What does it mean that man is a machine? It means that he has no independent movements, inside or outside of himself. He is a machine which is brought into motion by external influences and external impacts. All his movements, actions, words, ideas, emotions, moods and thoughts are produced by external influences. By himself, he is just an automaton with a certain store of memories of previous experiences, and a certain amount of reserve energy. (P.D. Ouspensky)
“But it’s empty!” one might exclaim upon seeing a piano’s empty shell. A flip-flop image of something appears – something that the viewer can or must imbue with meaning. Is the emptiness not there to be filled?
Just like that, we have already begun to engage the questions of form and content that run through the conceptual painting of Ulrich Wulff. These issues appear on a metaphorical and fundamental level – in a way that is at once real and theatrical. The piano is a prop on a stage that is both real and imaginary – the stage of art. At the same time, it is that which has always been there – in saloons or bourgeois drawing rooms. Specifically, this piano promises a sound that, although not physically present, remains perpetually possible. Did not Beuys already show silent pianos?
The piano’s empty shell functions as a vehicle. It stand metonymically for the practice of “feeling-your-way-into-something.” Like a Trojan horse, it transports something that has to wait in its wooden cage before ultimately expressing itself and playing an active role in the world. In this way, the piano is turned inside-out to change the perspective, to present the flip side of things by moving beyond their natural divisions (a kaleidoscope of sorts).
But we are not there yet. We are only at the beginning. Things remain calm. Simply by being itself, the voluminous post-post-minimal potential-painting-object (painting machine) denies the pure surface its right to exist.
Closer to two-dimensionality are the two shiny black stripes that appear on the white wall. After the form-content discourse, they point to another quality of painting . They point to color, which seems to stretch between the poles of the deepest darkness (distance-from-light) and a neutral absence.
Here, we are talking about chromatics, the seductive richness of tones and their infinitely shimmering harmonies. In music, the chromatic scale makes this possible not only by admitting half-tones, but also by constantly crossing the only seemingly impenetrable boundary between harmony and dissonance – from Debussy to Skrjabin, to Klangfarbenmelodie in Schönberg, and the immediately following theory of quarter tones, until the final excesses of microtonality of the present day.
Before we digress completely, let us return to the coordinates of the current exhibition space, turned into an instrument by the monolithic keys of Ulrich Wulff’s parallel action. Is that right? No! After all, Wulff is not Terry Fox, who once installed piano strings in an exhibition space in order to make current conditions resonate. In Ulrich Wulff’s case, this could happen only in the realm of pure imagination. So is he like Beuys after all? No! It is only in the most general sense that Beuys and Fox (who, by the way, worked on a joint parallel action in 1970) can serve as references for the work of the painter Ulrich Wulff.
By providing photo documents in his exhibition, the painter himself has provided more obvious/immediate points of reference. These photo additions are the opposite of the “expansion-machine” of sound, insofar as they refer to what is close at hand, in the artist’s obvious neighborhood. When he looks out of his window in Berlin-Kreuzberg, what he sees are former factory buildings.
It was in the building in Oranienstraße 6, that Konrad Zuse, in the late phase of World War II, built the world’s first mass-produced computer- the so-called Z4. In the 1920s, the Freiburg-born inventor Engelbert Zaschka (who is also considered a pioneer of helicopter-production) used the same courtyard to built the Orionette, an especially lightweight motorcycle. Some of his other inventions, such as a foldable car one could take to one’s apartment if no parking spot was available, never made it into mass production.
In those paintings viewers encounter in the second room, Ulrich Wulff reflects the visionary, future-oriented potential of these inventors as well as humankind’s ill-boding entanglements with its own machine-creations in general. In two upright format canvasses, clowns appear – old acquaintances who have occasionally appeared in Wulff’s visual work since the turn of the millennium. The clown acts within a paradoxical setting: He does more than simply represent humankind by embodying one possible way for individuals to relate to the world. Instead, he is “true” man, a figure that wears a mask in order to reveal real, actual humanity. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that we occasionally encounter Ulrich Wulff’s clowns naked and stripped of their clothes.
This impulse to shed any concrete attachments can be read in the historical context of Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities. In that book, the protagonist (Ulrich) is not only embroiled in a historical parallel action, but also tries to maintain a “neutral” and “open” attitude towards the world – without harboring specific inclinations or aversions. This human possibility presents itself as a parallel action to the restlessness that characterizes a world made up of desires, needs and identifications. It is the precondition to reach the core of one’s self. To reach, or even perceive, this sphere, the obvious is insufficient. Other skills and senses have to be utilized. This is the claim embedded in the eyes of Wulff’s clowns, who maintain a formal parallel to the stripe-key-monoliths in the previous room. Man as a living model of biological functions is a central concern for the artist’s recent images. Indeed, technology has always been a core topos in his oeuvre. This interest is based on the acknowledgement that creativity can generally only express itself in a way that is analogous to human mechanical structure. Like technological inventions, the arts are externalized projections that are both curse and blessing in the world of clarity and use-value.
In Wulff’s new paintings, the human figure (the clown) is physically plugged into a piano-dummy-machine from which tubular protrusions extend beyond the picture frame and into other spheres. In other instances, we encounter clowns as angelic hybrid-beings. We bear witness as they scurry around architectures and auto bodies with window-like openings that recall the erratically majestic keys of other paintings.
Beyond such explicit connections, Wulff’s exhibition also asks whether art could ever dispense with the clown as witness and embodiment of the human-as-machine. Beyond the two paintings, the rear exhibition space contains two carefully oiled, wooden stretchers that have ceased to be image carriers and have started to be ‘themselves’ instead.
Empty and mechanically sprawling abundance are the coordinates and propulsive forces in a world and present that haunts us – because we do not know if this abundance contains actual life. We do not know whether or not the emptiness surrounding us could not eventually turn back into meaning.
The homo sapiens machine emerges as an important pre-condition for what humans could actually be – but for that, he would first have to cease being a machine.
Thomas Grötz (Translation by Gregor Quack)