‘gaping and gawping’
Gaze meets gaze: out of the network of colors and shapes that resolve here and there into tubes, seaweed-green stalagmites, coral-red berries or lilac streptococci, eyes suddenly appear. Mesmerized by these gaping eyes, you descry in the canvases – the vehicles of the image – the platter of St Lucy upon which she offers us her own two eyes. According to the legend that has attached itself to Lucy of Syracuse, she tore out her eyes because her betrothed would never stop praising her beauty even though she herself had sworn a vow of chastity. Or alternatively you see the eyes of Medusa fighting their way to the outside world through her serpent locks. True, the spiders, earthworms, snakes, lizards and scorpions are not defined in every detail as they might be in a picture by Peter Paul Rubens – and yet our inner eye precisely paints their image. Eyes unfailingly answer your gaze, and blur the border between viewer and viewed.
The spherical eyeball has escaped from its protective socket, has separated off from the rest of the body, and stands here on its own behalf, and yet at the same time – in its capacity as the central organ of the human body – on behalf of the entire human self. Ever since antiquity the question has been asked as to which of the five senses is the most noble, most active, most ideal, most objective. It has generally been the eye that has been accorded supremacy over the other senses. It is the window to the soul and at the same time its mirror; it is the ‘lux corporis’; our two eyes are the ‘lamps that illumine our body’. The eye is regarded as the symbol of intellectual intuition, of wisdom, of omniscience. Its magnetic power lies in the fact that it can mirror both man from within and the world from without.
In the work of Wolfgang Ellenrieder we do not encounter the eye – as we do in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer or Michelangelo – as the instrument of an ordering intelligence, and as a mirror held up to individual and universal experience, be it expressed in terms of dispassionate scholarly critique or of lyrical exaltation. The eye does not become – as it does for Redon – the vehicle of subjective-romantic obsession; nor does it become – as it does for Magritte – the ironic and perplexing image of emptiness. Ellenrieder equips his canvas with this particular sense organ in order that it be watcher as well as watched. You feel yourself to be constantly under observation; the eyes follow you through the room, they check your clothes, your hair-style, your hair color, your shoes, the length of your stay. They form their own opinion. Like eyes on a screen they appear to move to left or right depending on where you yourself go. At the same time, however, Ellenrieder’s titles – Marbles, Spheres and such like – serve to turn the observer’s sense of being observed into a ludicrous delusion, into a response thoroughly typical of a society in which we feel that critical eyes are constantly upon us.
The theme here is: see and be seen, observe and be observed, watch and be watched, analyze and be analyzed, notice and be noticed. We are given a reminder of the dependence of the picture on the sheer act of seeing, a reminder of the link between art and subjective perception. The less clear-cut the works are, the more the observer engages his imagination and the more he gives rein to his stream of associations. Wolfgang Ellenrieder operates in the realm of the indistinct and the out-of-focus, for “if by means of our senses even the faintest echo of a memory is offered to our mind, it is at once set in motion, and does not rest until it has recalled every detail connected with it. Therefore if our senses, which are as it were the gateway to our mind, perceive even the smallest particle of anything whatsoever, and communicate this to our mind, then the mind will take in this single particle, and will itself supply whatever is missing.” (after Maximus Tyrius, quoted in Franciscus Junius, The Painting of the Ancients).
The pleasure of looking and the sensation of shame belong closely together. If looking is forbidden, our pleasure is the greater. If someone catches us looking, then we look away. Often, however, it is our own imagination that in effect ‘paints’ pictures we regard as taboo. Thus in the case of some of the works in Ellenrieder’s body check series, we think we see bare skin glinting amongst blades of grass. Skin being the locus of physical contact and erotic encounters, we immediately think of legs, perhaps even of legs entwined with one another in a passionate embrace. In our thoughts we wander at once to the banks of a deserted, romantic lake, the trysting place of a pair of lovers. But then again – so we wonder as we suddenly pause – is this perhaps a piece of pornography, or a scenario heavily steeped in violence? Perhaps others again might also see in it an allusion to Marcel Duchamp‘s work “Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage”? In this piece Duchamp uses crass realism to show us, behind a locked wooden door, a naked woman lying on the grass with her legs spread apart. What the beholder gets to see is deeply perplexing despite its absolute clarity. In order to catch sight of the recumbent woman, he is forced to look through the tiny peep-hole. Her head is invisible. The viewer becomes a voyeur; and yet it is not so much the woman that unmasks and shames him, but rather the person that stands behind him in the queue and asks him “What can you see?”
In the body check works it is the beholder who reveals himself to be a voyeur. The artist washes his hands in innocence, and thrusts upon the beholder the role of foul-minded fantasist. For when you take a second look you discover that the naked legs are actually small sausages tumbling about in the grass. Ellenrieder has managed once again to deceive the viewer, to lead his imagination astray, to steer his associations in a particular direction, and then to give him a nasty jolt with banal objects. Anyone seeing the sausages – their form and surface, and the whole manner in which they are treated within the picture – cannot possibly avoid erotic associations. Given the perspective in which they are shown, even the most chaste of beholders cannot help feeling that they are approaching them in a sneaky, even slimy sort of way.
In both series of pictures the artist deploys surrogates of the human body and thereby produces the effect that the gaze of the beholder, stimulated by these surrogates, spontaneously generates analogies – an essential prerequisite of seeing with truly open eyes ever since the days of André Breton:“I say that the eye is not properly open so long as it is content to play the passive role of a mirror. ... Truly, the eye cannot in the last instance have been created simply in order to take stock, like the eye of the auctioneer, nor in order to flirt with the illusions of false knowledge, like the eye of the madman. It was created in order to throw a lifeline, to create an electric link that connects together the most diverse things. Such a link, possessed of the greatest imaginable conductivity, should enable us, within the shortest possible time and without any obvious continuity, to discover the relationships that exist thanks to the interconnectedness of innumerable physical and spiritual structures. ... The key to our mental prison can only be discovered by breaking once and for all with this ludicrous epistemology. The key lies in the free and unrestrained play of analogy.”
Nude study, love scene, or pornography? – We go blundering into the trap that Ellenrieder has set for us. He laughs and shrugs off all responsibility. With slightly red cheeks – unmasked as voyeurs in our own eyes – we go skulking off to look at another picture. So what do we have here, then, marbles or eyes? We abandon our efforts to constantly monitor our own associations; it is better to let ourselves drift with the tide.
Stephanie Rosenthal in
›Wolfgang Ellenrieder – surrogate‹,
KunstRaum Drochtersen-Hüll, 2000