Zeller van Almsick, Vienna (AT)

29.11.2017 – 14.01.2018

Zeller van Almsick

In his sculptures and video works, Kay Walkowiak uses formal languages and theoretical concepts deposited in cultural and intellectual history, which they subtly dialogize and confront, revealing them as cultural constructions. The point of departure for his current exhibition is Minimal Art, whose specific objects, drawing on basic geometric forms, seem to determine the orientation that Walkowiak's sculpture group is taking. The title itself underlines this connection to Minimal Art. It also contains a reference to the critique formulated by Michael Friend in his fundamental essay Art and Objecthood. In said essay, Fried criticized the explicit emphasis on "objecthood" in Minimal Art artworks, which no longer sought to negate it through form, but explicitly placed it at the center of their integrative concept of art, thus initiating a completely new mode of experiencing art. Less than mirrors of the expression of the artistic idea, or of the essence of art, the specific objects defined themselves primarily in terms of properties outside themselves. They were explicitly understood as part of an "extended situation" that included sculpture, the surrounding space and the viewer, and demanded less than contemplative immersion, the physical participation of the latter. It is precisely this relation of the work of art to the human body that Walkowiak underlines in his interest in the experience of art resulting from the subject-object relationship, when he covers his sculptures with raw linen fabric. This formal decision cannot be read merely as a commentary on the objects of Minimal Art, which deliberately position themselves outside the genre boundaries of painting and sculpture. Rather, it lends his works a haptic quality that entices a tactile gaze that activates one's own bodily sensibility in their contemplation.

Extensions attached to the objects - like phallus-like forms on chains - seem to "bind" the viewer's body even more explicitly to the artwork. They lead to an interlocking of the visual sensation of pleasure with the imagination of bodily experiential values ranging from desire to aversion, giving the sculptures the function of projection screens. Kay Walkowiak's works may thus be read as a commentary on the fetish character of the artwork in contemporary consumer society. Beyond this, however, the strong emphasis on bodily sensation in their contemplation - especially in the context of the reference to Minimal Art - also suggests a phenomenological perspective. The artists of Minimal Art found inspiration for the idea that the body and its experience play a decisive role in shaping the consciousness of the work of art in the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty founded his philosophy away from the idea of the autonomous, thinking subject and turned to the human body, which he understood as the decisive mediator between humans and the world, since it is both a perceptible exterior and a perceptible interior. According to Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological body enables a form of pre-reflexive experience of the world that resembles a sensual approach to reality, in which being and consciousness coincide and the distance between the ego and the world is abolished. In the stimulation of precisely this pre-reflexive horizon of experience, which shakes the Western dualism of body and mind as well as subject and object, the decisive moment of the "specific objecthood" of Walkowiak's sculptures can be identified. The sensations triggered by them are no longer, as Merleau-Ponty put it in his Phenomenology of Perception, "invasion of the sensuous into the sensing," but a "pairing" (accouplement) of the gaze with the seen, of the body with things. It is precisely this moment of "pairing" that is the subject of Walkowiak's filmic work Wonderland, in addition to the sculptures. On a metaphorical level, this work addresses the connection of the body with things in images of a direct (sexual) contact between the persons depicted and the sculptures presented in the exhibition.

In one of the first scenes of Wonderland, which shows one of the main actresses floating in the water of a swimming pool and completely concentrated on her inner sensation, one already feels transported into the state of prereflexive perception described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty as "drawing" from the "sea of raw sense", in which being and consciousness coincide via the middle function of the human body, and the distance between the ego and the world seems to be suspended. The emphasis on a phenomenological understanding of corporeality is maintained in the subsequent scenes of the video work. It is no coincidence that these are situated in the rooms of the Villa Beer, designed by the architect Josef Frank. For, contrary to the purist, formalist logic of architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Frank was convinced that not the rational but the organic form resulting from the correlation to the human body should carry the planning of architecture in order to generate a space of human experience. Kay Walkowiak makes use of Frank's organic language of form oriented to the human body to emphasize architecture itself as a metaphor for the phenomenological body as permeable boundaries between the inside and the outside. He achieves this, for example, by focussing on the villa's window fronts, which - in almost all scenes - give the surrounding nature a presence in the interior spaces, while cast shadows underscore the direct indexical contact between the interior and exterior spaces.

Kay Walkowiak's video work can thus be read as an attempt to visualize the bodily experience of the outside world, which simultaneously functions as a metaphor for the mental physionomy of the human being. This becomes even more evident in those scenes that show the depicted persons interacting with the sculptural objects. The articulation of a phenomenologically shaped form of perception of reality, which undermines the subject-object separation of Western coinage, experiences an additional radicalization here through the allegorical translation of the Buddhist doctrine of perception. For the philosophy of Buddhism does not know any construction of a subject in the Western sense, which is positioned as a neutral observer in relation to the world. The ability of thinking, the fundamental grounding of man as a subject in the cartesian sense of cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am"), is fundamentally foreign to Buddhism. In Buddhism, thinking is comparable to the eye: only one of six sense organs that function as direct gateways to the world. Human consciousness is also not a transcendental quantity but a stream of reflexes resulting from the stimulation of the sense organs - understood as direct sense contact between the respective sense organ and the perceived object. Consciousness is thus only one of several empirical factors (skandha), thatp defines the respective person and is fundamentally dependent on the sense contact, which triggers conscious or unconscious sensations of pleasure and displeasure. These directly affect the views of what is perceived, felt, as well as thought, and result in the "thirst" (tṛṣṇā), the desire that chains people to the objects of the sensible world. Accordingly, the depicted persons and object in the individual scenes of the video work are not distanced from one another but are always seen in a relationship of direct physical contact. They thus function as personalizations of the complex Buddhist notion of perception - quite comparable to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's mode of prereflexive experience - in which subject and object are not separate entities but mutually dependent quantities. In the depiction of their object reference, which is directly related to sensations and the "thirst", Walkowiak, however, also follows a mode that is based on the psychoanalytic theory of a libidinous object occupation, which is decisively driven by the two main human drives of Eros and Thanatos.

This interrelationship of desire and lust as well as aversion and destructiveness, which chains the depicted persons - quite literally - to the sculptures appearing as actors in the video work, characterizes the individual scenes. This applies whether the scene is that of a man aggressively hitting a punching bag, or of a woman in lustful, direct sexual contact with an object she directs by means of a pulley. Even in the scene showing a man copulating with a cube-shaped object, caressing it in a demanding and almost tender manner, a moment of aggression is revealed alongside the lust when the open belt buckle is hitting against the object. The end point of the video - in accordance with the Buddhist understanding that perception is a cyclical process rather than a causally conditioned event - is a return to the introductory scene with the woman in the pool. Awakening from her trance-like state, she rises from the pool and moves into the interior of the house, where she circles an object with a centrally placed phallic form before lustfully settling down on it. As she becomes herself part of the sculpture, the vision of this most explicit union of subject and object can be understood, both in Buddhist and in phenomenological terms, as the "mating" of the perceiving/observing subject with the observed object.

The video work Wonderland is carried by the musical score, which orchestrates the editing and the change of scenes and, thus, stresses that the work is not meant to reproduce an external reality, distanced from the subject, but to explain physical  as well as mental horizons of experience. The choice of the piece of music - the aria Agnus Dei from Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor, in which forgiveness of sins is asked for - can, however, also be read as a subtle, thoroughly ironic reference to Michael Fried's essay Art and Objecthood  mentioned earlier. For Fried concludes his essay by resorting to a religious term implying strongly that - contrary to Minimal Art - the experience of art he refers to, transcending corporeality and objecthood, places the viewer in a state of "grace". To counter the use of such term, Kay Walkowiak relies on the aria Agnus Dei as well as on the "specific objecthood" of his works, and, in contrast, invites us to question the principle of Western body-soul dualism that underlies Fried's theory.

Text: Stephanie Damianitsch (Leopold Museum), Vienna 2017 
Photos: (c) Matthias Bildstein

︎ Archive Exhibitions