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Manuel Graf, Woher kommt die Kunst? oder: Die Blüte des Menschen, 2006
Courtesy: VAN HORN, Düsseldorf Photo © Daniela Steinfeld, VAN HORN, Düsseldorf.


by Kirsty Bell

How do high heeled shoes and odd ceramic teapots impinge on the “Social Question” as formulated by Rudolf Steiner? What can we learn from the micro-movements of water particles about society at large? In his quasi educational presentations and quirky videos, Manuel Graf posits an active relationship between model and theory, whereby the means of illustration themselves become dynamic theoretical examples. Analogies ripen and multiply: making and thinking can be one and the same, believes Manuel Graf.

A pair of shoes with rainbow striped platform heels and tiny golden anchors is displayed on a metal stand. Next to it, on a smaller wooden plinth, is a square ceramic tea pot and a little cup. A bright spotlight on another metal stand fixes the display under a fierce glare. Meanwhile, on the wall behind, a large framed photograph shows a woman in hot-pants wearing the shoes while raising the teapot to pour into the cup. These are not just objects for their own sake, we are told; they each have a function: a shoe, a tea pot. So what is at work in the self-conscious display of this pointed vignette? An advocacy of the civilized rituals of the tea ceremony? Or the aesthetic effects of the impossibly high-heel? A reactionary return to the pleasures of hand-made ceramics and individually crafted shoes? The key to its intent is the book the model holds in her hand, hiding her face while displaying its title: a copy of sociologist and urban commentator Richard Sennett’s Handwerk. In this much acclaimed book (The Craftsman, in its original English version), Richard Sennett discusses the role of the craftsman as a study of the relationship between the individual and society: “the craftsman exemplifies the special human condition of being engaged”. In Sennett’s expanded terminology, almost anyone can become a craftsman, and craftsmanship itself can become a way of life in which the work of the hand informs the work of the mind. Craftsmanship is a fundamental method of “working well”, which develops self-respect and a sense of community: “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and to become good citizens”.

Manuel Graf’s shoes and tea pot are, therefore, not just on show as commodities, the results of good craftsmanship in terms of the quality of their design or finish (although this is undoubtedly the case: each pair of shoes can take up to two months to make), but rather as illustrations of a larger debate about work as an investment in society, whereby personal engagement in work becomes a social act.

Manuel Graf, Woher kommt die Kunst? oder: Die Blüte des Menschen, 2006
Courtesy: Johann König, Berlin.

Social theory, such as that of Sennett, or Rudolf Steiner, plays a special role in Manuel Graf’s work, which initially concentrated on architecture, and took the form of short computer-animated videos, combining tricky special effects and vigorous musical accompaniments. But here too Graf was interested in architecture as a model for ways of living. An early film, Ping Pong (2005) featured 3D virtual models of Steiner’s Goetheanum, Greg Lynn’s Blobitecture inspired Ark of the World, and Friedrich Kiesler’s Endless House, in an investigation of various models of architecture as a progressive, and theoretical tool in establishing social models. As the physical framework of so much lived experience, architecture has a unique potential to shape social relations. Graf’s interest lies not in the architecture for its own sake, as much as its potential as a tool for articulating alternative visions of society.

Graf’s work turns on this idea of the model, and how the object, while fulfilling certain functional requirements, can also be read as an illustration of some larger ideological concept. Though the task of illustration is much maligned in relation to fine art, Graf embraces it as a strategy full of illuminating potential, using each work as a way to illustrate a chosen theory. In the 2006 video, Über die aus der Zukunft fließende Zeit [About the Time that Flows from the Future], Graf films Ekkehard Wallat, a picture-perfect professor complete with white beard and cravat, describing the complex evolutionary theory of Otto Heinrich Schindewolf, a contemporary of Darwin. Filmed in black and white, it looks like an Open University broadcast from the mid 70s, but Graf has added graphic illustrations which appear as the Professor gesticulates with his hands: first two rows of human skulls which show their development across the ages; then a schematic plant which produces schematic leaves and blossoms as his hands gesture. The theory he is explaining, about time flowing in two directions – both growing old and growing young – seems, thanks to these graphic enhancements, to suddenly make sense.

Manuel Graf, Über die aus der Zukunft fliessende Zeit, 2006
Courtesy: Kunsthaus Baselland & Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Viktor Kolibàl.

Professor Wallat appears again in the recent video Buchtipp, 2009, this time presenting a book called The Sensitive Chaos, by anthroposophist and water researcher, Theodor Schwenk. Schwenk’s theories about water as the quintessence of life, and its remarkable physical properties are summarised by Wallat, until floating arabesques of smoke begin to fill the screen, and three small figures like water sprites appear, hand in hand. Their sinuous movements, and those of their reflections, swathed in spirals of smoke, mimic the back and forth rhythm of water particles, in time with an esoteric a cappella soundtrack. When exhibited, the film was projected on the wall, while the book was presented on a table opposite, spot-lit as the star of the show. Through the stand-in of Wallat, as model Professor, and the various methods overlapping methods of illustration and presentation, Graf demonstrates the power of analogy in disseminating, articulating and understanding philosophical thought. In this way, his work is almost anti-abstract, as it strives to articulate in many divergent ways, the core principles of a baffling notion. The issues at stake here are how to access, articulate and engage such ideas today, when truncated attention spans and information overload are the norm.

In the video and installation Qu’est-ce que c’est la maturité, 2008, analogy is taken to the tautological limits. Glass pedestals display eccentric spot-lit ceramic objects: a wonky tea service in the form of a cluster of Tudorstyle buildings; a turquoise pot and cups with knobbly orange protrusions. A projected video with a jaunty soundtrack, meanwhile, refers to these same objects. The Tudor-style pot revolves on its axis in a haze of wispy twisting smoke ribbons, to the rhythms of a hesitantly played waltz. There is something unsettling about the surfaces of the objects however, which upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be computer renditions: even the spotlights themselves are digitally reproduced. In one section of the video, a version of Archigram’s Plug In City is recreated using bamboo spindles and oranges to represent the living pods. The pods multiply to the accompaniment of wobbly, electronic sounds, which alternately speed up and decelerate, as the oranges shrivel and drop off, in a scene of bizarre tautological emphasis. A final section shows a hybrid carousel, part fruit-tree, part ornament, with miniature pairs of shoes dangling from its golden chains. While the exact meaning of these cryptic arrangements remains obscure, the two poles established by the juxtaposition of traditional forms of production (hand-made ceramics as much as Tudor architecture) and technological simulation (convincing versions of reality created entirely within the virtual realms of the computer), suggests a two way flow of time not unlike that proposed by Otto Heinrich Schindewolf. Both models exist concurrently: a perpetual drive forwards towards even greater technological innovations, and a reactionary look backwards, embracing nostalgic forms of production.

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