Karl Bodmer’s American Indians
If my earliest work was influenced by Antonin Artaud’s hallucinatory and hieroglyphic drawings, then my earliest life, as a child in the provinces of Austria, was utterly shaped and, in my mind, sanctified by the solemn splendor of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer’s watercolors, aquatints, and handcolored lithographs of North American Indians. Commissioned by Prince Maximilian zu Wied- Neuwied, Bodmer was tasked with the responsibility of recording, in hundreds of sketches and watercolors, the Journey into the Interior of North America, Prince Maximilian’s scientific expedition to the Upper Missouri from 1832 to 1834. These images—which I found in my father’s library—were like icons of vanished cultures, but ones that still produced a radical shimmer. The faces of chiefs and warriors of the Plains Indians tribes, including the tragic Mandan, the Moennitarri, the Blackfeet, and the mighty Dakota Sioux—all reflected a lost, but deeper life. Romantically informed (or rather misinformed) about Native Americans—through my beloved books by the German Karl May and the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper—Bodmer’s works seemed to contain a fiercer truth-content and to cast a darker spell. There was a certain tone in the bewildering otherness of these wonder-wounded images, and I endlessly tried to copy them onto paper and into my day dreamings. Little has changed since that time. I still keep coming back to them for solace, for my study of spirits—these troubled shadows, my saints, are always with me.
Hans Jürgen von der Wense
Composer, translator, poet, aphorist, photographer, and wanderer Hans Jürgen von der Wense was born on the 10th of November 1894 in Ortelsburg, East Prussia. One day before his seventy-second birthday, Wense died in Göttingen, Germany, leaving behind numerous diaries, thousands of photographs, six thousand letters, and thirty thousand loose sheets of writings on natural history, mineralogy, poetry, folklore, music, and the weather. His writings, which were filed in hundreds of binders and arranged alphabetically, comprised three major works: Epidot, a collection of fragments, the Wanderbuch, on his walking, and the All-book, an encyclopedia—but only fifty pages were ever published during his lifetime. A brilliant polymath and radical genius, like Artaud, Nietzsche, or Mahler, Wense lived among libraries and landscapes, without academic or familial consolations—often in near poverty—but canopied by his fever-longing to excavate and share the forgotten splendor of the things of this world. Radical, also, in his wandering, Wense is believed to have walked nearly 42,000 kilometers, or the equivalent of once around the earth, within just one hundred square kilometers of the Hessian and Westphalian highlands. I first discovered his writings through a small book titled Epidot, which was published by the legendary German Publisher Axel Matthes in 1987. Further extracts from Wense’s universe would very slowly follow over the next decades, through the tireless efforts of Dieter Heim (Wense’s close friend and the executor of his estate), Matthes & Seitz, and Blauwerke. There is, in his work, no ivory tower scenario, no flight from living, but instead the will to see, at any cost, the radiant truth of the universe, which he wanted to inventory in its totality—in its most natural state. Hans Jürgen von der Wense was to me the last, and dearest, in a great tradition of visionaries. A nomad between the various sciences, cultures, and literatures of the earth—he is a man who could have been invented by Borges. Yet he lived and was his own universe—marvelous and homeless as the storm.
I have written elsewhere about my studio as sanctuary space. It is my place about all places and all times—a sort of garden arranged with totems. Outside is nature (the leaves, animals (mostly birds), the light from the sky). Inside are slow sounds—often from the beginnings of recording history—mono spells and cadences. They set the tone and give the soul structure while I am working. It is here that I sit with my drawings and small paintings, at an old green table, which is strewn with excavated things—simple stones, some twigs, and black dust. Many little pieces of sandpaper and burnt matches. A rickety chair and scrapbooks beside it—for mining. Piles and walls of books—from old dover editions on the histories of sailors, soldiers, and fanatics, to volumes about occult experiments, exploration breakdowns, stories of vanished things and dreams. One can find books on Russian and Byzantine icons, primitive arts (both European and non-European), the old masters, the insane, the anonymous, and the forgotten. Tomes on myth and meanings, on patterns and archetypes. Entire landscapes of sacred things in monographs on the isolated and inimitable works of Hercules Segers, M. K. Čurlionis, and C. F. Hill. On the walls: a paradise chart from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a friend’s image of a ruin, a broken daguerreotype. A continuous coming and going of new works—mostly landscape fragments these days. Silver lakes, white plants, inscriptions, traces. Slowly crafted sinking signs. The eclipse. I have moved my studio many times: from Vienna to New York, within the boroughs of New York, and away from there after more than twenty years to a more silent place with fewer people and more sky.
Look at the small flame of a burning match and contemplate the charity of things that have souls. A match is a tool for starting a fire. I have loved fires, fireworks, and christmas sparklers since my childhood, and have spent hours staring at the dancing and talking blue-yellow tongues. As a boy, I kept matchbooks and matchboxes hidden under railroad-tracks, for further use—secret smoking. A note in a Chinese text from 1366 already describes a sulfur match. The (anti) heroine and murderess in Aki Kaurismäki's Match Factory Girl works, of course, in a match factory—no coincidence, fire is a radical element and, like most beautiful things, dangerous. Think of the theosophist, thought-form theorist, and activist Annie Besant, who wrote in protest about the working conditions of British match factory girls, whose little graves still shimmer from the white phosphorus that killed them. Hans Jürgen von der Wense wrote somewhere about Pope Pius XIII and his hymns to the match. I have always been moved by the wonderful design of matchbox covers from all over the world, but this love is not about collecting, it is about the countless (and, therefore, cheapest) matches I have burned up in my studio for esoteric and practical reasons. I burn my watercolor paints into lines of drawings, with little flames, that eat into paper, like tattoos. This breaks things down, to give them life, and brings forth a sort of Hauchkreis patina of smoke. A black square gains life from flames—becomes a mirror, a sky, or a lake. Remnants and revenants.
Adelphi Edizioni & Matthes & Seitz
I grew up rather futureless, in an Austrian working class environment, near the Hungarian border. When I was a child, everything seemed incomprehensible, except fields, forests, animals, and books. I hated school, but reading was always a sanctuary. How would I have survived without Robert Louis Stevenson, Huckleberry Finn, or The Last of the Mohicans? Later, as a teenager, I chanced upon the writings of Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud, in elegant editions published by Matthes & Seitz. Alongside Bataille and Artaud, I began to read other books from the Matthes & Seitz catalog, and every author would point to another, every book speak of another, and so forth. Eventually I was led to the marvelous writings of Roberto Calasso, and the books he published at Adelphi Edizioni. I have now been living in America for almost 27 years and have worked with books for that entire time—yet the houses of Matthes & Seitz and Adelphi remain, in my mind, the principal publishers for resurrected or invented secret influences, solitary visionaries, radical shimmers. It has always seemed to me that Axel Matthes and Roberto Calasso have absorbed into their minds and hearts what their authors—from so many different lives, ages, destinies, and cultures—are pointing at, like ghosts or gods. Axel Matthes's marvelously thorny essays and radical observations have long stood in as fatherly advice. I have used Calasso's books and his essays en miniature—with which most titles of his Biblioteca Adelphi are introduced—as essential navigation charts. In closing, I’d like to share a few of my very dearest discoveries from the islands of Adelphi and Matthes & Seitz: Simone Weil, Robert Walser, Jürgen von der Wense, Guido Ceronetti, Emily Dickinson, W. G. Sebald, Marcel Schwob, Hans Henny Jahnn, Jorge Luis Borges, Gottfried Benn, Cristina Campo, Joseph Roth, Michel Leiris, Elias Canetti, Osip Mandelstam, Maurice Blanchot, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, and many more, so much more.
Hans Henny Jahnn's
I would like to use this space to recommend a two-thousand page novel by the uncomfortable German writer and organ builder Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959). Fluss ohne Ufer (River Without Shore), a trilogy written between 1934 and 1946, is perhaps the strangest masterpiece in all of literature. The first part (and prelude) Das Holzschiff was published in America as The Ship in 1961 by Scribner. It is now out of print. Although the wonderful Atlas Press has published some of Jahnn’s writings in English over the years, I have little hope of ever seeing this magnum opus translated into english in its entirety. Read by an enthusiastic few, Jahnn is relatively unknown in his own country, and still largely met with incomprehension and rejection. The French seem to be culturally closer to Jahnn's baroque, sensual, somnambulist, catacomb-literature and they have published wonderful editions of his works. The transgressive writings of Georges Bataille, Antonin Artaud, the Marquis de Sade, and Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror seem to have made way for Jahnn. Fluss ohne Ufer reads like a pyramidical symphony about primeval nature—in archetypes, signs, numbers, and sound. A very odd book and, at times, Gilles de Rais—monstrous but, more importantly, astonishingly lyrical. Once you are with it, it will carry you, to the end. Jahnn’s characters seem like an aberration of the (too positivistic) German Expressionist types and one should rather think of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus for tone—or even the violent oddness of the old German Tragic dramas of the 16th and 17th centuries, which Walter Benjamin wrote about. Benjamin, by the way, did not review Jahnn kindly—that one sinking ship is unable to help another is a melancholy fact. Reading Jahnn is a difficult pleasure. He thought of himself as pre-Christian and mentioned The Epic of Gilgamesh as a point of departure. At times terse and saga-like, then shifting to the highly ornamental, his writings have the labyrinthine tone of early music—its colors are white and silver. And of wounds. In his works there is tremendous cruelty (as in nature), heart broken pity for the gentleness of animals, as well as a despair and attraction to the monstrous in everything. Souls who read the gnostics, who love the music of Gesualdo or the boundless novels of John Cowper Powys (and the sternly odd and brief ones of his brother T. F.), who feel sympathy for John Ruskin’s black cloud madness—you will want to dare Jahnn’s shoreless waters.