– Autumn/Winter 2008

Agonies and Ecstasies: Kai Althoff’s Dreamworks

Dieter Roelstraete

If there is any genuine knowledge at all, there must be knowledge which I do not reach by way of some other knowledge, but through which alone all other knowledge is knowledge… If we know anything at all, we must be sure of at least one item of knowledge which we cannot reach through some other and which contains the real ground of all our knowledge.

- Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Of the I as Principle of Philosophy or on the Unconditional in Human Knowledge, 17951

Every now and then - not too often, of course, but luckily also not that seldom - an exhibition takes place somewhere that succeeds (more or less thoroughly) in dislocating and disorienting my viewing habits, in subverting, with varying degrees of benign force, the general pattern of expectations that I have come to inhabit as a professional art viewer - that is, someone who goes to museums, kunsthalles, galleries and various other art spaces because he or she, in some sense or other, 'has' to, and perhaps far less often than because he or she wants to. (Already here 'desire' establishes itself as a problem in and of the art world.) Foremost among these expectations ranks the delusory will to comprehension - the presumed ability to grasp the meaning of the art on display, even if (or especially if) it takes a lot of explaining, say, on the part of a willing gallery attendant, for it is assumed that such hard-won comprehension or insight - the sudden, all-illuminating flash of understanding, the 'genuine knowledge' referred to in the Schelling quotation above - will eventually also open our

  1. Quoted in Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory, London: Verso, 1987, p.30.

  2. Althoff's work teems with a wealth of references to (recent) German history, the tragic and endlessly fascinating course which has done so much to shape the world today - so much so that, in the European or Atlantic sphere at least, it could be claimed that German national history is very much everybody's history. That said, however, the historiographic slant in Althoff's work should definitely not be overestimated - by no means is he a history painter in the grand tradition of Jörg Immendorff, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and the like, nor is he especially interested in the particularities of German history as such, only in so far as history bears upon his own life-story as revealed in his work.

  3. The two figures in Althoff's nameless painting, sitting comfortably in the palpable, reassuring silence of those who no longer need words to commune (this may again relate to the conscious decision, hinted at in my introduction, to frustrate any desire for understanding and insight as something which is communicated verbally, and in verbs/words only) are in fact meant to represent Althoff and an old high-school friend by the name of Dirk Waanders, who would much later become the subject of Althoff's affectionate video portrait Dirk (2002). Dirk's family name inevitably reminds one (me?) of the Wandervogel, a popular youth movement born from the ashes of the German Romantic tradition which helped to strengthen the traditions of camaraderie and homo-sociality that would eventually provide such a toxic bonding element in the confused, early years of post-imperial Germany, described with terrific accuracy in Klaus Theweleit's classic Männerphantasien from 1978. Bonding and fraternisation, of course, occupy a position of obvious thematic centrality in Althoff's work.

  4. The vitriolic realism of Dix, Grosz and other like-minded proponents of the Neue Sachlichkeit is inextricably linked to the glitter and doom of Germany's feverish Weimar culture, which Peter Gay so aptly described as a culture in which the traditional outsiders or 'eccentrics' of pre-War German society (Jews, homosexuals, communists) suddenly found themselves transposed to its very 'inside' or centre. See Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. The dialectic of insider and outsider - complete with resulting overtones of 'outsider art' - helps to shed some light on Althoff's idiosyncratic view of a world both peopled by outsiders as well as observed by the artist as a self-professed outsider himself, for whom exclusion or marginal is a vital asset. 'Band of Outsiders', incidentally, is the title of one of the most enlightening essays written about Althoff's work to date (Tom Holert in Artforum, October 2002, pp.124-29).

  5. André Rottmann, 'Ausdrückliches Arrangement', Texte zur Kunst, no.69, March 2008, p.255.

  6. The slightly tired, yet ultimately inevitable concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or 'total work of art' - never a wholly innocent reference - figures prominently in another of the mere handful of illuminating texts on the work of Kai Althoff, namely Diedrich Diederichsen's 'Intimacy and Gesamtkunstwerk', originally published in Nicholas Baume (ed.), Kai KeinRespekt (Kai NoRespect)

  7. Music and the daily practice thereof take up a hugely important place in Althoff's artistic universe, but must nonetheless stay outside the scope of this present essay for reasons of space. For our current purposes, let us just consider the making and enjoyment of music as an essentially communal experience - the symbolic antithesis of the conditions of insulation under which so much visual art (drawing, painting) is produced; this paradox lies at the heart of Althoff's creative practice as a whole. In choosing the name Workshop, finally, Althoff and co. also disclosed their interest in the communal experience of music-making as one that was a) essentially craft-based ('love-craft') and artisanal; and b) therapeutic in nature.

  8. Here 'ecstasy' and 'aesthetics' are no longer merely homophonic, but suddenly appear deeply intertwined. Terry Eagleton once described aesthetics as a 'science' that was originally born as a discourse of the body: 'In its original formulation by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, the term refers not in the first place to art, but, as the Greek aisthesis would suggest, to the whole region of human perception and sensation, in contrast to the more rarefied domain of conceptual thought.' As such, aesthetics represents the 'first stirrings of a primitive materialism - of the body's long inarticulate rebellion against the tyranny of the theoretical' (Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p.13; emphasis the author's). Enter the 'ideology of the aesthetic' - the book from which I am quoting here has Friedrich's well-known Wanderer above the Mists (1817-18) as its cover image. This allows us to return, finally, to a German Idealist philosopher of a more recent vintage, whose words were invoked at the very beginning of this essay. In response to Schelling's conjecture that 'if we know anything at all, we must be sure of at least one item of knowledge which we cannot reach through some other and which contains the real ground of all our knowledge', we could now suggest (wholly disregarding Schelling's staunch insistence on a doctrinaire idealism of course!) that this 'item of knowledge' is quite simply that of embodiment - the body. 'Ecstasy', incidentally, is also Schelling's term of choice to describe the absolute subject's epistemological relationship to itself: 'only in this state of having abandoned itself [i.e. our ego having been placed outside itself and having ceased to exist] can the absolute subject appear to it [our ego] in its state of self-abandonment, and so we also behold it in amazement.' F. Schelling, 'On the Nature of Philosophy as Science', quoted in Rüdiger Bubner (ed.), German Idealist Philosophy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, p.228.

  9. See http://blog.cmoa.org/CI08/ (last accessed on 15 July 2008).