Clemens Fürtler, 2013
born 1966 in Mödling, Austria; lives and works in Vienna
The painter as Artifex
The work of Clemens Fürtler is often thought of as being identical with his Bildmaschinen (image machines), whereas he sees himself mainly as a painter. There may be several reasons for the cause of this misunderstanding. On the one hand the monograph on the work of the artist from 2009 already carries Bildmaschinen in the title. Even though the book in no way omits looking at the painting of the artist, it is the Bildmaschinen that are his main consideration. On the other hand the focus of the public on these works of Fürtler is due to their spectacular appearance. With them he occupies an absolute singular position in contemporary art. There is no work of art that even remotely comes up with anything like this. As a result, Fürtler’s Bildmaschinen are looking in two directions like the Roman god Janus. In relation to his painting they look forward and backward. They have developed out of his painting, and to the present day his painting is developing from them.
From 1990 – 1995 Clemens Fürtler studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, completing his studies with a degree. Then he was faced like every artist today – and the young in particular – with the Lenin Question: »What should I do?« In his case that meant nothing other than finding an answer to the question: »What should I paint?« The times of commissioned art are long past. Contemporary artists commission themselves. To some extent that goes with the professional ethos.
To give young, talented artists time for reflection and for inspiration, the state or foundations award some of them scholarships and residences. In 1998 Clemens Fürtler lived for half a year as an artist in residence in Kathmandu in Nepal. From day one of his stay he became acquainted with the almost suicidal, seemingly unregulated traffic and its hellish din, which even for a European accustomed to metropolitan traffic flows was absolutely astounding and took time to get used to. Nevertheless, behind the chaotic dramaturgy of the street, the young artist soon recognised a system, whose fascination for him grew ever stronger. Fürtler remembers: »Through being occupied with urban life in Kathmandu, my interest increasingly centred on traffic, its social relevance, great diversity, and daily gruesomeness, but also on its intrinsic aesthetics.«1 Like in a brutal epiphany the artist had found his subject. In Nepal Fürtler painted veristic, semi-documentary pictures that bore witness to the traffic situation in the city. Their colours are clear, their forms pure, as if he wanted there and then to reveal the platonic primal scenes behind the specific situations he was depicting: behind the picture the idea. The perspectives of his paintings are often film-like, such as when the view in Nepal 04 (1998) looks onto the street from the inside of a car. They make clear that the artist is using a camera to record and sketch out his impressions. The artificialness of his painting, already beginning to manifest itself, its purism and reduction, become stronger in the pictures of the following years. When the painter is depicting completely empty motorways in Süd-Ost-Tangente 01 (2001), in Kurve 01 (2001) and also in Kurve 08 (2005), they seem so artificial despite all the realism, as if they had wandered out of video games onto the canvas. Their dynamism reverses the relationships. Instead of the absent cars, it is the roads that are racing.
Little wonder that Clemens Fürtler had the idea of his first Bildmaschine around the year 2000. Like all the subsequent installations, he built it out of old model railways and model motorways. No easy thing to get the parts, long out of fashion, of the Faller and Märklin companies, but with the years the artist has developed into an ever more skilful collector. In doing so, he is not at all driven by an interest in producing an authentic toy world that tries to faithfully capture traffic situations from real-life in the model. The outmoded material that he selects for his constructions is already turning away from the simulacrum. When the half-life of technological innovations is becoming ever shorter, Fürtler’s Bildmaschinen seem more like archaeological monuments to modernity than models of actual rail and motorway systems. That is true to the sensibility of the artist. Instead of mimesis his Bildmaschinen are about autopoiesis; instead of closeness, distance. Nevertheless, the viewer follows the installations of tracks and roads with the vehicles racing around them with sympathy. Attached to his subject matter, it seems that Clemens Fürtler has also constructed his works with similar sympathy. In both the production and the perception of his Bildmaschinen the motif of play is at work. Friedrich Schiller knew about it: »The most earnest material must be so handled that we retain the capability to exchange it immediately for the lightest play.«2 And on the players he wrote in his letters Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man): »Man plays only when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.«3
However, the fact that in the light play of Fürtler’s Bildmaschinen there is underlying earnest material there can be no doubt. On the endless loops of his Bildmaschine 01 (2000 – 2004) or free standing tracks of his Bildmaschine 03 (2008) miniature trains and cars race around as if in a Kafkaesque universe in Sisyphean overexertion. There is no destination, only a continuous journey. Fürtler’s play worlds, which seem so harmless, are menetekel for the senselessness of our existence, for which no merciful god any longer predetermines the way or direction. In particular, when we look into the cube of Bildmaschine 02 (2006) covered with a spyglass, we may be seized by a claustrophobic dizziness. The cars speeding like monomaniacs on its tracks are permanently being chased by their own reflection. Reality and virtuality can no longer be distinguished from one another. The old philosophical problem of reality and illusion has been staged by the artist here in a completely new way that is as virtuous as it is poetic. If the toy cars in Fürtler’s installation were people and could think, they would feel no different than Prince Sigismund in Calderón de la Barcas’ play Life is a Dream. They would not know whether they are awake or dreaming. Whether they and their world are real or indeed just fictive. This split that goes through our consciousness is staged in an even more spectacular way by the artist when cars and trains race through the night on illuminated tracks, being filmed in the process: by miniature cameras mounted in the bodies of the vehicles; by a rotating camera standing in the installations; or by recording cameras guided by hand. In the alternation between light and shadow, roads, rails and arc lamps appear large and sharp in the black-and-white picture again and again, only to become small and insignificant fractions of a millisecond later in another perspective. They become blurred and dissolve until a constellation of artefacts looks like a congregation of ghosts. If Clemens Fürtler ever had the intention of using his Bildmaschinen to enact Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he could not have thought of a better strategy or more powerful dispositif. Often enough the photographs and films that the Bildmaschinen portray leave us in doubt about the status of their images. When looking at them, one might further ask »To be or not to be« along with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It is by now clear why Clemens Fürtler calls his objects Bildmaschinen (image machines). Because they are not only themselves images, but at the same time also produce images. Images for his photographs, his films, and – very important – for his painting. The first paintings of the artist that were inspired by the motifs of the Bildmaschinen show us colourful, flowing painting whose contours increasingly dissolve. Bildmaschine 01/1 (2006) depicts clearly recognisable motorway tracks in a brightly glittering backlight, which in the foreground of the work causes them to partially coalesce. In the paintings Bildmaschine 01/7 (2007) and Bildmaschine 01/9 (2007) of the following year, the course of the roads and rail tracks is much more blurred. It is as though, in order to paint them, the impressionists had strayed into the twentieth-century, and had learnt Pop Art for their metier. So that afterwards they could put a reality into the picture whose impression is influenced by the epochal experience of speed. This experience already filled people with mortal fear on their first railway journey in the nineteenth century. To calm them, the assurance, apparent after numerous repetitions, was needed that on such journeys it was rather seldom for something to happen. However, the subliminal fear is always there. Because space and time were then being experienced for the first time on a massive scale as relational variables and therefore as uncertain. Reason enough for the literary scholar Elisabeth Lenk to find: »In the railway journey modern consciousness was born.«4 In the dissociations of the images of Clemens Fürtler, the »chocs«5 (Walter Benjamin) of this original experience are subsumed like their cushioning in the coalescences of his painting.
Bildmaschine 06 (2013), which the artist has created during his residency awarded by the ZF Kunststiftung, is of imposing proportions. A grid-like, steel cube holds four intertwined motorway loops, whose routes are as clear as they are complex. A little like that of a Möbius ribbon. The work is 255 cm high. The cars that chase each other on these tracks are moving on an endless one-way road. Fixed in a motion that is set in its constancy and knows no development. Here the moment stretches to eternity; motion and rest become confusingly similar. If the formula of the social philosopher Paul Virilio of the »racing standstill« as a diagnosis of our time were ever to become a valid image, then in Fürtler’s work. Like the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno, the cars of his Bildmaschine are condemned to do the same in perpetual repetition so long as the driving electricity flows. When looking from above into the work the viewer is seized by vertigo. He thinks he is looking into the vortex of an Edgar Allen Poe maelstrom.
A little different is the situation portrayed in the painting Bildmaschine 06/1 (2013), which was inspired by the Friedrichshafen installation. We are looking from the side into the Bildmaschine and can recognise two of its loops in the detail. Fürtler’s painting does not directly reproduce the object, but concentrates on its reflection in a window. This superimposes the contours of the Bildmaschine over one another in many and various ways on the canvas in a deceptive play of light and shadow. The impression is as confusing as it is aesthetically appealing. The picture space that the artist opens up is at the same time blocked again by complex tiers and levels. In the horizontal it is intersected by the sweeps of the motorways. Relative to them the vertical raster of the structure of the Bildmaschine sets a rather static counterpoint. The painting is full of contradictions. It is static and flows, is sharp and blurred, bright and dark at the same time, and has a palette of fascinating grey tones. On the one hand it acts like an emblem for the complexity of our society that was stated years ago by Jürgen Habermas. On the other hand, with its oppositions held in harmonious balance, it appears to positively challenge us to intellectually unravel it in its make-up. This quality is shared by the painting with a silkscreen series by Clemens Fürtler also inspired by the motifs of the Friedrichshafen Bildmaschine. They too, in their grey Pandemonium, ward off the shadows and ghosts of a parallel world. In these sheets, when the artist moves his printing processes – which extend sequentially from bright to dark − by a minimal amount to the end against each other, he creates even more spatial confusions, which become a school of seeing for the viewer. Precise cognition demands acuteness. In the evolution of Man it was necessary for survival. Earlier when on the chase in the steppe, today in the chasing traffic.
For this year’s Biennale in Venice Clemens Fürtler constructed his Bildmaschine 04 (2013). Its form is that of a planet. Once more the artist built it from model motorway elements of the Faller brand. It forms a double spiral and rotates endlessly in a black cube about its own axis. Built-in LEDs illuminate the empty streets of the planet. No car moves on them, no people walk on them. As a still, luminous monument the planet seems even more ghostly than any of the Bildmaschinen produced before it. But at the same time there is also something sublime about it. As if it needed only the absence of Man to restore an order that in the bustle of the world seems to have long since been lost.