What would actually happen if…
The staged actions, studies and works of Austrian artist Werner Schroedl.
Can cows rain down from the skies? These are the sorts of questions that surely only a child might ask. Nonetheless, Werner Schroedl, born in Attnang-Puchheim in 1971 and a resident of Vienna for the past 16 years, asks them. And more. He even puts these ideas into reality – at least the one about the cow. Animal lovers need not become alarmed, however. The cow to be used will already be quite dead. Schroedl plans to obtain a dead carcass from a veterinarian, deep-freeze it in liquid nitrogen for approximately 20 hours, raise it by crane to a height of 70 m and then let it plummet to the ground. The anticipated result is that the carcass will shatter into thousands of tiny fragments. The whole event will be documented by either film or videotape. Whether all will run as hoped, it is still unknown. The event has not been attempted yet! Werner Schroedl, so it would seem, loves taking risks. That applies not only to the anticipated cow event, whose outcome is so completely uncertain, but also to personal body experimentation, for which he is always prepared.
Thus a performance series is planned which concerns itself with the possibilities of ways in which a person can end up in the water. The ways – and one has already anticipated as much – will be unconventional. One staged action sees the artist climb the mast of a sailboat and capsize the seemingly unsinkable boat into very chilly 10 degrees C seawater. Even riskier will be a flight over the lake with helium-filled balloons whilst a friend on shore, armed with a gun, shoots the balloons down one by one. The working title rings short and sweet: “Peng-Puff-Platsch”. One can only hope that the friend is a good shot! Additionally, the artist wants to test out speed
possibilities and to this end plans to stage a skit entitled “mean black dog”. In this skit the artist reaches in the water after being hotly pursued by a very angry dog.
Everything is to be documented by photos, film and video. However, Werner Schroedl does not limit himself to the narrow description of either a photo or video artist. These tools are simply aids; aids used to document the true artistic creations – the staged actions. How does one then describe such works? What can one actually say about an artist who lets himself be chased by an angry dog into the water and who lets a deep-frozen cow rain down from the sky? Some insight comes from conversations with Werner Schroedl who mentions some narrow similarities between
his staged actions and those of the black humour skits of the legendary English comedy troupe, Monty Python. And yet, his creative muse lies elsewhere.
What initially appears to be courage to take risks and do personal “insertions”, points entirely in a different direction. The artist, from time to time, takes his semi-formulated ideas which are NOT computer simulated – something which in today’s day and age would present no technical difficulty whatsoever – and chooses dauntlessly to stage and develop them from a single tangible artistic conception into reality. To a certain extent, Schroedl reaches into “real life”, a life which in the face of today’s diversity of virtual media, is evermore threatening to disappear. Unlike the dramatic exertions of extreme sports athletes who are driven by comparable motivations to actualize physical challenges, Schroedl’s staged actions at least leave temporary tracks behind. This applies, for example,
in his 2005 work entitled “Tree Extension” in which he personally felled a tree, sawed it down to size keeping only the crown which was subsequently added as an extension to the top of another tree. For a time the silhouette of the forest was genuinely altered as the one extended tree danced scurrilously out of step with all the others. Then, as in a flash of lightning, Schroedl destroyed this creation and restored the natural order of the trees once again. Now only a photo of the event remains which bears witness to a time when a tree really did stand out as a Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
Even more short-lived will be interventions in which the artist will be manipulating more ephemeral materials. Thus a series of smoke drawings is in the works. For one, Schroedl will be constructing a
fog machine complete with opening. The artist will ram the construction from behind causing fog rings to billow forth which for a brief moment in time create smoke sculptures and almost immediately, and on cue, disappear into thin air. In much larger dimensions these smoke signs will materialize in famous surroundings such as the Matterhorn. The artist will be climbing this leviathan Swiss landmark and from
the summit release a smoke capsule which – depending on weather conditions – for an unknown period of time will hang as a trail of smoke in front of the famous mountain mass.
With this endeavour Werner Schroedl will be following in the footsteps of American Landscape Art in which the landscape becomes part of the event, but with one notable variation: this intervention will actually be even more short-lived than those created by Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer. Concurrently, and for one brief moment, the artist will capture a fresh perspective of the Matterhorn, a vista normally photographed to death with a work which, in the best-case scenario, presents itself initially as an aesthetic reality, then in a flash is turned back into sublime countryside.
Even more spectacular could be the planned colouring of a cloud. In order to accomplish this feat, Schroedl intends to send up a weather balloon filled with red pigments which, as soon as it reaches the cloud, will explode by means of a radio-operated detonating device. For a while a red cloud will be seen sailing through the heavens and an alarm will likely be raised in the local police station as earth dwellers below believe that such a rare phenomenon can only be one thing – a UFO! The police have indeed surfaced at other staged actions by Werner Schroedl as anxious fellow citizens openly feared for their safety or felt provoked.
However, the artist has at no time any intention to cause provocation. What interests him much more are the small, or even the large, sensations which once represented the charms
of the circus or the country fair: those surprising, extraordinary, sometimes even absurd moments which have so dramatically disappeared from the rationality and utilitarianism of our well-ordered world. And just as with a clown, Schroedl’s intentionally staged failures signal an integral part of his trademark. On the one hand this is because many of the projects are either impossible to actualize or will play out
quite differently than anticipated. For who can, with any certainty, predict what will happen when a deepfrozen cow is abruptly dropped from a height of 70m? On the other hand this is also because a failure in many of the staged actions is, in fact, the sought-after goal. This is especially the case for the series on the possibilities to reach the water. From time immemorial the old German children’s game known as
“Fisherstecken” has been losing the player who ends up in the water. Not so with Schroedl. He simply turns the tables and explains that what is normally viewed as defeat is actually the intent of the staged action. Furthermore, the most awkward methods imaginable are used so as to reach the goal with absolute certainty.
In addition to the previously mentioned variation, another idea emerges to balance oneself on top of a sheet of glass buoyed by a pontoon of balloons, floating on a surface of water. As though this were not difficult enough, the artist will then shoot the sheet of glass with a pistol in order to be quite certain to reach the water.
Planned also is a battle with a large ship in which the land-bound artist attempts to draw the ship back to shore whilst the ship is already in full throttle. Even here one does not need to be a fortuneteller in order to guess which one will be the loser and, as a result, ends up in the water yet again. One almost has the impression that Werner Schroedl wants to re-enact the famous battle between Don Quixote and the windmills but this time with the full knowledge that he is dealing with windmills and not
imaginary giants. However Schroedl is no naiive dreamer swinging on cloud nine – be it red or not. He is an adventurer who understands reality as a playground which allows for experimentation. What would happen if one holds the wand of a vacuum cleaner up to the ceiling? Will it form a suction cup? Or will it fall down? Schroedl didn’t waste much time to find out and proceeded straightaway to experiment. And
guess what? – the wand did indeed suction itself tightly. This in turn inspired Schroedl to create a series of 10 photographs. In his own studio, as well as in homes of friends, the vacuum cleaner was allowed to suction itself to the ceilings (whereby it was determined that older models are superior to the newer ones) while Schroedl captured all the events on film. The results, on first glance, look like pictures found in
glossy interior design magazines but in these photos irritatingly strange objects have graced themselves in settings which are a curious mixture between Japanese robotics and Giacometti sculptures.
Schroedl’s works do not limit themselves to definite spaces or locations only. They also vary in style and method from one work to another. Some function as film stills which appear as puzzles needing solutions;
others as manipulated realities with occasional surreal effects, as in “o.T”, 2003, in which a roll of carpet raises itself like an oversized rattlesnake; others as snapshots, such as the one of the black horse which appears to have been smuggled onto a strip of public garden before a city hall in a Lower Austrian city, representing a “Living Monument” in between its stone memorial brothers (“o.T”, 2005). All these works demonstrate the artistic views of Werner Schroedl: his aforementioned love of adventure in which the world is a big playground for comical, dangerous, poetic, sensual, nonsensical, powerful – or even not so powerful – experiments are permitted to run free. In some of these playgrounds a firm grip with reality is retained.
As virtual as the works appear to be from time to time, water is still wet and one
still needs to sweat when single-handedly felling a tree. In other works, he responds to ever emerging questions of the role of the artist in society. In a time when only large scale utilitarianism counts, a mobile phone switched off during flight can spell disaster and maximum profit making becomes the holy grail, Werner Schroedl demonstrates the qualities of a very different artistic approach to life. He intentionally
slips into the role of a curious child who experiments with objects, not because they might have any use in an adult world, but because they are fun, interesting and reveal surprising results. From time to time he plays the clown who initially appears to fail but then turn failure into success: hurray, the artist falls into the water! It is all pulled off with plenty of good humour, poetry and charm. And, at the end of the day, he remains true to the classical role of the artist. At the core of Werner Schroedl’s staged actions and works one comprehends the critical generic questions being posed in respect to our present day quality of life; a life which relies on the institutions of utilitarianism, rationality and maximization of profit and where one’s only value is measured in terms of amount of accumulated capital. In this world then, one should be glad when an artist comes along who can make a cow rain down from the sky.
Ikonography and Pictorial Effect: Photographic works 2001 to 2003
The more recent photographs presented at the State Gallery provide an encounter with views of architecture and landscapes and with scenes where individuals are shown in poses, contexts or emotional moods hat seem strange.
Direction of light and long exposures are decisive in determing the effect of the respective situation. Due to Schrödl's approach to architecture and landscape, the way that images are staged - especially when they are peopled by human beings – sometimes becomes apparent only on taking a second look. The soap bubble floating over a railing, the water gushing from a balcony, the suddenly moving shrub in a row of trees break the appearance of objectivity or rather the supposedly casual character of a scene and are then recognized as consciously employed elements of photographic production.
As a photographer, Schrödl elaborates the pictorial concept of the tableau. Therefore, a tension between the image and the reality exposed in it characterizes the artist's work. Photography is no mere representation here, but on the contrary the medium which illustrates or realizes Schrödl's ideas about images. The iconography of these scenes is revealed as the central criterium that distinguishes them from the works of Jeff Wall who since the 1970s, by redefining the conceptual areas of painting, straight photography and the construction of social realities, has produced the architecture of references that determine the reception of more recent positions like Schrödl's. At the same time, Schrödl appears before the background of new(est) realism that over the past decennium has established itself as an international phenomenon of photography, focussed on Bernd and Hilla Becher and their pupils.
Like in the case of Wall, Schrödl's works are defined by their intensive realism and dense atmosphere(Edelbert Köb). Schrödl, however, emphasizes the immediate effect of the action that he stages or rather arranges. Historical references - which Wall is interested in, due to his formation as an art historian - has less importance for Schrödl than the surreal aspect of his works. The particular value of his images lies in the way they appear as snapshots of concrete irrationality, developed with prefabricated material and on the basis of clear compositorial ideas, in which he blurs the border between fictional and real by constructing a pictorial/visual ambivalence (Carl Aigner). The narrative structure of Schrödl's works and their composition as a whole, as they are described by Aigner, are subtly undermined by this. The cause of the rupture between photography and the reference to reality are therefore explained both on the level of form and of content.
As a representative of more recent positions in Austrian contemporary photography, Schrödl refers to the current area of discourse situated between photography and painting. Wall already claimed to be a "painter of modern life" like Baudelaire, producing an image of his time by using the most modern technical equipment, while in Schrödl's work there frwequently appear compositorial and thematic elements that are referring to the history of painting. The construction of his images and the selection of their motifs own profoundly pictorial qualities that are communicated through the medium of photography. Proximity to painting is expressed by the large size of the images and the way the artist chooses to present them. Schrödl, at the very point where the pictorial is concerned, takes a position that - seen from the reception point of view - marks one of the most consequential paradigm changes in how photography is treated. By contrast to the assignation of realism and objectivity to the photographic image, Nils Ohlsen, in his recent survey about the works of Boris Becker, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth has stressed the role of objectivity as a factor of a concept aiming at beauty, intensely related to image concepts of 19th century painting. On the narrow ledge between objective documentation and abstract composition, these six photo artists, he says, are reclaiming a dgree of beauty that painting has started to deny itself a good while ago. For the avantgarde of "New Vision" in the 1920s this equation was unimaginable. According to Claudia Gabriele Philipp, any withdrawal from a precise view of things was condemned as pictorial and not appropriate for the medium of photography. Exemplary is Albert Renger-Patzsch's condemnation of every deviation of photography from an objective representation of reality; he defended the medium - in his essay "Aims", published in 1927 - against the prejudice of its being nothing more than a mechanical reproduction of form. His opponents in this respect were in their turn described by Renger-Patzsch as adherents to the pictorial style.
Following Oliver Lugon's analysis of photography undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s, critics of objective photography attacked the absolute status given to of realism as a deceptive simplification simulating an illusionary harmony that covered up for the social and historical complexity of reality. Heinz Luedecke pointedly criticized New Realism as a flight from reality into games of formality and abstraction which in truth had no objectivity at all. Raoul Hausmann only spoke of "New Sweetness".
Leading back these critical arguments to their real roots one discovers an underlying paradigm change which Philippe Dubois has resumed like this: „If the 19th century discourse about the photographic image was referring to it as being a copy of reality, it might (...) be said that the 20th century has preferred to emphasize the idea that reality is transformed by photography.“
Schrödl's photographs are exact elements of this process of transformation: permanent and subtle decisions exist in him that transform a situation carefully chosen into independent image creations. Objectivity appears as a stylistic and aesthetic concept that holds an iconographic function within the system of the image.
It is this specific possbility of receiving the photographic image as painting that clearly resumes Schrödl's basic disposition and his production process once more: what is important here is the production of images, the staging of situations, the effect of arrangements and their communication and combination via the medium of photography. As Anne Krauter once observed, the question raised by Schrödl's work no longer is whether anything is represented, but how representation functions and what its connotations are.