Jeff Wall

Air is free

As the saying goes, “air is free”. In some way this thought appears in Iskender Yediler’s inflatable sculptures. Yediler claims that he began to make inflatables because he was short of storage space and these sculptures responded to the problem. I interpreted this remark as a truth expressed in the language of the sardonic, self-mocking Cologne sensibility so familiar in the circles around Martin Kippenberger. Yediler has belonged to this world, and so in that way has conditionally belonged in Germany, not being a German. If the air weren’t free by nature, there would certainly be national, regional and local airs. In a way, there are, because smells in the air tell strongly of place. But local smell, like the stench of the chemical plants on the Rhine, is mercifully dissolved by the flow of the atmosphere, which moves constantly around the world, accepting and dispersing the impurities constantly forced into it from the ground.

It is uninteresting to review the precedents for inflatable sculpture, except only to say that they originate mainly in the 1960s, in a polymorphous-perverse feeling for amusement, lightness and escapade. There is a continuous tradition of escapade in Cologne – Düsseldorf art, from Polke via Kippenberger to the most recent generations. The skeptical attitude, the dubious attitude, the doubt and skepticism concerning oneself as artist, seem to be among the most enduring creations of this local scene with global consequences. The skepticism was a response to the reigning atmosphere of mandarin seriousness that characterized the 1940s and 50s in Reconstruction Germany, the atmosphere of Heideggerian ontology and conservative cultural institutions. The revolts of the 60s led to a contestatory feeling that affected the way artists were obliged to regard themselves. Skepticism is often seen as a French creation, one of those acidic substances that, since 1730, has dissolved communities into individuals responsible for their own conduct. This was a major point of contention within German thought and literature from the French Revolution on. There are many reasons why the North Rhine region became a receptive ground for these ideas in this period and I can’t do more here than point to them as a determining factor in the shaping of cultural sensibilities and artistic aims.

Skepticism and detachment are cosmopolitan characteristics, identifying marks of citizens who have moved out of their original communities into a capital city, mingling with other arrivals, rethinking and re-imagining their identities and ambitions. Cologne – Düsseldorf qualifies as a regional center, not a national one, but it nevertheless has played the part of an artistic capital in Germany for several generations now. The combination of local conditions and national, even global artistic sensibilities might account in some way for the forced and exaggerated quality of the playful sarcasm of this Rhineland art, its aggression and its stabs at critique. Provincial social conditions force cosmopolitans into exaggerating their cosmopolitan qualities in order to have them recognized and accepted. That creates something inherently clownish. Yediler’s inflatables have this clownishness, particularly in the way they inflate and deflate periodically, powered by vacuum cleaners or hair dryers.

Along with his inflatables, Yediler makes wood sculptures, mostly of greatly enlarged details from old religious statues. Wood and stone, along with clay the originary sculptural materials, will always give off an air of rootedness to the ground, just as metal reminds us of the mines out of whose depths it’s ore emerges.

At first thought, miners and foresters seem to be natives of the area they work in. But, historically, they have just as often been foreigners, brought in to do brute labour or attracted by the rewards offered for doing it. In our century, the wood of the forests and the metals of the mines no longer really belong to their place of origin; they are placed immediately on the world market and sent to where they are purchased: a hundred thousand ingots of Russian aluminum sit on the docks of Rotterdam; British Columbia fir trees are warehoused at the bottom of freezing Japanese lakes. An ingot is a wanderer.

So, it isn’t easy to say that Yediler’s inflatables are involved with the drifting air and his wood sculptures with the trees of a place. It is easier to say that both kinds of sculpture have some connection with things that drift through the cities in one way or another.

This is also a way of saying that Yediler the artist is interested in avoiding the atmosphere of authenticity that is attached to things that stay near their place of origin. This isn’t because Yediler is one of those quasi-stateless residents of Germany, born of Tatar parents and raised as a child in Turkey and living most of his life in Munich and Cologne. It is mainly because his work participates in a critique of the idea of that authenticity, a critique that has taken many forms in Europe and Germany. It is important that Michelangelo’s statues are made from the white marble of Carrara. In the 15th century most people didn’t travel much and the regional quality of art was an expression of the parochial boundaries of the cultures of the local aristocracy. When Rome or Florence became a cultural capital, the local materials used there took on wider meanings because they were experienced by new arrivals as an expression of thecentrality of the place to which they’d been magnetically attracted. Michelangelo’s Renaissance statuary made the gleaming whiteness of his marble a universal characteristic of sculpture and also helped to create a new way of looking at ancient sculpture.

The art capital is a local place to which everyone is attracted, and in that process its local characteristics become signs of that which attracts. They are magnified into icons of the global, like the palm trees of Hollywood. They lose their local, private, parochial mystique. Or, they exchange that mystique for another, that of the universal sign for art, or culture, or artistic significance. Their new meaning is established by their transportability, their aptitude for being exported anywhere and everywhere.

By the beginning of the 20th century, any localism or parochial mystique was created artificially, for example, Kandinsky’s retreat to Murnau. The attraction of the great capitals was so immense that some artists felt they had to secede from it, to rediscover the meanings that might be possible in other places. They tried to make their art resemble the local produce that was special and unique. The problem was that, by then, more and more local produce was grown to supply distantconsumers. Through resistance, they proved that there was no more local produce, or at least, that local produce existed only by means of the historically changed relation of the place it came from to the centre to which it was more and more inevitably sent. “Authentic” was a word most often seen stamped on packaging.

Yediler’s wood sculptures are mostly of fragments of old statues, enlarged many times over their original size. The fragments depict key elements of the religious iconography of the original figure. The gigantic shard makes the viewer imagine the huge statue that once apparently existed. Yet, at the same time, we suspect that the huge sculpture is a figment of Yediler’s imagination, or even of his strategy. We sense that Yediler is doing something many artists do when they want to detach something from ist original context – they change the scale, the material or the colour, and Yediler does all three things. This approach is critical and intellectual, it thinks about history when it creates an experience of a figure far bigger than the spectator is. In his imagination, the spectator shrinks himself in relation to the size of the big hand or foot; he becomes very small. This play with human scale suggests a form to the historical movements that have taken place between the imaginary moment of the destruction of the original sculpture and the moment the person sees the fragment in the gallery or museum, now. Have we gotten smaller? Has history done something to us? Or, more soberly, has sculpture gotten smaller through time, why is that? How did we get so far from these huge icons, and what smashed them into pieces? Whatever it was, it was cataclysmic, and it seems that the fragments have been scattered far and wide, since we can see only one piece of the original figure. If they were nearby, wouldn’t they have been gathered together for display? The big pieces of wood have been flung out over the horizon, out of the forest where they might have been first made. They are not at home where we see them, even if we might recognize the symbol as one from close by, from somewhere within Christendom. They are not at home, they are not connected to our experience of our own place, to our roots in where we come from. In the German context, the identification of the authentic with the local is a strong one, and much has been made of it in the passing century. Its legacy of “German ontology” is itself now a universal intellectual value, or at least an international subject of dispute and analysis.

There is a phobia about this ontology in German art, and artists like Anselm Kiefer have revealed that fear in the process of scaring themselves with the impressive things that can come out of it. That recreated the allure of German culture and its “world-historical identity” at the end of the period of Reconstruction. At the same time, many other German artists have refused the language of fundamental ontology, in favour of skepticism or irony. This position is also German in that it is also cosmopolitan, a product of the great 20th century city-cultures of Berlin, Frankfurt or Cologne. This cosmopolitanism is still being discovered as a particularly “German” quality, since it is the outcome of the mingling of native with foreign impulses.

Yediler’s sculpture is foreign in this way, and so at the same time, native, German.

Jeff Wall, February 1999