Quid Tum: What It Always Was

“On a halcyon day it is merely a monument” —t. s. eliot, The Dry Salvages

—john c. welchman

While redolent of a unifying vision that is seen to perish under the weight of relentless cultural differentiation, Michael Kunze’s paintings must, like the histories and structures, places and protagonists that inhabit them, be broken into and then broken down. They speak to the intransigent perishability of a cultural unconscious ravaged by wave upon wave of over-determination, false prophesy, repetition and neglect. To this end they dare to stage an unremitting suspicion of the project of modernity itself—and its mantras of progress, rationalization and amelioration. Yet they somehow fuse compositional, iconographic, projected and conjectural elements borrowed from post-classical and vernacular architecture; the appurtenances of daily life in remote locations (such as the Greek islands); a masculinist countergenealogy of non-conformist seers; the forlorn—but impassioned—particularity of the artist’s studio; and the representational defaults of generic nature—sea, trees, sky, landscapes. It is difficult to organize these concerns within the standard terminologies of art or its histories—the more so as the drive to categorize is revealed by Kunze as one of the techniques of concealment and effacement he simultaneously pictures and implodes. But we can say that he figures the assemblages of cultural conditions briefly and insufficiently described here by means of an emblematic mode of envisioning that draws some of its energy at least from what might be the last sequence of negotiations with questions of history, transcendence and knowledge as yet uncorrupted by the logic of modernity. Reaching from the contemplative speculations of the via negativa and early renaissance neo-Platonism to the generation of metaphysical emblems and conceits in the mannerist and early baroque eras, this manner of imaging is “secretive” in a double sense. For while in one dimension it holds back and defers, in another it secretes—laying down by overlaying; amassing in coils and spirals; intimating by slow discharge or dissolution rather than accumulation and appropriation.
       So let me try to pick the lock of a work in the current exhibition in which the salient latencies of Kunze’s emblematizations can be unfolded. In “Schwarzorange/Asymptote” (fig. 29) we encounter a defiantly empty hypermodernist concrete acropolis fronted by bastion-like monumental arches giving onto an ill-defined but seemingly rural landscape. Organized and imaged with brutalist severity, the structure—of which we witness only part—is backed by a long portico supported by stark rectilinear columns set with angular shadows where their formalized capital orders might have been. The portico has a similarly articulated second story, indicating that, if symmetrical, the edifice might extend as far on its unseen right-hand side as it does almost to infinity on what we now read as its left flank (understood from its “face” onto the landscape). Kunze presents us with an architectural endgame operating at the dark hyper-Borean edge of the classical tradition. So that while we can still read from it the fundamental elements of Greek design—columns, porticos, courtyards, gateways—their genealogical journey through the heavy accents of Roman grandiosity, Renaissance recapitulation, neoclassical fixation, and Fascist recuperation launches us into the ineffability of what might follow as an über-modernist retrenchment pulverizes the weak historicism of the postmodern. Not only are the spaces utterly evacuated and de-animated, but they make an uncanny pronouncement of referenceless monumentality. What might have been an agora, the place for public meeting and commerce, is flanked by empty benches and filled-in by an ornamental pool in which koi-colored oranges have spilled from the single adjacent tree. Likewise, the beveled stele in the foreground is reduced to its elemental shape and appears to bear no inscription or figure: a herm with its hermeticism utterly undone.
       The remorselessly self-confirming grisaille of the emporium is relieved only by a glimpse of blue among the gray clouds, the ashy green of the tree’s leaves and the orange of its in situ and fallen fruit—which in their latter condition, grounded in aquatic black, make up the picture-within-thepicture for which the painting is named. Architecture, here, has been delivered to the destiny foreseen by Georges Bataille, set down as the last bastion of a servile appropriation according to which the state— or any commissioning “master”—administers the eventuation of built space according to a repetitive and narcissistic megalomania begotten by insatiable bureaucratic will. Kunze stages this move, however, through a loop threaded with two contradictions: one is historical—the putative antagonism between classicizing and modernist architectures (the latter signaled by the reference to the pavilion built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona in the center of the composition); the other purportedly universal—the compositional and titular overlay of orange and black which occupy opposite sides of the color wheel.1
       Clearly, the image and the location it represents are not completely subtended by the regimen of paving and geometric blocks with which the governing structure is articulated; for there are several other objects or motifs in the painting accompanied by the implied action of a number of external forces. Supported by a precarious array of stanchions that jut out from the arch centering the composition is a large cowl-shaped apparatus, neither the function of which nor its relation to the emporium are immediately apparent. Cantilevered out towards the landscape, above and parallel to a platform integral to the structure, the folds and facets of the putatively soft mass and its multiform support system are stridently at odds with the intransigent solidity of the building to which it is loosely appended. We notice, too, that the upper interior space of the arch is infested with an interlaced network of the supporting “rods,” effectively webbing it up; and that a tripod apparently constructed of similar materials surmounts the colonnaded structure on top of the arch. A final element in the composition, a kind of tubular chute with spiral elements, rises up vertically into the sky above the tripod—though whether it is tethered to the structure but obscured by the clouds, or hovers ex machina, is again unclear.
       The structure is clearly—and emblematically—subject to the play of the elements. From its position on the right of the onlooking viewer, the sun casts raking foreground shadows within which the form and textures of the structure are still visible, while menacing storm clouds gather (or recede) directly above. As attested by its differentially blistered surfaces, the odd, fecund backflip of the orange tree on the parterre and the unseen force that launches its fruit into the pool, the ensemble is also beset by the wind—or is perhaps waiting for it to start up again. At the same time, the upper reaches of the abstract herm are disorganized by an eddy of linear marks that appear (in pictorial if not “real” space) directly underneath the tessellation of extending rods, creating an ulterior zone that threatens the stability of the architectural mass. In this light, the cowl-like form might be an apparatus of capture harnessed in the manner of a flag or banner so as to unfurl.
       The myth of Alcyone, the conclusion of which supplies the title of Kunze’s wider project at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, is also organized around the power of the wind and its temporary cessation. Inscribed into this narrative genealogically (Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds), metamorphically (Alcyone was transformed into a kingfisher whose procreation and very survival was dependent on the elements), and axiomatically (through the production of a specific period of calm by the paternal agency of Aeolus), the wind is a cipher for the disturbances and vicissitudes of forces exterior to, but operative upon, all aspects of the human condition. Later converted into an economy of opportunism—concisely expressed in the temporizing wisdom of the common expression “the way the wind blows”—this force is a climatologically inflected remainder of the condition of fate and the wider operation of mantic causality that it has been the effort of modernity to overturn, suppress or—ideally— to defeat. We are of course facing a decisive turn in the history of these exchanges, poised to reverse the evolutionary progress of the attempts to assert control over nature as warming and storming threaten to wreak global havoc in possibly unstoppable mythical dimensions.
       The wind makes an elemental pair with the figure of the bound Odysseus, to whom Kunze points in an interview as “the first figure of the Enlightenment, listening to the sirens but without any freedom to move, surrender or even to die.”2 For halcyon calm stands in for the interventionist production of a benefit by withdrawal: it exists as the negation of a powerful exterior force in the sense that it subtracts or temporarily mutes its power to cause destruction (but also to provide the motor force for trade and travel). The unnatural halcyon moment is thus caught between an act of grace and a benign parenthesis and emerges as one of the founding negations on which civilization seemingly depends to secure its futures. Many who have drawn from the myth of Alcyone, including T. S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages,” underline the menace that haunts the before and after of the production of calmness. Eliot’s lines, in fact, are preoccupied with the camouflaged calmness of the destructive potential symbolized by a partly submerged rock:

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.3

If we shift the terms from nature to culture—as Eliot himself doubtless also imagined—the cautionary move here from “monument” to “mark” and back to the underlying condition of destructive potential is an allegory for Kunze’s own negotiation between cultural monumentality, mark production and the intimation of an intrinsic furiousness based—and this is the terror—on the condition of what “always was.” It is in this sense that we can understand the artist’s steadfast commitment to the spaces between things or the punctures in logical temporality, those “holes in the history” which “are the wellsprings of acceleration.”4 The establishing somberness of Eliot is cast by “the nihilistic shadow that had been evoked during the halcyon days [and which] remains the reality of the second sight.”5 Yes, we are—must be, have always been—beholden to Sirens and Furies.
       Kunze’s work does not set out in any simple manner either to revivify a cult of classical renewal or even to valorize the prescient independence of mind and spirit caught up in the lineage of counterinstitutional philosophers and artists to which he points. He evinces none of the nostalgia tinged with the neo-Grecian idolatry of Johann Joachim Winckelmann—with its fastidiously false sightings of the halcyon (“Good taste, which is becoming more prevalent throughout the world, had its origins under the skies of Greece”).6 Instead he works in the shadows of the image of Attic greatness perhaps best expounded in the first song of Theseus in Sophocles’s “Oedipus at Colonus”—where one measure of the Athenian order is defined by climatological negation (“nor sun nor wind may enter there”).7 In a different dimension, he travels quite self-consciously in the uncertain wake rather than triumphantly at the head of his phalanx of so-called “Messieurs d’Avignon.” By the verso of the same token, Kunze’s paintings do not deconstruct or even diagnose. The “noisy shadows” they present actually take off from the point at which the diagnostic critics of the twentieth century so often end up, occupying an evacuated space between the “neither ... nor” that has so often defined dialectic of past and present. So when Herbert Marcuse, for example, questions the legacy of secular modernity by contracting it with the age of superstition he points to the paradox of cultural destruction but cannot venture into the space opened up by the loss of possible “truths.” What results is a tissue of psychologizing negations perfectly expressed in the title of the chapter from which the following citation is drawn: “The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: Repressive Desublimation”: “Man today can do more than the culture heroes and half-gods; he has solved many insoluble problems. But he has also betrayed the hope and destroyed the truth which were preserved in the sublimations of higher culture.”8 Kunze’s work is about the compelling need, sheer difficulty and possible impossibility of reactivating an aesthetic sublimation that has been eroded and decoded into a false—and terrifying—oblivion.

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 73

[1] Michael Kunze, email to the author, December 26, 2012.

[2] Kunze in Raimar Stange “No shadow without noise: A conversation with Michael Kunze” in “Michael Kunze: Les Messieurs d’Avignon,” ed. Gregor Jansen (Köln: DuMont, 2007), 17.

[3] T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” (the third poem of “The Four Quartets,”) in T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909–62 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1963), 195. Peter Ackroyd, noted that “‘The Four Quartets’ are poems about a nation and about a culture which is very severely under threat”; see Ackroyd, “T. S. Eliot: A Life” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984); also T. S. Eliot in “Voices and Visions Series” (New York: Center of Visual History/PBS, 1988).

[4] Kunze in “The Stewardess Analyst,” “Texte ohne Verben/Texts without Verbs: Arbeiten/Works 1991–2001” (Köln: Salon Verlag, 2002), 6.

[5] Michael Kunze, “Halcyon Days” [in this volume, p. 15f].

[6] These are the well-known opening lines of Winckelmann’s “Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works” (1755) under the heading “Natural Beauty.”

[7] For an English translation, see Sophocles, “Oedipus at Colonus,” trans. Robert Fitzgerald in “The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I,” ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 110–11. See also, Albin Lesky, “Greek Tragedy” (London: Ernst Benn, 1965), 130.

[8] Herbert Marcuse, chapter 3, “The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: Repressive Desublimation,” “One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society” [1964] (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 56.