The Discreet Music of Marie T. Hermann’s Objects
[Plays, Acting, and Music will be followed by Studies in Seven Arts] in which music will be dealt with in greater detail, side by side with painting, sculpture, architecture, handicraft, dancing, and the various arts of the stage.Arthur Symons, “Preface,” Plays, Acting, and Music((Arthur Symons, “Preface,” Plays, Acting, and Music (London: Constable & Company, 1909), viii.))
All photos of the works of Marie T. Hermann are by Tim Thayer unless otherwise stated,
courtesy of the Simone DeSousa Gallery and the artist.
Marie T. Hermann’s studio, Pontiac 2015. Photos courtesy of the artist
As with the experimental dance and choreography of Biba Bell, so, too, is the work of Marie T. Hermann part of an international language of ceramics but one extended, following the work of her mentor the potter and writer Edmund de Waal, into installation and the language of post-Minimal forms and poetics of placement. Rachel Whiteread, Carl André, Donald Judd are as important for Hermann as any potter, though Lucie Rie and Hans Coper would certainly be regarded as part of the same universe of taste as the great Minimalist and post-Minimalist artists. The thoughtful work of, say, Warren McKenzie and his followers – the Minnesota School as it is sometimes called – with its emphasis upon the handmade and sense of measure determined by use, and so a work for which the gallery is at best the place for the viewer to find and select the work of choice – for it is how one uses and lives with the vessels that matters – is not the controlling aesthetic of Marie Hermann. Even, maybe especially in, the work of Edmund de Waal – who long ago transitioned from the restricted community of potters into the fine-art gallery system as an installation artist – there is a preciosity of the hand not to be found in the work of Hermann.((Cf. Sam Anderson, “Edmund de Waal and the Strange Alchemy of Porcelain,” The New York Times Magazine (Nov 25 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/magazine/edmund-de-waal-and-the-strange-alchemy-of-porcelain.html?_r=0. Accessed 08-07-16.)) For this work, there is a visual agnosia or imperceptibility between the handmade and the industrial made, since this is not an aesthetic that sees the organicism of the unique hand (creation) as in any way superior to the anonymity of the mass-made (production), and so every effort is typically made to remove the trace of the hand. It is, aesthetically and ethically, not merely a form of refusal but more pointedly a form and poetics of withdrawal, as may become clear through a consideration of the kind of experience at work in the objects, their installation and placement (or arrangement, as Hermann and Adamson put it in their conversation). As Hermann makes clear in her conversation with Glenn Adamson (in this issue) when he reminds her of the “strong philosophical weight that is attached to the mark of the hand in ceramics,” she says simply: “I’ve just never been interested in that.”
Marie T. Hermann, To the legion of the lost, 2007. Photo by Michael Harvey
Environments. What, then, is the interest of these works which seem to come either carefully arranged on shelves (not unlike three-dimensional still lives of a particular kind not, it must be said, completely unrelated to the post-Surrealist object or construction), or massed liked multiple unities of the same like soldiers of the Chinese Terra Cotta Army of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE), and captured – or overlaid – in richly associative, temptingly projective titles such as To the legion of the lost (2007), Stillness in the Glorious Wilderness (2010), A Gentle Blow to the Rock (2013), and most recently, at the Simone DeSousa Gallery in Detroit, And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn (2015)? First, it must be said that the gallery is the conceptual and physical frame of these objects – platonic solids, blobs, stretched formless surfaces of latex, mixed media, and assorted non-functional vessels. Shelf – Frame. The presence of the shelf throughout the work, a thing for showing another thing, is the frame that permits objects to have articulation from the ground of the environment, and as such to be objects of attention and phantasmatic permutations. The shelf, and the scale of the objects in their placement, objects not readily identifiable as useful or functional, and frequently not even identifiable at all – whence my suggestion of them as post-Surrealist constructions – these objects on the formal shelf phenomenologically function in ways comparable to the child’s perspective. Shelving, after all, is where things are put out of the reach (of the child), and the child is the person – or, to capture the adult’s sense of the availability of childhood – the child is the condition of being a person in which newness – strangeness – is always marked by the sense of discovery and poignancy, touching something for the first time as though it should not be touched (and so not grasping, nor even being greedy with the eye). Be they Platonic solids, or vessels, there is a sense of all the objects and things on shelves in this body of work of being stripped down – here white is not simply white but the mark of the very process of abstraction, a process linked to both thinking and memory – as though the objects are the remains, the forms of a memory of what was once encountered for the first time, as new, as mysterious. May be there was, once, in empirical time and space, a vessel that looked like a bowl from a science lab for mixing chemicals (of the kind seen in Untitled 11 and Untitled 12 and You are my weather), but it is not its function that matters now so much as the memory of first encountering it stripped of its local markers and become part of the theatre of memory (the question of place): we see this in the still-life placements of Morandi – whom one cannot imagine not being part of the dialogue of this work – and we also see it in the great enigmatic but also fundamentally still-life placements of de Chirico’s proto-Surrealist works such as the great Le Mauvais génie d’un roi [The evil genius of a king], 1914, oil on canvas, in The Modern in New York,((All the titles of de Chirico’s great proto-Surrealist works were given not by the painter himself but by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Hermann is responsible for her own titles but she aims for something similar to the use of titles in Surrealist works, namely, the opening of new spaces of reception and resonance. )) and there is a stunning suite of photographs by Man Ray called Mathematical Objects and first published in Cahiers d’Art in 1934 and they are what they say they are in their titles: photographs of mathematical objects, but taken in such a way that they become stripped down modern sculptures of great beauty, simplicity, and mystery – in black and white.((Certain of these photographs by Man Ray are available on the internet.)) Frame – Environment. The sheet of bricks laid out on the floor on which To the legion of the lost is presented is every bit as much a frame as the shelves on walls which emphasize figure-ground articulations – the movement of verticality and horizontality needs to be interpreted – though in this case it is all but certain that the sheet of bricks engages with Carle André’s grid-based floor sculpture. Installation. Every installation, that is, every considered act of placement in predetermined space, is implicitly the evocation or creation of a possible whole environment – this is especially so where the gallery is seen as a laboratory (in architecture, in Constructivist as well as Surrealist exhibitions) or a stand-in for a theatre where objects are grasped by those present as in some sense possessing autonomy, that is, agency. In this respect, the gallery space is a function of the question of place (lieu), that is, the moment where (not simply the moment when) multiple temporalities are imbricated. Wallpaper and the question of place, or lieu de mémoire. The use of wallpaper with apparently autobiographical associations in the exhibition And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn serves to confirm the gallery as a function of place this time activated through the place of memory. Conversing with Hermann in the gallery of And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn, Adamson comments: “This brings us directly to William Morris. William Morris designed this wallpaper to give us exactly the effect we are experiencing. Which is, you take a room and you turn it into this intimate warm glade, that suggests […] something you can’t quite touch, a dream space.” The dream space – or psychical place, the other place as Freud characterized it – is the very model of complex temporalities available in social space when a place and function become invested by its participants. We learn from Hermann that the wallpaper in question was a part of her childhood in the small farmhouse outside Copenhagen which her family of architects (mother and father) owned. Such decoration was unusual given her parents’ modernist Scandinavian tastes dominated by white. Within the spatiality of the gallery the wallpaper evokes a place and serves to seal a place of memory, to project a sense of continuity and seamlessness through the establishment of an environment – and yet for all that, the experience is not personal but structural (what Adamson is getting at when he comments that “there is something kind of impersonal about the objects [of this exhibition].” What kind of experience, then, is in question and for which the wallpaper serves as proxy, an opening?
“The poet and paper-maker,” was how Henry James referred to William Morris in a letter of 1881. “Wallpaper is a peculiar thing,” begins Shelley Selim’s essay in this volume on Hermann. The Blackthorn wallpaper designed by Morris((On Morris’ wallpaper designs, cf. Lesley Hoskins, “Wallpaper,” in William Morris, ed. Linda Perry (London: Philip Wilson and Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996), 198-223).)) – the design is still available in fabric and wallpaper – may well have autobiographical associations for Marie Hermann, but in the context of the gallery it functions as the attempt to project a seamlessness of environment in which a certain kind of dramaturgy can be played out with the bodies of audience present, immersed in it – the drama of what the great Belgian Symboliste Maurice Maeterlinck called the treasure of the humble, and Morris the lesser arts of life.
From Henry James to Adolph Loos who wrote: “anyone who goes to [Beethoven’s] Ninth and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a fraud or a degenerate.”((Adolph Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” quoted in Alexander Nehemas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 29.)) (One is tempted to ask if it would be okay, then, to design the wallpaper before one goes to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth.) Yes, wallpaper is a peculiar thing.
And yes, there is poetry in wallpaper, which is to say, there is poetry derivable from ordinariness: “In 1938, the 20th century’s greatest painter [Picasso] made a work of art of wallpaper [Femmes à leur toilette, 1938((Pablo Picasso, Femmes à leur toilette [Women at their toilette], 1938. Papiers peints collés et gouache. Collection Musée Picasso. Of course, it is a very small step from Picasso’s use of wallpaper to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Walls paper, 1972. 72 offset color prints. Cf. Jessamyn Fiore, 112 Green Street: The Early Years (1970 – 1974) (New Mexico: Radius Books and New York: David Zwirner, 2012), 142-145.))],”((Jonathan Jones, “Can you tell what it is yet?” The Guardian (22 August 2006), https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/aug/22/3. Accessed 08-07-16..)) and there is poetry already latent in ordinariness, whence Maeterlinck’s great essay on the poetry of stillness and ordinariness, “Le tragique quotidien,” and its quest for an ethic of sentiment where “It is no longer a question of [the pursuit of] an exceptional and intense [violent] moment of existence, but of existence itself,”((Maurice Maeterlinck, “Le tragique quotidien,” Le Trésor des humbles (Paris: Mercure de France, 1907), 171.)) that is, existence without the masking of great passion which is but the projection of the ego. This is what is at issue, what is in question with the ethic and aesthetic of withdrawal as found in an aesthetic of the ordinary and for which what Morris called in nineteenth-century fashion the lesser arts – which, since the avant-garde assault on the very epistemological foundations of the fine arts and its history, namely, the history of art, are no longer thought of as lesser in significance – have become the vehicles in contemporary practice. The ordinary is not banal. The objects of And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn or To the legion of the lost are not banal objects – we shall not chance upon them in the street or in the home – for they are not familiar to viewers unfamiliar with the body of this work of art (or even comparable practices), yet any sense that such objects might convey of unusualness is quickly dissolved by the mode of repetition of the same: the same or near indiscernible shade of white repeated in an indefinite number of all but the same vessel-form and in a finish of mid-gloss as to be industrial, that is, devoid of distinction. Rhythm comes from the placement and arrangements of the forms, indeed, there is more rhythm in the arrangement of the rims of the vessels than the bodies themselves – another way in which this work differs from that of de Waal where rhythm is the very body of the work inviting the body, the hand of the viewer to feel. Still, the lineaments of repetition make for the ordinary and after a certain point neither more nor fewer of the same will make for the interesting: our habits, our routines, our rituals, they are what they are, the social forms of repetition, and these forms, vessels, objects in their repetition present the conditions of becoming-ordinary and the conditions of the transformation within the ordinary that is the experience latent in these objects, that is, indeed, liminal to their configuration.
Marie T. Hermann, To the legion of the lost, 2007. Photo by Michael Harvey
Modes of liminality. Perhaps now we can approach again the question, What kind of experience, then, is in question and for which the wallpaper serves as proxy, an opening? (This question points also to the subject of the work.) By liminality in its simplest sense we understand threshold, in particular, experiences marked by thresholds: the approach, the crossing of thresholds, and as such experiences where the difference between this and that, here and there could be as infinitely small (inframince) or as large and for which there need be no clear mark of transition, for only afterwards (après-coup) might one be aware that something has happened, whether accidentally or no. The approach of sleep, dreaming, being conscious yet not self-aware, hypnogogia are all threshold states (in this instance what psychiatrists have long called états secondaires / secondary states); but so too is the crossing into puberty a liminal transition, as are heroic adventures, etc. Certain places – deserts, forests, the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) – are understood to be in states of liminal suspension. More simply, the approach of night (dusk) or the emergence of morning from the night (dawn) are modes of temporal liminality and are conditions where the conventional logic of identity breaks down – this is why this temporality was so beloved by Romantics, Symbolistes, and Surrealists and in their painting and poetry is often marked by mauve / violet / purple (just think of the role of violet in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land (the violet light, the violet air) especially when spoken by the liminal being par excellence Tiresias, “At the violet hour […] / […] when the human engine waits, like a taxi throbbing, waiting,/ I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives”). Liminality is pre-eminently the experience of a state of suspension variously theorized as the interval, the between (entre), or in-betweenness. The exhibition And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn evokes and invites a temporal mode of liminality and in this volume of Detroit Research Anthony Marcellini has much to say about this mode of experience in Hermann’s work. There is another mode of liminality that is as important and helps one to comprehend the role of intimacy as distance – one of the subjects of this work – as well as the role of the ordinary where such intimacy can be found. Hermann in her interview – and also in the teaching studio – speaks of the “very interesting moments in our ordinary lives,” and it should be clear that her forms and her language for taking about her forms – puddles, sticks, blobs, tactility – point to the small scale and the intimate marked by a phenomenology of approach in terms of proximity, point, and tension, that is to say, it is the approach and not the thing reached, the kind of space (the problem of place) and not the thing in space which is but there to give shape to space, to allow space to be embodied as provisional place, an entre (between). She speaks of “That contrast [my emphasis] between the very still and the unchangeable to this hovering movement, that is neither here nor there [my emphases]. It is just there for a little while”; and to Adamson’s question, “What about the crystalline forms that look almost like natural geological specimens?” she responds that “They are kind of a development of those block forms. Which is a way of looking at tactility and the moment when we touch something, the moment where our hands meet an object. […] So these things were a way of thinking of that space [place] where you touch something.” (My emphases.) The role of titles is part of this phenomenology of approach to space and proximity insofar as the title in these works always opens up and itself takes place (the title is an event) in-between work and resonance in a kind of respect for and ceremony of intimacy with the work: as if to say, the title is there, but leaves the work alone. Do you think, for example, that the title The Evil Genius of a King explains the painting by de Chirico with that title, or even indicates the subject of the painting? No, yet the title belongs to the painting; likewise To the legion of the lost or And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn belong to their works at a distance, hence resonance, the music of the work removed from the physical into an interior and visual music. Not for Hermann the large-scale statements and marshalling of affect of her mentor de Waal as evidenced in his recent Gagosian show Atemwende (2013) where the ceramic work is a meditation on Paul Celan and how to approach the body “after Auschwitz,” or in his recent book The White Road (2015) where white in de Waal is death, the death of people on the Silk Road or through exploitation of labor, but also the transfigured death expressed in Eliot’s, The Waste Land
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?((Cf. Michael Stone-Richards, “The Vessel as Refusal of the Word, embodying the Silence of the Word: de Waal’s Atemwende,” forthcoming.))
There is a playfulness to Hermann’s titles no longer to be found in de Waal, though both share a pursuit of the question as to what kind of affective weight can be carried by ceramic pots and vessels: in Atemwende, de Waal ups the challenge, in effect, by compelling the viewer not to forget that ceramics is the art of fire – whence the appearance of black tones in the more recent work, especially that work Atemwende, devoted to reflection on the fate of Paul Celan where the representability or not of the burnt Thing is positioned as the subject of the work.(( In Detroit, Anders Ruhwald, Artist-in-Residence in Ceramics at Cranbrook, recently received a Knight Foundation Arts Grant to construct a site-specific ceramic work of fire and burning.)) Hermann’s industrial / serial production prefers distance as condition for intimacy and playfulness, and a certain lightness of affective touch which requires the distance of the viewer and the transformation of the work into a visual music of abstraction and thought. It is not even to be touched.((Consider, for example, that I may pick up and handle one vessel, but fifty or seventy all but identical vessels are not mean to be handled individually but rather to be grasped at a distance. ))
The ordinary. “These are very interesting moments in our ordinary lives, these contrasting things are played up against each other without making a fuss. It just happens, objects accidentally, there and here are my keys and my things. That normalcy, systems of insignificance, that I think are very beautiful.” The ordinary is the place of appearance (this is how Cage thinks of sound: no sound is more interesting than another, “music” is not organized or in some way more interesting than sound; he finds this laughable) and what Hermann addresses here is not insignificance but rather liminal, infra-mince forces, a hidden, or better withdrawn orchestration bespeaking an agency to objects in relations and networks. Accident: in its origin a philosophical (Aristotelian) concept, here meaning not without necessity but rather, of their own accord, thing become event, as things appear (as relations, as forms) and so become perceptible, as in relation with human desire, for without my “insignificant” keys (what kind? house? car? studio? bank vault?) I cannot get to, do, leave, cross space, pick up my child, and so I scream: Where are those damned keys?! and the exasperated frustration comes out diffused as if being addressed to everything and no-one, and yet when found we then proclaim in relief, “There you are!” The liminality of objects that accidentally happen speaks to this mode of appearing, of finding significance where one might not have sought it, of visibility shaped by sudden configuration. To Adamson’s question, “Why don’t you want the marks of your hands on the object?” Hermann replies: “Because I’m just interested in the shape and what it does on its own.” (My emphasis) Be it in the ordinary world or the frame of her art of placement, these are phenomena of discreet moments where the liminal breaks through To the legions of the lost … And dawn turned dusk, where music – the orchestration of appearance as appearance – is not normal physical sound but a proto-world of sounding objects in relations independent of the imposing ego but in resonance with and inscribed onto the body at a distance.
In the collected reflections on the work of Marie T. Hermann which follow, Glenn Adamson, former Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, and former Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, opens with a conversation with Hermann held in the Simone DeSousa Gallery on the occasion of And dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn; a further essay by Adamson is then followed by writings by Rebecca R. Hart (the Polly and Mark Addison Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum), Ezra Shales (artist and art Historian at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design), Anthony Marcellini (Detroit-based artist and curator), Shelley Selim (Associate Curator of Design and Decorative Arts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art), concluding with an experimental prose work by the Detroit-based writer Lynn Crawford. The range and quality of response from curators, artists, and writers says much about the poetry of Hermann’s forms and practice. Lastly, thanks to the generous assistance of Dr. Nii O. Quarcoopome, Co-Chief Curator at the DIA, we are fortunate in having several exceptional works from the important – if under-appreciated – Ceramics Collection of the DIA. These works range from the most ancient Egyptian and Iranian to contemporary Kenyan vessels and have been set in visual conversation with the work of Marie T. Hermann. Metro-Detroit is fortunate in the exceptional quality of its ceramics collections which constitute some of the most important collections of contemporary art in Detroit, and since her arrival in Detroit, Hermann’s work has become established in private and public collections and understood as contemporary practice. How wonderful it would be to see an exhibition at the DIA or MOCAD – whose founding director Marsha Miro wrote an important book on Robert Turner! – of ancient, modern, and contemporary ceramics as contemporary art.
Marie T. Hermann, Dialogue of a day #1, 2016
Marie T. Hermann, Dialogue of a day # 2, 2016