Dr. Andreas Bee

Museum for Modern Art, Frankfurt/Main

Clarifying Form

As Joseph Beuys once said, it is well worthwhile simply to describe what you see, for you thus enter the realm of what the artist is trying to say. It is also, he believed, good to intuit what is meant. Only in an emergency, or for pedagogical purposes, should you fall back on interpretative tools. The importance of this advice _ which is in essence timeless but is only too seldom heeded _ can hardly be overestimated in any discussion of sculptural works. As a rule, nothing is more revealing for an eye interested in form than designating the characteristic features of an object; and nothing is more beneficial for visual understanding than comparing or confronting related objects and previous knowledge. Providing a formal description of a work of art makes it easier to concentrate on the essentials, for the act of defining by means of words and thoughts enables us to reconstruct the creative process itself, where the particular twist given to form and contents has occurred. Thus, the first question with respect to any work of art is a question of form. There can be no insight into an artwork's substance unless we have clarified the form. Only by turning to form can we succeed in cultivating our own discerning eye; only thus do we foster the development of an organ that mediates the energy contained in the work of art. In fact, this organ constitutes the art work in the first place, in all its complexity. Allow me to demonstrate my point: If you consider a particular work by Christoph Mancke more closely, then you will see how the subdued movement in the contours and edges, the gentle undulations of the surface, and the elasticity that offsets the brittle qualities of the material are of special significance to the overall form. These features, which could be described more closely in myriad ways, ultimately combine to form a general impression in which the virtual dynamism of the three-dimensional form is of prime importance. However constrained this dynamism may at first glance seem to be, it is ultimately the vanishing point of all motion, the magnet which attracts all forms. In Mancke's case, dynamism implies a balancing act at the boundary between divergent formal laws, a perpetual oscillation between organic and inorganic laws of growth. Such dynamism is unlike anything we are familiar with, and yet at the same time has absorbed everything comparable within it. In a certain sense, then, the sculpture made in 1989 is typical of an entire group of works, for if we study most of his other sculptures we will essentially receive an impression that is similar to the effect given in this individual case. The formal balance between stereometric presence and organic corporeality, which at first glance appears obvious, ultimately shifts in favour of an organic principle of form in the majority of Mancke's works. For sooner or later, the sculptures shed everything having to do with distance and anonymity, thus relinquishing the indifference characteristic of geometric forms. In the end, Mancke's sculptures transpire to be energy-charged entities with specific individual qualities.

In other words, the sculptures, be it as individual works, as pairs or as groups, thus have an effect which derives its crucial strength from the tension between anthropomorphic and abstract elements. This subtle and intricately interlinked mixture of geometrical and evocative forms is hard to describe in our usual language; our vocabulary is simply incapable of keeping pace with the rich variety of these forms. We can at best more or less define the basic theme involved. The movement in the surface, although barely discernible, has a strong visual effect; the forms, with their otherwise clear contours, have been shifted and gently rotated, changes that are unmistakable references to the unpretentious animation that distinguishes all of Mancke's works, and to the sense of almost corporeal liveliness that the sculptures convey to the observer.

The above-mentioned surfeit of anthropomorphic criteria can also be experienced from yet another point of view. In formal as well as metaphoric terms, the vertical thrust of the sculpture in question portrays crucial references to the fact that the human body stands erect. Only the manner in which the sculpture "rears up" can be grasped as the manifestation of how human beings see themselves, as an allegory of independent existence and of the objective verification of this independence. However, the effect of the standing posture ultimately suggests a general embodiment of a feeling of existence, rather than the idiosyncrasy of an individual body. As paradoxical as it may sound, this in turn has to do with sculpture's tendency to lean away from impersonal, geometric forms in favour of characteristics which could be called individualistic. Thus, on the one hand, standing symbolizes an idea, and, on the other, attempts to lend expression to an inner, individual stance. In other words, the stele in Mancke's work do not point to what is behind or outside them, and do not remain entrenched in a general, formulaic abstractness, as is exemplified by Egyptian obelisks, for example. Rather, they insist on an independent existence with characteristics which can be called anthropomorphic. The manner in which the majority of the "figures" assert themselves is thus "stance" in a metaphoric sense. It is the expression of untrammelled self-formation and the freedom to set one's own limits. Seen in this light, Mancke's erect figures are always more than just the haptic interplay of edges, surfaces and rotations. Their true material weight corresponds to a potential energy, the impact of which the viewer can easily comprehend. As works of art, with their qualities as mirror images of us, they are challenging opposites for the observer who has retained his sense of body and rhythm. They affirm human existence without having to fall back on narration in any way. They offer the observer an explanation of his own stances and attitudes toward them without defining these in any way. They are simultaneously referential and open, and thus far removed from the randomness so often imputed to abstract art. All this can be derived from their forms, and from nothing else.

There are, of course, countless positions in-between "standing" and "reclining". Along with the above mentioned elements of subtle formal tension on the outer skin, in particular the relationship between the weight bearing down on something and the something that bears the weight plays an important role in all of Mancke's works that do not exhibit an independent, i.e., largely stable, posture. This is especially true of his bipartite sculptures, in which he sometimes creates tension not only with forms, but in isolated cases by using more than one materials as well.

Unlike the free-standing cast-iron sculptures standing alone or in groups, the forms occupying the volatile domain half-way between vertical and horizontal, on the whole, feature more complicated structures. Therefore, these contexts and the references they generate require a somewhat more complex analysis. Despite their complexity, the richer formal idiom in no manner hides Mancke's interest in what could be termed classical relationships of balance and tension, which also form the foundation for these works. Again, in the end it is a question of energies and experiences that can be visualized and to a greater degree imagined on a corporeal, sensuous level. The sculptures of the "intermediate domain" are aimed more pointedly than are the stele at the ability of the recipient to react not only with the eye, but with his or her entire body. It is easy to grasp that these "unstable" sculptures are actually capable of appealing to visual and bodily perceptions. Thus, we often unconsciously counterbalance a slight leftward tendency within the sculpture by a tension in our own posture that is carefully directed toward the right. The heavy cast- iron parts seem to be falling, which exerts a magnetic attraction on us, and we identify ourselves with either the more active or more passive part of a twofold form, depending on our personal preferences and qualities. Not infrequently, this is all an attempt on our part to balance tensions; by means of conscious or unconscious intervention we try to achieve an unimpeded flow of the vectors at work. However, this desired balance is always an unattainable ideal, and can never succeed without conflict if the work of art in question is of due quality. Despite this, the attempts by the body and eye to convey harmonically what they perceive are meaningful, for looking at a particular sculpture with certain features in order to clarify its form automatically sharpens our capacity to perceive the details of other formulations. Each new form, however, creates new tensions and harmonies. Once you start comparing it with others, you get sucked into the vortex of forms, and in the end completely forget that you are dealing with works that posit abstract arguments. Perhaps it now becomes even more apparent that this formal language is related to a basic problem that sculptors have been tackling since the Greeks "invented" the contrapposto. We understand better than ever that we cannot apply gravity, pressure, compression and tension to opposing forces while simultaneously attempting to resolve this tension merely using an eye which has been spoiled by illusion. A feel for one's own body is also required, a feel for balance and space. Painting is hardly in a position to activate this sense. Illusionist sculptures also tend to distract the observer from this goal. For Mancke, however, sculpture must not trigger illusions, neither is it what it appears to be. Instead, in an absolutely concrete sense, it is what it is. This kind of formulation is not, in fact, misleading; rather, it indicates and activates a mode of perception that is threatening to atrophy. A feel for one's own body and a sense of balance are involuntarily linked to the need to experience space, for three-dimensional thought is always thought in terms of spatial forces. It is necessary to orient ourselves anew here, too. The colloquial notion of space as a unit comprising three directions, or dimensions, still reflects a conception that is long since out of date. It seems paradoxical to remain true to a static notion of space in linguistic terms, while in conceptual terms we can hardly grasp space as being anything other than a dynamic unit. Cognitive changes obviously do not perforce imply that circumstances will change as well. At the same time, such change is by no means completely novel. For example, when Brancusi pointedly refused to state the dimensions of his sculptures in centimeters, it must have had to do with this new, dynamic concept of space. Mancke's sculptures are likewise beholden to such a dynamic concept: While the core of the sculpture does not burst forth, in a dynamic sense the undulations of the surface and the contours of the edges nonetheless project far beyond their material boundaries.

Whichever way the viewer chooses to approach Christoph Mancke's abstract work whether he follows Joseph Beuys' suggestion quoted at the outset, or makes use of other possibilities today Hegel's demand for a balanced relationship between feeling and understanding within the observer who is experiencing the work of art, as well as within the artist who created it, still holds true as that which the object itself calls for. In order to forge an identity of "nature within us and without us", "on the one hand, clear-headed circumspect reason, on the other, depth of mood and animating feeling"1 must merge. Contrary to all initial hopes, an abstract formal language does not lessen the difficulties involved in achieving a satisfying balance between "reason and mood". Quite the opposite is the case. Form that is freed of all literary references has proven to be decidedly multi- valent and nearly brings about its own rupture. It attracts an astonishing number of questions and answers, in other words texts and theory. The attempt to master reality through discourse has become omnipresent. Given this, we need to keep a sharp eye open and constantly ensure that the faculty of vision is not unconditionally subordinated to abstract thought. After all, another mode of thought with intrinsic laws of its own is required to understand the sculptures: a mode which can only be translated into language with difficulty and never in its entirety, and which must be realised through the act of seeing. For the richest forms of sensory knowledge can only be experienced through perception. However, seeing itself, the most important prerequisite for perceiving "form" as content, as the "thing itself", cannot be delegated and has to be learned by each individual from scratch.

Strength and Violence

The Importance of the Material

The lion's share of Mancke's works was produced by casting iron. It seems almost anachronistic that today, in the era of plastics and microchips, a sculptor chooses a material which undoubtedly enjoyed its heyday long ago. Thus, for the artist, and likewise for the person observing his works, iron is obviously not a material selected at random, which could just as easily be replaced with another. Iron is too closely associated with certain images for it to be unconditionally classified as a possible raw material among many to be used for artworks such as bronze or marble, for example. Iron is associated with the images of ore, hardness, strength, weight and violence, but also brings to mind the important own economic and political functions it has had in the course of history. Thoughts come to mind regarding the industrial production of machines and weapons, which defined society. Iron is rife with meaning, teeming with qualities that cannot be attributed to bronze. There is a multitude of unique links and relationships between people, things and nature, art and society, that have to do with iron. Thus, even today the relationship between the cast-iron sculptures of Christoph Mancke and the physically taxing process of producing them is a dialectical one. The iron sculptures "aestheticize the material" which is used to manufacture tools, machines and tanks, for example, by stripping it of its functional role and employing it for objects that appear primarily at the visual level. On the other hand, the artwork undergoes an "industrialization" in that it is produced using the same materials and processes which enable the serial production of tools, machines and tanks, for example, as well as enable them to function . If we ignore that these procedures are simplified for the creation of artwork.2 Thus, even today iron unites aspects that would normally appear in quite unrelated contexts.

As we all know, iron has unmistakable surface qualities that contribute to tension; it possesses a "skin" that changes, lives, and reacts to external influences. It has a particular spectrum of colour, which runs the gamut from black-brown to a bright red. Iron sculptures that have been exposed to the elements reveal a surface with an organic appearance, reminiscent of the colours and structures of certain tree barks, or the patina of old leather products. This becomes particularly obvious when cast iron is contrasted with other materials. For example, a casting from 1990 leans as if it had grown in keeping with inscrutable laws, while nonetheless owing a great deal to the well-known forms of growth over a construction of untreated wood that is similar to a door frame, contrasting with it and yet forming a bond. Here, the soft, fragile material supports the hard, extremely stable, and tough substance. This in itself is also a formula. Wood is a material that requires little processing, so that the human touch is conveyed in particular through the construction; on the other hand, cast iron reveals the human presence within the material itself as well as in the form. Form and material together thus for the first time play a significant part in the presence of both soul and intellect.

Audible sculpture

There are numerous references to the relationship between abstract art and music. However, these references need not be taken too literally _ you do not have to train your synaesthetic capabilities like Kandinsky, or even think of a transposing an art form into two genres, such as Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688-1757) had in mind with his "Colour Piano". Furthermore, the conceptual, in other words linguistic analogies between abstract sculptural form and music are so well-known today that they really no longer need to be pointed out. Particularly in the field of painting, we speak of the harmony of colours, of colour tones, or rhythms, of the composition scheme of a fugue, melodic processes, and the like. These are all uncontested laws shared by music and the abstract language of form, which nonetheless cannot bring out what is special about abstract art. If this comparison nevertheless seems to suggest itself when contemplating Mancke's work, then it is for another reason. I am looking for indications of a way of listening to his work that is more the work of the soul than the product of the intellect. Our senses have become deprived because we are in the habit of immediately asking "what does it mean?" and no longer ask "what is it?". As a result, hardly anybody today has an ear sensitive enough to distinguish the fine difference between c-sharp and d-flat. What the ears are no longer capable of perceiving with respect to tones, the eyes have also lost in terms of colours and forms. The attempt to define everything in abstract terms harbours not only an opportunity, but also a great danger. For the "more capable of thought the eye and ear become, the more they come up against limits where they are senseless: Joy is shifted to the brain, the sensory organs themselves become dull and weak, the symbolic increasingly takes the place of being and we are just as likely to return to barbarism in this manner as in any other."3 Christoph Mancke places his oeuvre as a counter to this development. It is up to us to assess his achievement. For a sculpture is in essence what it states. This is ultimately something clarified by the observer, and is thus largely dependent on his prospects and abilities. In this sense, the work of art is an offer which is first finalized if we grapple with it using our senses, or which perhaps is first constituted by that act. If successful, it affords the observer the chance to gradually develop an artistic eye, because only an eye which has been thus trained is in a position to perceive more fully its own artistic power, and employ it in a creative way. Perhaps in the sense of a "social sculpture" in the definition Joseph Beuys provided. What all "non-artists" call form , in other words, describe as something external, is in the end "the thing itself".



1 Hegel, Friedrich, Äesthetik, (Berlin, 1955), pp. 163, 291.

2 Schneede, Uwe M., Introduction to the exhibition catalogue: Eisen- und Stahlplastiken 1930-70, (Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, 1970), p. 6

3 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches; Aus der Seele der Künstler und Schriftsteller, Vol. 1, p. 575