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.
Another brilliant coup by the artist Banksy in which he succeeds yet again in laying bare the absurd mechanisms of the commercial art market for all to see. To fully appreciate this you have to know that Banksy is a street artist who attaches great importance to the impact that his graffiti and art performances have yet who refuses to take part in the speculative games of the art market. His independence is much more important to him than fame and riches.
So it’s even more astonishing that his Girl with Balloon has now been put up for sale at Sotheby´s auction house and at the very moment that the picture was bought by the highest bidder it self-destructed and so became worthless. But this is exactly where Banksy shows himself to be such a brilliant debunker – because in such a system is a shredded picture necessarily a worthless picture? This case shows that the very contrary is true – it increases, even substantially increases, in value. And so the shredded picture becomes a kind of magnifying glass through which we can view the absurdities of the commercial art market close-up and as they happen.
As an artist as soon as you engage in this speculative art market system, you can hardly avoid becoming entangled in its coils, and run the danger of gradually exchanging your inner freedom for money. This is the reason why I don’t sell OUBEYs pictures. They were created in the greatest possible spiritual freedom. And I wish to conserve this freedom for them and also for myself in what I do. They don’t need to have any material value put on them in order to assert their value as works of art. Naturally, the position taken by Banksy and the intelligent consequences of his actions are a deep source of pleasure for me. He too has set his sights not on sales but on impact and public perception.
When he does sell, the transaction becomes enveloped in a kind of aurora of enlightenment. Take, for instance the time when an anonymous seller at a stand in New York’s Central Park sold passers-by original Banksy works for 60 dollars. Whoever bought a picture by an unknown artist from this stall did so not because they were buying a “Banksy with expectations of a rapid increase in its value” but because they were buying a picture they liked. Banksy taped this action and published the video – much to the chagrin of all art dealers who had missed this unique opportunity to make a killing. Unquestionably, they would have dearly loved to resell these works at a vast profit.
It would even seem that Banksy had given away his Girl with Ballon with the proviso that the receiver would never put it up for sale. A test balloon to show how strong the counterforces need to be to withstand the blandishments of the art market. Counterforces such as “respect for the wishes of the artist”; “appreciation of the mark of trust shown in bestowing this gift”; or simply “love of art”.
Apparently such forces were not as strong as the magnetic attraction of the art market on which the picture became yet another item for auction.
Despite the very different character of his work – in their free spirit, their need for autonomy and the marked distance they keep from the art market, OUBEY and Banksy are very similar. Both of them have resisted the powerful attraction of the art world. OUBEY mainly did this to paint the pictures that sprang up in his head without being in the slightest influenced by expectations from the outside. Banksy does it so that his works might debunk, demystify, and criticise but also bring his art to that place where he thinks it truly belongs: among people who cannot afford expensive art.
Whoever believes that the higher value of Girl with Balloon after the picture self-destructed means that Banksy’s action has missed the mark or even achieved the contrary effect, is quite wrong.
Because it’s precisely this increase in value that shows just how strong the power of speculation is, and that the spotlight here is not fixed on art. Rather it’s the market that annexes art just as it pleases. Even when that art is destroyed.
Banksy´s coup was perfect. In its unique way it is a clear demonstration of how the market functions, how it twists and turns, adapts to circumstances and eventually triumphs. Whether you find this good or bad is another question. But it’s clear that this is how it is. The goal which was to reveal this has been achieved. The whole world is talking about this stunt and it won’t be forgotten so quickly.
For animals of the first generation, brought in from the wild to one of this world’s zoos, the loss of their liberty must surely have been a dreadful thing to bear. Yet even animals of the second and third generations who were born in zoos still carry within them this gene of liberty.
The gene of liberty is not exclusive to wild animals. OUBEYs art too, in a certain manner, also bears its imprint.
OUBEYs pictures are expressions of his indomitable free spirit. Unimpressed and unmoved by the rules of the art market, he only ever did what seemed important to him and right so that in a figurative sense you can say that this free spirit lives on in his paintings. And when I was wondering what would be the best way bring OUBEYs paintings to public attention after his early death, one thing became evident very quickly – that they had no place in the circus of the art world. Their proper place was much more “out in the wild” where they could enjoy the kind of freedom that was their birth right and display themselves in public free of and unrestrained by all the common modes of perception. This is why I brought the paintings to settings where art is not usually found – like an international management conference.
The annual conference of the Peter Drucker Society in Vienna examines social and economic issues of management. Art is not usually high on its agenda. Yet when the president of the Society heard of my ENCOUNTER Tour, he suggested that OUBEYs art should be shown at the next conference focussed on “Managing Complexity” – in a context lightyears away from any museum, and stripped of any kind of explanation or even explicit reference to the paintings. In other words, a context where they could be discovered and explored in a kind of natural “out in the wild” habitat. The topic chosen for the conference was a happy chance because “complexity” is of central importance to OUBEYs art. I gladly accepted his offer. And so in November 2013 two of his paintings were suspended in the space between two giant classical pillars while four other paintings found their place in a narrow corridor on the aluminium doors of cloakroom lockers. What do you think happened?
At first all the people at the conference were largely involved in discussing the concerns that had led them to the conference in the first place. However, the conference covered two and a half days and, gradually, without any prompting, more and more people appeared in the corridor where the pictures were hung to look at them, put on the headphones and watched the Encounter Videos. Even though no effort was made to attract visitors, the level of interest steadily rose – as did the readiness to encounter a previously unknown painting in front of running cameras. Such Open Encounters are an integral part of each stopover of the Global Encounter Tour and are especially fascinating. By the end of the conference in Vienna there was such a queue of people waiting to take part in an Open Encounter that we had to organise an extra shift. Who knows what would have happened on a third day …
This extraordinary opening was also an opportunity for me to see what a strong appeal OUBEYs art held for these people. This really impressed me and also reassured me that my decision to show his art “out in the wild” had been the correct one. Because even if museums do play a major role in ensuring the conservation and accessibility of art and display art in optimal settings, it’s still a marvellous opportunity to experience art finally freed of this context in the setting of a cloakroom corridor where you can view it close-up and directly and form your own personal opinion.
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.