Learning with Ulf Aminde

Bildet Banden (2011 HD video 7:23 min). Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner.

Walk into Galerie Tanja Wagner in Berlin and you suddenly are face-to-face with the man Ulf, himself. He’s there in photocopied-form; he’s there in his art works.

Facing you are sheets and sheets of art works photocopied and taped to the white gallery walls, corners fluttering and overlapping, installed in a way that does not distance or set up unwelcome barriers. One sheet might have fallen to the floor, another will soon follow. This is Ulf; he’s here, and so too are memories of his past – but still recent – art works, performances and performers he’s worked with, the artist in a hospital bed facing us, his eyes focused on this world, and that other world people in hospitals sometimes glimpse.  All of this is here.  Ulf the man is here in the photocopied images, and in the most honest and compelling of art works.  He’s here in the video projectors’ warm hums and the sound too of inking – a tattoo parlor needle’s buzz fills the spaces.

In Hüter der Stelle, 2011, HD video, a seemingly homeless gentleman, (and he does appear to be gentle), clings onto a street lamppost, mumbling and swaying slightly, facing us and facing the camera and the artist Aminde behind the camera.  But here at Galerie Tanja Wagner, Ulf Aminde (b.1969 Stuttgart, Germany) is the man guarding his post. Aminde’s doppelgänger clings to the street lamppost. This is the first time you might sense there are lessons to be learnt, big mistakes we should face head on- and learn from.  What happens to him, the man guarding the post, what happens to Aminde, and to us, each of us, if we let go of our posts?  Each of us has a lamppost of sorts – it might be the security of a job, or the safety of our home, or the love from a partner, or even as with the gently swaying man, simply a post.  Aminde’s first lesson-as-question in this show: what would happen if you let go of your post?

I jot down my impressions, but they are less impressions than they are recognitions and agreements. Yes, “that is how it is.” I write “learning.” Is the artist implying that learning is an essential part of viewing art? Do we sometimes, more often than not, learn by default, or learn by association, with no action required? Did Aminde do the learning, and now we can inherit his, perhaps painfully, learnt lessons? Can we simply enter Galerie Tanja Wagner and learn through being present with Aminde’s art?

Ulf Aminde’s exhibition could be titled Facing – each work faces or addresses our presence as equals. But it’s learning from big mistakes that the artist has chosen as his show’s title. We learn from his mistakes; we learn from our mistakes. Aminde’s show asks us the question:  Isn’t that what life is – learning from big mistakes?  Aminde’s beautifully installed show gives us works unframed (with two exceptions, both entitled Schweigen als loyalitaet zur ehrenwerten gesellschaft, 2011, all other works are purposely left unframed). His works directly face us – head on – without the distancing effect of the frame. On the floor in the second room of the gallery is a wooden mask, propped against the wall.  Schamdruck, 2009, its eyes might be Aminde’s, or they might be ours, such is the beauty and versatility of a mask. Its face belongs to whomever choses to wear it. Don Aminde’s mask and you become the artist, don Aminde’s mask and you might even move through his life – learning from the artist’s mistakes.

Untitled 2011 is a fine inkjet print of Aminde’s forearm, his arm close-up with a tattoo of Saint Michael facing his demon – a dragon (or it could be Saint George facing his dragon, or the god Apollo facing Python? Or Saint Margaret from the Book of Revelation, facing her dragon?) and surviving to tell the tale. What sort of dragons has Aminde faced? What dragons have we faced? What is yet to come?

Aminde’s works offer up real-life and staged situations. One of the most compelling works in his show, Judith, an HD video, 2011, focuses on one woman’s face, her body close up, walking into a room with actors acting out theatrical narratives, and then into another room with other actors performing a different play, back and forth again between the two narratives. The woman’s eyes are fixed on watching the actors and we in turn view her viewing and contemplating. What we see – perhaps without realising – is a collaborative art project between Aminde and a woman, and her attempts to learn from her mistakes. The woman (in this work she is called Judith), wrote narratives based on her life and Aminde hired actors to act them out, taking direction from Judith. In this work we see the subject – Judith – as the director viewing ‘herself’ in the form of actors. She faces her past; at the end she embraces the actors – as if coming to terms with wrongs done to her.

Judith (2011, HD Video 8:26 min). Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner

In Frontalunterricht, or “Lecture,”Aminde explores the role of the artist as director (or dictator?) on stage with participants. The subject of the art work is learning and lecturing, but also the difficulty of working collaboratively. Aminde worked with a group of youth with the mission of making a collaborative art work.  Ingeniously Aminde and his youthful participants turned the situation into a lesson itself, a lesson about the difficulties and occasional follies of learning.  In Frontalunterricht the viewer sees Aminde’s participants representing, mocking, and mimicking the artist.  Aminde’s work makes explicit this honest and difficult question: In collaborative art works, as in learning, how much agency does each person participating have?  If you believe the idea that ‘all art is self-portraiture’ then the youth group is Aminde.  And in Frontalunterricht Aminde poses that question and makes the connection/metaphor real.

Another metaphor made real is found in Aminde’s video Bildet Banden or “Form Gangs,” 2011. Peeking out from a large clearing in Aminde’s photocopied images of himself and past performances, filling the space with its reflected light and sound, marches a parade of sorts, a group of people, obviously a group, a “gang,” clinging together and marching through an everyday, humdrum, residential street. The grey and tonal drabness of the residential-suburban streets are in great contrast to the most vivid red and pink poster paint on their painted banner which the gang holds up and presents to us, wrapped-around-themselves. It appears to be a poster-painting of love, about love, made with love and from love. The ‘gang’ marches proudly at first, their feet sure and steady, their posture upright — joy beaming from some of the participants’ faces; then, not surprisingly (as love’s story often goes) the ‘gang’ becomes more tentative and uncertain as cars, buses and life’s other passing obstacles question their resolve. If in Aminde’s work, love equals the banner and the lover equals the ‘gang,’ then the stuff of life, reality, equals the street, its vehicles and uninterested houses. No one is watching this colourful parade, but we the viewers might be rooting for the gang, hoping love wins and stays strong against the drizzle and the weariness.  Aminde’s work asks: is love like this?  Is love a beating, vivid, blood-drenched heart pumping, its beat and rhythm steady until life – the humdrum drabness of daily commutes, bus journeys and trench-coated passersby – interfers and throws us off?  This work is one of the strongest in the show.  It’s a symbolic work based in reality, and ‘grounded’ if you will, on a road. It’s reality and it’s symbolic. Love here is represented as real experience, but also as symbol. Aminde’s work is quietly transcendent.  In much contemporary art reality is at odds with symbols and things of a transcendent or mythic nature, but not in Aminde’s work.

At the end, one final Aminde work guides us into the office space of Galerie Tanja Wagner, fixed askew to the wall with one piece of tape, between the viewing rooms and the ‘official business’ space.  This work is truly untitled – it’s not even on the sheet.  It’s an inkjet print image of a hand grasping a much used, weathered paper cup, with a few coins inside. Money?  Is that what Aminde is asking for?  Are we being asked to give what we can, something to help keep the artist safe and sound, fed? (Maybe, and why not? His art is priceless and he deserves to earn money and praise too.) But it’s definitely more than that, much more; Aminde is asking us to stop for a moment and to give of ourselves.

If we give something of ourselves to his art, it will give us something back. Together maybe we can learn from our big mistakes. And isn’t that what art, and life, is sometimes about?

Ulf Aminde, learning from big mistakes, 9 Sept – 29 Oct 2011, Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014