Sebastian Neußer - It is not just the whole that is in question

                                           It is not just the whole that is in question


The visual arts currently evidence a characteristic that is, in its radicality, a consequence of the developments of the last quarter century. Whether the genre is painting, drawing, photography, sculpture or performance, artists today generally present themselves as apolitical, and any attempt to take a critical stance is viewed with disdain as an antiquated attitude. The current dictum appears to be: Provocation is welcome, but no politics, please, for that would be kitsch. Throughout the 20th century, one avant-garde movement followed upon another, and each time all efforts were turned anew toward achieving liberation from old bonds. Artists worked in the service of an ever-shifting range of interests. Now, however, art enjoys a state of autonomy, a condition that is vehemently defended.  No ominous ripple of personal conviction is permitted to muddy the smooth surface of the politically indifferent work of art. Against this background, artists usually mutter things about letting their work speak for itself, about how there is no need for them to actually say anything. After some initial euphoria, however, we are becoming distinctly more sober. We are beginning to look for meaning, relevance and a relationship between art and societal reality.

            Cynicism and irony, as recently as the 1980’s, provided a way to approach a topic through the back door, under cover as an agent of subversion. Such artistic strategies made it possible to take a position, albeit slightly shame-facedly, for or against something. But the shelf life of such strategies is over. Overall, art has become harmless; it damages neither itself (it can be universally deployed in spaces ranging from non-commercial off-spaces to large corporate-financed museums) nor others (it excuses itself from the need to take a clear position). Jutta Held has recognized the pitiful state in which art, formerly such a revolutionary medium, finds itself these days, observing that a political stance or even a reference to political events is considered an expression of artistic naïveté. Whenever it seeks to formulate a counter-position to the capitalist status quo, she summarizes, art makes itself look ridiculous.[i]

The title It is not just the whole that is in question is taken, slightly transformed, from a text by Herbert Marcuse that received much attention in the social and cultural sciences during the late 1960’s.[ii] Marcuse’s critical observation of society refers to the totality of individuals, groups and institutions, to their ways of functioning, their history and above all their multi-layered processes of interaction and conflict – he called “the whole” into question. Social change, he argued, is systematically prevented by the subordination of political needs to the satisfaction of the greater economic good. One is almost tempted to bring up the fact that art has a long history of political engagement, although not without mixed feelings. On the one hand, Mia Unverzagt’s artistic work is anchored in the tradition of 1960’s critical theory; on the other hand it brings up to date the feminist approaches that were particularly influential in the 1970’s. Her photo documentary projects, staged photographic work, drawings and spatial installations are linked by an attempt to make societal faultlines visible, to draw our attention to the irrationality of the whole and to test the conventions of photographic images. With her explicitly critical approach, this artist refuses to make use of simple patterns of reception and to accept the status quo as a valid context. She foregrounds confrontation, consciousness-raising and the exposure of structures that cripple us.

Her art acknowledges its political function and seeks to sharpen societal awareness of the discrepancy between what is and what could be. She attacks the illusion of the beautiful image; using a small-format analogue camera, she creates grainy images that draw our attention to the production process. She chooses not to work with digital processing or complicated lighting. She not infrequently chooses to cut up, perforate, embroider or otherwise embellish the prints, and she presents them unframed as a way of expressing the materiality of the photographs. She illuminates the smooth functioning of the whole – in a sometimes unsettling way. Of special importance to her are the ways in which the individual is caught in personal, familial, geographic, gendered and national pre-formations. With her critical art, she interrogates the situation of the individual in our society, but her photographs neither show moments of individual defeat nor didactically set forth the ways to liberation. She is interested in those movements toward resistance that allow us to see the structures that determine all aspects of our lives. For Jacques Rancière, art is “resistant” when it works with an eye to an end that it cannot itself yet attain and with an eye to people who aren’t here yet.[iii] Whenever art seeks to prescribe solutions to societal problems it is seeking to imitate politics and is destined to fail; in such cases art fails to recognize its own possibilities. It is precisely the indeterminate moment of revolt that carries the power to orient oneself anew and thereby transform one’s own reality. “To say that art resists, then, means that it is a constant game of hide-and-seek between the work’s sensual expressive power and its power to mean.”[iv]


Slapping the Flowers (2010)

The woman gazes uncertainly into the camera; her timid smile hardly disguises the discomfort she feels in her own skin. Her decision to take a rather unusual action has been made, and now she must do it with her head held high. The plan is for her to strike out at the cyclamen plant’s pink blossoms and decorative pot, but the respectable gold jewelry that adorns the woman’s throat and ears, along with a twin-set that is color-coordinated to the project, lead us to suspect that acts of violence against humans, fauna or flora are considered inappropriate in this living room with its matched “rustic oak” furniture set. Plants, as the neatly embroidered tablecloths also indicate, serve to decorate home and garden and are signs of a loving hand that knows how to brighten the bleakness that at times characterizes our daily lives. The gardener with the green thumb cares almost tenderly for the houseplants and worries not about wasted time or effort.

We want our surroundings to be appealing so that we can rejoice, after our work is done, at how homey our own four walls feel. We know that in the long run, only constant vigilance can guarantee successful homemaking. The cyclamen is traditionally Germany’s favorite houseplant, although in recent years the orchid is making inroads. This economical and easy-to-care-for plant on our coffee tables bears almost no resemblance to its Alpine ancestors, for apparently only the most beautiful and above all most resistant breeds can withstand the harsh conditions of everyday life. The economics of modern life call for a plant that likes room temperatures of about 20 degrees Celsius, prefers moderate sunshine and can, from time to time, survive a long weekend without watering.

The flower appears as the homeowner’s alter ego; almost certainly she at some point in her childhood copied one or more sayings about these blossoms into her treasured album of verse: “Be like the cyclamen plant that grows in the moss, modest and pure and not like the proud rose that seeks always to be admired.” For Herbert Marcuse, the needs of modern consumer society are “false needs,” and their excessive satisfaction leads to “euphoria in unhappiness.”[v] Happiness, unhappiness, joy, relaxation, love and hate take place only in accordance with bourgeois standards, and any deviations are societally sanctioned. It is not so much that violence is fundamentally unacceptable – this is not why the woman’s blows run counter to dominant values. Rather, the problem is that in this case violence is seeking a path that lies outside of societal logic. Slapping the flower is not just a meaningless act of destruction; rather, it gives rise to uneasiness because it shatters the peace that arises from a bourgeois aversion to conflict.


Wait until you are called (2010)

At first glance everything is almost the way we imagined it when we were children: Villa Villekula with its wooden veranda, inhabited by Pippi’s horse, who in the movie version got spotted flanks and the nickname “old man”; Tommy and Annika, who once again come visit in order to flee the loving petit bourgeoisie of their parents’ home; a romantically overgrown front yard that reminds us of balmy summer evenings in Sweden, and an aunt who at reliable intervals keeps disturbing the anarchistic idyll and threatening to send Pippi, or rather Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter, to the state children’s home. This house reminds us of our wistful longing for the world-famous house from Astrid Lindgren’s book for children, but here the house is sad and gray. Some of the windows are boarded up, the beams are a little too rotten, and a depressing modern brick building at the rear property line disturbs our enjoyment of the picture. The whole thing is just a façade, a set, where a girl and three boys, bored and painstakingly costumed, soberly and silently try to keep up the appearance of a certain ideal.

In this picture we do not find the carefree lightness of its literary source, the qualities that made Pippi Longstocking one of the most beloved figures in children’s literature. This success was no accident, for the stories turned the reality of ordinary children’s daily life upside-down. Pippi lives or at least dwells alone, if we use bourgeois standards to judge her. She has a horse, a monkey and a big sack of gold,  and she is stronger than all her grown-up adversaries. Nobody can make rules for her, as her mother is dead and her faraway father is a king in the South Seas. Hers is a counter-world to the rigid patriarchal societal order in which fathers pursue their professions, mothers care for children and home, children are raised to be good fathers and mothers and the currency of good appearances is universally accepted. Just about every child is familiar with the parental or school rule of waiting until you are called upon. Both sides have to work hard to shape a child’s impulses until they fit the societal framework precisely. After a long day of orders and prohibitions, oddly enough, at bedtime we read our children the story of the obstinate daughter of a seafaring captain and thus present an apparent contradiction to the moral code they experience during the day. However, if we look closely at Pippi we find a generous helping of bourgeois values even in her situation. It is true she lives alone, but she doesn’t get lost in chaos, for joyful housekeeping orgies with scrub brushes strapped to her feet are among her favorite activities. Everything functions, unconventionally at times, but smoothly and in a socially acceptable way. And after all, Pippi has her loving father’s gold to thank for her freedom, and no one seems to hold it against him that he leaves his daughter to her fate for the sake of his career abroad. Who would have any sympathy for a mother who left her child behind in order to become a queen in the South Seas? No, the mother had to die in order to integrate the story with the fragile morality with which the young readers are being presented. This scene, set up in order to demystify the idyll in which Pippi, Tommy and Annika live their lives, reminds us that one-sided idealizations of particular societal models are not an acceptable way of eliminating conflict and contradiction as necessary aspects of living together.


¡Está Bonito! ¿Es peligroso? – ¡Cómo no! (2009)

The drawing ¡Está Bonito! ¿Es peligroso? – ¡Como no! (2009) (Isn’t it beautiful! Is it dangerous? – But of course!) is essentially a basic blueprint, but one that draws attention to the power of outside forces to shape our daily lives. In modern societies, living spaces are organized not primarily according to the inhabitants’ needs but rather as required for the most efficient possible rhythm of daily life. Living spaces without indeterminate open spaces become merely a foundation for productive value creation. Life in standardized living units, however, is not generally perceived as a severe curtailment of personal freedom. The true image of our society, according to Marcuse, is one of a “circulus vitiosus,” a vicious circle in which everything expands by itself in a previously determined direction and precisely those needs are produced that society in its existing form can satisfy.[vi] In terms of architecture, this situation is expressed in the fact that almost all blueprints for living spaces are absolutely comparable. Kitchen, bedroom, playroom, living room and bathroom not only stipulate the narrow scope of uses that are possible but also confirm our deeply rooted notions about the statistically appropriate 3.3-person family. The only real possibility for choice seems to be an expansion of the family by adding a dog, a cat or a goldfish, unless the rental contract itself determines what pets can be selected. Although people’s ideas about their lives have changed significantly during past decades, the basic plans still look, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung put it, as if the whole country were still spending Saturdays sitting together on the sofa watching Wanna Bet?.[vii] In the drawing ¡Esta Bonito! ¿Es peligroso? – ¡Como no! contourless watercolors overlap with the clear shapes of the blueprint. The use of color breaks through outlines and delineations and, as an expression of individual energy, stands for the unused capacities of a human being who is hemmed in by external expectations. Rigid rules and accepted beauty ideals are not harmless tendencies within the tastes of individuals, but rather become dangerous when they cause us to lose our ability to see what is essential.


Aprons (2007)

The photo series Aprons shows a middle-aged woman, dressed in slippers and a big apron, in an otherwise empty apartment. Her colorful domestic garment coordinates oddly with the wallpaper patterns around her. About this piece, Hartmut Wagner has written: “Is she, with her kitchen apron, a part of her own background? Is she in the midst of a metamorphosis from a three-dimensional person into a two-dimensional phenomenon that is merging with the wallpaper? [...] The human individual, reduced to an image, disappears; subject becomes object in an empty room.”[viii] The home’s emptiness draws attention to the processes of standardization and functionalization that shape our cultural view of woman as housewife. This woman is part of a ruling system in which comfort, order and satiation are considered irrefutable evidence of general well-being. For 1960’s critical theory, the pure form of human bondage was existence as instrument and thing. The fact that a thing imbued with life does not even feel its thing-nature if it exists as “a pretty, clean, mobile thing,” was considered a terrible sign of dulled perception.[ix] Today’s homemaker seems so far away from the housewife who put on her floral apron in the morning in order to prepare breakfast for husband and children in a matching wallpapered kitchen. With pity we look back at the woman of the 1950’s and are relieved that now we have Ikea and designer outlets, and that things are just generally so much better today. Essentially, however, not much has changed, as individual thoughts and wishes continue to be overwhelmingly socially determined. Exhausted yet constantly rushing around, people pursue a paradise of consumption that they have created, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible by surrounding themselves with impeccable objects. Life in a kitchen apron, then, is not just a matter of attire.



Caring for the mushrooms (2010)

The decision to take care of something or someone results from a worried feeling that a situation could, without care from the outside, stagnate or even deteriorate. Children and pets are classic recipients of selfless care. And not infrequently we hear of people who are available to care for laundry, hair or even toenails. Altruistic concern is generally considered a positive character trait in a world that seems to be growing increasingly more egotistical. Those who do not appreciate help from outside, even when it is unsolicited, or who go so far as to reject such help, are considered ungrateful – after all, we were just trying to help, and what could be wrong with that?

In Caring for the mushrooms, a man, alone in a remote area of the forest and dressed only in a surgical gown, is lost in thought, his entire attention turned to the mushrooms of the forest.  Carefully he investigates them as a whole and pays special and worried attention to a few particular mushrooms that either are a little farther away from the others or seem to him to be in need of special care. Even though germ-free attire makes little sense when working on the forest floor, his odd garments recede into the background of our attention: The gown’s color coordinates well with the dense mossy areas and the leaves, and besides, his deliberate actions remind us of an experienced surgeon’s precision work. As is the case with medical treatments, the goal of the procedure is not necessarily evident to the layperson; in any case, he is not gathering mushrooms. Mushrooms, which are often considered part of the plant family, are actually much more closely related to animals. Only the above-ground fruiting portion is visible to the eye, yet most of the mushroom grows underground. Sometimes there is an enormous web of fungus down below, but its size can only be surmised on the basis of the above-ground growth. The man’s unusual preoccupation with the solitary life of this colony of mushrooms, which are probably not even edible, raises questions about what activities are generally acknowledged to be useful and profitable. We gather mushrooms in order to eat them, we walk in the woods in order to keep in shape, we do yard work in order to have a well-cared-for yard. Straying from these prescribed paths is socially neither desirable nor tolerated, for it could cause the secure scaffolding that supports our ideas about the world to start swaying.



We’ll talk about it later (2005-2009)

The photo performance We’ll talk about it later, which was held in various places and on various continents, consists of portraits of people speaking about very private feelings. Social conventions offer hardly any ways of articulating such personal matters; the subjects’ expressions and gestures show how strenuous it is, even for the physical body, to address topics that have been defined as taboo. The work powerfully demonstrates that even individual thoughts, hopes and fears, as Marcuse once said, are subject to social determination.[x] Viewing this work leads us to a deep understanding of the processes involved in the telling, even though we learn nothing of the content of the narration. This work, however, is not at all about the distanced and voyeuristic pleasure of a consumer watching the experiences of another person. Rather, the unusual eye-level contact we have with the subjects brings these unknown individuals closer to us. By opening up aspects of personality and personal experience that society otherwise represses, a fundamental refusal of oppressive conventions of interaction is expressed here.

We could formulate this situation in even stronger terms, as Rancière does, to go beyond an acknowledgement of more or less fixed conventions and assert that society is in fact structured by a rigid “compartmentalization of the sensual.” Bodies are assigned identities that determine what is visible and speakable and what is invisible and unspeakable. This division is always marked by a rigid set of rules that work to stabilize society in an existing form. Our perception of the world depends on “the places that individuals occupy in space and time and that assign them particular social functions, types of activity and ways of speaking.”[xi] The question of the relationship between art and politics is often fruitless simply because we have no agreement about what “politics” or “political” mean. In her art, Mia Unverzagt tests aspects of the social order, or she exaggerates them or turns them into their opposites. She questions the compartmentalization of the sensual, and her portrayal of confrontations between natural equality and socially determined inequality open up unfamiliar realms of experience that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. Rancière writes that politics is the conflict around the question of which subjects participate in the “specific space occupied by matters of shared interest” and which do not.[xii] Art is political when it helps us work through this conflict. Both the whole and the parts – the parts that determine the whole even as they are determined by it – must be called into question.



[i] Cf. Held, Jutta: Einführung: Politische Kunst – Politik der Kunst, in: Frohne, Ursula; Held, Jutta (Ed.): Kunst und Politik: Jahrbuch der Guernica-Gesellschaft, Volume 9/2007, Göttingen 2008, P. 9-13, here: P. 11.


[ii] Marcuse, Herbert: Der eindimensionale Mensch: Studien zur Ideologie der fortgeschrittenen Industriegesellschaft (Orig. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston, Mass. 1964), ed. Maus, Heinz; Fürstenberg, Friedrich, Neuwied and Berlin 1967.


[iii] Cf. Rancière, Jaques: Ist Kunst widerständig? (Orig. Si l`art résiste à quelque chose?, Fortaleza, Brasilien 2004), ed. Ruda, Frank; Völker, Jan, Berlin 2008, P.11. Rancière formulates this thought in response to writings by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.


[iv] Rancière 2008, P. 18.


[v] Cf. Marcuse 1967, P. 25.


[vi] Cf. Marcuse 1967, P. 54.


[vii] Cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung, June25/26, 2011, No. 144, P. 13.


[viii] Wagner, Hartmut: Kittelschürzen, in: Sproutbau, ed. Team N; Vogelsang, Christina, Bremen 2009, P. 62-63.


[ix] Cf. Marcuse 1967, P. 53.


[x] Cf. Marcuse 1967, P. 16.


[xi] Cf. Rancière 2008, P. 95-96.


[xii] Cf. Rancière 2008, P. 77.


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