04.09.2014 - 18.10.2014
Günther Uecker (°1930, Germany) writes poetry with nails. Though an everyday household tool, the nail has become an emotionally charged object for Uecker. Growing up in East Germany during World War II, he was marked by many traumatic experiences that would later influence his artistic practice and the way he faced life.
During the war he blinded the windows of their entire house with wooden planks in order to protect his two sisters and mother from possible attacks. This duality of the house being brutally attacked to be saved, made a strong impression on the young Uecker, who was afraid he might never see this house, his home, again. The aggressive, yet necessary act of hammering nails into planks to keep the inside of the house sheltered from the outside world, would inspire Uecker to tell the story of his – and the world’s – trauma in a language of nails. The paradoxical meaning corresponded strongly to how he had learned to see the world and man’s place in it.
The nail symbolizes the paradox of “healing by hurting”. In daily life, the nail’s force is dual. It’s used to heal, hurt, mend, break, strengthen, crack, hold, damage, construct, destroy…Uecker was not the first to understand and use the paradoxical character of the nail. In cultural history we find it to be a recurrent tool used in rituals. Uecker’s use of the nail does not only refer to his personal trauma, but is also charged with the anthropological history of this object.
Probably one of the clearest examples of its ritual use is found in Christianity. The nail is one of the instruments of the Passion of Christ, used to crucify the Son of God. Nails were hammered into Christ’s hands and feet, leaving wounds that would heal but nevertheless forever remind of Christ’s suffering. For Uecker, who is much inspired by religion, a work of art carries the same metaphoric meaning and power as the wounds of Christ inflicted by nails. A wound makes us aware of the origin of pain and suffering, of its inevitability in the course of life and an almost grim premise for growth. But a wound also comforts because at the same time it awakens the empathic desire to heal. In other words: in order to heal, one needs to be confronted with the wounds.
The paradox of the nail is also recognized in African culture. It is, for instance, the main element of the “nkondi” or nail fetish, made by the Kongo people of West Central Africa. “Nkondi” derives from the verb, –konda, meaning “to hunt”; they are used to hunt down and eliminate evil and have the power to heal. The village’s “nganga”, or shamans, who charge them with spiritual power, sculpt these often human or animal-shaped fetishes. By hammering nails into the figures, the spirits inside are violently awakened; they are enraged and full of energy to attack whatever spirit causes the pain.
As an artist, Günther Uecker is in a way also a shaman, one who is hypersensitive to the universal energies floating between and linking people and things. He sees connections and causes that are hidden for others and manages to transform them into his personal nail fields of energy, somewhat comparable to the “nkondi”. It’s his goal as an artist to heal and protect, even if this requires a process that’s violent and painful. His works are instruments that help us to deal with our emotional responses to what happens in the uncontrollable world in which we live, confronting us with our vulnerability and at the same time protecting us against it.
Uecker describes himself as a seismograph, always in tune with the flow of life. Especially in the 1980s, the artist started to react more and more directly to concrete situations happening in the world in his work. His works became more chaotic and violent as a reaction to the global crisis. For instance his Aschemensch from 1987 was made as a reaction against the nuclear explosion of Chernobyl. Uecker used ashes and coal on canvas to create comforting Ur-figures, primal symbols that inscribe the disasters into the history of the world. The figures also remind of the contours of the dead bodies left on the pavements of the streets after the explosion. Again inspired by religion – “from dust to dust” – Uecker used ashes because they are a metaphor of a cathartic, cleansing power. Ashes represent death, but also the possibility to rise.
The Aschemensch is also a kind of self-reflection and literally a self-portrait of the artist, who made the work by moving around his own body in ashes on a horizontal canvas. This wild act of covering himself with ashes reminded Uecker of the many corpses washed ashore from the sunken ship SS Cap Ancona, on the beaches of the Ostsee, which he was forced to bury by the Russians as a 14-year old boy. With his Aschemensch Uecker tried to cure both his personal existential trauma and the trauma of the world.
In the same year, Uecker made his Sturz series. With these works again he expressed deep experiences of injury, grief and failure. The nails were driven more violently, in chaotic arrangements, and he covered the canvas in black paint and even used an axe to cut the work in half. The aspect of destruction was pushed to a limit. The visible wound kept on growing proportional to the need to awaken the people’s consciousness that a positive change and rethinking of the world had become essential in order to survive.
As a counterpoint to the violent works, Uecker made his Feld series. In these works Uecker’s emotions seem stilled. Here again, he returns to more geometrical patterns. Squares and rectangles are completely filled with nails that are often covered with a soothing white paint, which reminds of the kaolin used in African culture to add qualities of purity and invulnerability to an object or person. In Africa white also meant a gate to the world of the ancestors. The speed with which Uecker drove in the nails to create these works, combined with the light creating a play of shadows on the result, gives the Felds a very vibrant and energetic character. They are like waves in a calming breeze.
Uecker considers his nail fields as self-portraits. They are his personal meditations. Like the other works they are open and vulnerable, but in a different way. In the Felds the nail loses its violent character and becomes an object of meditation, a focal point to concentrate on, drawing you into the vibrating Feld of Günther Uecker’s mind.
Günther Uecker is the co-founder of ZERO, a German avant-garde created in 1958. Together with Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, Uecker felt the urge to react against the subjectivity dominating the art world at that time. They believed contemporary art had become incapable of providing a right answer to the disasters of the World War and the trauma of Germany’s complicit role in it. ZERO wished to make tabula rasa and start anew by concentrating on pure abstraction and working mostly with natural “materials” like light, wind, movement, fire, etc. in order to eliminate subjectivity from art and to merge art and nature.
In recent years, the worldwide interest in ZERO has increased. This should not surprise, because with today’s world reaching its limits, ZERO art is comforting: it’s the proof that new beginnings are possible, even when things seem to have come to a traumatic dead end. In 2014 and 2015 many international exhibitions will be devoted to ZERO. In October 2014, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opens a large-scale retrospective ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s. In March 2015, another ZERO retrospective will follow in the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin that will travel to the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam later that year in July.
Being an important inspiration to our gallery’s philosophy, Axel Vervoordt Gallery chose to work with Günther Uecker for the inaugural exhibition in Antwerp in 2011. Today we are proud to present his second solo show at the gallery. The show opens on September 4th and runs ‘till October 18th 2014.