Reinhard Braun

Klaus Scherübel. The Artist at Work

With his series Untitled (The Artist at Work), Klaus Scherübel presents a paradoxical system of references to myths and phantasms of modernism and to descriptive contexts of current art. To take the title or the visual appearance as a starting point already implies taking part in a discourse that is subverted by the work itself. Many aspects suggest that the work is an ironic celebration of a kind of absence that can only be completed by the viewer’s imagination. What we see is an imbroglio of cultural texts that does not allow the viewer to escape to any secure ground despite—or indeed because of—the reflection on its conditions.

“The Artist at Work” – does this legend not still revolve around phantasms of the genius emotionally strained to the limit in his studio (for this legend is a male one), bent over his art work (preferably a painting or a sculpture), fighting with the overextravagant imaginary, struggling for a form that will ultimately be the brilliant result of this seclusive, prototypically subjective process of creation? We feel far removed from this cliché, and rightly so; but on the other hand do we accept the relevance to artistic production when someone – posing as an artist, someone featuring at least in a context of production that may be summed up by the concept of art – is seen browsing in a video shop? Or studying the countless televisions on sale in a department store? We rather tend to associate a trip to the library with the production of art, which is regarded as an intellectual activity.

Under the working title of The Artist at Work, Klaus Scherübel has created a number of projects since 1993 (starting out as a co-operation with Marylène Negro) which, from a photograph of the artist going about more or less everyday tasks, focuses on art as a paradoxical form of work, confronting it with its utopian aspect and its legend of undeceivable subjective creativity. But bringing this legend back into play – that has above all persisted as a caricature of itself and that can only be perceived as a strange undead entity – does not re-animate any conservative, romantic dispositif of subjectivity to polemically turn against the world of art itself. On the other hand, focusing on this legend and presenting it in an ironical manner still concerns the conditions of contemporary art production, particularly as the series re-evokes – or rather re-connotes – a seemingly totally irrelevant artist figure. The very fact of not being able to escape these associations suggests that the work somehow inevitably refers to a kind of cultural knowledge, to an intransigent cultural text that permeates the images and perception, regardless of what discursivization this knowledge may have already achieved.

At Artspeak in Vancouver in February 2004, Klaus Scherübel presented the overhead projection of a photograph – a notable media constellation in itself – of himself in a sparsely populated cinema, before or after the screening of a film or during an intermission, but focusing on the screen in a strangely inappropriate way in view of the fact that, considering the light in the cinema, there is probably nothing to be seen. The gallery, on the other hand, presents a row of folding seats that put the audience in the same position, as it were, as the artist, looking at a significantly unspectacular picture, albeit in different settings of public presentations (cinema – gallery).

The Artist at Work series can doubtless be seen against the backdrop of conceptual strategies in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, who celebrated the conversion of a life-style and thus of the artist’s privacy into a form of art, i.e. who formulated this life-style both as the content and the form of the art: the chess game or the celebration of the Factory collective as life-as-art. But unlike this form of effusiveness captured in pictures (which is itself perhaps part of a legend), an aspect found throughout Klaus Scherübel’s image production is essentially nothing more than everyday banality (which may not be said of a photo of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a nude model). But who or what legitimises the game of chess, the endless film shots of New York buildings, the threads arranged in lavish boxes, or the banal silk-screen print of a banknote as art products? Does Klaus Scherübel not embroil us in precisely the same spiral of argumentation when these photographs of everyday activities are interpreted as art products, because – and only because – this is indeed an artist at work, and not a librarian, a move buff or a video freak? If Walter Benjamin already insisted that photography requires a text in order to convey its meaning and if, at the same time, as Roland Barthes impressively demonstrated, we almost automatically ascribe and inscribe an it-was-thus (in)to the images, we can certainly assume that Klaus Scherübel’s series is a simulation of a conflictual cultural context of description with and through images: the context of art itself. For on the one hand, it is only the title of the work that puts us on to the paradoxical content that is, in turn, both confirmed and irritated by the facticity of the visual description. And does precisely this description not fall into the trap of this simulation of a critical simulation because it nevertheless describes this production as art, as art about art? Or should we rather be interested in the banal facts that artists too explore landscapes, visit archaeological digs, watch films or even read (a dig at star cult, an ironic comment of a search for identity)? So is there something like a pop-culture-imbued art object or a subject as art object in Klaus Scherübel’s works? Does the ”actual” work consist ultimately not in photographic production but rather in the ironical, paradoxical performance of a quasi-postmodern life-style that implies the affirmation of consumerism and mass media? Ironical and paradoxical as this performance is set on the borderline between consumerism and production and thus, at the same time, signalizes the different roles assumed by the artist in the course of production.

Or is it rather a matter of precisely this idea of the ”actual” work as a blank space in the framework of all these contradictions inherent in culture and art, as something that Slavoj Zizek called a symptom that we would ultimately have to love, like ourselves, in order to endure the rift between the real and the symbolic? Would Klaus Scherübel’s ”work” not then describe art as a kind of psychotic symptom of culture? The question ultimately remains as to whether, in view of post-modern disillusionment, it is not totally inappropriate to ask this question in the first place, and whether Klaus Scherübel’s work focuses precisely on this inappropriateness, albeit at the same time taking it as a pretext to pose a totally different question: the question as to the production conditions that could identify the artist as an artist and, linked to this, the question as to the role of art in the sphere of current cultural processes as a whole.

Untitled (The Artist at Work) revises and reactivates the artist-subject as the foundation of modernism and translates the practice of art production into a practice that above all has to do, and is embroiled in, everyday – but for this very reason fundamental – activities of cultural communication and the production of cultural knowledge. This would seem to be borne out by a second photo of the aforementioned overhead projection at Artspeak that was shown alternately; this picture shows the artist in a public library looking for a certain book that is, however, not specified. This book may be seen as an interface or joint, as it were, to another work that is equally concerned with utopias of modernism, that therefore also focuses on and once again discusses the foundations of contemporary art production, which is why it would also appear to be relevant for a debate on the Artist at Work series: Mallarmé, The Book or Mallarmé. Das Buch, presented in Graz, Vienna, New York and, most recently, in Vancouver, focuses on Stéphane Mallarmé’s failed ”world book enterprise” that he conceived and documented in numerous letters, notes and several writings ”on the book” in the last thirty years of his life. Mallarmé defined The Book as a ”boundless [publication] completely freed of its author and coincidence, containing the sum of all conceivable books”. Klaus Scherübel has now produced a dummy of Mallarmé. Das Buch that consists only of a cover, but which conforms to Mallarmé’s design in terms of size. So with this manifestation of the book as a conceptual art work, Scherübel once again picks up on a modernist legend that, in both cases, features only through its absence and, particularly, engenders and furthers the discourses on its meanings only in this form of (partial or complete) absence, like the cryptic, encrypted notes and utterances of Marcel Duchamp (on the Large Glass or the Large Box). Compared to The Artist at Work project series, here again we have a work characterised by a fundamental aspect of absence (in this case the content of a book, in the other case an activity to be defined or productively designated). The question remains how to make appropriate reference to this paradoxical work (that of Scherübel or Mallarmé?), that could only assume the status of reality through its absence, considering that the work in both cases consists above all of references that leave something behind in art that has to do with announcement, description and the addressee’s expectations, with a system of documentation that both describes and constructs the work. Because, to take the text or the visual appearance as a starting point already means taking part in a discourse that is subverted by the work itself. We are therefore in the unsecured realm of assumptions and banalities; and yet, it would seem that the artists are no better off in this respect.

Reinhard Braun, “Klaus Scherübel. The Artist at Work”, Ciel variable, no 65, Montréal, 2004, pp. 22-28.