«No god, no hero, us»
The Relation of Goethes drama «Faust» to Stephan Balkenhol’s visual artwork «Sempre piú»
An Approach by Thomas Oberender
Gudrun Weinzierl: Balkenhol’s torso Sempre piú (which, prior to coming to Salzburg, was at the Forum Cæsaris in Rome, surrounded by a sea of coun- terfeit money) broaches the aspects of the ‘Faustian man’. The torso refers to supratemporality and ‘Never enough’ is not limited solely to material greed.
Thomas Oberender: What is remarkable about Balkenhol’s colossal torso is that it does not make an overpowering, but a gentle impression and seems strangely different depending on the perspective it is observed from. It was fash- ioned from a single cedar log. Balkenhol placed it at the Forum Cæsaris, surround- ed by metal discs representing oversized coins, with the note that this was once ‘the Wall Street of antiquity’. But what Balkenhol shows is first a young man free of any narrative gesture whatsoever. He is an eye-catcher and draws our glances. And there is no doubt that he transforms the space that surrounds him in a stage, the auratic centre of which he represents.
GW: A line in Faust reads: ‘We have life in the colourful reflection’ – in the arts, this colourful area is represented by painting and sculpting. The colourful- ness is the area between light and dark- ness (symbolic for heaven and hell). In the 20th century, in particular, light has attained outstanding significance. The thematisation and emergence of light was originally attributed to divine crea- tion. Faust neither believes in God nor the devil – nevertheless, he strives for a divine instrument with light.
TO: The sentence about the ‘colourful reflection’ is reminiscent of another image – Plato’s cave allegory. Faust wants to liberate himself from this shad- ow realm – and travel into the light. At first, this has nothing to do with God or the devil, but with his dissatisfaction after realising that he only experiences life as a reflection, defined by his own reason. He sees that knowledge itself lacks a deci- sive dimension, so he demands the opposite – magic, rudiments, darkness, love. This duality defines German Classicism: light and darkness, intellect and sensuality, art and reality, freedom and constraint – it is from this conflict and the interaction between these two contrary experiences that the contour of man emerges. It is not just about becoming light, but also about encountering darkness; in the end encountering death. For Faust, it becomes ‘cosily light, like when moonshine surrounds us in the forest at night’ – when he takes the vial of poison in his hands. He plays with this drug: ‘A new day entices to new shores!’ – that is the seduction that speaks from the poison, and Mephisto completes Faust’s world of experience and makes him a full, and guilty man. The magical rituals, the potions and Satan that Faust leaves the reflection with on a quest for reality are initiation rites. It Is but a small step from here to Balkenhol’s figures.
GW: Are his figures not the absolute opposite? Resting figures, distant from any type of ecstasy?
TO: Maybe that is what characterises sculpting – everything passes, living nature is a fragile form. A sculptor, on the other hand, moulds forms that are similar to life from inanimate matter and thus, metaphorically speaking, liberates them from their mortality. What makes Balkenhol’s sculptures unique is surely this tranquillity you are talking about, which the sculptures emanate. In the end, we encounter them as mute mes- sengers from a dream realm. We do not catch one of their glances, but they have a glance. They introduce us into the world that they see, so to say, the ferrymen on a trip away from here. That is their mission, so they are immobile and weighty. If we also observe the vitality that they emanate, their healthy strength and sov- ereignty, there are similarities to Charon, the ferryman of Hades, to whom one paid a contribution, the coin that plays a role in Balkenhol’s works again and again. In Sempre piú, too. In the taut bodies of these people at the pinnacle of their strength and in the prime of their lives, an invitation is extended to us to accompany them: Where? Where it compels Faust to go. Away from the world of reflection, which is only possible in alliance with and accompanied by those other powers that lead us over the border. And make us look towards the fire.
GW: Another theme of the visual arts is the artificial figure (e.g. Evan Penny or Duan Hanson) – with Faust, homunculus. Do you see a connection to Balkenhol’s sculptures?
TO: It is one of the oldest myths of the visual arts that not only a living sculpture emerges, but also something that is alive. Think about Pygmalion, whose lifelike ivory sculpture of a woman came to life with the help of the gods. Or the legend of the Golem, who was made of clay and brought to life by magic, but does not make it to creation and remains mute. Faust’s homunculus is a creature that also shines in his creation after the death of Goethe, something that was created by art and lives independently. In other words, the fulfilment of Pygmalion’s dream, except that it is now science that takes the place of the gods in founding this little, fragile life. It was during Goethe’s lifetime that urea synthesis allowed scientists to transform inorganic matter into organic matter for the first time. In the meantime, we have progressed – nowadays human ears grow on the backs of laboratory mice and pigs produce human livers. If you think about Duan Hanson, his figures are actually a kind of aesthetically perfected mimesis of the human form. His sculptures are often a montage of various ‘donation models’ – the face is the cast of one person’s head, while the hands, legs and arms stem from another. Hanson assembles his strikingly realistic-looking figures like a modern-day Frankenstein. Nevertheless, Hanson’s sculptures make a ‘lifelike’ impression by means of their paint, pos- ture and clothing, which is the exact opposite of Balkenhol’s works. The perfect homunculus’ lively and lifelike figure makes us forget about his being artificial – something that Hanson’s figures, also those of Evan Penny or John de Andrea, provoke by means of the perfect mimesis of human bodies on the one hand, but also avoid due to the slightly larger or smaller size of the figures on the other. Balkenhol’s process is different, since he is never interested in Pygmalion’s dream: Balkenhol allows the block of wood the figure was made of to remain evident as a base or rest. His sculptures often overtly show the traces of their creation, marks from being carved and sawed, and in this sense they stand their ground. It is clear that they are cut and carved from wood, but at the same time they possess a warm figurativeness, which is how the image of our enraptured con- temporary touches us. No, Sempre piú is actually no contemporary; that is what is special. And, nevertheless, one of us, no god, no hero, us.
GW: Faust imagines so much and makes so many images appear before our eyes. What, in your eyes, is especially remark- able about the connection ‘Faust and visual ar ts’?
TO: What currently makes the visual arts so immensely strong is the fact that they have become a type of meta art form. Essentially, they radicalise two levels of reflection – their relation to space, which determines their essence, and their criticism of institutions and the associated ideologies, thus of power relations. Their reaction is, for instance, conceptual art’s refusal of objects or the idea of a social work of art, which goes beyond museums and the conventional art term. All of these are trends that lead to the visual arts’ superior intermediality. They engulf everything that deals with space: sound, motion and reflection. And they are therefore limitlessly adaptive to areas like performance, dance, music and discourse. Goethe achieved something similar with Faust: Ranging from a Medieval work, a folk song and a stamp to worlds of images, mythologies, gods and science – it is a meta work, something that corresponds closely to the synaesthetical character of theatre and still pushes it to its limits in a manner that is still fantastic today.