“Wandering and wandering / What place to rest the search? / The mighty arms of Atlas / Hold the heavens from the earth.” (J. P. Page & R. A. Plant)
I.1. Multilingualism and its development
Detlef Günther is an artist who makes use of a multitude of media codes and is able to express himself in them: in paintings and drawings, collages, objects and installations, photographs, video works and multimedia environments. If one wanted to summarize this multilingualism of his work, this heteroglossie (to put it in terms of a concept coined by Bachtin) in one term or under one title, one would have to call it conceptual.
Conceptual not primarily in the sense of conceptual art that first designs the concept in the form of a plan, which can then be produced by other people in a so-called post-studio production (Günther‘s approach to an installation entitled Sen Giotto The Manifestation of Volumes might possibly be understood in this way; pic.1), but rather in the sense of a conceptual understanding of his own art activities and art works.
On the one hand, everything revolves around the concept of humanity and the (implicit) question as to whether it is possible to portray the human being itself, rather than just individual people. Günther pursues this question by dedicating himself to the historical reappropriation of certain pictorial elements and themes of the Renaissance, e. g. the human face in the “Faces of the Renaissance”, or the halos resp. aureoles in Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel of Padua (pic.2) According to the artist, the aureole is “a trembling of what has come to its completion“, as a “supplement that adds to perfection.” (Giorgio Agamben)
To whose perfection? To that of man, or more precisely: to his absolute, unlimited freedom, as the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola impressively conjured up in his speech De Hominis Dignitate / On the Dignity of Man. And that is why the artist’s work is always concerned with the concept of freedom, and here with the question of how far this freedom extends at all, how perfect, how absolute it is: whether it extends beyond the concept of humanity, as it is the case with the current phenomena of so-called „trans-, meta- or posthumanism“, or whether it suspends this concept, makes it cease to exist, because it is always bound to certain notions or images of humanity.
The development of the conceptual heteroglossie in Detlef Günther’s work over the years can be briefy characterized as follows: Initially, at the end of the 1980s, the artist devoted himself to the unstable relationship between human figure and space. Then, in the early 1990s – for example in the project Gelb 92 – he dealt with the manifold patterns of seeing. Here, the openly visible, the obvious in its combination of form and color, was at the forefront of his artistic interest: how is one and the same form or figure, one and the same color perceived in different spatial, temporal, material, and situational contexts?
At the end of the 1990s, in the Twosuns project, Günther developed new forms of interaction, especially with digital media. In the course of an accelerating electronic development there was an increased confrontation with the innovative modes of production offered as a result as well as their effects on perception. With his last works since 2006 (Dignity of Man and Sen Giotto, but also in his purely painterly works Transnaissance no. 1 and Grund Transnaissance no. 2), the artist finally faced the question of – or the challenge of – the invisible in art, once again with reference to classical production methods.
Ideally speaking, this development was and is about balancing two different boundaries: the boundary between the analog and the digital on the one hand, and between the visible and the invisible on the other. Both boundaries are essentially the same in essence – less in terms of art theory than in art practice: While the invisible – thought, vision, or intuition – can be understood as the production principle of the visible (it is the invisible that is made visible), the digital code can be understood as an invisible production principle of the analog (it is the digital code that gives the analog its analogicity).
The formula that can be easily found for this double context of references is the phenomenological formula of the (invisible) reason and the (visible) figure – which in turn vaguely reminds us of the Platonic idea of the difference between idea and appearance: reason and figure are separated from each other and at the same time connected with each other, but in a way that occasionally makes the reason appear as an abyss and the figure appear as so deprived that there can no longer be any talk of an appearance itself of the idea or an appearance of the idea itself (think of Günther‘s oil paintings from the Twosuns cycle, but also the mysteriousness of the aureoles that have been robbed of their holy figures in his Sen Giotto project).
I.2. Space of the image and time of the concept
For clarification, we would first like to draw attention to the artist’s painterly works, in particular to the series Grund. Transnaissance No. 2 (pic.3). The pictures in this series are monochrome, but not monoform black. In this respect, they belong together, they are one, but each of them is one, an individual figure – individual and figurative by virtue of a blue that communicates with the black of their background in different ways, literally sharing it with the black. In this respect, the pictures have a correspondent relationship with one another; they are variants of each other. However, with one exception: that of the last picture (pic.4), which has a special status because it is the only image that is not monochrome throughout, and it also has its own title.
This title is The Power to Believe and it is reminiscent of a CD or song title by King Crimson which says: “She carries me through days of apathy / She washes over me / She saved my life in a manner of speaking / When she gave me back the power to believe”. One gets the impression of a certain ambivalence here: On the one hand, the text association appears to be coherent, for it is not a question of just some type of power but instead of the human power of faith, that which distinguishes man as a human being. But on the other hand, the association is also incorrect or incoherent because the song title appears only as a possible and by no means necessary exemplification of what is depicted in the picture.
What does the picture depict? Instead of being monochrome black throughout, the picture, unlike all other pictures in the series, has a small rectangular colour field at its center. Its blue, which is sometimes more intense, sometimes less intense depending on the incidence of light and the viewer’s perspective, blurs with the surrounding black ground and seems to have difficulty standing out from it. It’s as if the blue tones of the other pictures had been concentrated in the last picture, or as if the dark blue of the last picture had merged with the black of the other pictures.
A closer look reveals that the painting has a peculiar facture: The artist has painted several layers of paint on top of each another; it has a haptic that rejects any illusionism. These layers mark, almost invisibly, two window-like frames, so that the blue in the center of the picture exerts a specific effect on the viewer. It is as if it were attracting the viewer or, conversely, coming towards him; as if it were alive inside, were an autonomous power – precisely the power to believe described in the title: perhaps an idea, or an ideal awaiting its own creation.
In Detlef Günther‘s painterly works, as demonstrated by the series of works just discussed, less and less or nothing is depicted. The visible appears out of the invisible as a blue figurative from a black abyss, from which it flashes up but is nevertheless not really able to detach itself. It is not possible to tell a story or explain some type of phenomenon here. These pictures have detached themselves from the supremacy of the world of things, liberated themselves from themselves. They have become meta-pictures in that they specifically address the history of the possibility of the appearance of the idea – of man, his faith, and his freedom.
Space and time, image and concept, the visible and the invisible come together here – in space, in the image, in the visible. It’s as if the artist wanted to draw attention to a movement, but at the same time undo it – a movement he once described in a conversation as follows: “There is something that can be referred to as a cult of inwardness, which I think is something different from the narcissism that everyone likes to talk about today: The interior, in the compulsion to achieve self-realization, in the dictatorship of the externalization of individuality as singularity, is transferred into the exterior; time plunges into space.”
Time plunges into space. This means that we don’t just go out through the door – we do this every day: We are constantly expressing ourselves and so coming outside of ourselves. Rather, the issue here is that it seems as if this were the only way to get inside, the only way we to get to the interior of ourselves – in through the out door. The reappropriation of history, our history, individual history, but also universal history, seems to be interrupted, because history – that is the truth of post-history – is made again and again, without any pause for breath. Man always encounters his own effects; wherever he goes, he is already there. There is nothing else anymore.
Or is there? It is as if the halo or, as Giorgio Agamben might put it, the aureole in Detlef Günther‘s work once again raises this question again, the question regarding “ the other.” Because it has lost the holy figure who had worn it, the aureole seems to have lost its place among men, withdrawn itself into a distance from which it can no longer be retrieved, can no longer appear, or appear only in such a way that it acquires a completely new function in the visible – as a pure constellation in space (pic.5), as a pure context of reference that refers to nothing more than (in the metapicture): transcendence.