Gehard Demetz. CONTENITORE
Beck & Eggeling, New Quarters, Düsseldorf
September 10 – October 29, 2011

A View from Above
by Gesine Borcherdt

It is that strange mixture of anxiety and wide open space. It takes hold where the view gets caught between the faces of karst mountains, patches of meadows and waterfalls, climbing up the steep limestone cliffs, and finally searching for a way out through blue patches between the banks of clouds. Those who do not come from here haver between alpine romanticism and vertigo at an altitude of two thousand metres. The name of this town in Val Gardena could not be more appropriate: Wolkenstein (directly translated: cloud-stone). And there is probably not a place anywhere that one would associate less with what we call today a “young artist”. The reason why Gehard Demetz has not left his beloved home in the mountains for Berlin, New York or London is immediately apparent when one sees him taking each curve along the rapid course of the river as though he were walking in his sleep, greeting ski instructors and village policemen in Ladin, that curiously sough language of the mountain people, and finally, at the “Chalet”, an inn owned by his wife's family, pointing far above to the steepest cliff beyond the tree line, talking about how he used to go secretly rock climbing there. Nothing could be more abstruse than imagining this man in the metro. A big city would probably also not be the best place for him to create his curious, surrealistic sculptures, which seem to come from another time.

Gehard Demetz – who can thank an Italian civil servant for the missing “r” in his first name – takes part in a tradition, or better: wriggles out of a tradition which, today, meets with little understanding this side (or any side) of the Alps, namely religious woodcarving. Wooden figures can be found here on every corner – various saints and figures of Jesus and Madonna, nativity scenes, wanderers and gnomes. As though it were Christmas all year round, they squat in front of doorways, grace bird houses, flowerpots or fountains made of entire tree trunks and, densely packed, populate every third shop window. The wood carvers learned their trade at the local art academy with its branch in Ortisei (and earlier also in Wolkenstein), famous for its training in this particular genre of sculpture. But not everyone who studies here necessarily goes on to supply tourist shops – and among the local clientèle these lugubrious figures rarely find any takers anyway. The most famous graduate of the academy is Gilbert Prousch, better known as one half of the duo Gilbert & George - there is allegedly still a statue of Christ by him in his home town of San Martino in Badia: The mixture of religion, kitsch and sexuality, celebrated by the London duo since the sixties, takes on a whole new note in light of this personal-historical background. The fact that Rudolf Stingel, who was born in Merano, also studied in Ortisei, and that both Jeff Koons and Henry Moore had sculptures produced here, demonstrates how great the influence of the Alps can be for some artists. To stay here and work against the sacral-bourgeois tradition of the local handicraft can almost be interpreted as being an act of rebellion. With Gehard Demetz, this is coupled with a profound emotional attachment to his homeland. In fact, he worked for many years in this field and still has a great deal of respect for it. Nevertheless, after his training as a master sculptor was completed, and later at the summer academy in Salzburg, he developed his own unique approach to the visual arts, driven particularly by his intensive studies of the life and work of Joseph Beuys. The teachings of the Rhenish artist introduced him to Rudolf Steiner, whose theories of a cross-generational subconscious have fascinated Demetz ever since: According to Steiner, up until the age of six, one senses something like a basic collective memory, given to us by our ancestors. Later, this sense disappears, whereby it can be reawakened by shamanistic rituals or through the influence of drugs.

The new works for his exhibition in Düsseldorf, which have been installed in Gehard Demetz' studio behind the garage, are clearly born out of this source of inspiration: He has carved figures of children from basswood, with perfectly modelled facial features, the same empty facial expression and defiant, rigidly splayed legs. Each of the figures stands on a plinth like a small memorial. Yet, in contrast to the classical, heavy bronze monument with its claim to perpetuity, they appear fragmentary, as though composed of Lego bricks or building blocks – small humans made of geometric modules, more reminiscent of robots than of altar boys. Furthermore, as opposed to classical, sacred woodcarving, for which one takes material away to carve a figure out of a large block of wood, when creating his own constructions of small wooden blocks, Demetz begins with the face and continues on through the figure's posture, finally adding traditionally crafted attributes dyed in a deep black – and this in a highly macabre manner: A boy is pierced by a reliquary casket, a girl by a jerry can, while another child holds a crucifix in front of his chest as though it were a machine gun. Thus, instead of being equipped like figures of the saints with with a book or a key, Demetz' figures bear symbolically charged relics from the canon of values of the 21st century as foreign objects on their bodies, presenting these to the viewer confrontationally like an accusation. The fact that the rear side of the figures has been left open, with the wooden blocks protruding unevenly like toy parts, reinforces the impression that the figures are somehow doll-like and mechanical.

In fact, Demetz' figures are reminiscent of the haunting, fragmented bodies of dolls such as those that appear in the surrealist works of Hans Bellmer and later, beginning in the 1960s, in the works of Ed Kienholz, Louise Bourgeois or Cindy Sherman: An atmosphere of elementary forces and the subconscious is evoked in these predecessors by means of psychologically charged torsos, which appear simultaneously foreign and familiar, transferring the Freudian concept of “uncanniness” into the third dimension. Demetz also began with torsos and dark, abstract bodies with stiff legs carved out of tree trunks, clothing these with nylon tights in order to lend them something organic and soft. His light-coloured, realistically rendered figures of children, which, being life-sized, challenge the viewer even more directly, emerged out of these approximately five years ago. Equally bizarre, although much more mannered, are Demetz' most recent sculptures painted in silver: Two meticulously ornamentally wrought tabernacles, connected by a wooden jerry can, dissolve into a Gothic cathedral in hand luggage format; a single, arm-long tabernacle on the wall bends crookedly to one side. The disturbing aspects of both of these works only become visible, however, after a second glance – absurd, technically elaborate and yet simply staged gestures, which refer to the interdependence of money and faith as well as to the crisis of the church. A glance out of the studio window onto the mountains and meadows make such objects appear as smug commentaries on the demise of western culture. The fact that Demetz has read Nietzsche – the hermitic stroller in the Engadin – underscores once more his own scepticism concerning modernism, the positivist belief in progress and a civilisation addicted to consumption. And yet there is no sense of bitterness with Demetz. The mountains provide him with a view from above; here, he lives the life of an outsider in a double sense of the term: As an artist living outside of society, as well as beyond all urban life. It is thus all the more astonishing that Demetz' objects – despite their old-fashioned aura, which results from their classical workmanship – simultaneously appear both trendy and provocative: A combination that accounts for their surrealistic character. Demetz' work reminds us of what is so distinctive about our time: The infiltration of neo-liberalism into all levels of life, combined with the decline of morality and faith. Nothing is sacred any longer. Sacred elements have become absurd decoration and materialism prevails practically everywhere. Nevertheless: Demetz' children are beacons of hope. As allegories of cultural memory, they contrast the deficits of contemporary society with humanistic values.

Demetz' messages may thus appear simple. Nevertheless, they could not allude to a more complex system than the entirety of our contemporary society. They speak an aesthetic language, which unites two worlds – two worlds that are perhaps more closely related than one would imagine at first glance: One the one hand, they make use of the vocabulary of traditional woodcarving, and on the other hand the “right in the face” symbolism of the age of consumerism. Demetz thus builds a bridge into the past in order to comment on his own present – and perhaps even change this.

Outside, in front of the studio, Val Gardena spreads out like an undulating carpet. Late summertime shreds of clouds get caught in the surrounding cliffs; the air is cold and clear; the sky a grey mélange. Despite this narrowness between the mountains: This is a good place to get a view of the world.