Edgar Honetschläger’s DIRECTION by Martin Hochleitner

The publication regie / direction appeared in autumn 2001 supporting the regie / direction

exhibition implemented by the Austrian artist Edgar Honetschläger in the State Gallery of the Upper Austrian State Museum.

The project represented a special challenge for the artist and the exhibiting institution in a double sense. Primarily an approach to the complex work of a cosmopolitan position without any retrospective claim should be made. Secondarily the possibility of an approach was sought to the Museum’s concrete relationship to the medium film and its related fields in Honetschläger’s work in its entirety.

The point of departure for the exhibition in Linz was provided by the films MILK (1998), L+R (1999) and also by the trilogy colors: masaccio, the history of chocolate and in times of mergency (2000). These were shown or projected either full length or in excerpts and short sequences in various rooms of the Museum.

Honetschläger coupled these films with 97–(13+1) his submission to Documenta X in Kassel, Germany (1997) and the installation Schuhwerk that had its origins in a large scale art project in Tokyo public spaces (1993).

Photographs of this performance by Shigeo Anzai, photographic work of his own, several video clips, selected objects in plaster and paintings, separate text extracts related to the project and a selection of drawings comprised further elements in the exhibition. The drawings grew ever more in importance during the preparatory phase. They represented important pegs between separate work groups both optically and also in the context of their contents that were on no account to appear isolated from the exhibition concept. This would have been a contradiction both of the image Honetschläger has of himself as an artist, of his development to date and his grasp of the various media themselves.

The exhibition attempted to make an outline sketch in the form of a tension-laden network of genre independent basic concerns and Edgar Honetschläger’s artistic primary phenomena. The conveying of this intention is reliant on the optical sensibility of the recipients and their pleasure in following subtle references of the artist and the tracing of his associations.

Jan Tabor drew attention to the possibility of being able to tell numerous entertaining anecdotes about Edgar Honetschläger’s work at a previous exhibition opening. Tabor provided an amusing example of what was meant by this in the episode of a carnivorous potted plant that Honetschläger fed to death.

Tabor subsequently referred again and in great detail to this plant. He described the origins of the genus in North and South Carolina, explained its form and biological function, pointed out the erotic symbolism of the foliage and finally told of Honetschläger’s special experience with this plant. In sum Tabor had found a consciously sought opportunity for a summary of Honetschläger’s image of himself as an artist by reference to the plant.

Tabor reacted to Edgar Honetschläger’s stand that is so thoroughly interpenetrated with narrative elements, by telling a story.

The content of the narratives makes biographical reference to the artist, his changing domiciles in Europe, Asia and America since the late nineteen eighties and also to his interest in the essential principles of social conventions and their specific forms.

Honetschläger reacts thematically to the sum of cultural characteristics, social circumstances, historical and political factors and also religious traditions and linguistic structures. Honetschläger encounters details within this complex field of reference that generate enthusiasm in him through their effectual quality. It is these details that make it possible for him to focus on the collective consciousness and to achieve his personal understanding. The detailed precision of the observation has nothing to do with a preference for narrative – the anecdotal – in the actual moment of the graphic, film and textual relation. Honetschläger does not exemplify.

For him the personal discovery of a story and its integration within the context of personal experience is much more to the point. To the external observer this frequently signifies the rediscovery of a narrative that had been in no way manifestly conscious until this time, or that had been either falsely represented or made invisible (E. Said). 

Honetschläger has achieved a very significant differentiation in the subjectivity of his story telling style from the “the unchallenged ethic of objectivity and realism” in the description of common identities in his analysis to date of the cultural history of Europe and Japan.

The Palestinian Edward Said came to very similar conclusions– albeit from the perspective of comparative literary criticism –a few years ago. He examined various forms of orientalism and deduced from this “a western style in the domination, restructuring and mastering of the orient”. This work and the theories it elaborates was very soon after its publication considered to be an especially appropriate diagnosis of “those imperialist mechanisms that secretly control the process of representation.”

Although his criticism of the humanities made reference primarily to its “non-intervention in the affairs of everyday life”, Said’s observations permit us to make two important conclusions – conclusions that apply at this point to the work of Edgar Honetschläger. These refer on the one hand to the requirement for subjectivity, “in order to recover the non-linear energy of experienced historical memory as an element of fundamental significance in representation”, and on the other hand to the requirement of a break-out from the disciplines ghetto, in order to bring the bogged down social process into motion once again.

The structural approach between the theoretician Said and the artist Honetschläger is seen as being particularly close in the context of the example by means of which Said develops his argument. Said’s reference to Malek Alloula’s “Le Harem Colonial”, an examination of postcard subjects and photographs of Algerian harem women during the early 20th century, could equally have come from a Honetschläger film scenario. This is all above the case because the graphic conquest of the colonised by the colonisers, a symbol of power, was a comprehension the young Algerian sociologist Alloula made himself. Like Honetschläger, Alloula achieved a recognition in images of his own fragmented history and chronicled this in his texts. Both men formulated the results of their insight in intimate experience and cultural code breaking.

When Katrin Klingan and Hortensia Völckers spoke in a recently published interview with Gabriele Massuh about the contemporary Argentinean film scene, they saw the experimentation with language and image as aesthetic guiding principles increasingly displaced by a reference to contemporary models of reality, whereas Edgar Honetschläger once again reunites these two principles in his film work. Image and language convey the personal feeling for existence, the “I” subjectivity of Honetschläger. This would be left aside in the Argentinean films. Their concern would be purely with “objective” biographies.

Despite these differences, the other characteristics of the young Argentinean filmmakers’ scene defined by Gabriele Massuh apply to a remarkable extent and with great precision to Edgar Honetschläger. Massuh formulated the most important characteristics as being the accessing of explicit documentary means, work with lay actors, the collecting of the most varied materials, experience, the recording of notes, observation and video film etc. over a long period of months as well as a construction with an incredible attention to detail.

Finally the clearest point in common explains at once the shared stance of Honetschläger and the new cinematic realism of South America. This lies in the singularity of the productions that reflect the general condition of mankind under globalisation. This comparison with Argentina selected on an exemplary basis might also be transferred to other countries and cultures. 

Honetschläger is the Austrian protagonist of a world cinema. His films are not descriptions of cultural difference. They do not construct binary opposition between cultures. They are far more the treatment of questions ”about the status of trans-national cultural production” as also about the “universality of mobility and diversity” before a very complex background of own and collective experiences.

The answers in terms of film that he has provided to date have been very variously structured. While a limited story line continuum runs through the film MILK in its entirety, L+R presents a series of subtly limited individual observations. In the trilogy colors these are as it were autonomised and achieve an effectual re-evaluation simply by this means. 

Honetschläger thus operates in his film opus to date using differentiated systems of cinematic composition, without an evolutionary further development having resulted from this between the separate projects. It is much more a case of his pursuing in each of his films an intention – that is deeply intertwined with his own life – that is the foundation for specific solutions in the structure, in the construction, but also in the emerging creative process – proceeding beyond the pure content.

The narrative structure is echoed in each case by harmonious correspondences of the image structure. There are thus long uncut passages in each film that are precisely for this reason a clear indicator of Honetschläger’s observation. Honetschläger formulates images with content. These are perceived by him and are capable of a precise perception as a result of their clarity. Therefore an authentic opportunity for participation in the artist’s associational process results for the perceptive audience. Walter Benjamin had considered this to be an impossibility and underlined what he saw a decisive difference “between art and film”: “One may compare the (canvas) screen on which the film is projected, with the canvas of a painting. The latter invites the contemplation of the observer; he can give free play to his associations before it. This cannot be done when watching a film.”

In his critical assessment of film Benjamin made reference to Georges Duhamel, who was unable to think what he wanted to think. The moving images had taken the place of his thoughts.

In contrast with this Honetschläger conveys his thoughts through the film. The clarity of his cinematic language has its foundation to a significant extent in the congruency of the narrative and the image structures, whereby the latter is determined again by the high formal quality of the “individual cinematic image”.

These individual images stand on the one hand in correspondence to Honetschläger’s aesthetically intentional pictorial language – especially in the area of photography – and they point on the other hand to the process of the creation of the film.

It is thus a fundamental principle that relevant sketches, studies and plans on paper exist for each scene in the film. Significant moments of the narrative and image structure are sketched graphically here. The plot and the details are rehearsed simultaneously. The high level of correspondence existing between the images in the film and the drawings proves how important graphic preparation is in the genesis of a project in its entirety. In their specific relationship to the treatment and the script, however, they exemplify Honetschläger’s pleasure in illustrating content.

In his extensive work on the subject of Joseph von Eichendorff’s classic German literary text “Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts” – (memoirs of a good for nothing) (1990) this was already given clear expression in an early phase of his work.

The films have intensified the pleasure shown in the direction of a comprehensive – since it is also a self-determining – authorship. This has enabled him to communicate observations through structured plots.

The films thus do not represent an alternative to the intention of the drawings and photographs or to the comprehensive conception of Schuhwerk and the Documenta series, but an extended authorship in his dealings with the complexity of perception structures. Honetschläger saw in film a third leg to the tripod the support of which would enable him to make a final and conclusive take. 

Simultaneously through the films to date Honetschläger’s relationship to the public – in the sense of moments of collective experience of an entirely different orientation, – has been defined afresh.

It is precisely this relationship of artists to their production, to the recipients and the institutions in the field of art that was the object of research in a recently published essay by Beatrice von Bismarck. The author reacted in this to artistic positioning in the post-modern upheaval and stressed the significance of drawing in differentiation of the formulation of the question, “which established privileges of the artist were retained and in what manner they were used in the formulation of the own role.”

Von Bismarck defined three tangible fields of reference for drawing in the context of the art of the late nineteen sixties that it would appear may be applied in principle to Honetschläger’s work: as a track to corporeal imprint and work, as a score to motion in space and as script for social interaction.

All three aspects were perceived by von Bismarck as extraordinary strategies for the authority of the author and were thus placed in opposition to Roland Barthe’s proclamation of “The Death of the Author”.

It is precisely the drawing too that most directly conveys the individual signature in the case of Edgar Honetschläger and that is the mediator by means of the greatest directness and immediacy, of him as author.

The coherencies of personal metaphor and focal points of attention are opened up with especial clarity in the drawing – in particular when these fields of reference can be referred to and viewed again in the finished film. This is what distinguishes Honetschläger’s drawing from pure direction. 

Over and above this the drawings share with the films a detail that is characteristic of Honetschläger’s work in its entirety:

They appear extraordinary bright. 

The first sequence in MILK, in which the Japanese flag or also a red circle vanish successively beneath the white of the milk, imparts this as a particularly lasting impression. Honetschläger’s works gain through this brightness a brilliance and sensual intensification that verges from time to time on hyper-reality. Smooth, stylised or cool results are not the effect. One is subjected far more to that fascination that the late 19th Century comprehended in the term “Japanese vision”. It was not least under the influence of Japanese coloured wood block prints, in particular those of Katsushika Hokusai, that the assumption was made in Europe that there is no shadow in Japan and that as a consequence everything there must be conceived of in terms of great brightness.

This impression as a phenomenon can best be described through its opposite, the mystification through grim and dark design principles.

The image manipulation that Honetschläger creates through brightness achieves harmonious compliance, in the films in particular, with manipulations of the content. The brightness itself becomes a decisive factor in the authentification and the giving of tangibility to a scene.

Further characteristic examples are represented by the work groups of the plaster plates and the graphic series Tampopo. Honetschläger worked in these with the smallest white colour points on a white background and evoked an intensive optical field of tension despite the differentiation of extreme nuance between the medium and the means of the image produced.

Edgar Honetschläger shares this specific characteristic of brightness as a constant in his work to date with another artistic personality who has, however, appeared to develop in a quite different direction not least through a preferred reaching for sculpture and object: Cy Twombly. He began the white painting of his objects arranged from simple items or items which make reference to simple forms, in the nineteen fifties. 

If the viewer attempts to free hinself from the genre specific differences between Honetschläger and Twombly and traces their work complexes back to basic structures, it becomes clear that both artists react in a special manner to fragments of reality and the brightness that is manifest in the case of Twombly in a total renunciation of colour, is used as a potential for a substantial conformity.

The two artists also share a cosmopolitan approach and the fascination of comprehending the history of art in use as a potential for the inspiration of their own artistic production and to carry out intensive research work in this direction. Thus Cy Twombly’s examination of Raphael’s “School of Athens” in the early nineteen sixties, for example, has a parallel in Honetschläger’s most recent film masaccio. 

In this film of the colors trilogy, two Japanese conduct a conversation in front of Masaccio’s frescos in the empty Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. This tangible reference provides Honetschläger with the thematic opportunity of examining the reception and the effect of a selected example of western art in a state of permanent change between own access and personal interpretation, rational and emotional reading of the iconography in addition to the entirely contrary European and Asiatic experience contexts and to simultaneously anchor this process in his biography.

colors was thus made parallel to the decision to spend more time in Europe again, after years of living in America and Japan. The project was also seen by Honetschläger himself as a “return to an own culture – not necessarily geographically – but in terms of cultural history”.

Edgar Honetschläger thus moves very consciously within the context of the history of art. His own position finds– independent of concrete forms of appearance – the clearest correlation where the representation of personal experience and experienced moments as well as the questioning of reality and factual realities are linked with a comprehensive context, social and historic consciousness and are conveyed by various means of the narrative. In the art of the 20th century Edgar Honetschläger is closer to neo-realism, narrative figuration and to some extent new objectivism than to the various conceptual tendencies through the clarity and manifestation of his pictorial language. Despite numerous formal points of agreement and the use of iconographic models from the history of art, his personal commitment to the treated subjects is of immediate effect in his work.

Honetschläger encounters a phenomenon here that was described by the photography of the nineteen fifties with a delicate sense of the general mood by Otto Steinert in the term “subjective photography”

In the pursuit of his aesthetic objectives and in the perceptible presence of his authorship these general fields of reference become crystallised in artists such as Walker Evans and William Eugene Smith, who combined an extraordinary acribiousness in their research with a high level of formal sensibility and drew from this the pre-requirements for a personal statement on human impulses and social compulsions.

Through his work on Minamata, the town in Japan whose inhabitants were plunged into the deepest suffering by a hushed-up ecological scandal, Smith at least takes up once a directly Japanese theme. His photographic essays find their more developed, contemporary sequel in the cinematic essays of Edgar Honetschläger.

Their very own and most original characteristic consists in the fact that Honetschläger reflects himself in his own existence by way of his films and that he conveys his observations, awarenesses, positions, but also his personal style in narrative form.

The sum of the exemplary structures a network of information. The centre is represented by the substance of subjective authorship.