Hide-and-Seek History

In search of the past, Martin Gostner found a fleeting form of sculpture and invented a new time machine: the bay window

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Martin Gostner, Monument für Nico und Wesi, 2003

Martin Gostner, Monument für Nico und Wesi, 2003

‘Please turn round. You are leaving the digitized zone!’ The GPS device had already protested when I turned onto the field path, but now, barely 100 yards later, we had reached the end of its world. There was no way I could continue driving anyway, so I set off across the field on foot. It should be somewhere here. I’m looking for a work by Martin Gostner, the fifth in his ‘Erker’ (bay window) series. I don’t know what it looks like. Or if I’ll find it.

Can a field have a bay window? Since last year, Gostner has been using ‘Erker’ as a general label for works he deposits in specific places. And in so doing, he outlines a conceptual construct which he calls ‘Erkerkultur’ (bay window culture). Specifically, he announces the (possibly only temporary) location of a work, with precise GPS data and additional titles. The full title of what I am looking for is: Erker (5), All follies loose when cotton rules, ab 11.06.11, wirkliches Cannae – Lago di Sangue, Castelluccuio, Valmaggiore, 41°22’38.62“N 15°14’13.91“E 374M. (Bay Window (5): All follies loose when cotton rules, from 11 June 2011, real Cannae – lake of blood, Castelluccuio, Valmaggiore, 41°22’38.62“N 15°14’13.91“E 374M., 2011). The blood in the lake in question was shed during the Second Punic War by the commander Hannibal who lured a numerically superior Roman army into a trap and destroyed it on 2 August 216 BCE. Tens of thousands fell. ‘Cannae’ became a national Roman trauma, and the name is still used proverbially in Italian to refer to a crushing defeat.

Supposedly, ancient shards can still be found in the fields of Apulia, but there are none to be seen here: some of the land has been ploughed, and the earth is a rich dark brown. Like black pudding. I start to get hungry. But no traces of the bloodbath remain, and there is nothing else unusual either. It’s gradually getting dark. And I wanted to find out why this work has to be seen precisely here and not in some other place. Is the idea to inscribe an art work into the geography of historical events? Or rather the reverse: to bring the past closer to a present mode of thinking, paired with a presentiment of disappointment?

Gostner’s interest in history and its interpretation is evident in many of his works, for example in the show ‘Of Milk and Honey’ at the Folkwang Museum in Essen (2003). Using the title Friede in Westfalen (Peace in Westphalia, 2003), the artist transformed the floor of the exhibition hall into a sea of cotton wool. The soft, white, amorphous mass awakened ambivalent memories and associations: the child’s enjoyment of the malleable material but also wounds, sterility and soiling. A lone crash barrier hints at the presence of an autobahn, as if snowed under, detached from time and space. The connection between these two disparate historical elements (the autobahn and the end of the Thirty Years’ War with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) can be constructed in the overlapping of two euphemistic frames of reference: the autobahn became a clichéd pseudo-argument in support of the view that ‘it wasn’t all bad under Hitler’. And although the Peace of Westphalia made a lasting impact on the map of Europe, it did not mark the beginning of a paradise where the milk and honey in the title might flow but rather the point of total exhaustion for all warring parties after an extended period of excessive and wide-ranging destruction.

Cannae fits perfectly here, for despite the extent of the historical disaster and the national trauma associated with it, perceptions of the event have changed over the centuries. By modifying their military tactics, the Romans finally succeeded in ‘wiping [Carthage] out from geography and history forever’. Or at least this is how fascist dictator Benito Mussolini described the Battle of Cannae in a 1941 speech evoking the indomitable nature of the Italians: ‘Our capacity to recuperate in moral and material fields is really formidable and constitutes one of the peculiar characteristics of our race.’ 1

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Martin Gostner, Werde ich gemocht haben? (Futurum Exactum), 2006

Martin Gostner, Werde ich gemocht haben? (Futurum Exactum), 2006

Gostner had already elaborated on these aspects relating to history and subjectivity in a laboratory-like installation at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch. Working with the title Futurum Exactum (Future perfect, 2006), he lined the whole gallery with cotton wool, a material that people also use to package particularly fragile objects and to stuff in their ears if they have an infection or if they don’t want to hear anything. It is a material with an almost therapeutic quality. Five Perspex boxes stood like empty aquariums in this fluffy wilderness, all also lined with cotton wool, opening up multiple model scenarios for the exhibition situation. A disconcertingly specific question was written on each box in white: ‘How will I have been?’, ‘What will have become of me?’, ‘Who will have wanted me?’ or ‘How much will I have had?’ And, as if the gallery space itself were nothing but a large version of the smaller glass boxes, the outside of the gallery window bore the inscription: ‘When will I have been able to do it?’

The grammatical tense of the questions – the future perfect for actions completed in times ahead – implies an expectation of something coming to pass. But how can the viewer know the answer? These well-cushioned questions stand there in the space, staging a poetic game that spreads immediately via sensory experience into linguistic and conceptual areas, becoming more concrete with every step. The present shapes the future, whether via a vision of society or a private wish.

Such temporal ambivalence is especially evident in the surreal-looking photograph Monument für Nico und Wesi (Monument for Nico and Wesi, 2003), based on an installation for which the artist covered every available horizontal surface inside Innsbruck’s Café Central with cotton wool for one night (and for the photograph). By means of a symmetrical reflection, which works like the image of a Rohrschach test, the café is transformed from a meeting place into a theatrical non-place between past and present, life and death, and a temporary, cotton-wool-insulated‘monument’ to uncertainty.

One reading of Gostner’s work is that the fascists were able to transform the trauma of Cannae into a myth about the fortitude of the Italian people by wrapping this trauma in cotton wool while the specific site of the massacre fell into oblivion.

A village destroyed by the Normans around 1080 CE at Cannae de Battaglia was thought to be the site of the battle since the discovery of mass graves there. An antique-style column was erected as a monument at the site. But scientific studies showed that the battlefield was more likely to have been elsewhere: here in the fields where it has now started raining. The mud sticks to my quickly waterlogged trainers that squelch with every step. The Romans wore sandals; the blood could flow out unhindered. And Hannibal’s troops? I will have to pay a surcharge for cleaning the car. I have no choice but to turn back without having accomplished my mission. Back to the digitized zone. The GPS device greets me with a ‘Welcome!’

Before I set off, Gostner told me about his idea of ‘Erkerkultur’ (bay window culture). For a long time, he was looking for a concept that allows him both to redefine his own artistic position and to offer the viewer the possibility of a different perspective.

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Martin Gostner, Erker (1), Detail, 2011

Martin Gostner, Erker (1), Detail, 2011

What are the defining qualities of a bay window? It extends the living space towards the outside and alters the usually rectilinear ground plan by adding a bulge offering different viewpoints. With its prominent position, it creates not only an expanded view outwards but also a slightly more distanced gaze inwards. From outside, the bay window doesn’t show what is within, it looks like a swelling, expanding the house but without breaking through or significantly altering its structures. The bay window is always visible while the interior of the house remains hidden. But what is the bay window doing in this Italian field?

The motif of the bay window is of course a kind of trick. Gostner is interested, not in architecture, but in a thought experiment – a theoretical construct that makes it possible to find a position bringing one as close as possible to another person’s point of view without merging with it. Gostner puts it like this: ‘The Utopian potential of the bay window consists in the way it allows one almost to walk out into a different world but without leaving one’s own four walls.’ This idea of ‘bay window culture’ does not represent a fixed theoretical concept, nor is it a Utopia in the classical sense. It is to be understood more as a form of open protest against static structures, against the safeguarding and legitimizing stronghold of a ‘prefabricated Utopia’. The artist sees ‘bay window culture’ as ‘a form of culture that develops out of itself at the same time as permitting mobility. It develops out of specific situations and on the basis of options.’ It is a position that can also be viewed as an act or form of creating meaning.

With the title Erker, Gostner has found a metaphor from the sphere of architecture and the treatment of space which he also uses in temporal terms with respect to his treatment of history. ‘The idea of the bay window makes it possible to operate independently of time, for example in a different century, and to reflect on today’s situation without resorting to historicization.’ The bay windows protrude from the time horizon, standing in stark contrast to the kind of linear narratives that are at work in the contradictory myth-making surrounding the Battle of Cannae.

This makes clear where the limitations and merits of the concept of ‘bay window culture’ lie. It is not capable of conveying firmly established ideas. It is more like a vehicle for an open process that develops continually, dynamically and independently. The special situation granted to both the viewer and the artist within it allows for an overall creation of meaning – ‘but not from the outset’, insists Gostner, ‘it’s more like with a plant, where it’s impossible to say how it will grow once it’s been planted. There is a general direction but no cast-iron structure.’ In this light, one can understand ‘bay window culture’ as a strategy affording both artist and viewer the greatest possible freedom to move to the most interesting places. ‘In fact, it’s more of a wandering bay window,’ the artist laughs and mentions the ‘ur-Erker’ (primal bay window). ‘That’s the pregnant belly in which the mother carries her child around. We all started in the “Erker”.’

But where is this leading? Does Gostner’s work consist purely in hiding exhibits that are then hard to find? Will he actually become the Easter Bunny? Almost. The works in the ‘Erker’ series are made and installed by the artist in situ, and they cannot be relocated. They may also disappear if an unauthorized individual destroys the object. They are made without an explicit commission, and only when they exist, or have existed, is their existence announced.

These are not temporary exhibitions that eventually enter the art context in the form of documentation. Gostner’s ‘bay windows’ are inconceivable without the genius loci named by the artist in the title. The artist later renamed two works: both series of posters which were put up anonymously in public places and shown in the exhibition space as originals and as a collage of documentary photographs. The first poster series appeared in ‘Kupferpfandl – und darüber’ (Copper pan – and all about it) in 2001 at the Secession in Vienna; the artist now refers to this series as his first ‘Erker’ piece, which currently goes by the name of Erker (1): Promenade Des Autrichiens, ab 30. Jänner 2001, Wien-Stadtraum, 48°12’31“N 16°22’21“E 192M, Kooperation mit Wiener Secession (Ö) (Bay Window (1): Promenade Des Autrichiens, from 30 January 2001, Vienna-Public Space, 48°12’31“N 16°22’21“E 192M, Cooperation with Vienna Secession (AU), 2001). These posters advertised events at an invented bar, the ‘Kupferpfandl’ – an obvious allusion to the striking dome of the Secession. If the posters were to be believed, the ‘Kupferpfandl’ commended itself as a true mirror of the most important events in Austrian history since World War II.

A large-scale installation was derived from the fourth ‘Erker’ 2, which was also the first to be planned explicitly under the newly discovered series title. ‘Deriving something from an “Erker” architecturally would be like adding a draining pipe to it. By contrast, the artistic derivation of the “Erker” refers to its lineage,’ says Gostner by way of explaining his approach.

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Martin Gostner, Erker (4), 2011

Martin Gostner, Erker (4), 2011

For Entleerung des Erkers 4 vom Monte Cimone in die Galerie… (Emptying Erker 4 from Monte Cimone into the gallery… 2010), Gostner tipped his collection of accompanying materials for this piece – his workflow – into the exhibition space at Galerie Wildauer; an impromptu installation, augmented by works on the walls to be viewed as derivations relating to the ‘Erker’ work that was not on display. All this was accompanied by two photographs. They showed a small wooded area on the slopes of Monte Cimone; its peak was removed by dynamite for tactical reasons in the course of the Austro-Hungarian South Tyrol offensive in 1916. Gostner took the pictures from inside his ‘Erker’ object. Although the object itself cannot be seen, one might guess its identity; it seems to be sewn out of fabric and is aligned with the directions from which the foes – the Savoyards and the Habsburgs – approached each other at the time. Since the artist’s grandfather fought in this battle, was badly wounded and was lucky to survive, this is not merely a work in which world history and family meet. If the medics had arrived slightly later, then the artist might never have existed.

Maybe I’ll make another attempt to find out if the fifth ‘Erker’ really exists. Or did the farmer remove it while ploughing? In the meantime, I received the announcement for the sixth ‘Erker’: Erker (6), Supersäfte Superkräfte, 27.07.2011 Maria Waldrast N47°07.827’ E011°23.966’ 1815M (Bay Window (6) Superjuices, superpowers, 27 July 2011 Maria Waldrast N47°07.827’ E011°23.966’ 1815M, 2011). But will that one be easier to find?

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Quoted from http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1941/410223a.html (accessed 6 July 2011)
2 Full title: _Monte Cimone West, Erker 4: Der Krieg über mir, 19.9.10, 55°49'13"N 11°20'42"E_ (Monte Cimone West, Erker 4: The war above me, 19.9.10, 55°49'13"N 11°20'42"E, 2010)

Andreas Schlaegel is an artist and writer living in Berlin.

Issue 2

First published in Issue 2

Autumn 2011

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