Windows: Marco Polo's Dream
Markus Heinsdorff und Martin Rosenthal
Exhibition Catalogue 1998
Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildem, Germany
Authors: Agnes Kohlmeyer, Elmar Zorn
Text: english - german - chinese
The protagonist of our story is Markus Heinsdorff, with his kinetic sculptures, which move in the wind or by means of simple motor controls in their predetermined rhythm, thus carrying out surprising artistic feats, real acts of transformation with their own shapes.
Heinsdorff´s "Praxisinstallation" (Surgery Installations) already possessed thematic elements such as travelling, daily life, love or the past, hope, movement and desire: terms that can be found in the world of our thoughts and senses and that quite clearly connect certain visible works of art to every possible detail in our lives. Everything has to do with everything else, "space" has become infinite.
A quotation by Paul Valéry introduces the book regarding the installations in the artist´s garden in Las Fosses: "Le vent se lève... il faut tenter de vivre". ("It´s getting windy... we must try and live.") Exactly like the wind itself, everything in Heinsdorff´s works is unstable, fragile, a game of make-believe and reality, with our imagination, with illusions. The delicate fascinating works of goldsmithry, the moving sculptures, the objects hiding surprises: like the "open" vase or the double clay jug from which "endless water" flows and about which nobody can really understand why the continious flow never stops. Pools of water, sculptures of light, like small moons spreading out over a meadow, mosaic tables and artificial water falls, fish and ship patterns and shapes, light and video, discussions, "bridges" to other artists and cultures, variety and aperture, in every direction is what occupies Markus Heinsdorff in his works.
The heart of the story: In the Chinese "Paradise on Earth", in Hangzhou on the West Lake, an exhibition was opened last November in the local Zheijang Provincial Museum. It regards two German artists, Martin Rosenthal and Markus Heinsdorff from Munich, who were the first as such to be able to exhibit their "Western" art in a Chinese museum. There are eight large boxes, dispersed in the vast, artfully laid out park, as well as in an airy, partly open room, a pavilion, with old Chinese caskets, which are very similar to these caskets. They are very real, very concrete and approximately as high and wide as a large distinguished person. In this - we can definitely say - anthropomorphous presence and in their wooden materialness they seem stable and calm. They have been varnished black in the Chinese manner and each and every one of these elements bears a symbol on its front, a large white-on-black painted character. We see these boxes integrated in the park, which is partly very old, with its artfully shaped stones and its strange plants from our "Western" point of view.
They fit harmonicly into these surroundings, yet at the same time they also offer an unusual view, they arouse the curiosity of the beholder and they also immediately yield quite clearly the further level of perception regarding the characters and their expressive force. From certain viewpoints one can see two or more box sculptures with the naked eye at the same time. That is to say, we already observe part of the installation within its surroundings at a single glance.
The artist has dedicated each of the boxes to a different theme related to the contents. The Chinese visitor to the exhibition in Hangzhou understands straight away, since he can read and understand the theme from the figurative ideogram: "Travel", "Sea", "Desert", "Dance", "Wind", "Light", "Shape" and "Life". As we face the first of these boxes we discover in the middle of the large white character there are eight wooden flaps, laid out in a regular manner, which have been worked into it, inviting us to lift them and look behind their façade. The visitor to this installation must now do more than only look, he must himself become active. He must step as close as possible to each element of the exhibition, on a low, comfortable platform belonging to the sculpture itself; he must climb up, he must stretch or bend; he must if necessary share the space with others, must wait, must be patient until it is his turn and he himself has the opportunity to lift each and every one of these lids.
At this point each person will act quite individually. Everyone will be curious about what might be hiding behind these "windows" inside the boxes. Some, however, will thoughtfully and systematically open each lid, one by one, and look inside, whilst others will try to randomly open as many as they can, as fast as possible. All this activity finally, however, leads to a new, third level of perception. One suddenly finds oneself opposite a single, very small lens. Only one single eye can see inside. To be sure, this method of focussing with one eye and closing the other can increase one´s concentration on what is being seen. Now the visitor to the exhibition, who was previously still in contact with everything and everyone, finds himself alone - preoccupied with immersing himself in this other world. Behind each of these "windows" the observer is thus confronted only with his own impressions: visual, kinetic and sound experiences. A glow, something turns, fantastic objects and worlds play before us. We observe tiny details: a stamp, for example, with its own very small world on it, with images and writing - and we add our own association, which can change everything; we discover a small cog-wheel, a butterfly or a mini-ventilator and we think "aha, this is wind".
And we already begin to dream: it is no more than colour, light and movement, fragments of daily objects; but in their real tininess these things can change suddenly before our eyes and in our imagination, can become big, deep and boundless. Of course all these arrangements were prepared for the insides of these boxes in meticulously detailed work, but then, when they are observed in such a concentrated manner, when one reflects the theme of the boxes and the whole exhibition, it is our thoughts and our feelings that send us on much, much further; into the distance, on a real "journey". Why not away through deserts and seas, accompanied by wind and light, open to the shapes and their sensitivity and attention, tending towards dance? That´s life, the whole, big "space" that for us today has no limits. The whole, a sheer seemingly never-ending series of Chinese boxes, can, if we so wish, be piled up and continued as one likes: an installation grew in the heads of two very different artists - both forever looking for the relationship between things, thoughts and works with relative and forever quite new and different surroundings.
This kind of installation, which is also risky and verging on being daring - that comes from something unknown, new and belonging to the future - was created through group work. It was realised after long discussions together but realised with clearly separate individual contributions and brought into what to both artists is a foreign cultural circle - completely foreign for one, a little less so for the other, who had already been on several long trips and sojourns in China. Respect and attention has been devoted to this foreign cultural circle. The elements, which are similar to cupboards, were varnished black by Chinese workers in the Chinese town of Hangzhou; each bearing a different Chinese character, which in order to distinguish them and make them more foreign, were not painted black on white but white paint on black background. The exhibition was therefore opened in particular surroundings, tested and observed in its entirety. And now it has gone travelling again.
On the "trail of Marco Polo" the boxes, together with their contencts, are being sent by ship to Venice. Hangzhou, Shanghai, Marseille and finally Venice: there are the stops on a long continuous journey lasting many weeks. The elements of the exhibition will be checked upon arrivald in Italy, repaired and then newly put into a museum space. In another linguistic culture, once again in other surroundings, such as in a smaller exhibition room - and as a result also in a new order: half inside and half in a small garden in the middle of the town of Venice, the "space" and the surroundings will be characteristic again. The works of art of two German artists, bearing Chinese ideograms, wait to be understood by an Italian audience this time. In contrast to previously, the exhibition boxes stand very close to each other, exactly like the very houses in this town. You can almost see all of them in a single view - but despite the cramped nature of the Venetian installation, there is a particular transparency which derives from the relationship between the individual components and with their surroundings. From the square outside the Fondazione Querini Stampalia one can already look into the exhibition rooms: yes, one can even perceive the green of the small garden lying behind it from the outside. Glass, bronze, waterworks and a completely different vegetation, a completely different light characterise the new surroundings of the "travellers". The Chinese characters are foreign here, have come from afar, and must first be translated in order to be understood.
Something new has been added, the pictures and experiences of the first exhibition have been integrated into the second one. But here, as well, once the visitor bends down and takes the step from observing and perceiving the "outside" to the inside of the boxes, it will again be entirely up to him, just as it is to every individual, how far the journey shall go and how long the story may continue...
Venice, February 1998, Agnes Kohlmeyer
Translated by Susan Brodar