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Franz Ehmann: The Materiality of an Artistic Existence

Published and edited 10 August 2014 Simon Marsh


you question yourself as an artist not just not just question what an institution does or an individual gallery does…the question remains…how precise can i operate as an artist…

to bring some sort of action into…a defined space and then use that for doing undoing redoing and then…

revisit the entire scenario because the works can be exhibited in hundreds of different ways…

my concerns are constantly with the art object becoming too static too fixed…very often i start to think that a lot of artworks have a prescribed feeling to them or that the entire interaction has to be…on a certain level…there seems a stuckness to them and i think that this static nature of the gallery space has to be approached in different ways…

Now i see this all the time in exhibits…for example old museums are often wonderful to look at and yet when you visit them a few times…you know where the Rubens hangs…you know where the Velazquez hangs it’s simply the same thing and sometimes the reaction to the art work becomes so prescribed…so predictable that there is no other reaction possible…there is no other reading possible and the only possible psychological aspect of you as the viewer is that there is only one view and nothing other than the way it has been presented….

for myself art has become…the total collapse of everything into one and the same…text is no different from the wax work i do…it’s simply the same thing and for a long time I’ve perceived sculpture in this way with respect to a photograph…they are essentially the same thing…

there is no difference anymore…I’ve always just assumed that everything is art whatever I do is art…

it’s a bit odd that we live in the 21st century where we have a huge amount of access to culture in any media platform and yet in a cultural sense we are still dealing with the white box…

we seemingly are still trying to revisit probably what began with the salon style exhibitions of the 18th century and reinvigorating the same old model…

In part…due to this…for instance in a photographic show a curator doesn’t want to exhibit anything other than photographs and yet this is bewildering…what an artist has photographed is totally different to what is exhibited and yet this format is all pervasive…it happens with paintings in the same way…a certain genre will not fit and thereby becomes excluded when in reality this is just totally insane because the value in cultural terms is by total diversification not by a representation of a static sameness…

first of all I’m a trained chef as well an artist and out of this comes a huge amount of tactility for the materials I use…this is predominantly why I use them…not because there are other important artists working with them…for instance Joseph Beuys with the honey pump or Manzoni with the eggshells on canvas…

and whilst it is true that my art practise could be looked at through a prism of historical artistic output and mapped in some logical historical manner the fact remains that when i first started out doing this I was in a way thinking like a student coming out of college…needless to say I largely discarded a huge amount of this way of thinking from my work and started to align it with my ‘other profession’….aligning it with what came out of my cooking…

I have always used written text in my work…it is fragmented…sometimes i just start to think about certain things like the Wish List and begin with a premise that everyone writes on postcards…such as ‘wish you were here’…or things similar to that and i start to think…well let’s just begin to write line after line after which I begin to give it some form…some cohesive shape…following this initial methodology I then begin the process of actively pursuing how long can i possibly sustain this…that’s sort of what happens but it’s also about initialising a repetitive action…

throughout the processes of communication any one thing could have been said differently…with regard the Wish List for example one could write…I wish I was…and there it is…all in one…

this is very similar to a perfect sentence I once found in James Joyce’s Ulysses…Pain, that is not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart…and there it is…that’s the book…it’s right there…it hits you…you know that that this one line equates to the entirety of emotion found in the book…

and as we know…with language the intention caused by choosing punctuation or alternate words…changes the aspect of meaning of…what you are communicating and yes there are certain…

things that i’m aware of for instance other writers who have written extensively on their own writing they are now writing one sentence…one paragraph sentences and that is the book…

However what interests me is how far can I take these words to an edge before they start to seep away and potentially lose their power…lose their meaning entirely…

with the newspaper pieces I exhibit I began to see the page as holding a dollar value and wanted to incorporate this in my work…a mass of words that are hardly ever read…

It’s kind of paradoxical that when you begin working with newspaper…you become aware that when everything is laid out on the floor…everything is totally formatted…you can’t help but realise that this layout gives you an understanding of how much value that this space commands…it’s really an alternate form of money…that’s all it is…it’s not information it’s money….how much money can i print now into this space…you can see how manipulated all of this space is…and i find that so intriguing that when we have it in the hand…it becomes identifiable…this essentially programmed way of doing things…

The current show that i’ve put together is titled Many Things (it’s a colourful world)…in the past I’ve used a few other titles that i think are a bit humorous like Words that Change the World and Influence the Weather

in a way it’s simply referring to a flipping over to the current title and so it’s almost saying the same thing…while its pointing to specific locations and atmospheres in the photographic works and atmospheres or really the environment we are encountering now in the art world…essentially it is colourful and a world in which many things are going in different directions…and these are the many cues that lead toward the inspiration for my art practise…

In a way there exists a stimulus that comes from that sixties art movement minimalism…and while things are reduced to certain materials then placed simply into geometric patterns or very strict boxes…cubes and so on…i think i still acknowledge the hand made aspect to my work…importantly it is human intervention that remains evident throughout all of my works…

i respond to this kind of thing…for example I use beeswax so therefore it’s a natural material that i use…but at the same time you still have to harvest beeswax from the bees…then there’s a huge production involved which is then the extraction of the wax…

heat…

energy…

the machinery…

the processes of cooling once extracted…until finally you get a block of beeswax which i use in the fabrication…and i think that sometimes there exists a recognised juxtaposition of these elements…such as utilising them in a way that evokes bricks simply stacked in a row…potential building blocks…the sliding over of the one onto the other to formulate the foundations of a structure…accumulated beeswax bricks…presented in stacks or formations…they are quite versatile in that i don’t just utilise this particular format of presentation…I keep constantly changing what i’m actually looking for within this type of reductive minimal element…

Yes i think for many years i’ve been working with the precept that less is more and yet there exists a distinct possibility that throughout this reductionism the more won out…and yes I’m aware that in a way it seems completely ironic to say…however the more you work with the same or with the less…the more less you have to use…

for myself as an artist it’s really about being present within the gallery space…and in a sense the placement of objects becomes quite complex…to the point where many people don’t get what it is you’re doing…this is evidently not a reflection on the people who don’t quite get it…you know people of course respond in different ways to these kind of accumulated pieces…i find many people respond favourably to the beeswax and the text pieces…i guess you could say the almost remnant pieces such as the waxed shirts the waxed leaves and many of the wax objects i present…maybe it’s due to being observed as simply part of everyday life that a lot of people react favourably to these items…their not huge or demanding…possibly it’s due to them having the right dimensions that they can simply comprehend without having to think or judge too much about what it actually is that they’re encountering…

Mondrian of course was a completely fascinating artist in that he used the entire space and yet a lot of his works somehow don’t seem finished…i’ve seen a lot of his works and when you directly look at the surface you realise that there exists a huge amount of reworking throughout the ground of his pieces and observe how he simply shifted one line to another to arrive at a kind of empty space…instead of utilising negative and positive space…

on reflection i think that everything i strive to achieve amounts to a kind of emptiness and that’s more getting to the point of what i respond to…the dignity in this emptiness and the silence that comes from that empty space…

referring to a silence in an artwork when everything else is screaming is the intensity that i’m really after in certain works of my own…such as the text pieces…while you can read and you can comprehend getting emotional about words…the referral to it is what i see as a dignified silence that imparts that whilst there are lines…colours and edges that amount to a small window that you have in front of you…then perhaps the methodological import then becomes the how of our response to the piece by referring to it in this form of silence rather than shoehorning it into some kind of historical stylistic approach…

In literature I always read the modernist writers such as Beckett or for example Thomas Bernhard who are always on about capturing and imparting an experience of the end game…the question remains though…how can i work with this concept…this kind of existential aspect and what does that then infer to the overall value of our existence…

producing artworks in this manner you question the value in this kind of endism so to speak…you know it’s never there…realistically you constantly have to construct some form of communicational dialogue in a search for how we can possibly utilise this space or this sphere to culturally instil these concepts into ‘place’ and of course an audience who may simply not be aware of what it is you are referring to in the first place…

these very minute literal changes carry with them a certain form of irony and dark humour…not to mention a complete feeling of the absolute absurd…

but then that’s life you know things take place…situations happen…there exists a constant state of change and of course things and situations evolve toward even more of an absoluteness surrounding a dark absurdity…and then there is my art work that demands a conceptual framework to simply exist…

needless to say i’m constantly thinking within these frames of reference…

the processes go through certain stages of discovery…I often become completely fascinated by just one word…and yet if i start to expand it by following a certain trajectory…i can start to structure the meaning of what it is i’m writing about whilst being constantly aware of the burnt out meaning’s…meanings that have been overly used that can begin to accommodate themselves within an accumulated…repetitive work of art…

now these silent actions proliferate throughout all of my work whether it’s video…performance…sculptural…photographic or indeed the text based pieces…whatever medium i’m working with i always seem to get dragged into a decisive feeling of where to go with all of this accumulated material and how far can i actually take it whilst avoiding making bad art work…

the reduction is always there…it’s a professional choice to work with very little but therein lies the eternal problematic of how to accumulate the less whist maintaining procedural integrity in the repetition of an artistic process…and so the project and the underlying strategy remains very much with this repetitiveness of the specific material whilst avoiding the banal…

I’m constantly looking for the ‘how’ involved in the extraction of meaning…that’s always the direction that i’m constantly taking with the works…the process in effect uncovers any structural inauthenticity and very quickly exposes that which is seen by myself as ultimately banal…but then again you could say that there are more things to be learnt if things don’t actually work toward a positive artistic outcome…simply…

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however these reminders of what may be possible are almost as important a part of the artist’s procedural and progressive decision making as the actual words…the photographs…sculpture and or performance works that actually make it through to existing as an exhibited piece of art… 

I always find that to place the objects within a space involves a level of seriousness…levels of communication with the objects with regard to an initial choice to include them in the first place…and the seriousness behind the value and the meaning that exists behind the very fact that you continue making artworks…and the contemporary discussions surrounding art in so much as where do we actually take this culturally post dialogue…and does the art in fact hold value simply because it’s attracted a paid value or institutional recognition…

does art function as a social conductor or does it simply function as a commodity…and so the problem becomes how do i place this work in a space and create a dynamic where people actually respond to the work without the encroachment of these competing ideas and ideals…

the newspaper action piece that was shot in 2003…again i wanted to perform an artwork that was completely pared down to a few elements…so in essence all we see is a wooden floor white walls and myself performing the action of rolling by implementing the strategy of gluing the pages together wearing them and rolling until i reach a stop…where upon i liberate myself from the newsprint and continue to crunch it up into a ball…

and that is it…therein lies the action…

leaving the object which is only a form…almost as if it becomes the single and most precise action or theatre that has just taken place…so bringing all of these signifiers together we see a performance we see that it’s staged…it’s video…it’s photography all of these interdisciplinary forms come together into it’s own kind of end game…eventuating as a video…

as you’re aware i exhibit both in Europe and Australia and you know it’s quite easy to have the conversation about what it is you’re doing artistically within a cultural context with people throughout Europe…

they have no reticence with regard disagreeing with you and yet a disagreement hinges on not whether they may like or dislike you as a person or as an artist…the dialogue involves their cohesive configuration of your output…

understanding…it’s kind of like a coming to terms with what you’ve presented which sometimes i feel lacks here in Australia…

a certain quest to understand what it is you’re actually doing…now whether there is agreement or not this is not what we are looking for in art…it’s more about the thought processes involved in arriving at a defined decision making process…there exists a willingness to engage with the art work on a deeper level of understanding or at the very least an open attempt to comprehend what it is you’re actually driving at as an artist…i guess this wraps itself up with being an active participant within a cultural zeitgeist…

with some of the photographic works…the multitude of surface i choose to print these works onto…surrounds stylistic choices i make in discussing the shift and separation between different mediums such as painting and photography and a desire to link these differences back up as if they operate as one and the same medium…and yet i know that this can never be…

however there is a lot of shifting sand when it comes to the printing processes onto different materials and utilising photographic techniques to achieve this through the use of different products so that the materiality of the photograph is becoming much more precise…almost as if there is a renewal of the language that surrounds contemporary art to incorporate these possibilities…perhaps looking forward we can imagine a space that has simply been three dimensionally mapped and the artwork simply being printed directly onto the surface of a gallery wall…

working within installation and in the main object based works…i think that there is always going to be a certain amount of theatricality involved…mainly due to the physicality involved in these particular works…

in a space where you move from wall to wall…you as the viewer…when encountering my art work…now have something physically in front of you…large or small…and it’s this kind of encounter that i feel is much more stimulating to your senses…so there exists a phenomenon in the room that cannot be overcome simply by avoiding it…in that way a lot of the things that i engage with are executed with the pre knowledge that there is a certain amount of theatre involved throughout the exhibition process…the preciseness of any theatrical negotiation of a gallery space lies in working out how to place things in a room and strategise how the viewer will actually move through a space…what would be the most logically conscious approach by the viewer in traversing an exhibition…

this thought process and movement by a viewer in itself aligns with a sense of the theatricality involved in the art world…however in this particular show any theatrics are considerably downplayed such as the lighting…being in such a light drenched space as SGAR…this type of over dramatisation is not required to create a sense of metaphysical awe…however walk into a European gallery at 4 o’clock on a winters afternoon and you’ll clearly understand this particular type of theatricality that surrounds the art world generally…

in a way there is consistently some form of psychological reasoning that lays behind the producing and exhibiting of art…it’s important to realise and impart these particular mechanisms to be able to extrude the maximum weight of an object in the realisation that it is a standalone object of art…

within this action there either exists a total separation or a complete maximisation between the thought the experience, the gallery and the exhibited piece of art…

how does this in fact function…from my own perspective it resonates with mindfulness and my experience leads me to believe that it’s always best practice to be alert to these elements…it’s like almost holding a sensory overload for these materials and yet we know that of course an audience does not share in the processes involved in the making of these objects which constantly threatens an artist with the notion of their work becoming hermetically sealed…

however i feel that any starting point surrounds the concept of culture in itself and what it is to be an active ingredient in the production of culture…it’s a concept that remains very large…

let’s face it art is culturally huge…it exists in a culturally artificial void of space…however fine art always echoes an indexical list of processes that can inspire a petri dish like effect within the mind of a specific viewer in establishing some form of reconciliation of thought or likewise alienation and by and large is this not contemporary art’s main driver…

we try to be essentially provocative…and yet as an artist i believe it is important to draw a line to be able to reach out to people…to essentially be humanitarian….to make it possible for the viewer to comprehend that there is much more to this art work than just an object…photograph…sculpture…video etc etc…

i sometimes have preconceived ideas when it comes to making art works however what i often find is that this preconception can often distract the work from taking it’s liberated form…when i begin to see these preconceptions starting to creep into my work i’m very quick and ruthless when it comes to cancelling this form of preconceived structure…anything that is on the spur of the moment i’m usually very suspicious of and whilst it may work quite well when subjected to the critical lense…over the long term it’s revealed for it’s overall flakiness…

the only feeling that i have for my work is the knowledge that i have the right level of thought to engage with an idea and develop it through to an end point…and whilst this may seem a touch selfish to say…this part of the process is and will remain all about who i am and what it is i allow into the public domain…

thumb prints…

finger prints…

the work has been touched and nurtured into a form of existence…it elicits a distinct human intervention which can operate as quite overwhelming to a viewer…

the experience…

the event…

as an artist to be true to the event that took place…to be true to the materiality of the object…but then to talk about the event of a specific piece in relation to it not only being seen as an action or alternately some thing that just happens…for myself the artistic process is an extremely complex series of events…

it is here in the now…

it is existential…

it has a very real existence…

Header Image courtesy Franz Ehmann, Installation shot, Many Things (it’s a colourful world), Spiro Grace Art Rooms, 2015.