onset), but as a platform where these issues may be further discussed and from which possibly new answers may be explored.

 

V.

The importance of artists grappling with the themes we have discussed here, precisely with respect to today’s situation of art and society, seems obvious to me. We need only point out several aspects of the theme of ‘space’ as an example. Without a doubt it is no coincidence that the number of publications dealing with the theory of space has grown dramatically in recent years. It may not be overlooked that our living spaces, both natural and cultural, rural and urban, have been changing quickly. Ecological changes, the effects of the globalized economy and worldwide expansion of media and telecommunication technologies are simply the most obvious reasons for this process. That the utopia of the ZERO artists concerning a reconciliation between nature and technology may not merely be cast off as wishful thinking, but must rather finally be put into practical action, is more and more urgent in light of the worldwide climate change. The relationship between public and private has shifted completely in an age of technological mass media. Artistic suggestions for dealing with public space in a new way, such as Dan Graham and Vito Acconci undertake with their completely different works between art and architecture, may be instrumental in thinking the concept of public space anew. Where space and rooms are rigorously subjected to all kinds of monitoring, planning, and commercial interests, free artistic spaces are vital as counter concepts. Thus, for example Lee Ufan’s sculptures are models of an open and unbiased encounter with the Other. In the face of the omnipresence of mass-media aesthetics that is threatening to dominate and deform our perception, the spaces of wax of someone like Wolfgang Laib have a virtually therapeutic effect by lastingly confronting the visitor in an intense way with the most primal existential conditions such as birth and death. May these examples suffice, though the list could easily be continued with names of other artists and by means of the themes of time and existence.

 

VI.

The project Personal Structures has a somewhat longer prehistory. Initiated by the Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer and accompanied by me in terms of its conception, it went public for the first time in 2003 with the book Personal Structures—Works and Dialogues12. 16 artists from 11 countries were introduced in that first book, all working more or less with ‘minimal’ formal means. The focus was on the issue of concerning how personal, subjective components could also be revealed in ‘minimalist’ structures. The consciously contradictive title Personal Structures connects the supra-personal, or impersonal, through which structures are defined, with the personal and subjective components inherent to the works of art we presented. An apparent difference to this book as opposed to the first Personal Structures project may be seen in the selection of artists taking part. The departure point was a statement made by the Austrian art historian Johannes Meinhardt, which I already approvingly quoted in the first book. It goes: “Painting”—and here I mean “contemporary art” in general—which has not forgotten its own history, and which not only understands history as a collection of things that may be used again […], is based today upon the great new approaches of the 1960s”.13 In the first book from 2003 only artists took part, who tied in with the tradition of the new approaches of the 1960s. In conjunction with the second book the question now was: What about the artists of the 1960s themselves? And not only these people, what about the ZERO artists, who had already in the 1950s anticipated many things that later became famous as happenings, land art (earth art) etc, or what about the performance artists of the 1970s? Most of them are still highly active, having developed their art further over the past 40 years, refining it, partially taking it in different directions, sometimes revising it (to cite only two examples of this: the painter Jo Baer switched from minimalism to figuration in the mid-1970s and the previous performance and video artist Vito Acconci has been dealing with architecture since the 1980s). In deliberating about how the Personal Structures project might further develop, it seemed logical and consequential to learn from the huge treasury of experience these older generations of artists dispose over. We wanted to know firsthand how artists who have already written art history, decisively expanding the definition of what art is, think today about the basic themes of time, space and existence. In selecting the artists it did not make sense to us to simply dutifully follow the old well-trodden paths of art history. Our concern was rather for the individual personalities, not for their belonging to certain styles, genres and groups.

Be that as it may, neither does this book merely present positions that have become established. Precisely the combination with younger artists seemed attractive, as have rediscoveries, such as the work of Erwin Thorn. It is our endeavor to show the greatest possible diversity of personalities, views, and perspectives, which have resulted before various cultural and personal backgrounds, and also from the various stages of life (the youngest artist in this book Xing Xin is now 28, the oldest artist, Louise Bourgeois, is 97 years old).

 

VII.

Subsequent to a lecture about the Time . Space . Existence project I presented on 17 December 2008 at the Sculpture Park Cologne, a gallery-owner I know asked me whether we used a standardized questionnaire for our conversations with the artists taking part and if, at the end, we would conduct a statistical analysis of the responses. At first, I was speechless, since this question brought up exactly the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish. The focus of this book is upon the individual, the personal, the mutuality of life experiences and the views towards time, space and existence tied to this. But there is no science about the individual, as Aristotle already knew.14 For this reason the book was not to become a scientific treatise, no book of theories, no art historical compendium, no evidence for any theses, nothing of a statistical analysis. Time, space and existence immediately pertain to life. And for this reason we wanted to discuss these themes in a lively manner, in a way open to different aspects, to interpretation and theory as well as to the anecdotal, polemical, to humor, philosophy, and the wisdom of life. In short, it was our dream to write a ‘Book of Encounters’. The concept of encounter, which the artist Lee Ufan placed central to his existence as an artist,15 seemed to us to provide the keyword for our book, because space, time and existence meet in the encounter, and in a way are brought into focus by it. It is no coincidence that the two most important media of our project, the symposium and the interview, are media of encounter.

Time, space and existence inevitably play a role when people encounter one another in order to enter into a conversation. Such an encounter with an artist takes place at a certain place, a certain time and under not completely foreseeable and not completely repeatable circumstances. The interview and symposium texts as well as the photographs are the lasting documentation of what takes place at such an event. Their particular value lies in the uniqueness of each encounter. That is why we were not concerned with making the individual contributions uniform. They were supposed to be individual, ‘colored’ by the peculiarities of each individual meeting, which already begins with the highly differing length of the texts and interviews. Length is no criterion for the value. The short sentences by Carl Andre (“short but sweet”, was how he put it) as answers to the questions I was allowed to ask him by way of exception, bear the same weight as the long discourses of a person like Toshikatsu Endo in this book.

 

VIII.

We may not refer to encounters as a means to bring time, space and existence into focus without saying a word or two about language and the languages we dealt with in producing this book. The way we form concepts, how we think, perceive, and feel has a considerable amount to do with the language at our disposal. In this book, people are represented who come from different languages and cultural backgrounds. All texts appear in English here, the main language of the globalized world, and also of the art business. Several of the texts appear additionally in the original language. It is inevitable that the problem of translation arises in this context. Basically, already the transcription of a conversation into written language is an act of translation. Of course, the texts must be revised, but it would not suit a book called Personal Structures: Time . Space . Existence if the articles collected here would have been reduced to talks taking place under ‘laboratory conditions’. An interview taking place under stressful conditions at the opening of the Biennale, such as was the case between Teresa Margolles and Karlyn De Jongh, will necessarily have a different character than one conducted in peace and quiet for hours between Gottfried Honegger and Sarah Gold. The person speaking in his native tongue will express himself differently than someone communicating in a foreign language. All this belongs to the nature of human communication and should be accepted as such. It is to be hoped that the reader, despite the translations, will nevertheless be able to detect what is special and unique in each of the respective encounters.

Especially my interviews with Lee Ufan taught me that it is not always possible to equate a concept on a one-to-one level in other languages. Not only the three basic themes of this book, but also apparently notions such as that of the body are fraught with highly different traditions of language and thought in Europe and Asia. The fact that this sometimes leads to mutual misunderstandings is no wonder, but it is also not to be lamented. It is very simply an impetus for continuing the dialogue.

 

IX.

I have referred to this book as a ‘Book of Encounters’. This applies not only to all who have contributed to its coming about, but also hopefully applies above all to the readers who may encounter numerous artists and works of art in texts and photographs. The many individual texts may be read in random sequence. It may be hoped that, in doing so, an effect will come into being such as we know from seeing an exhibition where works from different regions and epochs are presented alongside one another. New neighborhoods may be able to make visible heretofore-unnoticed characteristics of a work. That something comparable might happen in reading this book, that new things may show up in things that are known and familiar, and that in turn familiar things show up in the unknown, and that many red threads of unexpected correlations running through this book may be discovered, this is the hope with which I close my part of the work on this book. To all who have contributed to its realization, especially to Rene Rietmeyer, the ‘motor’ of this project, my sincerest and heartfelt thanks.

 

 

1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Malden, MA / Oxford / Victoria AUS 1962, p. 12.

2 Ibid., p. 17.

3 Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time. Translated by William McNeill, Oxford /Malden, MA 1992, pp. 21-22.

4 Ibid. p. 18.

5 Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären I. Blasen, Frankfurt a. M. 1996, p. 336.

6 Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären I - Blasen, Mikrosphärologie, Frankfurt a. M. 1998; Sphären II – Globen Makrosphärologie, Frankfurt a. M. 1999; Sphären III – Schäume, Plurale Sphärologie, Frankfurt a. M. 2004.

7 Being and Time, p. 111.

8 See, for example, Peter Sloterdijk, Zur Welt kommen—Zur Sprache kommen. Frankfurter Vorlesungen, Frankfurt a. M. 1988.

9 Peter Slopterdijk, Sphären III. Schäume, Frankfurt a. M. 2004, p. 24.

10 Being and Time, §§ 35-38.

11 Georg W. Bertram, Kunst. Eine philosophische Einführung, Stuttgart 2007, p. 45.

12 Peter Lodermeyer, Personal Structures. Works and Dialogues, New York 2003.

13 Johannes Meinhardt, Ende der Malerei und Malerei nach dem Ende der Malerei, Ostfildern-Ruit 1997, p. 9.

14 Aristotle, Met. III, 1003a.

15 Lee Ufan, The Art of Encounter, London 2004.