Jan Svenungsson

Heymer, Kay. Something about L., Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 1996

The frame. A frame creates a separation, emphasizing something's importance. Simultaneously, the frame physically protects the framed object. For example, a picture's sensitive corners are protected against scratches and damage. The transition from creation to environment is both stressed and mitigated by the frame. If an object is framed, then the frame constitutes its world, determines its limits, defines the object's frame of reference.

The frame emphasizes, protects, limits, distances. The frame is a background.

In rare cases, the frame is of such decisive importance that it establishes the originality of its object, the one it encloses. A framed photo becomes a picture.

In language, the frame determines beginning and end. There is no right and left here. Language develops linearly; forks necessarily lead to dead ends and discontinuities. The thread of a story can be broken off and picked up again. Stories can be framed by another story. They can also have a number of frame stories, can be concentrically framed -- interlocked. They can even fall out of the frame.

It is not only single works which can have frames. An extended frame can enclose an entire work.


Let's imagine L. L. is a man (or a woman), twenty-something, who studies humanities in order to practice thinking (he -- or she -- has still not exactly found out what thinking really is -- he (for simplicity's sake, let's stick with "he," although "she" could also apply -- in the course of this story, however, this hypothesis could prove to be false) has heard of both "wild" and "scientific" thought). L.'s friends include several artists for whom he occasionally thinks. He engages in dialogue with them and writes short texts for them. Sometimes only words. Once he even gave a speech at the opening of an exhibition -- a disturbingly open experience.

L. lives in a small apartment right near the university, in an old building from the beginning of the century, painted mustard yellow. He lives on the fourth floor and is often annoyed by all the stair-climbing and book-carrying. He is not interested in bodily experiences which do not involve either sight or touch. In general, L. is indescribably inconspicuous, almost an incorporeal phenomenon. He has a face without distinguishing features, the envy of every criminal. You can quite literally forget his appearance.

In the building next door, there is a café, across the street a supermarket, in front of the building a mailbox, around the corner a used-book store. Only when going to the bank does he have to go somewhat further; otherwise, everything is nearby. He does not go to the bank very often, as he does not have much money to manage anyway.

L's daily routine has an almost ritualistic regularity. He gets up around 8:00. Breakfast. Coffee, two rolls, an apple. University from 9:30 to 6:00, with lunch at the cafeteria. (L. is no gourmet.) In the evening, a movie or a concert. 11:00 bedtime. Only the weekends are different -- the university is closed. L. reads and writes in his apartment, or he visits friends. Poor in external events, L's life mostly takes place in his head. An almost monkish life, but not founded on any religious or social ideology.

L. does not want to think about the temporal limits of his circumstances. If it were up to him, his life would go on like this. His single concern is the constant growth of the library ...

An Event
Most of the experiences L. finds meaningful occur in connection with books. Books which he finds or which are shown to him. L.'s visits to the university only arouse him insofar as he gets new opportunities to violate the academic rules which govern the teaching business. The university library is more important to him than all the courses. In the assignments -- thesis papers, presentations, seminar papers, etc. -- he is only interested in the margins of the assigned topic, never the middle. This peculiar deviation seems normal to him, because details which others considered trivial have always occupied him. When things had a hook, he noticed them, and this hook could take root in his memory, extending his personal archive. The hook is a metaphor; it could imply all sorts of things. The smell of freshly baked bread, which struck him one night as a youth, its warm freshness a contrast to the dilipidated atmosphere of a suburban London street, became one of his madeleines. For the great Irishman it was horse urine, among other things ..., but L. is not thinking yet, first the event needs to be described.

On this morning, L. goes into the university library of his hometown in order to find literature for the preparation of a presentation on the history of the Volkswagen. The topic was given to him by Professor Wb; L. does not have a special interest in the project as such. Thus, the danger of distraction is given. With its size, its bustle, the echo of other visitors' conversations, and the lockers for storing jackets and backpacks, the library reminds him of an urban indoor swimming pool. The library is very large and is one of the better libraries, where the visitor himself can go look for the books he needs -- or just discover books. Happily, you do not need to rely on the catalogue. A public library is an outstanding place for productive distractions. So L. strolls along the shelves and lets his gaze wander over the spines, which are closely packed from the floor almost to the ceiling of the room. Suddenly he pauses, fascinated (almost like a hunter who has spotted the game), and pulls out a book which he had not been looking for at all. It was exactly at eye-level on the shelf, striking him because of its peculiarly muted mustard-yellow color reminiscent of the house in which he lives (L. is not conscious of this reminder). On the spine is written the mysterious word ENKU. L. wants to find out what this word is all about. He goes to the closest reading table, opens the book, and reads: Grisha Dotzenko. Enku. Master Carver. It is a study of one of the most important Japanese sculptors of the seventeenth century, written by a Russian who lives in the United States. The book shows hundreds of sometimes astonishingly abstract figures of the Buddha, often cut from the wood in such a way that the figure almost looks like Daphne, a hybrid of tree and human form. Between pages 38 and 39, a piece of paper with notes on it falls into his hands, apparently having nothing to do with the topic of the book. Who left this closely written page in this book? The text seems to be about an artist. "(On A.)" stands above the text, in parentheses. It is a sketch of an essay in which polar opposites play an important role. L. reads:

This text was commissioned; I am part of a plan; I am being used -- but I do have a certain degree of freedom to keep my own intellectual universe outside my employer's calculation. I am supposed to develop thoughts about my employer and his activities -- but I am free and am allowed to be undisciplined. (I feel a little bit like Blue in Paul Auster's story "Ghosts.")

This text will be written several times. Something will change with every new copy. My procedure paraphrases my employer's procedure -- but also translates it into my procedure. Copying plays an important role. Copying produces changes within repetition. My employer recently made an outline drawing of a map of Scandinavia and copied it over and over again in two different ways, each following its own rule until the map was unrecognizable. On the one hand, anything extra could be omitted; on the other hand, that was what was not allowed. The first demands the enlargement and focussing of a detail; the second produces distortions which no longer have anything in common with the original version after a certain stage of the copying. In each case, changes are the result of technical inadequacy; they have nothing to do with psychology. The two series of copies completely combine obsessive control with imperfect procedures. There are rules for everything, and nothing quite corresponds to these rules. My employer's activity apparently consists of the continually repeated attempt -- in different experiments -- to find and maintain an equilibrium between extremes: copy and original, discipline and violation, external control and internal control, invention and discovery, working and putting to work, reason and intuition ...

Every moment, something can be seen in the light of conflicting possibilities and demands. To enrich a phenomenon with this perspective means to bring it to life. I work on something only when it is interesting or seductive enough.

To L., this handwritten note, signed with an M., almost seems like a depiction of his own attitude. Is it the city which causes its inhabitants to have similar opinions? But how did the text get into this book -- one of 4 million volumes in the library? And, of all places, in a work about a seventeenth-century Japanese sculptor. L. is at a loss. When, however, he half-heartedly leafs through the book again, the content of the note he has just read begins to influence how he sees things. He is reminded of the note's repeated emphasis on the meaning of the copy, especially with respect to changes. Enku, he reads, was famous for his ability to cut thousands of Buddhas from one tree trunk in a very short time. Copies in a clear, regulated formal language, each one different and yet like its neighbor. However, in Enku's work, the regularity of the copy seems decisive. L. has discovered two different principles which can provide an impulse for the process of copying: change and regularity or variation and imitation. Opposites. L. puts the note in his pocket, resolves to memorize its handwriting, and leaves the library without having come any further with his own work.

A Slide
On the next day, he attends a lecture by Professor Mmh on the history of anthropology, where, surprisingly, he encounters the theme of the copy again. The lecture is on theories of the development of ornamentation, the object of lively discussion in the late nineteenth century. Influenced by Darwinism, English ethnologists developed a theory of abstraction as the degenerated result of the continually repeated schematic copying of a naturalistic original by successive generations of artisans. Professor Mmh shows a slide from Henry Balfour's 1893 work The Evolution of Decorative Art. It shows the 14 steps of an original drawing and its copies, each made by different persons from the immediately previous copy. In this European experiment, the original drawing depicts a naturalistically represented snail crawling along a branch. The following copies become more and more schematic, until finally, in the eighth copy, the narrative context disappears -- the snail hardly remains recognizable; the three-dimensionality of the representation has given way to a clear two-dimensionality. The senseless drawings 9 and 10 were clearly unbearable for the following copyist, number 11, and so he invented a new motif -- a bird standing on its head. The page is turned upside down, and the following copies become ever clearer representations of an ornamental bird. In this series of drawings, abstraction appears as degeneration. Copying appears to be a conventionalized activity tending to a steady simplification and reduction. Senseless forms would be the result, and every copy would be worse than its predecessor, if the copyist did not always feel compelled to see something objective which might not have been very visible on the previous copy.

L. wonders what it would be like if, from the beginning, there were no connections between the representation's narrative content and the formal qualities of the represented object. Is the transformation which occurs in the course of copying necessarily negative? The experiment was performed by people who had absolutely no concept of an art in which the object has disappeared. After all, Kandinsky did not come along until twenty years later. L. wonders when a representation is worth copying at all -- and who determines that?

In the Studio
On the next afternoon, L. visits his friend, the painter N. He has not seen N. for a long time and is looking forward to his new pictures. The studio, a former two-room apartment, is on the ground floor of a high-rise from the sixties. L. likes studios, their apparent chaos: tools, frames, carts, chairs, the obligatory cassette recorder, beer and cola bottles, stacks of paintings leaning against the wall, the smell of oil paints. N. has apparently prepared himself for this visit, for three of the walls of the larger room are completely covered by a series of new paintings; it is almost a little exhibition. L. knew of N.'s preference for red tones; almost all the pictures by N. which L. had ever seen were landscapes in red tones. L. had always found this restriction to a single color peculiar. With their very minutely detailed painting style, N.'s red landscapes always had a disturbingly distanced effect on L. The red tones N. seemed to prefer were very cool, almost inorganic. N.'s pictures were strangely suspended between artificiality and natural sensuality. They seemed full of unfulfilled longings. And they reminded him of photographs with an out-of-focus quality all their own.

But now, during this visit to the studio, everything is different. The red is still there, but L. finds himself confronted by a series of bloodstains on the wall. L. is shocked; he had not reckoned with such aggressive and direct pictures. He makes an effort to maintain his composure and goes up quite close to one of the pictures. Now he can again see the same painting style he knows from N.'s melancholy landscapes, and he suddenly notices that these pictures are not at all direct but are rather copies. Copies of bloodstains? Has N. been to the slaughterhouse to look for motifs? And why has he taken the trouble to represent the spurts of blood, instead of proceeding like Pollock or Nitsch? Surely he could have done that much more quickly. Has N. represented bloodstains at all, or was this only an association -- an illusion? L. is not sure. N. tells him that he has called this series of pictures "Test" and simply numbered the pictures consecutively. So this is another experiment examining the potential of copying. Here, a series of copies has been made of a series of "originals." But what happened to the originals? In any case, these pictures are oil paintings -- painted on canvas or wood, sometimes quite large. So they are something substantial, pictures painted by hand, valuable in the traditional sense, not mere drawings. These pictures seem to assert that all pictures are copies.

Aren't original and copy opposites? L. had always thought in oppositions and used them to try to orient himself in the world. The different kinds of copies now begin to disrupt his secure orientation. L. goes home and lists pairs of opposites, hoping that they will still be true. He writes on a piece of note paper:

original copy
creation production
arbitrariness compulsion
painting photography
writing description
chance intention
poetry theory
invention instructions
rule violation
question answer
chaos order

and puts a question mark at the end.


A Book
L. is walking through the city, through his district, where he knows his way around. Just now, he is going across the bridge over the river dividing the city into the industrial northern half and the southern half full of offices and culture. From the bridge, he can see the silhouettes of the many factories and steelworks with their different-sized smokestacks and chimneys. All of them are smoking; the city is at work. The image of the smoking chimneys makes a strong impression on L. He thinks of his friend O., who built, in three different cities, three different chimneys which never smoke.

Before L. goes back to his apartment, he goes to the nearby used-book store. The book dealer, a small, gray-haired man of about sixty years of age, tells him that he has just bought the estate of the recently deceased art historian Mk and that there is bound to be something for him among all the books. L. looks through the piles of newly arrived books. As he does not have much money with him, he is hoping for a small, favorably priced book which he might find interesting. At random, he picks up a thin 1985 catalogue about Giorgio de Chirico, and, while leafing through it, he finds a reproduction of a drawing which reminds him of his view from the bridge and of O. The drawing shows a chimney in an open landscape, accompanied only by a small trailer. This chimney does not smoke; it is a pure form. O.'s chimneys, only a single one of which L. had actually been able to see in person, seem like the fulfillment of de Chirico's idea: O.'s chimneys are both real chimneys and pictures of chimneys. Original, picture, and copy have become one. L. buys the catalogue and decides to show it to O. the next time he sees him.

Another Piece of Paper
A piece of typed paper peaks out of one of the piles of newly arrived books in the used-book store, triggering L.'s curiosity with its even lines of type. He pulls out the paper and reads:

The Two Kinds of Interlocking

1. THIS IS THE STORY OF A MAN who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man ...

2. THIS IS THE STORY OF A MAN who opens a book in a library and finds a piece of paper on which is written the story of a man who leaves a fortress whose gate he locked with the only key, which he then threw back over the wall of the fortress, where it fell into a drain and was washed out of the fortress through the sewer and then washed up again at the man's feet at a bend in the stream flowing out of the fortress, because the man, in order to leave no tracks, was wading through this very stream, which flows into a larger river on whose shore the man waits until a vehicle comes by which can take him into the nearest city, in which he wants to look at a factory which, at the south end of its plant, has a large chimney which is in use around the clock, seven days a week, and which many local photographers use as a motif for their pictures, because, with its careful brickwork, it is an example of superb industrial architecture which differs from the usual modern concrete architecture and which the city's cultural politicians find useful for the promotion of the cliche of the city as an old industrial metropolis, which also lured the man to this city, where he wants to include this chimney as another industrial monument in his still unpublished study of early metropolitan architecture, for which he was commissioned by a publisher whom he met at a book fair ...

Kay Heymer
(Translation: Andrew Shields)