In our modern age art and culture are mainly seen as an expression of individual thought processes and in terms of the inspiration of particular artists. Yet they also were and still are expressions of the world view and values that society holds. Like the culture of most preindustrial societies outside of Europe, the culture of North American Indians was marked by an extremely close affinity to, and great respect for, nature.
At the age of twelve I eagerly devoured one Karl May novel after the other. What I met with there was less the original Indian culture or if it did appear it came draped in the clichés of a well read and highly imaginative German who had never set foot in America. But there was one strand to the stories that always struck me as authentic and which coloured my understanding of the Indian culture of North America from a very early age, and this was Karl May’s descriptions of the ignorant, unscrupulous and brutal ways in which white immigrants to the New World asserted their interests – power, land, gold, and then later oil.
So at the age of twelve I asked myself for the first time what had become of the original inhabitants of North America, where and how they were now living, what kind of role they played in American society and what now remained of their culture. Over the years I learnt a great deal more about this dark chapter in American history that at its heart also holds a piece of European history for the conquerors were European, as we know. I learnt about the demise of many tribes and their cultures but I also learnt about the survival of Indian traditions and wisdom in the reservations up to the present day.
That in the year 2019 an exhibition on Indian art is staged in what must be the leading art museum in the USA, is, I think, a step in the direction of historical (self) awareness that’s overdue by several decades. And that it was staged by a white curator without any involvement of tribal representatives – a move that has been rightly criticised by Indians – shows that even today there is still a distinct lack of everyday, practical, effective respect for this culture. What might the exhibition have looked like if it was the result of cooperation?
Even so, what it does show is well worth seeing. The American Wing of the museum hosts an enormous spectrum of Native American works, from superbly crafted objects for everyday use to ritual masks and cultural artefacts. The beauty and the meticulous care with which everything, particularly the everyday objects, was lovingly and skilfully crafted – baskets, quivers, shoes, jackets, clothes, slings for carrying babies – is impressive and also strangely moving as it’s an expression of a relationship not just to nature but also to time and life which we in the civilised frenzied world of the 21st century have mostly lost.
The exhibits speak for themselves. Yet I also found the explanatory texts that accompany them very revealing as they explicitly show respect for the resistance and resilience of the North American Indians in their struggle to retain their land and their culture. A culture that didn’t seek to dominate the Earth but saw itself as an integral part of it. Ruthless exploitation and depletion of its resources was inimical to the Indian culture which saw trappers shooting countless thousands of buffaloes for no other motive than their own amusement as a premonition of the demise of their own way of life.
So whilst the UN Climate Action Summit was debating, furiously squabbling and wrangling to find arguments and money, I was getting quite a different positive take on the climate issue – in the evidence of an almost lost culture which showed planet Earth great esteem and respect – two things which it now needs more than ever.
And so, in spite of the criticism it has received, I would see this exhibition as a belated but auspicious first step, as a sign of recognition and esteem. Perhaps in ten or twenty years there’ll be a jointly curated exhibition in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which will be visited and taken seriously by far greater numbers of people than now. I, for one, would love to see it.
To prevent any possible misunderstanding let me say that obviously the Indians were not some superior kind of people. The ideal of the noble savage embodied by Karl May in the figure of Winnetou is not something I would subscribe to. Yet I do believe that Indian art and culture does contain an important message for us in our dealings with the world and all its myriad forms of life. It has to do with our consciously shouldering responsibility for what we do and how we act, a responsibility based on awareness of the complex web of interdependencies that first gave birth to us on this planet.
In my view this vital climate issue of respect for our Earth and the future of coming generations is now finally receiving the attention that industrial society has increasing denied it over the course of the past hundred and fifty years. Through the simple realisation that we are not lords of the ecosystem, merely a part of it.
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise that we cannot eat money.” (Proverb of the Cree Indians). This iconic piece of Native American wisdom is made wonderfully tangible in the art of Native Americans. Respect.
You can find some photos of this exhibition here in the Photo Gallery:
Ludmilla Larusso, who by now is over 50, appeared youthful as she stood on the stage and sang. How come? It was her vibrant personality, her voice but above all else the tangible joy and passion she put into what she was doing. Compared to her many another candidate seemed truly “aged” even though several decades younger than she was. How can this be?
For me age is much more than just the sum total of the number of years you’ve been living. The question of age has a lot more to do with the question of what mental attitude you hold. And it’s this outlook compounded of curiosity and sheer zest for life and the knowledge that it’s never too late to make new discoveries that creates the energy that makes people young – whether they’re 15 or 50.
But what about the hard facts of biology, you might quite rightly object. Sure, they also play a part, and with creeping age there are many things that you can’t do as well and easily as when you were 20 or 30. Fortunately, however, we humans are also individuals and as such capable of encountering hard biology with a mental attitude which means that our lives are not necessarily over and done with when we reach 50 or 70.
Some people – even though still young in years – have already planned out their whole lives through to retirement and reject everything that doesn’t fit into their plan. Now you might think that this shows great purpose and is a perfectly sensible thing to do and shouldn’t be criticised.
To avoid any misunderstanding let me say that I am not criticising it. Everybody can and should live as they see fit in a way that makes them content as long as they do not hurt other people. And yet I think that this is a road which if followed can deprive us of a few wonderful opportunities which make life eventful and full of surprises. What otherwise remains is often enough just the surprises with which life confronts us and to which we often react helplessly when they torpedo all our carefully laid plans.
For me, trying something new and surprising myself has been a vital constant factor in my life. Naturally, you always have to first step back and see that what you want to do really is within your grasp, and that you really do want to do it. But when that is the case, then you should simply go ahead and do it. And if you don’t succeed, at least you can say you’ve tried. As far as possible at the end of my life I want to avoid asking myself why I never made any use of the great opportunities that came my way. This is why I’ve always given myself the liberty to tackle something new when the right opportunity arrived, and so far have never once regretted it.
And I like people who act in the same way. To some extent an artist must “begin afresh” with every new picture. Some artists might paint whole series yet again and again each empty canvas calls up something new. This is what I’ve seen personally in living together with OUBEY for over twenty one years. If OUBEY hadn’t been ready and capable of continually striking out in new directions as an artist, the body of work that he left behind would never have been as interesting and wide ranging as it is and would certainly never now fascinate and thrill such a great number of people across the whole globe. Each answer for OUBEY only called forth the next question. Nearly all people have this attitude during childhood. Only when they grow up they tend to shed it because they believe they know all the answers – at least the most important ones. This is an error because nobody ever knows all the answers. Wonder and discovery are just as important as knowledge.
And so it is that a certain Ludmilla Larusso on The Voice of Germany managed to bring the enthusiastic audience to its feet and the attentive coaches as well. Perhaps it helped her that in this show they sit with their backs to the stage and cannot see how old or young, big or little, fat or thin, pretty or less pretty a candidate is. They don’t know what this person looks like, they just hear the song. And Ludmilla touched people’s hearts with her song. It’s a wonderful example of how right Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was when he once said “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly”.
Age is not the result of adding up the years. Age is a question of vigour, openness and curiosity – in the heart and in the mind. There is always still time to learn, experience, and discover something new. Curiosity is an elixir that creates zest for life and by so doing keeps you young.
This principle is in accord with the building regulations in Alpach and is precisely what distinguishes this place from all the other villages in Austria. And it’s paradoxical because it’s the rigorous uniformity in the facades that gives the place its special character. Alpach is different because everything there is the same. It’s the uniqueness of the place that has made it famous and that draws in huge crowds of visitors.
But what about individuality in all thus unreal outward beauty? The individuality of the people who live in these houses can only be expressed behind the scenes. A strange world which somehow reminded me of the artificiality of the attractions in Disneyland.
Then I walked through the little cemetery of the village and I could hardly believe my eyes. It was like a thicket of elaborate wrought iron crosses each one the exact replica of the last. All the same height and the same width – only the names and photos of the deceased were different. Outward uniformity even in death.
But then I came across a grave that wasn’t quite the same. It was the grave of the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century whose work has always inspired both OUBEY and me and filled us with enthusiasm. And I found it rather moving in such a place to see that a respectful homage had been paid to such an extraordinary genius as Erwin Schrödinger by allowing his grave to deviate from the otherwise strict uniformity. Even in Alpbach an exception had been made for a man of such outstanding calibre. In that moment beauty for me was an opening onto the possibility of individuality.
Outward homogeneity can be seen as beautiful but can also take on an unappealing or even ugly form. Compared with the grim depressing facades of many modern apartment blocks and purpose built constructions in our cities, the outward conformity of the houses in Alpbach seem like a soothing benediction for the eye. Conversely, something is not automatically beautiful just because it’s individual or deviates from the norm.
So what is beauty? This is a question that much cleverer people than I have asked across the ages. Aspects of what constitutes beauty have been defined by aesthetics, by the natural sciences and geometry and also by manifold findings of psychology. What someone subjectively finds beautiful adheres to some extent to these definitions yet always remains a subjective perception. What you might find beautiful someone else might well find anything but beautiful. And this is how it should be because it’s an expression of human individuality.
In the Alpbach cemetery the principle of absolute conformity was bent to honour the extraordinary individuality of one single man and make an exception for him. And in this very moment it flashed on me once more that respect for the individual is the precondition for the creation of a beauty based on diversity. And such respect – it should go without saying – belongs to each and every person and not just a world famous Nobel Prize winner.
If architects, urban planners, landscape artists and designers of all strips would whole heartedly embrace this basic principle instead of following the dogma of bare functionality and minimal costs for maximum efficiency, the living circumstances of many people today would certainly be at least a lot less unattractive than they now are.
The brilliant design artist Stefan Sagmeister, who also created the award-winning MINDKISS book on OUBEYs art, will soon be opening a major exhibition in Vienna on the theme of Beauty. I certainly intend to see this. And perhaps I will gain some fresh perspectives there which I shall be glad to share with you on the social web or in this blog.
So when I was faced with the task of bringing his hitherto unknown legacy into the light of public attention, I was faced with rather a sticky situation because on the one hand I certainly didn’t want to fall into the role of becoming the one who – because of having some privileged access to his art – awakening the impression that I held the right keys to its interpretation. Yet on the other hand, naturally, I wanted to act in a way that OUBEY would have approved of and I wanted to remain faithful to his spirit. In short, I wasn’t the slightest interested in furnishing explanations. What did keenly interest me though was how I could succeed in placing his pictures in a high-quality process of discovery from a manifold variety of alluring perspectives. Would the opinions held by an art expert or another artist be conducive to such a process?
My considered response to this question is NO! What I did do was to travel with his paintings to meet people whose professional lives were concerned with dealing with much the same themes and issues as OUBEY: astronomers, astrophysicists, biologists, mathematicians, quantum and complexity researchers, musicians, philosophers, and composers. Throughout his life OUBEY had always engaged with the findings of these disciplines on a very high level. And as these encounters progressed I came to realize how right I had been in my decision to take this particular course.
“I have to warn you. I know absolutely nothing about art” – this was often the first thing people said as they prepared themselves to encounter an unknown work of OUBEYs in front of a running camera. And in each and every case my honest answer was always the same, “That’s great. This is exactly the reason why I’m with you here today with this painting.”
“The sense of immediacy is the decisive factor for my paintings“ OUBEY once said. Immediacy springs from the direct unfiltered emotional encounter between the painting and its viewer. This is exactly the hallmark of the “Encounters“ with OUBEY, that can be seen online as a video documentary. They show an exceptionally broad and enormously variegated spectrum of insightful and spontaneous resonance – free of any of the claims and pretensions of art expertise.
When we talk about art, we mainly think of painting. However, let’s think about music, for instance, and the myriad possibilities people now have of listening to music whenever they want and as often as they want. This doesn’t work with painting. I can certainly look at paintings in my home or online or as illustrations in a book on art – yet it’s pretty difficult for me to do so whilst riding a bike or walking or taking part in some other activity, all of which are situations where it’s perfectly possible to listen to music.
Music reaches people in a much more direct and simple way than any other form of art. This doesn’t just apply to music delivered by media: live concerts have their own particular quality and emotional dynamics which are worlds apart from those of an art exhibition. Yet the music business too naturally has the filter function of expertise which is similar to the art expertise of art experts in galleries or on the art market.
Even so, ever since people have been able to post their own musical presentations online on YouTube, a type of freedom has been established, a type of democratization that was unknown just a few years back. Everybody can upload, everybody can download. Views, likes, shares and downloads are expressions of immediate reactions to things heard or seen by a broad worldwide audience.
Obviously you could now object that all this is nothing more than just “the tastes of the masses”. Yet you might do well to remind yourself that behind every single one of these reactions stands an individual who likes or doesn’t like what they hear or see. This is indeed not at all easy to transfer over to painting. Yet the experiences I have made so far in using the internet to broadcast OUBEYs art have only strengthened me in my resolve to continue using this exceptional and innovative conduit and to gradually broaden the resonance space thus created.
Sure, it’s something fine and important when art experts voice their opinion on works of art. Yet it’s equally fine and important that you first form your own opinion. This makes it all the more interesting when you subsequently listen to what the experts have to say and can compare their opinion with your own. And often enough, we shouldn’t forget, different experts can have wildly differing opinions on the same art work.
This is why I find it good that people going to museums first take the time and freedom to contemplate the exhibits and then ask themselves “What kind of thoughts and feelings does this picture trigger in me? What do I personally read and see in this picture?” Because no matter what kind of intellectual considerations may play a role in such a process, it’s first and foremost always an emotional reaction that connects us to a work of art.
The over 30,000 year old drawings on the walls of the cave at Chauvet in the south of France that were discovered about 25 years ago and thankfully revealed to us by Werner Herzog in his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams awaken in spectators a thrilling feeling of immediacy despite the huge gulf of time that separates us from the moment of their creation. It’s as though we were pitched at a dizzying height traversing huge gorges of time on a spiritual rope bridge, as though the limits of time were abolished in the moment of viewing.
These prehistoric wall paintingss stand for themselves. In this sense they are similar to OUBEYs art and are also related to it in another sense in a highly individual way. They are hidden treasures that have remained untouched and unseen for a certain period of time. Their existence in concealment confers on them a freedom of a kind that can scarcely be found today. This freedom is implicit in them and transfers to us when we view them. We can discover them, enjoy them and let them work on us in a rare kind of pure immediacy.