Between Abstraction and Thing-Aesthetics: The Object in Avant-Garde Art

Workshop, “The Disclaimed Object — Skepticism on the Artifact of the Russian Avant-Garde Between Abstraction and Things-Aesthetics” (17th and 18th of November 2006, Freie Universität Berlin).

The workshop investigated the different meanings of the terms “object” (predmet / Gegenstand) and “thing” (vešč’) in avant-garde art. According to the organizers, the difference between “object” and “thing” has an anthropological dimension, requiring the presence of the subject.

Summaries of Workshop Contributions

In his lecture “The Life of Things: Italian and Russian Futurism,” Hans Günther discussed the interrelationship of science and technology, as well as the perception of things. One interesting difference that Günther noted between the two forms of Futurism was that the Italians were merely excited by technological evolution and fascinated by motion and speed, while the Russian Futurists were more skeptical about technology and felt threatened by the dominion over people that things have in big cities. Concerning anthropology, Günther concluded that a parallel can be seen, for example, in the creation of a mechanical human being with replaceable parts, as in Marinetti’s novel Mafarka le futuriste from 1909 (“Mafarka the Futurist”) and the kinoglaz (“film eye”) of Dziga Vertov. In both cases, the artist tries to compensate for the imperfections of human beings by adding technical devices in order to supplement the capabilities of the human form.

The utopian wish to perfect the human being by using new technological possibilities had parallels in the official art and utopian propaganda of the newly established Soviet Union. In his speech “The Death and Resurrection of Things,” Hubertus Gaßner pointed out that, for this, the human body was used as a “thing” in living sculptures, which were shown to promote sporting events in Red Square in Moscow.

According to Julia Kursell’s “Stravinsky at the Piano,” the composer Stravinsky was not interested in the technical processes of motion as a subject of his works (unlike some of his contemporaries), but rather in the body of the pianist during the performance. Stravinsky preferred to compose according to the physical connection between the pianist and the piano, and his pieces test the edge of the motor functions of the human body.

In his lecture “Object – Thing – Abstraction – Thing-aesthetics – No-thing: from Realism to Conceptualism,” Aage Hansen-Löve showed different states of the interrelationships between objects/things and man. To Hansen-Löve, several states of these interrelationships are linked to different terms mentioned in the title, with changing perspectives concerning the role of activity or passivity.

“The Freed Thing in Conflict with the Objectified Consciousness” (Igor’ Čubarov) juxtaposed the Marxist term “estrangement” (otcuždenie / Entfremdung) with the formalistic device of “alienation” (ostranenie / Verfremdung).

In his lecture “Administration of Things and Collision of Objects,” Ilja Kukuj spoke about the approach by the “OBĖRIU” and “Činari” groups to the terms “thing” (vešč’) and “object” (predmet) in the late Avant-Garde. He stressed that these terms were not used in a consistent way and noted that it is interesting that words and language were seen by these groups as instruments to describe things or objects, as well as “objects” or “things” themselves.

According to Anke Hennig’s talk entitled “Don’t Do Anything! The Thing Between Immaterialized Setting and Non-objective Performance,” the “Ničevoki” group (Nothingers) replaced in a Dadaistic way the artwork in 1920 in their manifesto “Dekret o ničevokach poëzii” (“Decree about the Poetics of the Ničevoki”) with abstract and non-objective performance by proclaiming: “Don’t write! Don’t read! Don’t speak! Don’t print!” Another example illustrating the tendency of the materialistic disappearance of the artifact is the projectionism of Solomon Nikritin, who wanted to criticize constructivism. In his “Manifesto of Projectionism” Nikritin conceptualises his artworks as projections. Performing the production of the thing in the projectonistic theater, which can be interpreted as idealistic and materialistic simultaneously, Nikritin denies the difference between “thing” and “object,” as postulated by Špet.

In a talk entitled “Ecstasies of the Thing – Thoughts about Sergej Ėjsenštejns ‘General’naja linija’” Wolfgang Beilenhoff showed and discussed a sequence of the film The General Line (General’naja linija) by Ėjsenštejn – a striking example of a thing influencing man. The peasant population and the thing – here the butter-making separator – are juxtaposed. While the people are immobile and instead only looking at the butter maker, the motion of the buttermaker gets faster and faster until the act of looking is transformed into an ecstasy of abstraction.

The connection between biography and object was discussed by Brigitte Obermayr (“The Object of Biography. The Example of Vasilij Kamenskij”). The genre of biography, as well as the genre of portrait, function simultaneously as both artworks and historic facts. Therefore the relation of these to the human being is very special. Because of their fictive and factual character these genres are useful tools for an analysis of the ambitions of art and society to reach new spheres. Consistently the biography and autobiography of the poet Vasilij Kamenskij “Ego – moja biografija velikogo futurista” (“His – My Biography of the Great Futurist”) was discussed between the phenomenological approach on the one hand and that of the futuristic “literatura facta” (literature of fact) on the other.

In his lecture “From Artwork to Thing: At the Example of the Constructivist Aleksej Čičerin,” Rainer Grübel pointed out the position of the constructivist Čičerin who, like many other artists and poets, wanted to accomplish an ambitious expansion of social determinism. If the constructivists had built the tower of Babel, they would have reached heaven.

Michael Wetzel spoke about “The Thing of the Photography: Pictures Without Objects.” Referring to Heidegger and Derrida, Wetzel dealt with the difference between the object before it is shot by the camera (as Zuhandenheit) and after it is transformed in several steps of developing until its final existence as a photo (as Vorhandenheit).

In his talk “The Object as Paradigm and Perspective of Aesthetic and Social Production: Lissitzkys/Ėrenburgs Journal ‘Gegenstand’ and the Term Object in the American Avant garde,” Gregor Stemmrich compared American minimalism and Russian constructivism and focused on the importance of the museum as a space where artwork and viewer find themselves in a special situation, outside of everyday life. While looking at the (minimalistic) artwork the visitor gets in touch with himself. Carl André, for example, does not want to have a scientific view of the present and a poetic view of a utopian future – like the constructivists did – but rather a poetic view of the present and a scientific view of the future. In spite of this, Stemmrich suggested that there are many similarities between minimalism and constructivism. Nevertheless, the proclaimed aim of the minimalists is different from that of the Russian constructivists.

Georg Witte (“The Violability of Things”) discussed three different types of things: “Reliquien” (the thing as holy object, which represents the holy), “Relikte” (the thing as one index of the traces of humans), and “Reste” (the ancient things that are left behind). Each of these things symbolizes a specific relation of humans to things, which is seen in the way the things are “wounded,” since to destroy the holy object is to destroy the significant. Humans leave their marks in everyday life. These marks or “wounds” on the surface of a thing (the index) tell us something about the past. When the thing is at rest or thrown away or left behind it is wounded in functionality.

Michael Lüthy spoke about “Warhol’s Disaster Series: The Disclaiming as Picture Form.” Each diptych in the series consists of two parts; one shows an emergency that has taken place that is seen now after a process of transformation in an alienated way. The other part is forever in progress; it has been prepared to be printed on but it remains blank. Hence, according to Lüthy, the printed part disclaims the mimetic function because the image was manipulated during the transformation. The blank disclaims the function of a picture to show something, because nothing is printed on it. Presented side by side, both parts participate in affirming and negating each another. In this expression of serial repeatability, Lüthy argues, object and human being share a fate of violability on the diptychs to the real emergency that has occurred.

Workshop participants: Wolfgang Beilenhoff (Film Critic, Bochum), Igor’ Čubarov (Philosopher, Berlin/Moscow), Hubertus Gaßner (Art Historian, Hamburg), Rainer Grübel (Slavist, Oldenburg), Hans Günther (Slavist, Bielefeld), Aage Hansen-Löve (Slavist, München/Wien), Anke Hennig (Slavist, Berlin), Ilja Kukuj (Slavist, München), Julia Kursell (Slavist, Berlin), Michael Lüthy (Art Historian, Berlin), Brigitte Obermayr (Slavist, Berlin), Gregor Stemmrich (Art Historian, Dresden), Georg Witte (Slavist, Berlin) und Michael Wetzel (Linguist/Philosopher, Bonn).

Organization: Anke Hennig & Georg Witte / CRC 626