In response to the question of how best to call the art made by Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf, after a lengthy discussion both reply: sculpture. (In German, the word for sculpture is Bildhauerei, which literally translates as “image-hewing”). While not meant entirely seriously, it sounds funny and nails it surprisingly well. Firstly, the description contains the kind of dry humour that is quintessential to the Berlin artist-duo’s work. Secondly, the term forces one to listen carefully to the meaning of the word and realise that one’s first associations (hammer, chisel, heavy stone) conceal nothing more than the “liberation of images” through one’s own effort. Thirdly, the coining of a trendy label would hardly be appropriate for Wermke/Leinkauf’s work.
The process of image-hewing is often time-consuming. To date, the duo’s most well-known action has produced four official photos and the fifteen-minute film SYMBOLIC THREATS: On the night of July 22nd, 2014 Wermke/Leinkauf climbed New York’s Brooklyn Bridge in order to replace the coloured US flags billowing there with specially sewn monochrome “star-spangled banners”. When the artists’ infringement was discovered early the next day, the New York Police Department weren’t the only ones worked up about it – the nation’s news shows raved about it all morning.
Framed by a perfectly fitting Sunday speech about the work of artists (“who challenge us, cause us to reflect, who provoke and help us to comprehend what social discourse includes and excludes”) given by New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio at the appointment of the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, SYMBOLIC THREATS compiles material from 40 TV stations. Sheer attempts at aggressive exegeses, lacking the awareness to interpret what the images of the flags might represent as shown at the beginning and end of the film: We are exposed to a senseless social discourse at the moment of its public inception, the rigid shock of the fear of terrorism and security alarmism, humourlessness and compulsive abusiveness which is unable to grasp the concept of something as peaceably lovely as this work by Wermke/Leinkauf.
The gasping news-chorus has lost the ability to recognise art. In normative terms, it interprets falsely by discussing the making-of instead of focusing on the image of the white American flags, which – and that’s where it really starts – certainly provides ample scope for interpretation. The time of the action was carefully considered, it fell on the anniversary of Johann August Roebling’s death, the designer and chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge who hailed from Mühlhausen, Germany. Neither he nor his son, Washington August Roebling who briefly continued the work after his father’s untimely death, ever set foot on the construction and the bridge’s completion was ultimately overseen by Emily Warren Roebling, the son’s wife. Washington Warren Roebling died on a July 21st – and the fact that Wermke/Leinkauf, who come from the same country of origin as Roebling, chose to freshly arrange the national symbols on the night between the anniversaries of both deaths surely appeals to a soothsayer of chance, such as New York author Paul Auster. And that would merely be one of the narrative strands drawn from the image of the white US flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge.
The art created by Wermke/Leinkauf condenses interpretations such as these. The image-hewing which results in short films, installations or individual pictures, focuses on drastic reduction, which becomes most apparent in the buzz surrounding the production of images in the case of the flags. It is precisely not about the adventurous act of the bridge-climbing (films about the masturbatory-precarious scaling of phallus symbols can be found in droves on YouTube), and also not about the detective-like preparation of the stunt, even when they might initially appear to be the most exciting issues. The focus is solely placed upon the image that is manufacturable – and in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge piece, is still not conclusively finalised because the lawsuit against both artists is still pending. In light of the perspective opened by SYMBOLIC THREATS, the verdict may just be adopted into the reference materials of vulgar discourse.
The reduction, the chiselling free of decisive images is a significant part of Wermke/Leinkauf’s work. Even their earlier pieces barred the spectacular from the image generation process; what counts is the beauty of the images and the altered state of perception they facilitate. The old Fischli & Weiss slogan, “Plötzlich diese Übersicht” (Suddenly this Overview) is thoroughly applicable when Wermke swings at lofty heights alongside Berlin’s public structures in DIE NEONORANGENE KUH (The Neonorange Cow), 2005, or moves through the capital with a self-built handcar on the public rail network ZWISCHENZEIT (In Between), 2008. Through this other use of the city in which the routines of everyday life are not sought or the concepts of public order are not entertained, something new becomes apparent: Hierarchies become confused, when the camera frames Wermke as if he were sitting on the swing, alone against the twilit sky, observing the sphere of the Berlin TV Tower effectively at eye level with the head-like sphere (which makes the TV Tower so non-technically likeable) returning his gaze. Impossible routes are revealed when Wermke uses a handcar to misappropriate the city’s infrastructure for his personal use, elegantly and swiftly, and compared to a regional train or subway, more like a pedestrian on the way to a bus stop, that is to say, like an individual. Automobility in the wrong place.
Or ENTSCHEIDUNGEN (Decisions), 2011, a video installation for ten monitors that shows similar situations: A man (in most cases, Wermke) hangs, once again at challenging heights from equipment and architecture, lets go, disappears from view, returns, fails to return. The shot footage contains impressive urban panoramas that have purposely not been included in the finished work, so as not to allow the morbid thrill of peril distract the viewer from the eponymous moment. “Freedom is the moment between letting go and falling”, is the leading quote of the piece, and that is certainly highlighted to great effect.
The line about freedom would be an apt title for the collected works of Wermke/Leinkauf, as both artists continually operate at the borderline between public and private space – which is nothing but an evaluation of possibilities that are not always recognised as such. In TROTZDEM DANKE (Thanks Anyway), 2006, an early work that was nominated for the “Deutscher Kurzfilmpreis” (German Short Film Award) among others, Wermke cleans the windshields of trams, trains and buses, unsolicited. A task that is accepted as an instant service in individualised transport as it eases the social process of donation-giving, but which also elicits irritation and the need to require permission and assignment. Do not ask what you can do for the public: Although it costs nothing (a female subway driver jokes: “But you don’t expect me to pay you a euro, do you?”), the friendly service can’t be accepted. It is perceived as a threat, if not a danger.
Freedom, you could say, appears as an intermediate space in the topographical explorations of the two artists, which was either not previously there or invisible. Admittedly however, Wermke/Leinkauf regard the concept in much more sober terms than for instance a deeply moved Joachim “life’s motto” Gauck, who privatised the word for the purpose of self-marketing. But the pathos that is bound to the moment in which freedom reveals itself can also be found in Wermke/Leinkauf’s images; it explains the magnitude of the works, the depth of the emotions that are still directly triggered by a film still. Or simply the power of imagination: Placing white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge is an outrageous intrusion of the order assigned to symbols, which mobilises quite a number of associations.
But they remain ever peaceable. In reference to Wermke/Leinkauf one would never think to speak of intervention, a word that sounds like a locksmith service, like a ruthless technology, an act of war. At the beginning of their friendship, mutual night-time strolls through nineties Berlin were on their agenda, discovery tours through a city in upheaval. These walks never stuck to the predetermined routes, which is why today, when Wermke/Leinkauf have seized a public space, one might be reminded of a cultural practice such as parkour – a type of movement that searches out direct ways through the concrete of cities and thereby thwarts their systems of order. Parkour certainly emphasises the athletic aspect of playful dealings with the constructed city, it is always a question of posture, the exhibition of physical abilities. Such superficialities – which contribute to the aspect of the peaceable figure – vanish behind the images which Wermke/Leinkauf produce.
Even when fitness is required. Thus came about the re-enactment of the work created in Heilbronn in 2013, DER HANDSTAND AUF DEM MÄNNLE, a historical youthful prank. On their excursions through the town, Wermke/Leinkauf stumbled across an old postcard that historicised a stunt performed by two electricians in 1921 (“Do you still remember the handstand on the Männle?”) – a handstand on the sculpture known as “Männle” (little man), that crowns the tower of St. Kilian’s Church. They both familiarised themselves with the height of the site and practiced the gymnastic exercise until they felt confident enough to execute it, in order to update this odd occurrence in local history. Some of the fundamental principles of Wermke/Leinkauf’s artistic practice include the patient knowledge that everything is potentially feasible, a pragmatic notion of something like utopia, namely that basically anyone could perform the seemingly daredevil stunt on the tower if duly prepared.
Incidentally, the postcard acts as a charming metaphor for the work by both artists. That might seem strange initially, as the moving image holds so much significance for Wermke/Leinkauf. What is meant however, is the specific aesthetic of the postcard, which condenses public and private space in its canonised manifestation: a universal image, an all-purpose world view of a city or a region on the front and an empty space for a personal greeting or text on the back. Wermke’s master’s thesis at Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee (in the field of, you guessed it, sculpture; Leinkauf is a graduate of the Academy of Media Arts Cologne) bore the title STOßLÜFTEN and was comprised of an action in which Wermke destroyed the windows of the art academy’s foyer with a crowbar, only to remain on site for 24 hours until a glazier restored the windows to their original state. The work was revealed on a postcard which bore the title on the front and the name of the artist on the back.
In ÜBERWINDUNGSÜBUNGEN (Surmounting Exercises), 2015, Wermke/Leinkauf once again enlisted themselves in a re-enactment of the generically-anonymous photos of GDR border guards. During construction of the East German Wall, diverse construction possibilities were tested whereby soldiers attempted to climb over various different models. These tests are documented, and the photos display an artistic, performative quality which Wermke/Leinkauf have updated by scaling and surmounting obstacles at historic sites along the route of the Wall.
As much as both artists are interested in history, how it is written and how social occurrences make their mark on individuals’ lives – it would be wrong to try and ascertain a method in their re-enactments. The piece, DIE HOFFNUNG STIRBT ZULETZT (Hope Dies Last), which Wermke/Leinkauf created for Kunstverein Neuhausen near Stuttgart in 2016, points indefinitely forward, chronologically and tendentially. For the show, “Our Mind into a Brezel – Neue Sichtweisen auf Tauschmittel, Finanzwelt und Ökonomie” (Our Mind into a Pretzel – New Views on Exchange Mediums, the World of Finance and Economics) both artists invested their exhibition budget of 1000 euros in lottery tickets. On view are the tickets, receipts, the contract with the art association and film loops of the numbers that were drawn every weekend when they participated anew: Any money gained was invested in tickets once more. At the culmination of the show the money was transferred to an account in order to let the next exhibiting institution continue playing. A percentage was kept by the lottery shop alone, nobody else wins. Apart from the art that is funded by the equally profiting lottery trust, which could continue to endure for a long time in this work. Theoretically speaking, endlessly.
2016 DAS ROTE MANSFELD
2015 SYMBOLIC THREATS
2014 STADT DER 100 TÜRME
2013 DER HANDSTAND AUF DEM MÄNNLE
2011 ONE MORE STEP TO THE TOP OF THE CITY
2010 KEINE ZEIT
2009 MENDIREGIN ÜSTÜNDE
2007 NEW YORK – 59 SECONDS
2006 TROTZDEM DANKE
2005 DIE NEONORANGENE KUH