“Czas nasz | Unsere Zeit | Our Time” is a collaborative exhibition organized by the Albertinum museum of modern art in Dresden and the Four Domes Pavilion in Wrocław. As part of this event, the German audience was given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with sculptures by Magdalena Abakanowicz from the collection of the National Museum in Wrocław, and at the same time, the Polish audience could admire the installation “Sandmühle” (sand mill) by Günther Uecker and analyse it in detail. Both artists have a lot in common. Not only were they born in the same year (1930), but their works are based on numerous metaphors related to existentialism. Curators of the exhibition: Iwona Dorota Bigos and Konstanze Rudert said that: “[t]he enslavement of humans, their anguish, entanglement and weakness in the face of violence, and at the same time their capacity for destruction, are the subjects explored both by Magdalena Abakanowicz and Günther Uecker.” While taking a closer look at the “sand mill” I talked to Iwona Dorota Bigos about the artistic activities of Günther Uecker.
Wojciech Delikta: I would like to talk about the technical aspects of this work first. How can we classify the “Sandmühle” by Günther Uecker from the formal point of view? What were the steps of preparing this work to be displayed in the Four Domes Pavilion in Wrocław?
Iwona Dorota Bigos: “Sandmühle” is a wheel with a diameter of six meters, and it is made of river sand. The sand is constantly being ploughed with strings of different lengths which have knots at one end. The strings are attached to two long wooden boards which turn around setting the strings in motion. What sets the boards in this monotonous motion is an electric engine placed in the middle of the sand circle. The strings which are pulled behind the boards rake up and even out grooves in the sand. The hypnotic, mechanical sound of the engine and pouring sand complements the entire picture. What comes to your mind first when you see it? How much this installation resembles a treadmill.
WD: The “Sandmühle” presented in Wrocław is not the only work of this kind which was created by the same artist. Günther Uecker has been regularly creating similar “sand mills” since 1966. I personally remember his work presented at Mediations Biennale in Poznań in 2008. Since these installations are assembled in situ, what are the differences between their subsequent re-editions?Hungry for more?
IDB: The very first “Sandmühle” was created in the mid-1960s. It embodied the artist’s interest in natural materials, such as: sand, wood, and stones. If you want to know more about his inspirations for these works, you should familiarize yourself with Uecker’s performance art. In a film called Günther Uecker, Arbeiten 1957-1977 (Günther Uecker. Works 1957-1977) from 1978, we can see the naked artist crawling on the beach and leaving traces of his sliding movements in the sand behind him. We can also see him running in a circle around a stake that he is tied to and observe him leaving tracks behind and destroying them at the same time. Later in 1974-1975, Uecker referred to walking in circles in his paintings entitled “Im Kreis gehen” (Walking in circles). They were painted with the artist’s feet covered in paint. A circle or a wheel is a geometric figure which the artist has been consistently using in his works. In the film I just mentioned we can also see a “Sandmühle” which is located on the beach, so it is much different than the work presented in the Pavilion where there is only limited circle of sand being ploughed. Back then the perimeter was marked only with the grooves made by the strings moving around.
Beaches and sand are crucial elements in Uecker’s art. He returned to the places he knew as a child on many occasions and revived the World War II trauma. At that time, he was a teenager who had to bury decomposing corpses thrown away on the beach that, in fact, were bodies of passengers of Cap Arcona ocean liner sunk on 3 May 1945.
It is true that the artist normally assembles new “mills” himself on the spot and uses materials related to a given exhibition venue. In Wrocław, sand taken from the Oder River which flows near the Four Domes Pavilion, was used for this purpose. At this time however, due to the pandemic and issues related to health of the artist who is ninety years old already, as well as taking into account his arrangements related to an exhibition in Paris (it is worth emphasizing that the artist is still very active on a professional level), Günther Uecker did not manage to come to Wrocław and build a mill or, as he sometimes calls it, “a horsewhip” himself. Another artist who has been closely cooperating with Uecker for many years did it on his behalf, based on detailed instructions.
WD: In the early 1960s, Günther Uecker joined the ZERO Group, which included artists exploring the topics of kinetics and luminism, moving away from any subjectivity and emotional background. What were the characteristic features of works by Uecker created in the period when he was a member of this group? Rute Merk
IDB: Here I need to put you right on this. It was the year 1958 when Günther Uecker participated in an exhibition by artists associated with ZERO magazine for the first time. It was the 7th edition of a one-evening exhibition organized at the atelier of Macke and Piene, entitled “Das rote Bild” (A red painting). I think we should quote what Uecker himself said about this collaboration:
Günther Uecker, photo by Arkadiusz Podstawka
“Sandmühle” (sand mill) by Günther Uecker, photo by Arkadiusz Podstawka
“Sandmühle” (sand mill) by Günther Uecker, photo by Arkadiusz Podstawka
“Sandmühle” (sand mill) by Günther Uecker, photo by Arkadiusz Podstawka
Franziska Leuthäußer: Although ZERO has very often been seen as a group, it is obvious that it was a group of artists making exhibitions together, rather than an art group.
Günther Uecker: It never was a group. It was a pragmatic association of artists who wanted to arouse global interest in their exhibitions. Exhibitions were usually what I organized because Macke and Piene used to work as teachers and since early morning they were busy in a secondary school or a fashion school. This meant they were only able to work on our projects at night. This is why it was me overseeing transports and assembling the exhibitions abroad. My task was to make everything run dynamically since the other two were limited because of their work elsewhere.
FL: Why is it always claimed that you started working with the ZERO Group only in 1961? How was this particular date determined?
GU: At that time, I painted the street in front of Galerie Schmela white, and on the occasion of the exhibition I made a hot-air balloon ascend, as well as placed a zinc bath there which was later knocked over by Beuys because he was kind of excited.
So, in general, activities carried out by Uecker at the time, when he was a member of the ZERO group, were diverse and included happenings, for instance: creation of monochromatic and structured painted objects, creation of pieces which modulated, reflected, and produced light effects, or pieces made of parts of scrapped machinery and other industrial artefacts. Uecker’s interest in optical effects was certainly inspired by the ZERO group. Not only this medium but all mediums which the artist used had a common feature, namely they were supposed to be what made up artworks devoid of signs of the artist’s efforts. The striving for freedom from the gesture procedure was one of the ZERO group top priorities. This was also the main aspiration of informalist artists earlier on. The works were not supposed to depict the condition of their creator but were rather aimed at making the audience intensely perceive physical phenomenon. In this way artists moved to the background, and the foreground was taken over by the audience.
WD: There were references to the Far East philosophy in works by members of the ZERO group. Uecker’s activities in turn are often viewed as rituals or purification. How does “Sandmühle” fit in this context?
IDB: The aspiration to avoid lyrical artistic gestures stemmed from the Buddhist “zen” philosophy. The core of this philosophy (the emptiness which is full and complete at the same time) was particularly important to Uecker. As we all know that zen is the path and not the goal. Through meditation along the path, we move away from our own selves, which normally disturb us and do not let us live our life to the fullest. The symbol of zen is Ensō, which is a circle painted with a single stroke. This is where we can see a clear reference to the “Sandmühle”, as a circle that is being created and destroyed on a continuous basis. When we look at this work and listen to it, we can easily immerse ourselves in a contemplative atmosphere. Nevertheless, I would not analyse this work solely in the context of Buddhism. When it comes to this particular piece, the artist actually allows a broad spectrum of interpretations. Openness is one of the most important features of Günther Uecker’s art. Thanks to it we can see this work in many new contexts and keep it relevant to our times. Obviously, it can also be seen as a result of ritual and purification. Admittedly, the first mill was created by Uecker before he started travelling around the world, so before the period that followed his participation in the Venice Biennale in 1970. During these journeys the artist participated in various rituals and religious practices on many occasions. Already at that time he was truly interested in the ways people outside of Western Europe perceive the world.
Although Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof was forced to postpone the retrospective of Katharina Grosse “It Wasn’t Us” due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to resist looking at and wondering about her immersive installations of saturated colours which we will hopefully experience in person in the near future.
WD: Günther Uecker is one of the avant-garde artists, the movement which came about, as he claims, “…due to artists striving for independence, out of an attempt to overcome chaos, destruction and oppression, to prevent humans killing humans.” Oppression and suffering seem to be the topics which often reoccur (although in a non-obvious way) in his œuvre. Is it due to the topics touched upon that we still can perceive Uecker’s works as pieces discussing the present times?
IDB: The main topic of works by Günther Uecker is human beings, their nature and their negative aspects. This topic resonated in Terror Orchestra installation, which was a set of sound and visual objects created in the 1960s. One of the pieces is the famous “New York Dancer” from 1964. It is a kinetic object which resembles a human figure in a cage, covered with colourless sheet set with long nails. The centrifugal force resulting from very quick turns makes the sheet rise upward, which turns the nails into dangerous thorns. The figure looks as if it was dancing like a dervish in a trance. “Elektrischer Garten” (Electric garden) (1966) is another instrument of the “orchestra”. This object is shaped like a nail locked in a cage. When high voltage electric current is applied to it, deadly lightning is produced. The objects I just mentioned were used by Uecker in a legendary “Creamcheese” club (1967-1976). In its manifesto he claimed: “I want to show the society which runs away from themselves in the place they desire.”
The expression “Gefährdung des Menschen durch den Menschen” (The threat to human caused by human), which you referred to, was a title of another manifesto from 1983 that was published following a series of works entitled “Verletzungen – Verbindungen” (Injuries – dressings). Günther Uecker is a politically and environmentally engaged artist. He presents problems of contemporary humans just like seismographic observations, for example in his “Black Mesa” from 1984 and “Aschenbilder” (Pictures made of ashes), which were created two years later in response to the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. Unfortunately, these works are by no means less relevant today than they were back in the 1980s. Destruction of local cultures and the natural environment, as well as the risk of other nuclear accidents, are what we should not stop watching for.
The exhibition by Uecker entitled “Der geschundene Mensch” (A tormented human), which was presented in a lot of countries including Poland (in 1998 it was presented in Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw and in BWA Wrocław Gallery) is another crucial manifesto. It shows the portrait of the artist but also serves as an attempt at presenting the general condition of humans. The project is very moving, and it inspires the audience to practice deep reflection. Sometimes Uecker placed the “Sandmühle” in the same exhibition space, so it was shown in yet another, completely new context.
WD: The fact that Günther Uecker used ephemeral, natural materials with metaphoric connotations brings to mind possible references of his works to works by Italian artists representing Arte Povera movement or works by American post-minimalism representatives. This is not, however, what you emphasized in your “Czas nasz | Unsere Zeit | Our Time” exhibition, which explores the connections between Günther Uecker and Magdalena Abakanowicz. What are these connections?
IDB: Günther Uecker claims that the sources of his art do not come from art, and this probably is the starting point which inspired the analysis of these two artists in relation to each other. When Magdalena Abakanowicz created her works, she mainly referred to her experiences, observations, and her own perception of the condition of humans [note from the editors: the “Crowd” series composed of 26 figures and the work entitled “A Cage” are presented in Dresden. Both works are part of the collection of the National Museum in Wrocław]. What obviously strikes us are similar materials used to make works, very often the recycled ones. Other parallels are the system of creating series of works and direct involvement of the artists in the creation process, which often requires physical strength to assemble. A most important challenge for me was to show two artists from the same generation who experienced the atrocities of war yet strived to create art against all odds. Moreover, the artists were passionate about human nature, its imperfections and wary of the danger that it may bring about. Although works by Günther Uecker have been presented in Poland before and, in general, he is an internationally recognized artist, he is not very familiar with the Polish audience. The same refers to Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose works are still perceived as quite exotic by a large proportion of German art enthusiasts.
The spaces of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery have been recently filled with tasteful works of an ever-so-slightly controversial nature – textiles. The ambivalence with which the medium is approached stems from the blurring of lines between traditionally understood art and craft; handmade designs and conceptualism. ‘Art_Textiles’ aims to restructure our perception not only of the medium, but of its shifting application in contemporary visual arts.
The collection of works by Magdalena Abakanowicz in the Four Domes Pavilion Museum of Contemporary Art – branch of the National Museum in Wrocław
The National Museum in Wrocław takes care of the artistic output of Magdalena Abakanowicz, the most prominent Polish female artist of the 20th century. The Museum boasts the biggest and the most representative collection of works by Abakanowicz in the world. The Museum collection includes 53 works, the majority of which are sets of works composed of multiple elements (393 objects in total). The collection documents the artistic activities of Magdalena Abakanowicz starting almost as early as her debut and finishing with works created at the beginning of the 21st century. The Museum holds, among others, the famous large spatial objects – abakans, as well as the outstanding series of figurative sculptures from the Crowds, Backs and Seated Figures series created through decades. The collection also includes unique pieces, such as: War Games and Rope with Wheel.
WD: “Czas nasz | Unsere Zeit | Our Time” is a collaborative exhibition. The Four Domes Pavilion organized exhibitions in cooperation with international museums before, for example: the exhibition of paintings by Otto Mueller, sculptures by Henry Moore, or works from the collection of Erich Marx. What other international partnerships we can expect in the future?
IDB: Currently we are working on a huge exhibition entitled “AbakanowicZ. Totalna”, which we hope to be able to present in the Four Domes Pavilion at the end of this year. We would also like to present this exhibition in other European countries. There are plenty of ideas for cooperation with other institutions and with artists, whose works we are interested in. Time will definitely come for new exciting projects.