UNHEIMLICH HEIMLICH, Simone Scholten, 2014
`Now! Now!' cried the Queen. `Faster! Faster!' And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy . . . Alice looked round her in great surprise. `Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!' `Of course it is,' said the Queen, ‘. . . here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871)
Running to Stand Still – Stefan Kürten has chosen this paradoxical phrase as the title for the companion publication to his exhibition at the Galerie der Stadt Backnang, which provides a comprehensive look at his work in recent years. At the same time it is also the title of his latest large painting. Made popular around the world in the late nineteen-eighties in a ballad by the Irish band U2, the song of the same name deals with the dreary situation faced by inhabitants of the faceless high-rise blocks known as the Seven Towers in Dublin—the precarious reality of a life determined by poverty and drugs. The eponymous phrase, however, originally comes from Lewis Carroll’s successful children’s novel, Alice Through the Looking Glass.
When, on a chilly November day, young Alice’s eye falls on the mirror hanging over the living room mantelpiece, the girl begins to wonder what the world behind it might look like. As she approaches the reflective surface, she realizes that she can actually go through the glass, and she finds herself in a mirror-image version of her own house; the furnishings in it, though, have come to life. After exploring the house she winds up in the garden of talking flowers, which is laid out like a huge chessboard. There, she meets the Red Queen, who wants to introduce the girl to the rules of the game. After making a few moves, the queen grabs her hand and begins to run at a breathtaking speed, although she never actually moves from the same spot. When Alice remarks that all of that effort is not worth it, if you never arrive anywhere, the queen merely replies disdainfully that Alice must come from a very slow country. In Looking-Glass land, on the other hand, one has to make an effort and run twice as fast in order to get somewhere else.
In this episode, Lewis Carroll seems to anticipate the reality of life in the modern city, with its constant commands to go “higher, faster, farther!”It does no good to increase the tempo when running on a hamster wheel, since one will never get anywhere, anyway; rather, on the contrary, as the speed increases, one is forced to permanently maintain the pace so as not to lose one’s footing. In the same way, people seem to be constantly hurrying to catch up with their own expectations, as well as others’ expectations of them. For quite a while this fundamental feeling has not been limited simply to professional life, but has long since colored people’s personal lives. It especially leaves its mark on the domestic sphere by turning the home into a symbol for personal hopes and dreams.
Stefan Kürten has consistently devoted himself to the thematic complex of private life for many years: suburban bungalows and their gardens, with their carefully calculated pathways, lushly planted flower beds, and well-proportioned swimming pools; walled brick villas in idyllic surroundings; and unspectacular rental houses on the faceless access roads of our cities are the themes of his paintings.The need for protection and shelter has determined the history of humankind ever since the beginning. Long before people ceased wandering in order to settle down, they looked for ways to protect themselves from the rigors of nature or from wild animal attacks. And soon after people settled, they began erecting durable, elaborate housing that made it possible for inhabitants to think more and more about how to lay out their living space, as well as how to furnish it. Early on, the significance of the private house went far beyond its function as purely pragmatic shelter. Instead, it is more like a kind of vessel that offers us a chance to retreat; it protects us, yet at the same time offers us various opportunities to unfold ourselves. Thus, the house or dwelling developed into a very intimate place, which the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard poetically describes as “our corner of the world,” a “real cosmos in every sense of the word.”1
With all of the emotional significance given to the private retreat space, it is no wonder that dwellings seem to turn all by themselves into projection surfaces for personal dreams and notions of happiness. “The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace . . . It [the house] maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul.”2
And so people will go to any lengths, spend any amount, to come as close as possible to their own very personal dream of happiness. They can spend years searching for the perfect, private idyll, finding the right building site and the appropriate architect for their long-awaited dream house, consuming weekend after weekend in big-box hardware stores, kitchen design studios, and interior décor shops, only to ultimately decide they have not found the right thing yet.
Stefan Kürten deals precisely with this longing for a private refuge. Almost always, his works feature isolated buildings surrounded by strictly designed gardens or a wild, natural setting, guiding the viewer’s gaze to the sole piece of architecture. Consistently avoiding the depiction of people dwelling in the house or nearby, he lends his motifs the greatest possible sense of neutrality. Kürten uses this to draw the audience’s attention to his works, to lure them into his pictorial spaces, as it were. He is not interested in telling stories or taking the viewer in a particular direction. Rather, the paintings’ charm lies in the fact that viewers make their own associations, create their own stories. Thus, the intention is not to depict reality, but to evoke an idea of reality that offers each viewer the opportunity to imagine him- or herself in the picture, to get lost inside of it.
Kürten finds the subjects for his photographs on his travels, or in his immediate environment, in books and magazines. They are artificial, carefully composed constructs made up of diverse props and set pieces, which awaken in viewers the feeling that they have already seen this architecture and these places, even though they do not exist as such in reality.
ON SECOND GLANCE
If one accepts Kürten’s invitation to immerse oneself in his pictorial worlds, one arrives fairly soon at a point where the eye is caught at a predetermined breaking point where the viewer begins to doubt, inevitably wondering if everything shown on the canvas is really as it seems. And then one realizes that this strange shadow, this blatantly obvious reflection, or this light, diffuse coloring of the sky could not possibly exist. What at first glance looks like a photorealist reproduction of a real situation is often made up of abstract, ornamental elements....-
-...a film made at the same time as the painting Where the Sun never goes down is a kind of “making of” that documents the months-long process of creating a painting. The filmed sequences of thousands of single shots—each one taken after a few brushstrokes have been completed—allows viewers to immerse themselves in the artist’s work methods.
Kürten begins with a canvas covered with a ground made of various layers of gold paint. A preliminary sepia ink drawing is done on this smooth ground. It is already so detailed and three-dimensional that the painting would “work” even in this state, since it recalls, for example, an enameled Japanese screen. But it is the glazed acrylic paint—which the artist has been using exclusively since 2009—that first perfects the painting’s general effect. In combination with the cleverly thought out lights and shadows it lends the painting its mysterious, overall effect. In the multiphase process of painting, Kürten immerses the compositions in an outlandish atmosphere of light. One cannot decide if it is a nighttime or daytime scene, or if perhaps a thunderstorm is about to occur. One will search in vain for a clearly identifiable source of light.
Against the shimmering golden ground the colors often taken on a slightly faded, soft aesthetic that recalls photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, lending the paintings a historical, documentary appearance. Furthermore, Kürten also often works very deliberately with shifts in color, which, at first glance, convey the impression that the painting may be based on a photographic negative. Here, however, the artist intentionally does not rely on real color transparencies, but rather on shifts in tones: a clever trick to make a large, faceless office look like a lushly planted greenhouse...-
-...it is consistently fascinating how the paintings, thanks to their metallic ground, look completely different, depending on the viewpoint of the observer and the light conditions of the space. One moment the motifs are brilliantly colored, and their depth of field creates an impressive vortex, and the next moment they disappear in a flat, diffuse fog of color.
Over the years Kürten has apparently come ever closer to the private microcosm known as the home. Looking at the earlier works of individual pieces of architecture from at least a relative distance, one notes that his more recent works zoom in closer to the motifs. More and more frequently one sees only sections of façades and gardens; bushes, fences, or surrounding walls, on the other hand, appear only rarely.
What is most noticeable, though, is the artist’s intensive work with interior spaces. In the earlier works of art, the viewer’s gaze regularly collided with the window panes, but in the new works, there are many views of interiors, as well as views from inside looking out toward the surrounding garden landscapes. Like the young heroine Alice, Kürten also seems to want to know what is behind the reflective glass surfaces. From behind the façades something flashes, making the viewer curious to find out what might be concealed behind them. A stillness and sense of loneliness spreads through the rooms, creating a contemplative, magical, tension-filled atmosphere. The focus on interior spaces once again reinforces an aspect that has always been inherent to Kürten’s work: the Unheimlich (the German word contains the root word Heim, meaning “home,” but translated into English it means “uncanny.”)
The meaning of the word heimlich—derived from words such as Heim (home) and heimelig (homelike)—has changed over the course of the centuries, developing a multiplicity of layers only possible in the German language. Today it not only corresponds to the literal meaning of the Vertraute (familiar), as well as to the domestic sphere, but also to something that is hidden, whose forced existence as something concealed allows it to evade analytic exploration, while at the same time it rather frequently oppresses people in everyday situations. 3
In looking at Kürten’s interiors one is occasionally reminded of the claustrophobic, yet highly elegant and stylish film sets in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, or Michael Haneke’s Caché. Like the characters in these films, the inhabitants are cut out from what seems to be villas from a model home brochure. With this, Kürten alludes to a theme that is both artistic and, above all, literary, which developed at the turn of the nineteenth century: the house as the bearer of the Unheimlich, or uncanny. “Thus, in a natural way, the Unheimlich has found its metaphorical home in architecture as an intellectual concept. First in the house . . . which supposedly offers the greatest security, while also opening up a secret invasion of horror.” Architecture is in a position to reveal a “three-dimensional structure of the uncanny, by disclosing a disturbing, smooth passage between what is heimelig [homelike] and what is unheimlich [uncanny].“4 Yet, it is not the rooms themselves that radiate something dangerous. Rather, the link to the Unheimlich appears in our imaginations, as they mentally connect spaces with possible events.”
With their precise, spare furniture and no signs of daily usage at all, the furnishings in the Kürten houses reflects the clean, geometrical structuring of the architecture and the meticulously groomed gardens, where no blade of grass is too long, and not a single fallen leaf disturbs the generally perfect aesthetic. Also comparable to the exterior architecture are the depictions of the interiors, with their design classics such as the Barcelona and Bertoia chairs, or paintings by iconic artists such as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock; they seem to have been composed as direct allusions to pictures from architectural textbooks or glossy magazines. Living space and garden meld to become a single unit, while the beauty of the garden definitely radiates inward, and, as a place that promises relaxation, it is intended as a contrast to everyday life.
One crucial motif in these pictures is the (glass) window, the seeing wall, the metaphorical eye of the house. On one hand, it determines the inhabitants’ view of the external world, and on the other, it permits a public view into a private sphere, while at the same time quelling the voyeuristic urge to take a look behind the façade. Besides the moody light mentioned above, ornamentation also takes on an important function in creating the mysterious atmospheres.
In earlier works Kürten often covered his canvases entirely with a single, ornamental pattern. In these new works, however, they develop more subtly—in a way that simultaneously causes more anxiety—out of the surrounding vegetation or the shadows it casts. Reflections of abstract shapes, which occasionally resemble Rorschach tests, heighten the sense of discomfort awakened by the ornamentation...-
-...the twilight sky is accentuated by sulfuric yellow points of light, which might come from a refugee camp or the laser lights in a neighboring disco. Through the exaggerated shadows cast by the plants, which stretch across the terrace tiles all the way into the living space, nature develops a thoroughly threatening presence. The impression is that the vegetation is trying to use this artificial enlargement of its own dimensions to re-conquer what human beings have so thoughtlessly wrested from it...-
-...regardless of the format or the technique, the motifs, which at first glance seem idyllic, prove to be deceptive. Life is not simple in Kürten’s world of images. Like Lewis Carroll’s world behind the mirror, not everything is what it appears to be at first. Rather, the veneer is extraordinarily fragile.
1 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas, transl., Boston, 1969, p. 4. Originally published in French as La poétique de l’espace, Paris, 1958.
2 Bachelard, pp.6, 7.
3 Anthony Vidler, UNHEIMLICH. Über das Unbehagen in der modernen Architektur, Hamburg 2002, p.34, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, 16 vols., Leipzig 1850 – 1961, here: vol. 10, cols. 873-881.
4 Vidler, p. 30
Simone Scholten, 2014
(translated from German by Allison Moseley)
UNHEIMLICH HEIMLICH (complete text)
STEFAN KÜRTEN -RUNNING TO STAND STILL
Catalog accompanying the exhibition Stefan Kürten: HEIMLICH
Galerie der Stadt Backnang, November 2014 - February 2015
ed. by Martin Schick, Simone Scholten
Published by Galerie der Stadt Backnang, 2015